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The Unencumbered Spirit , by Hung Ying-ming

The Unencumbered Spirit: Reflections of a Chinese Sage - Hung Ying-Ming, William Wilson, Bill Porter


The Patriarchs of the Three Creeds()

-  [Taiko] Josetsu

early 15th century
Muromachi Era
in the collection of the Ryosoku-in, Kyoto
In the literature of the syncretic age that was the Ming dynasty, the Ts'ai Ken T'an (Vegetable Root Discourse, possibly first published around 1588-1591) - by an author, Hung Ying-ming,(*) about whom we apparently know nothing except his name(s) - is a particularly syncretic text. Though syntheses of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are not at all rare in Chinese history - they may be found at least as early as the Sung dynasty - the Ts'ai Ken T'an is a particularly appealing example of these syntheses. Written in the rhythmic T'ang style called p'ien wen (parallel prose), the text consists of three hundred and fifty-seven aphoristic verses which condense Hung's insights into life, man and nature as informed by those three great pillars of Chinese thought.
The aphorisms deal with the primary objects of this thought over the ages: the laws of society, ethics, nature and metaphysics, where all are tied up with each other in the uniquely Chinese manner. Very roughly speaking, in the first of the two books of the Ts'ai Ken T'an, Hung looks primarily at society and man in society, and is strongly Confucian in flavor, while the second examines nature (in the broadest sense of "reality") and man in nature, and so is more naturally Taoist and Buddhist. But this division of topics in the two books is only approximate.
Though it is important to understand the context, there is no substitute for actual samples of the text, and when the text is a collection of aphorisms it is actually possible to offer a few. Before we get to the samples, please permit me the following observations.
The Japanese like to view Chinese literature as bold and colorful, employing powerful gestures. And they have good reasons for this. But there is a strain of Chinese literary thought which abhors the bold and colorful, which holds up the tan (light and simple), tanpeh (artlessness), even the k'u (dried up, desiccated) as the aesthetic (and ethical) ideal. Hung is a proponent of precisely this strain. Some core values of the Japanese aesthetic are wabi (a cultivated aesthetic finding beauty in simplicity and impoverished rusticality), soboku (artless simplicity) and sabi (a somewhat bleak quality suggesting age and the passage of time). When one carefully examines how these terms are used, one finds differences in nuance but significant overlap. This is possibly part of the reason why the Ts'ai Ken T'an was so successful in Japan (see below). Of course, the Japanese did also have a great fondness for moralizing books.
Here is one of the aphorisms reflecting this aspect of Hung's thought.
Better to abide in simplicity and repel cleverness,
   To retain a bit of right-mindedness,
   To return to Heaven and Earth.
Better to decline the overly gorgeous and to content
         yourself with artlessness,
   To bequeath one pure name,
   To remain in Heaven and Earth.
Some of his admonitions would be quite challenging to implement.
Though you are aware of the deceit of others,
   Do not let this appear in words.
Though you receive the contempt of others,
   Do not let this move your temper.
Between the two of these there is an infinity of meaning.
Between the two of these there is an infinity of use.
Some of his aphorisms are very practical indeed.
In weeding out scoundrels or cutting off flatterers,
It is necessary to leave them a means of escape.
If you deal with them but leave no way out,
It is stopping up the hole of a mouse:
   When all means of escape have been totally blocked,
   It will chew its way through everything you love best.
Others reflect mysticism informed by Buddhism.
Listening to the sound of a bell during a peaceful night,
I am called into sobriety from my dream within a dream.
Watching the reflection of the moon in the clear deep pool,
I catch a glimpse of the body beyond this earthly shell.
While others resound with the mysticism of the Tao:
The chirping of birds, the cries of insects -
   All are secret communications of the mind.
The brilliance of flowers, the colors of grasses -
   These are nothing other than literary patterns of the manifest Way.
The man who studies such things
Must purify his natural capabilities,
   Give his heart the timbre of the sound of jewels,
   And come to grasp this truth in everything he touches.
The range of the verses in this book is greater than I can indicate in this review.
My sources indicate that the Ts'ai Ken T'an did not have a significant effect in China itself; indeed, the conservative Confucian reaction, led by the Tung-lin Academy, to all the syncretic thought floating through Ming society was sharp. Perhaps correlated with this is the fact that no exemplar of the original edition of the Ts'ai Ken T'an has survived, and the oldest (somewhat discordant) editions we still have are both in Japanese hands. When the Manchu conquered the Ming, much was burnt (**), and many Chinese classics were preserved only because the Japanese had been bringing them back to Japan since the T'ang dynasty. The Ts'ai Ken T'an, first published in Japanese in 1822 under the title Saikontan, resonated strongly with the Japanese, who have kept it in print with regular re-editions to the present day.(***) 
() Confucius, Lao-tzu, Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha)
(*) Also known by the name Hong Zicheng. Not only is one faced with multiple romanizations of Chinese names (Hung/Hong), but the Chinese themselves used multiple names. Ying-ming is Hung's given name; Zi-cheng is his zi, his "courtesy" name given when he reached adulthood. In addition, scholars/writers/painters also had their "art" names. When they died, they received yet another name if they were interred as Buddhists. They also could, and often did, voluntarily change their names as a mark of a significant transitional event in their lives. I have seen the same Chinese poet referred to with six different names. The Japanese were no sluggards in this respect, either.
(**) Just as when the Mongols overthrew the Sung; moreover, the Chinese also did no small amount of burning of their own literature over the centuries.
(***) Textual note: The two earliest surviving versions differ. One, with author's name Ying-ming, contains 383 verses while the other, with author's name Zi-cheng, contains 360. There are also some differences in the texts of the verses the editions have in common. This translation contains 357 verses, and the translator does not comment upon how and from which editions he made his choices.