Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (3)

Chidambaram Ramalingam
May All Beings Attain Bliss and Flourish!

Another figure in the history of ethics whose evocative reflections on compassion and its metaphysical basis merit comparison with Ramalingam’s views on the subject is Wang Yang-Ming 王阳明 (1472 – 1529 C.E.) a great Chinese thinker and sage.

Wang Yangming 王阳明 (1472 - 1529 C.E.)

Wang Yang-Ming 王阳明 (1472 – 1529 C.E.)

Wang Yang-Ming’s central claim is that a sense of unity with all things, based on the understanding that all things constitute “one body” or a unified whole, is innate in our consciousness.

The “great man”, or a wise person who has curbed selfish desires, spontaneously regards “Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body“, but even the mind of the “small man”, or a person lacking in wisdom due to indulgence in selfish desires, is no different in this respect because it retains the same innate sense of the unity of all things, or the understanding that all things form “one body”.

Wang Yang-Ming finds evidence of this innate sense of unity with all things, springing from the understanding that the myriad things form “one body” or a unified whole, in the spontaneous manifestations of compassion even in the minds of “small men”.

Thus, even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by concern and compassion when he sees a child about to fall into a well.

Is this compassion simply due to the fact that he realizes that the child is also a human being like him?

Wang Yang-Ming denies that this spontaneous compassion has anything to do with the fact that both of them belong to the same human species. He points out that even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by concern and compassion when he observes the “pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered”, despite the fact that these belong to a different species.

In this context, I should point out a striking difference between Wang Yang-Ming and Ramalingam.

Wang Yang-Ming, despite his acknowledgement of the suffering of animals in the slaughterhouse and his emphasis on kindness toward them, thought that it was still morally permissible to kill them for food and for sacrificial purposes. As he put it, in the context of a discussion of priority of actions:

Animals and men alike should be loved, yet it is proper under certain circumstances to kill animals, especially for parents, guests, and as sacrificial offerings.”

Ramalingam, in contrast, holds uncompromisingly that it is morally wrong to kill animals for food and strongly condemns the sacrifice of animals for religious and ritualistic purposes.

Is this compassion simply due to the fact that he realizes that these birds and animals are also sentient beings similar in some ways to him?

Wang Yang-Ming denies that this spontaneous compassion has anything to do with the fact that the birds and animals are also sentient beings similar in some ways to the “small man”. He points out that even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by concern and compassion when he sees “plants broken and destroyed”, despite the fact that these are not sentient beings similar to him.

Is this compassion simply due to the fact that plants also have life in just the way he does?

Wang Yang-Ming now takes the radical step of denying that this spontaneous compassion has anything to do with the fact that the “small man” shares the property of life with the plants. He points out that even the mind of the “small man” is spontaneously overcome by regret when he sees “tiles and stones shattered and crushed”, despite the fact that these are inanimate things.

What, then, is the origin of the spontaneous concern and compassion which arise even in the mind of the “small man” at the sight of a child about to fall into a well, the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, plants broken and destroyed, and tiles and stones shattered and crushed?

Wang Yang-Ming answers that the origin of the spontaneous concern and compassion even in the mind of a “small man” lies in the fact that his humanity forms “one body” with the child, birds and animals, plants, and tiles and stones. Indeed, it lies in the fact that his humanity forms “one body” with all things.

Here is the relevant and stirring passage from the Inquiry On The Great Learning:

“Master Wang said: The great man regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men.

That the great man can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so.

Forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things is not only true of the great man. Even the mind of the small man is no different. Only he himself makes it small.

Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an “inability to bear” their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret.

This means that even the mind of the small man necessarily has the humanity that forms one body with all.” (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 659-660)

The key concept here is that of a person’s “humanity” forming “one body” with all things. What could this possibly mean? What could it mean in the context of the quoted passage?

Is it a precursor of  Schopenhauer’s reference to “that respect in which we are all one and the same entity“? It seems to be, particularly given Wang Yang-Ming’s disparagement of those who “make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between self and others” in the passage quoted earlier.

This would mean that Wang Yang-Ming is essentially affirming metaphysical monism in making his claim that the myriad things constitute “one body”. But there is also a suggestion that the “great man” recognizes the kinship underlying diversity in that he “regards the world as one family“.

If we substitute Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship for Wang Yang-Ming’s obscure concept of a person’s “humanity” forming “one body with all things”, we can make sense of the fact that even a “small man” spontaneously feels concern and compassion for a child about to fall into a well, birds and animals about to be slaughtered, broken plants, etc.

Even the “small man”, one who is immersed in selfish desires, has an innate sense of soul-kinship with other sentient beings and this sense spontaneously expresses itself in terms of concern and compassion at the sight of another sentient being undergoing, or about to undergo, suffering, harm, or destruction.

But soul-kinship presupposes the existence of souls, the bearers of sentience and consciousness, and implies a relation among them.

How, then, can we make sense of Wang Yang-Ming’s  inclusion of inanimate objects in the range of a person’s “humanity” or scope of concern and compassion? What sort of kinship can there be between a sentient and conscious being and an inanimate object?

Wang Yang-Ming actually mentions “regret” and not “compassion” in writing about the response of the “small man” at the sight of shattered and crushed tiles and stones. But, contrary to Wang Yang-Ming, it is not clear that such regret pertains to the fate of the tiles and stones per se.

We may regret the destruction of a rock because we think this has adverse consequences for the environment or for the creatures who use the rock, or the protected surface beneath it, as a habitation. We may also regret the destruction of a rock for aesthetic reasons. It may diminish the aesthetic quality of the landscape.

Rocks in Ryōan-ji (late 15th century) in Kyoto, Japan, a famous example of a zen garden

Rocks in Ryōan-ji (late 15th century) in Kyoto, Japan, a famous example of a Zen garden

But do we, or can we, really regret the destruction of a rock simply for the sake of the rock? I don’t think so.

Rocks do not have any interests. Therefore, they cannot be harmed. They are not sentient. Hence, they cannot suffer. Therefore, there is no question of feeling any compassion for a rock.

But, certainly, as acknowledged earlier, we can be concerned about the impact of the destruction of a rock on sentient beings in a given environment.

Israeli Demolition of 2 apartment home of the Palestinian 8-member Idris family, their relative, her husband and their two children (Beit Hanina, 2014)

Israeli Demolition of 2 apartment home of the Palestinian 8-member Idris family, their relative, her husband and their two children (Beit Hanina, 2014)

When we see houses or other structures made of tiles and stones, or other materials, destroyed in a war, or in an Israeli-style criminal campaign of demolitions (of Palestinian homes), we can feel regret for various sensible reasons: reasons pertaining to the waste of valuable labor expended in constructing the houses, reasons pertaining to the risk of death or grievous bodily injury faced by people who were living in those houses at the time of their destruction, reasons pertaining to the homelessness of the former inhabitants of the houses, reasons pertaining to the historical, sociocultural, and/or aesthetic value of those houses or structures, and so forth. But this list does not include any intrinsic concern for those houses or structures, or concern purely for the sake of the houses or structures.

Hence, I think that the limits of sentience constitute the limits of compassion and its basis of soul-kinship. There is no question of the inclusion of inanimate objects in the range of soul-kinship or compassion.

Therefore, contrary to Wang Yang-Ming’s approach, Ramalingam does not include insentient objects in the scope of soul-kinship and compassion.

In his ethic of compassion, the proper use of insentient objects such as rocks is largely a function of their role in preventing or alleviating the suffering of sentient beings.

Thus, destruction of insentient objects is permissible as a means to prevent or alleviate the suffering of sentient beings, e.g., it is permissible and praiseworthy to destroy a rock to prevent it from crushing a tree, or another sentient being.

 

 

 

 

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