Monday, July 15, 2013

Doubt. Discern. Decide.

Bronze monument of Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714)
at his gravesite in the Kinryu-Temple,
Fukuoka City, Japan
My newest enthusiasm -- and my newest discovery of the writer of textscapes -- is the early 18th century Japanese botanist and Neo-Confucianist philosopher, Kaibara Ekken (also known as Atsunobu and also occasionally referred to as the Aristotle of Japan.) Kaibara upholds a reformist Confucianism -- harking back (in his mind) to Confucius and Mencius rather than to the more familiar (in his era) Song Dynasty Confucians. Most strikingly, Kaibara argues that the full realization of Qi, or the material force of life, is never just through contemplation (inwardness), as he understands Taoism and Buddhism; for Kaibara, full realization of life must also come through engagement in public life and relationships of all kinds.

That public engagement requires a full, active, and aggressive examination of the world around us and all of our received knowledge.  He argues, in a sense, for the necessity to "make it (whatever -- your culture, your state, your religion) your own."  His great dictum / advice is that we must all "doubt, discern, and then decide."

The Preface to his The Record of Great Doubts is an inspiration.

"An earlier Confucian said, 'In learning it is regrettable if we do not have doubts. If we doubt there will be advancement and consequently we will learn. Beginning students can not understand every aspect of what they study. Accordingly, it is essential to have doubts in pursuing the way of learning. Indeed, doubts should be respected, for without them one won't make progress.' As Zhu Xi said, 'It is important for those who do not usually doubt to have doubts, and it is necessary for those who have doubts to resolve them.' He also noted that 'if our doubt is great, our progress will be significant; if our doubt is small, our progress will be insignificant. If we don't have doubts we won't progress.'

"In my humble opinion, after one studies one begins to doubt; after one doubts one starts to raise questions; after one questions one begins to reflect; and after one reflects one finally understands. The way of learning should follow this pattern. For example, the learning process can be compared to walking down a road. If we walk for a while without stopping, we will inevitably come to pa point where the road divides and we won't know which way to go. At this point we will have doubts and, being confused, we will be unable to proceed. Thus we just ask for directions. Yet if we don't walk on the path, how will we have doubts? Presumably, it is because we proceed along the road without stopping that we have doubts and questions Indeed, for this reason the ancient scholars combined the idea of learning and questioning.

"From the age of fourteen or fifteen, I set my mind on the learning of the sages. From my youth I have read the books of the Song Confucians and have devoted myself to their teachings. For a long time I took them as the greatest models. I have also had great doubts but, lacking sufficient understanding, I have not been able to dispel them, or did I have an enlightened teacher whom I could question. Now, as I have become older, I have even less ability to resolve my perplexities. For more than thirty years I have continued to ponder deeply, but it is my greatest regret that I still harbor doubts within myself and cannot fully comprehend certain teachings. For the present I will describe my misgivings here in the hope of being enlightened by more knowledgeable scholars. How can I possibly claim that my ideas alone are correct and defined my own views against those of scholars of earlier generations?"

Kaibara Atsunobu [Ekken]
Written at the vernal equinox, 1713
(He was eighty-four years old, about a year before his death.)

Translation from The Philosophy of Qi: The Record of Great Doubts, by Mary Evelyn Tucker (Columbia University Press, 2012).