Posts tagged ‘Wang Yang-Ming’

June 13, 2014

Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (4)

French troops slaughtering Spanish civilians in Goya's painting "The Third of May 1808".

French troops slaughtering Spanish civilians in Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808”.

Why are some beings indifferent to the sufferings of other beings if there is soul-kinship among all beings?

Ramalingam raises this important question in his great unfinished essay on ஜீவகாருண்ய ஒழுக்கம் or “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings“.

He answers by pointing out that although soul-kinship is a reality, the central faculty of discernment (Tamil: ஆன்ம அறிவு) of this truth of soul-kinship is obscured or eclipsed by ignorance in some beings.

This cardinal ignorance also renders the soul’s cognitive instruments of mind, intellect, etc., opaque and unable to reflect the light of the truth of soul-kinship.

Hence, these beings do not recognize soul-kinship, and, consequently, lack compassion for other sentient beings who undergo suffering. From this it follows that those who have compassion possess the faculty of discernment of soul-kinship.

As Ramalingam writes in Tamil in the first part of his essay on compassion for sentient beings:

சீவர்கள் துக்கப் படுகின்றதைக் கண்டபோதும், சிலர் சீவகாருணியமில்லாமல் கடினசித்தர்களாயிருக்கின்றார்கள்;

“Some persons lack compassion and remain unmoved even at the sight of the suffering of other sentient beings.”

இவர்களுக்குச் சகோதர உரிமை இல்லாமற்போவது ஏனெனில்:

“Why do these persons lack a sense of brotherhood or kinship (with those sentient beings)?”

துக்கப்படுகின்றவரைத் தமது சகோதரரென்றும் துக்கப்படுகின்றாரென்றும் துக்கப்படுவாரென்றும் அறியத்தக்க ஆன்ம அறிவு என்கிற கண்ணானது அஞ்ஞானகாசத்தால் மிகவும் ஒளி மழுங்கினபடியாலும், அவைகளுக்கு உபகாரமாகக் கொண்ட மனம் முதலான உபநயனங்களாகிய கண்ணாடிகளும் பிரகாச பிரதிபலிதமில்லாமல் தடிப்புள்ளவைகளாக இருந்த படியாலும் கண்டறியக் கூடாமையாயிற்று.

“It is because their faculty of soul-knowing (ஆன்ம அறிவு ), the soul’s eye, which can see that another sentient being which is suffering is a brother, or kin, and that it is suffering, or is capable of suffering, is afflicted by the cataract of ignorance, and, consequently, even the spectacles or instruments which facilitate the vision of the soul, e.g., mind, intellect, etc., are rendered opaque and bereft of the capacity to reflect the light of knowledge (of soul-kinship).”

அதனால், சகோதர உரிமையிருந்தும் சீவகாருணியம் உண்டாகாம லிருந்ததென் றறிய வேண்டும்.

“Hence, they lack compassion despite the fact of their brotherhood or kinship with those sentient beings.”

இதனால் சீவகாருணியமுள்ளவர் ஆன்ம திருஷ்டி விளக்கமுள்ளவரென்றறியப்படும்.” (ஜீவகாருண்ய ஒழுக்கம், முதற் பிரிவு)

“From this, it should be known that those who have compassion possess the clarity of vision of the soul’s eye of discernment, or soul-knowing.”

Thus, in Ramalingam’s analysis, there is fundamentally an epistemic or cognitive deficiency, the eclipse of the soul’s central faculty of discernment (ஆன்ம அறிவு), which is responsible for the absence of compassion in the face of suffering experienced by other sentient beings.

In a Socratic vein, Ramalingam holds that the cardinal vice of absence of compassion is due to lack of knowledge of the truth of soul-kinship.

But if each soul has this faculty of discernment which enables it to recognize soul-kinship with another sentient being, why does this faculty get obscured, eclipsed, or atrophied, due to ignorance, in some souls or beings? In other words, why  are some beings afflicted by this ignorance of their soul-kinship with other sentient beings?

To answer this question, we must turn to the concept of āṇavam (Tamil: ஆணவம்), or egoism in the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta tradition.

Although he had a deep knowledge of it, Ramalingam was not an adherent or practitioner of the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta philosophical tradition. But he does affirm some of its metaphysical claims.

A central metaphysical claim of this tradition is that all unenlightened souls or pašu (Tamil: பசு) are fettered by the three cords of bondage or pācam (Tamil: பாசம்): ஆணவம் or āṇavam (egoism), கன்மம் or kaṉmam (karma, causality), and மாயை or māyai (matter, the “stuff” of our bodies and cosmos).

Ramalingam affirms this claim in his definition of the unenlightened soul or pašu (பசு) in his “Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings”.

Aṇavam is the primordial impurity (Tamil:ஆணவமலம்) which taints every individual soul in the form of a potentiality. It is manifested in terms of a tendency toward a separate, selfish, and exclusive existence. It leads to an eclipse of a soul’s ability to recognize soul-kinship.

As a consequence, there is an exacerbation of the division between self and the other. This division further paves the way to opposition, conflict, enmity, domination, and oppression in its relations with other beings and the inevitable chain reactions of Karma which assail the soul.

Thus, we can only explain the absence of compassion in some beings in terms of their ignorance of soul-kinship. Their ignorance of soul-kinship, in its turn, is explained by their longstanding choice of cultivation of the separative and exclusive tendencies of āṇavam or egoism and their subjection to the inevitable karma or consequences of these egoistic tendencies.

Hence, to recover and develop this knowledge of soul-unity or soul-kinship we must reverse the process of ignorance in question by weakening the tendencies of āṇavam or egoism and cultivating empathy and compassion.

It is interesting to note that Wang Yang-Ming also holds the view that the innate sense of unity with all things, the innate knowledge that the myriad things form “one body”, can be 0bscured by selfish desires, a manifestation of āṇavam, and that this obscuration can lead to cruelty against others:

“This means that even the mind of the small man necessarily has the humanity that forms one body with all. Such a mind is rooted in his Heaven-endowed nature, and is naturally intelligent, clear, and not beclouded. For this reason it is called the “clear character.”

Although the mind of the small man is divided and narrow, yet his humanity that forms one body can remain free from darkness to this degree. This is due to the fact that his mind has not yet been aroused by desires and obscured by selfishness.

When it is aroused by desires and obscured by selfishness, compelled by greed for gain and fear of harm, and stirred by anger, he will destroy things, kill members of his own species, and will do everything.

In extreme cases he will even slaughter his own brothers, and the humanity that forms one body will disappear completely.

Hence, if it is not obscured by selfish desires, even the mind of the small man has the humanity that forms one body with all as does the mind of the great man. As soon as it is obscured by selfish desires, even the mind of the great man will be divided and narrow like that of the small man.

The learning of the great man consists entirely in getting rid of the obscuration of selfish desires in order by his own efforts to make manifest his clear character, so as to restore the condition of forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things, a condition that is originally so, that is all.” ( “An Inquiry on the Great Learning,” in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963], pp. 659-660.)

There is an interesting objection to Ramalingam’s argument that discernment of soul-kinship is the basis of compassion and that, therefore, lack of compassion is due to the lack of discernment of soul-kinship.

This objection points to those who do not subscribe to the notion that there is a soul, not to mention soul-kinship, but who are, nevertheless, compassionate.

Does the existence of these sorts of compassionate persons refute Ramalingam’s argument linking compassion and discernment of soul-kinship?

The answer to this objection must first clarify what Ramalingam means by “discernment of soul-kinship”. This discernment is a function of a cognitive faculty (Tamil: ஆன்ம அறிவு) possessed by a soul. The Tamil term used by Ramalingam to refer to this faculty means “soul-knowing” or “soul-discernment”.

What sort of knowledge is discernment of soul-kinship?

It is the knowledge that other sentient beings, regardless of their physical forms or bodies, are, nevertheless, beings similar to me in that they can suffer and be subjected to various types of harm, or flourish, in the way I can.

It is the knowledge that other sentient beings are selves, or subjects of experiences, and agents with varying capacities for action, in the way I am.

It is also the knowledge that by virtue of these similarities, a bond, or relation, or kinship, exists among us and that, as a consequence, I have an obligation to provide assistance or relief to these sentient beings if I know that they are undergoing suffering or harm and possess the capacity to alleviate their suffering or harm.

(I would add, in this context, that all scientific knowledge of the similarities and common origin of sentient beings can facilitate the discernment of soul-kinship with all those beings.)

Now, it cannot be denied that compassion is constituted by an empathetic understanding of the nature and predicament of another sentient being, an understanding which has all the elements of Ramalingam’s concept of discernment of soul-kinship.

Therefore, those who are compassionate possess this type of empathetic understanding of other sentient beings, or discernment of soul-kinship, and it does not matter whether they actually use the concept of soul-kinship and its discernment in describing their understanding.

Regardless of the vocabulary employed by these compassionate persons to describe the elements of their empathetic understanding, it is tantamount to a discernment of soul-kinship.

 

 

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June 12, 2014

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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