Commentary On The Great Learning
The Way of learning to be great consists in manifesting the clear character,
loving the people, and abiding in the highest good.
Generally speaking I find Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation lucid and clear.
I would like, however, to contrast the opening line of Chan’s translation
with the opening line as translated by James Legge:
What The Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue;
to love the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.
(Li Chi, Book of Rites, translated by James Legge, University Books,
New Hyde Park, New York, 1967, volume 2, page 411.)
The Great Learning, according to this opening sentence, has three
1. Manifesting virtue, or clear character,
2. Loving the people, and
3. Resting in the highest good or excellence.
Let’s look at these one at a time. First, manifesting virtue.
I take virtue in this context to mean integrity. So manifesting virtue
means having a clear character. Having a clear character means functioning
in the world with honesty and sincerity. Functioning in the world with
honesty and sincerity builds a foundation of trust between one’s self and
In contrast, an unclear character means a character that is deceptive and
deceitful. This refers to the kind of person who does not say what they
mean, who always seems to have a hidden purpose, which they hide. Because
they hide their actual purpose, their character is not clear. Because their
character is not clear, over time, people do not trust such a person.
This opening clause points to a basic ethical foundation necessary for
entering the great learning. If these basic ethical conditions are not
met, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for anyone to access
the great learning. Why is this the case?
If one practices deception one has an agitated mind. If one has an agitated
mind, the energy of one’s mind is consumed with these projects of deception.
It is very difficult when the mind is so agitated to settle the mind. If
the mind is not settled, it is very difficult to pursue any kind of learning,
let alone great learning. For this reason, a clear character functions
as a causal basis for the ability to enter into and awaken to the great
learning. This is both a practical and profound point to consider.
There is an interesting story concerned with this first statement from
Great Learning. This opening statement acted as the catalyst for the
Japanese Zen Master, Bankei, propelling Bankei on the path that led ultimately
to his realization. Bankei lived from 1622 to 1693.
At the age of eleven, less than a year after his father’s death, he was
sent to the village school, where he took an immediate interest in his
studies.... At the village school, Bankei was subjected to the same curriculum
given all Tokugawa schoolboys, the recitation of Confucian texts repeated
over and over until they came automatically to the lips. One day, the class
was taking up The Great Learning, one of the “four books” of Confucianism.
The teacher came to the central words, “The way of great learning lies
in clarifying bright virtue.” Bankei interrupted the teacher. “What is
bright virtue?” he asked. The teacher, repeating the glosses given in one
of the traditional commentaries, answered, “The intrinsic nature of good
in each person.” Bankei asked what the intrinsic nature of man was and
was told, “It’s his fundamental nature.” “Then what is that?” he persisted.
“The ultimate truth of Heaven,” replied the teacher. None of these answers
satisfied Bankei. A deeper explanation was needed. He wanted to know what
bright virtue really meant in terms of his own practical experience.
In my view, the answers given to Bankei about “bright virtue” or “clear
character” actually apply to the second of the three aspects dealt with
in the opening sentence of The Great Learning, namely, “To love
the people.” However, this was obscured because Chu Hsi had altered the
text when he extracted it from the Li Chi. In the Li Chi, The Great
Learning says that the second aspect of this learning is “to love the people”,
but Chu Hsi changed it to read, “to renovate the people”. By changing the
second aspect of the great learning from loving the people to renovating
the people, Chu Hsi not only damaged the meaning of this particular aspect,
but also burdened the first aspect with larger meanings than it can contain.
Hence Bankei’s questions, and hence the confused answers given to those
But why would Chu Hsi alter the second aspect from “loving” to “renovating”?
I suspect it has to do with the time that Chu Hsi lived and the overall
direction of this great Sage’s work. Chu Hsi viewed himself as rescuing
Confucianism from the depredations of Buddhism and Taoism. Chu Hsi was,
therefore, very much concerned with “renovating”, meaning leading others
to the great truths of Confucianism, which he felt were being buried under
the influences of Buddhism and Taoism. I have a great admiration for Chu
Hsi and have learned a great deal from his works. However, I also believe
that in this case, the shift in meaning is also a serious distortion of
what the great learning intends and what it teaches. I have, therefore,
returned the second clause to its original reading of “loving the people.”
By returning the second clause to its original meaning of “loving the people”
the meaning of the first clause becomes clear. The first clause is foundational.
To live a life that is basically honest, clear, not deceitful, sincere.
Once that foundation has been established, then it is possible to proceed
to the second aspect of the great learning, to loving the people.
The second purpose of the great learning is “loving the people.” Having
established a clear character, a character that is basically honest and
sincere, one can then move to loving the people. The term love needs to
be investigated. It covers such a wide range of meanings that it is necessary
to clarify what meaning is indicated here.
The term love often means a kind of infatuation. But I think it
is clear that the great learning does not advocate infatuation towards
the people, or all people. What, then, can it mean to love the people?
Here I think the Buddhist tradition is helpful. In the contemplative tradition
of the Four Immeasurables, love is defined as wanting others to be well
and happy. In other words, when I have the state of mind that wants others
to be well and happy, that is love. This places love in a context that
is easily accessible. It also highlights love as a mental state that does
not distor! t our minds that way infatuation does. Universal love is often
criticized because, it is argued, such a love is not really possible for
a human being. Chu Hsi argued against Buddhism because Buddhism “demands
too much” of people by establishing an ideal universal love, which is something
people simply can not live up to. I think this is one of the reasons why
Chu Hsi changed the meaning of this second aspect of the great learning
from “loving the people” to “renovating the people”, because Chu Hsi misunderstood
just what it is that Buddhism requests.
The charge of universal love is not a request that we become infatuated
and enamored of every single person we meet, or even every single person
in existence. Universal love means a basic sense of goodwill towards all;
simply wanting others to be well and happy, regardless of who they are.
Of course, I as an individual have a closer and more intimate relationship
with those who are near and dear to me. Universal love, when clearly understood,
does not negate this. The two are not only not in conflict, they mesh well
with each other (a point The Great Learning subsequently makes).
I also think that from a strictly Confucian perspective, loving the people
makes sense. I mean by this the role the Golden Rule plays in Confucianism
as a basic ethical principle. The Golden Rule states that I refrain from
doing to others what I would not want them to do to me. I would not want
others to beat me. Other people are not different from me and also do not
wish to be abused. I therefore refrain from treating others in this way.
I would not want my things stolen. Other people are not different from
me and also do not wish their things to be stolen. I therefore refrain
from stealing other people’s things.
The Golden Rule is, therefore, an expression of love. It is an expression
of love because the basis of the Golden Rule is comprehending that all
people are equal. This is where the Golden Rule and the teaching of love
in the Four Immeasurables merge. I extend the wish that all people be well
and happy because just as I wish to be well and happy, all people wish
to be well and happy. We are not different from this perspective. I refrain
from mistreating other people, as the Golden Rule advocates, because other
people are not different from me. So both approaches emerge from a sense
of commonality among all people.
In a specifically Confucian context, the Golden Rule appears in a number
of places. From the Analects:
XV.24 Adept Kung asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’: never impose on others what
you would not choose for yourself?”
(The Analects, translated by David Hinton, Counterpoint, Washington,
D.C., 1998, page 176.)
The word “shu” means reciprocity. This is the one word that Confucius
recommends as a guide throughout life. One could spend a great deal of
time contemplating this passage. But basically I understand this passage
as an instruction to cultivate the understanding that others mirror my
own nature. That is how I understand reciprocity in this context. Because
others mirror my own nature, I do not impose on them, or require of them,
or demand of them, what I would not impose or demand of myself. By perceiving
myself in others I develop a strong foundation for what The Great Learning
means when it asks us to love the people.
VI.29 Adept Kung said: “How would you describe a person who sows all the
people with blessings and assists everyone in the land? Could such a person
be called Humane?”
“What does this have to do with Humanity?” replied the Master. “If you
must have a name, call this person a sage. For even the enlightened Emperors
Yao and Shun would seem lacking by comparison. As for Humanity: if you
want to make a stand, help others make a stand, and if you want to reach
your goal, help others reach their goal. Consider yourself and treat others
accordingly: this is the method of Humanity.”
(Ibid., page 62.)
“Consider yourself and treat others accordingly.” An excellent basis for
the Golden Rule, a guide for the cultivation and realization that makes
the presence of the Golden Rule more than just an abstract consideration.
Simply this: treat others as you want to be treated. When one can do this,
loving the people naturally follows.
The Golden Rule also appears in the Doctrine of the Mean:
13.3 ‘When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and
exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the
path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.’
(Confucius, translated by James Legge, Dover, New York, 1971, reprint of 1893 publication, page 394.)
It is interesting to note that both the positive and negative forms of
Golden Rule appear in the Confucian works. Here one has the negative form;
don’t do to others what you don’t want done to your self. Whereas above
the positive version appears as “Consider yourself and treat others accordingly.”
Meaning, treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. Using both
approaches, positive and negative, gives the Golden Rule two aspects. First,
the aspect of restraint. Don’t impose on others what you would not want
imposed on yourself. Second, the aspect of cultivation. Cultivate relationships
among people based on how one wants others to treat one’s self. Combining
the aspects of restraint and cultivation, the Way of loving the people
The Golden Rule also appears in the Mencius:
VII.A.4 Mencius said: “The ten thousand things are all there in me. And
there’s no joy greater than looking within and finding myself faithful
to them. Treat others as you would be treated. Devote yourself to that,
for there’s no more direct approach to Humanity.”
(Mencius, translated by David Hinton, Counterpoint, Washington, DC, 1998, page 236.)
Comment: Here Mencius enlarges on the basis of the Golden Rule, comprehending
the Golden Rule as grounded in being faithful to the “ten thousand things”.
I understand this to mean comprehending the common nature which all things
share. Comprehending the common nature which all things share, one comprehends
the common nature which all people share. Comprehending the common nature
which all people share, one spontaneously treats people as one would want
others to treat one’s self. Once this mode of activity is established,
loving the people manifests clearly.
Finally, the earliest commentary on The Great Learning applies the
Golden Rule to specific situations:
10.2 What a man dislikes in his superiors, let him not show it in dealing
with his inferiors; what he dislikes in those in front of him, let him
not show it in preceding those who are behind; what he dislikes in those
behind him, let him not show it in following those in front of him; what
he dislikes in those on the right, let him not apply it to those on the
left; and what he dislikes in those on the left, let him not apply it to
those on the right. This is the principle of the measuring square.
A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1963, page 92.)
Comment: This passage shows us how to cultivate the Golden Rule and thereby
concretely manifest loving the people. When we encounter an imposition
we do not like, that we consider unethical or improper, learn from that,
remember that. And when the time comes, refrain from imposing on others
what we did not want imposed on us. In this way the Golden Rule acts as
a guide and teacher as we live our lives.
The above quotes are from all four of the “Four Books” of the Confucian
Classics. I think this indicates that at least one of the determining factors
for Chu Hsi singling out these four works was simply the presence of the
Golden Rule in each of them. This teaching, therefore, permeates the Confucian
The great learning has as its basis that which all things have in common.
The great learning begins here with that which all people have in common.
Comprehending what all people have in common, loving the people manifests.
But if all people have this common nature, why do we have to learn it?
We have to learn this because as we move through our day, our normal interaction
with people is based on discrimination and focuses on the differences among
people. For example, if I need a plumber, I look for someone knowledgeable
and skilled in that subject. If I need an auto mechanic, I want someone
singularly learned in that subject. As I move through my day I make these
kinds of distinctions constantly.
One of the consequences of this, however, is that such behavior sets up
a strong habit of mind that fails to notice that which all people have
in common. It is the task of the great learning, therefore, to point this
out, to highlight it, to bring it into the foreground, so that we do not
forget it, so that we sink our roots into it, so that our behavior manifests
this understanding, and so that as a consequence of this understanding,
we can love the people.
However, having said this, the heart wisdom which comprehends all people
as worthy of respect and deference and as not unlike myself, arises spontaneously
at various times. This is what I think Bankei’s teachers meant when they
said that “bright virtue” was part of the intrinsic nature of good in all
people. This is particularly the teaching of Mencius. Mencius taught that
all people have a good heart, which arises spontaneously, given the right
circumstances. Mencius illustrates this with his famous story about the
open well. Suppose a stranger is passing through a village. The stranger
sees a child chasing a butterfly. The child, entranced by the butterfly,
does not realize that an open well lies directly ahead. The stranger, seeing
the danger, rushes forward, scoops up the child, saving the child from
danger. The stranger does this spontaneously, without deliberation, and
not because the child is a family member. This is the spontaneous arising
of “loving the people”.
However, for most people, even though such spontaneous appearances happen,
this does not lead to becoming a Sage, or to entering the path of the great
learning. Why is this the case? First, it is because people do not recognize
the profoundity of the experience. When the good heart spontaneously appears,
people are likely to consider this appearance a passing mood, or a psychological
whim. Not recognizing the profoundity of the presence of the good heart,
people do not recognize its spontaneous appearance as a signal of the great
way, of the presence of the transcendent within. Since recognition is lacking,
cultivation does not follow. Since cultivation does not follow, the path
is not walked, the goal is not achieved. So the first step in the great
learning is recognition of this good heart when it spontaneously appears.
Recognizing this good heart, which is the basis for loving the people,
one can then cultivate this good heart on the basis of the Golden Rule.
Cultivating the good heart through the means of the Golden Rule, one walks
the path of the Sage and Sagehood will naturally follow.
The third aspect is to rest in the highest good or excellence. I believe
this third aspect refers to what I call “stabilization”. In terms of spiritual
realization I see three levels. The first level, as previously mentioned,
is recognition. The second aspect of the great learning is there to point
to what it is that the great learning refers; namely, loving the people,
wanting them to be well and happy, and treating them with the same deference
and respect that one wants others to treat one’s self. This needs to be
pointed out, recognized.
The second level is cultivation. The program of cultivation is covered
later in the great learning, but is primarily the application of the Golden
Rule in one’s life.
The third level is stabilization. Having cultivated what one has recognized,
after some time has passed, and after much practice, stabilization occurs.
One knows that stabilization has occurred when the spontaneous feeling
of love for the people emerges unbidden in one heart and mind. It is at
this point that one can rest in the highest good, or highest excellence.
Only after knowing what to abide in can one be calm.
I think this sentence refers to what I call “recognition”. Calmness emerges
after one knows the nature of the great learning. This means knowing the
three aspects of a clear character, loving the people and abiding in the
I think there is a particularly strong relationship between the clear character
and calmness. A clear character means sincerity, lack of duplicity. Deceptiveness
and insincerity create tension in the mind. Such strategies take up a tremendous
amount of psychic energy. On the other hand, a clear character, one that
is not constantly strategizing and deceiving, rests naturally in the original
calmness of the mind’s dwelling.
Only after having been calm can one be tranquil.
Tranquillity emerges from calmness. After having dwelled with a clear character,
in a condition of calmness, tranquillity emerges. I think the great learning
in this paragraph is describing the growth of clear character. This description
resembles describing the growth of an oak. First there is the sprout. When
the sprout is nourished, a small tree emerges, etc., on through the stages
of growth. So I think the great learning means to say that clear character,
when properly nourished, leads to calmness. When calmness is established,
the next stage is tranquillity.
I take tranquillity as similar to equanimity. I think this stage in the
growth of clear character refers to when one does not lose that sense of
calmness even in very difficult conditions. Even during the ebb and flow
of life, there remains that sense of inner peace.
Only after having achieved tranquillity can one have peaceful repose.
From tranquillity to peaceful repose. This would seem to indicate a meditative
state. The inner peace I referred to above is now established as a part
of one’s constant presence. Clarity of character evolves to calmness. Calmness
evolves to tranquillity. Tranquillity evolves to peaceful repose.
These categories overlap in meaning and in some ways it is difficult to
distinguish between them. Once again, this resembles an organic process.
A bud unfolds into a flower. Analyzing this unfolding, one could name a
number of stages in this process. Because this process is a continuous
unfolding, and not a series of photographs, names for these stages have
a certain arbitrariness about them. However, that does not mean they serve
This outline given in the great learning allows those engaged in the great
learning, which means learning to become a Sage, to have some clarity about
the direction they wish to take. The categories serve as signposts on the
way to Sagehood.
Only after having peaceful repose can one begin to deliberate.
Confucianism has always placed a high value on study. Here, however, the
great learning indicates that the kind of study advocated must be preceded
by mind, heart, and character cultivation if such study and deliberation
is to prove successful. Only after having achieved peaceful repose can
genuine deliberation and study begin. This is a very important point.
The basis is a clear character. By clear character I think the great learning
means a sincere character. A sincere character deliberates matters in order
to ascertain the truth of the matter. An insincere character deliberates
matters in order to gain an advantage. If one is insincere and is deliberating
and studying only to gain an advantage, the great learning will remain
How does one know if one is sincere in one’s deliberation? Here is how:
Suppose two people are deliberating and discussing philosophical matters.
I’ll refer to them as person X and Y. Sincerity is present if X and Y feel
exactly the same no matter which view is upheld at the end of the discussion.
If the view of X is upheld, X and Y have had a fruitful discussion and
both have gained. If the view of Y is upheld, X and Y have had a fruitful
discussion and both have gained. If X and Y, during their discussion, discover
a third view that neither of them had previously considered, they have
had a fruitful discussion and both have gained. Therefore, with clear character
as a basis, and sincerity as its manifestation, deliberation is a source
of understanding and awakening.
Only after deliberation can the end be attained.
Philosophical discussion, deliberation, and analysis have their place,
an important place. That place is to show us the end to be attained. However,
such deliberation must emerge as a consequence of clear character and peaceful
In a sense, the kind of deliberation that emerges from this organic process
of unfolding is the end to be attained. For this kind of deliberation is
a sharing done in mutual respect and admiration. It is done in a context
which recognizes the worthiness of all. This kind of deliberation is, therefore,
not only a means to the sought after, but also the presence of Sagehood
Things have their roots and branches. Affairs have their beginnings and
The Great Learning never strays far from the organic world. The
dominant metaphor, permeating the work at all levels, is that of a growing
plant. Here the metaphor is explicit. The term “things” in “things have
their roots and branches” means, I think, all things. All things resemble
how a tree grows and how a tree lives. Human affairs are also like this.
And specifically the great learning is also like this; the great learning
has its roots and branches. One should, therefore, nourish the root in
order for the branches to grow and be healthy. The root is a clear character,
loving the people, and abiding in the highest good. If that root is firmly
established, the tree of great learning can not help but flourish.
To know what is first and what is last will lead one near the Way.
The great learning is a path that one must travel one step at a time. Just
as if one wants to learn music, one must first learn about hand positions,
notes, scales, etc.; only after that beginning knowledge is firmly established
can one move further on the path of music. Just as if one wants to learn
a sport, one must first learn the basic stances, the rules of the game,
etc.; only after that beginning knowledge is firmly established can one
move further on the path of music.
Similarly, if one wants to comprehend the great learning, one must begin
at the beginning. The beginning of the beginning of the path to the great
learning is a clear character. One can not leap past this. Step by step
the path to the great learning opens, culminating in the peace of Sagehood.
The ancients who wished to manifest their clear character to the world
would first bring order to their states.
Chinese philosophy is always social. This is true of both Confucianism
and Taoism, and other forms as well. Part of the reason for this is that
when the pivotal philosophers of China lived, China was in great social
chaos. It was the time of the warring states period. A time of social disintegration.
So the question on everyone’s mind was how to return to a time of peace,
which the Chinese remembered from the not so distant past.
When one lives a life of sincerity, with a clear character, one quickly
becomes aware that many people do not live such a life. The social context,
therefore, moves to the foreground. Social chaos in human affairs is comprehended
as a direct result of people not having a clear character. Scheming, deceiving,
manipulating; all of this inevitably results in social dislocations. In
extreme situations, such as that of China during the time of Confucius,
the result is a period of constant warfare.
So at first the impulse it to advocate for a political solution. The idea
is that if one brings order to the state, then sincerity in human relationships
will follow. This is the basis for political reform movements of all kinds.
And it seems at first that The Great Learning is going to advocate
this kind of top-down approach.
However, looking more deeply at the situation, one begins to realize that
political reform of a top-down nature is, at best, only a temporary measure.
Such approaches do not bring about lasting reform. The reason is because
until people go through the process/path outlined in the second paragraph,
any reform will be transformed by the insincerity of the participants.
A reform will be used as an advantage by some and at the expense of others,
in spite of the original intention of the reformers. Comprehending this,
Great Learning dives deeper into the matter in the following lines.
Those who wished to bring order to their states would first regulate their
Here The Great Learning moves from the political to the basic social
unit, the family. I may not be able to reform the nation, but perhaps I
can establish sincerity in my family, in those nearest and dearest to me.
There is a sense in The Great Learning that clear character can
only manifest in interaction with others. Hence the concern with establishing
clear character among other people.
The view here, I think, is that character means the manner of interaction.
A clear character is one that is sincere; but sincerity manifests in my
interaction with others. If I am unable to find others with a clear character,
it becomes more difficult for me to maintain my own clear character. My
character, in other words, is not a private possession. My character is
not primarily an interior state. My character is my manner of interaction
with others and with the world. It is for this reason that the Golden Rule
is the primariy ethical prinicple in Confucianism; because the Golden Rule
cultivates a way of interaction.
On the other hand, I can cultivate my own character so that I live in terms
of what The Great Learning refers to as my clear character. This
may, at first, seem paradoxical; that my character is not a private possession,
yet I can also cultivate my character. However, consider this: Music is
not a private possession. If I want to become a musician I need to receive
the understanding of musicianship from others. However, I must also cultivate
my musicianship if I want to clearly manifest that aspect of my life.
So I am suggesting a kind of both/and view. Clear character is, in a sense,
a gift from others, particularly those others who point the Way to its
manifestation. Yet it is also true that if I wish to live an authentic
life, and a life of sincerity, I must cultivate and practice that sincerity,
cultivate my clear character. Recognizing what others have given me, I
enter the way. Cultivating clear character, love of the people, and the
highest good, I travel the Way to Sagehood.
Returning to the theme of the family; the same problem emerges in this
context as in the larger political context. If people are not sincere,
the family will be a place of deception, not a place of nourishment. In
such a situation, the family does not become a place of refuge, it becomes
an arena of constant struggle. If, however, family members are not sincere,
how can one show family members how to become sincere, and therefore transform
the family? Asking this question leads to the next sentence in The Great
Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their
Demonstration is always the clearest form of teaching. A mathematics professor
demonstrates proficiency in mathematics and thereby inspires their students.
A musician demonstrates proficiency on an instrument and thereby inspires
students to take up the Way of music. A great chef demonstrates proficiency
in cooking and inspires others to become better cooks. A great sports adept
demonstrates expertise in a particular sport and inspires others to take
up that particular sport.
Similarly, the way to inspire others to cultivate a clear character is
to manifest that clear character one’s self. Having established that clear
character, one will be calm, tranquil, and at peace. People find this naturally
attractive. Some will want to also attain this tranquillity and peace.
Inspired by the presence of a clear character others will naturally follow
Those who wished to cultivate their personal lives would first rectify
If I want to become a musician the first step is to make a decision to
devote myself to that task. After making that decision I must then take
steps to rectify, or change, my mind so that there is room in my mind and
my life for the cultivation of musicianship. If I devote myself to musicianship,
other things must be put aside.
Similarly, if I want to become a Sage by accessing the great learning,
the first step is to make a decision to devote myself to that task. After
making that decision I must then take steps to rectify, or change, my mind
so that there is room in my mind and my life for the cultivation of the
great learning and the path of Sagehood. If I do not do this, Sagehood
will remain elusive and the great learning will remain a distant dream.
Those who wished to rectify their minds would first make their wills sincere.
This leads us back to the clear character of the opening line of the Great
Learning. I take this to mean that sincerity and clear character are
important not just in the beginning, but also throughout the life of those
devoted to the great learning. In the beginning, cultivating sincerity
and clear character is foundational. Without such character development
it is impossible to enter the Way.
However, sincerity is not something which is later put aside or abandoned.
Sincerity resembles learning how to hold one’s hands in order to play the
guitar. That is the first lesson. If I do not learn how to correctly hold
my hands, guitar playing will elude me. However, I do not later abandon
this lesson. Even if I become a guitar virtuoso, that basic lesson
stays with me, has become a part of me. Similarly, clear character is both
the first step on the path of the great learning, and also a constant presence,
all the way to the full realization of Sagehood.
Those who wished to make their wills sincere would first extend their knowledge.
The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things. When
things are investigated, knowledge is extended.
At first the chain of reasoning elucidated here leads us steadily within.
However, at the end, there is turning without, to the investigation of
things and the extension of knowledge. What this indicates to me is that
just as The Great Learning comprehends humanity as intrinsically
The Great Learning also comprehends humanity as intrinsically
embedded in the world. Thus the social is intrinsically embedded in the
What does the investigation of things and the extension of knowledge mean
in this context? The basis of loving the people is comprehending that which
all people have in common. Comprehending this, I therefore treat others
the way I want to be treated. The basis of the investigation of things
is that which all things, including all people, have in common. Comprehending
that which all things have in common, my knowledge is extended to, or applicable
to, all existing things, including all people. Thus,
The Great Learning
is at root ontological. It is ontological because that which all things
have in common is their eternal nature. That which all things have in common
is their eternal nature because that which all things have in common exists
in all things. Existing in all things it exists everywhere. Existing everywhere
and in everything, it exists everywhen. Existing everywhen, it is constant,
the always present. The constant and always present is the supreme ultimate,
the principle that designates what it means to exist.
The Great Learning
is the path to the eternal which marks all existing things. How does one
access this constant principle? By pointing to that which all things have
in common. This is the function of the teacher in the path of The Great
There is an example of this kind of teaching from the Analects:
IX.17 Standing beside a river, the Master said: “Everything passes away
like this, day and night, never resting.”
(The Analects, translated by David Hinton, Counterpoint, Washington, DC, 1998, page 95.)
This is an example of great learning. It is the direct pointing to a universal
truth, the passing away nature of all things. This is the investigation
of things from the perspective of great learning. This is specifically
what differentiates the great learning from the elementary learning. Elementary
learning is learning applicable to specific circumstances and specific
functions. The great learning means the learning of the transcendent displayed
in all things. It is the extension of knowledge because it is universal
and therefore extends to all things, all circumstances, and all functions.
It is the realization of this knowledge that makes one fully human.
The investigation of things is necessary because without the thorough investigation
of things the principle(s) that all things have in common will not become
clear. Look at it this way: given a stream, a couch, a song, the smell
of pine incense, a summer storm, a mathematical function, what do all these
things have in common? It is not immediately clear. Therefore, the investigation
of things must proceed with diligence, even a certain tenacity. The principle
present in all things does not easily reveal itself. Why, because if the
principle present in all things were a sound, then it would not be present
in shapes. But if the principle were a shape, it would not be a sound.
Yet it is present in sounds, present in shapes.
The great learning happens when we comprehend and perceive principle, or
that which all things share. Confucius in the above example functions as
the great teacher, pointing directly to principle and explicitly pointing
out that all things have this principle. When we awaken to this presence,
this transcendence immanent in all things, we can then function in the
world on the basis of what all things share. I think this is what Mencius
means when he says there is no greater joy than in remaining faithful to
the ten thousand things. I remain faithful to the ten thousand things by
awakening to that which the ten thousand things all share; the principle
that extends throughout all things, permeates all things, manifests in
all things. This is truly the investigation of things and the extension
Chu Hsi illuminates this aspect of The Great Learning in his remarks
on the oldest commentary on The Great Learning, which traditionally
accompanied the text of The Great Learning itself. It reads as follows:
The Commentary: This is called knowing the root. This is called the perfecting
Chu Hsi’s Remark: The above . . . commentary explains the meaning of the
investigation of things and the extension of knowledge, which is now lost.
Comment: Chu Hsi regarded the Confucian Way as having been lost. Due to
historical and political circumstances, the Confucian Way, in Chu Hsi’s
view, was no longer functioning in an authentic manner. There were a number
of reasons for this. First, the government examination system required
that students learn by rote the Confucian Classics, but this kind of rote
learning was done simply to pass the exams. The learning was not taken
to heart. Because of this Chu Hsi had grave misgivings about the effect
of the examination system on students who genuinely wanted to follow the
Confucian Way. Second, Chu Hsi viewed the inroads which Buddhism had made
into China as subverting the Confucian Way. In this respect Chu Hsi was
atypical. He was not an overt syncretist. In the following centuries, however,
Chinese culture would develop a number of syntheses of Confucianism and
Buddhism which would mutually enrich both forms of spirituality. On another
level, though, Chu Hsi was profoundly influenced by Buddhism. For example,
Chu Hsi adopted a program of seated meditation, which is clearly adapted
from Ch’an Buddhism. Chu Hsi had difficulty acknowledging this, however,
because of his view that he was rescuing Confucianism. Third, the impact
of Taoism was also of grave concern to Chu Hsi, who viewed Taoism as hopelessly
anti-social and otherworldly. Fourth, and finally, Chu Hsi lived at a time
when the dynasty had lost most of its territory to foreign invaders. Chinese
culture was threatened, therefore, on many fronts. Chu Hsi felt that a
spiritual reform was needed if China was going to recover its central place
in the world.
Applying this to our own time, I think it is possible to consider the Way
of The Great Learning as basically lost to our culture. Though the
specifics of the cirumstances differ, it is still the case that awakening
to the transcendent, or even the reality of the transcendent, has a very
low priority in our culture. I would go further; in a sense it is not a
priority at all in our culture. Thus the perfecting of knowledge is lost,
though for different reasons than those Chu Hsi was considering.
On another level, though, this Way of great learning is never lost. Each
generation must discover this Way for themselves. It is never lost, because
it is always present. As it is always present, it is always available.
It is the task of the great learning to awaken people to the presence of
the always present.
Chu Hsi’s Remark Continued: I have ventured to take the view of Master
Ch’eng I and supplement it as follows: The meaning of the expression “The
perfection of knowledge depends on the investigation of things (ko-wu)”
is this: If we wish to extend our knowledge to the utmost, we must investigate
the principles of all things we come into contact with, for the intelligent
mind of man is certainly formed to know, and there is not a single thing
in which its principles do not inhere.
Comment: This is a brilliant insight. Investigating the principles of all
things we come into contact with means uncovering that which allows all
things to exist. It is discovering what all things have in common; that
is the principle to which Chu Hsi refers. Notice also the optimistic nature
of this statement -- that the mind of humanity is equipped for this kind
of knowledge. When Chu Hsi states that “there is not a single thing in
which its principles do not inhere”, I think he means to point out that
this principle, present in all existing things, is also present in the
human mind. Because it is present in the human mind, the human mind can
self-reflectively become aware of this principle, of the eternal residing
in all existing things. For this principle present in the mind does not
differ from this principle present in all existing things without exception.
Chu Hsi’s Remark Continued: It is only because all principles are not investigated
that man’s knowledge is incomplete. For this reason, the first step in
the education of the adult is to instruct the learner in regard to all
things in the world. To proceed from what knowledge he has of their principles,
and investigate further until he reaches the limit.
Comment: This is what Confucius does in the example I gave above; where
Confucius points to the river and then states that all things are like
this river. This is beginning with what a person does know, and then extending
this knowledge to its limit. Beginning with the flowing of the river, which
the learner comprehends, one then extends this principle to all things.
The investigation of things means to investigate as to whether this principle
displayed in the flowing river actually applies to all things. When one
comprehends this principle as actually applying to all things, one has
reached the limit, and knowledge has been extended to its utmost.
Chu Hsi’s Remark Continued: After exerting himself in this way for a long
time, he will one day achieve a wide and far-reaching penetration. Then
the qualities of all things, whether internal or external, the refined
or coarse, will all be apprehended, and the mind, in its total substance
and great functioning, will be perfectly intelligent. This is called the
investigation of things. This is called the perfection of knowledge.
(Chu Hsi’s Remarks are found in A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton, 1963, page 89.)
Comment: I particularly admire this passage. There are two approaches one
can take towards the establishment of principle, meaning that which all
things share (I realize this is a simplification, but bear with me). The
first approach is that all things share a common substance and appearances
are modifications of that substance, or appearances all emerge from, or
are sustained by, that original substance. Broadly speaking, I refer to
this approach as substantialism. The second approach is that all things
possess certain qualities which mark all existing things. This is a non-substantialist
approach. The substantialist approach leads away from the things of this
world. The non-substantialist appraoch seeks to uncover, to identify, those
transcendental qualities which all thigns share and so directs our attention
to things. Chu Hsi interprets the term “the investigation of things” in
the second way. The qualities of things Chu Hsi refers to are those qualities
which mark all things. Colors only qualify visual things. Loudness only
qualifies sonic things. What qualifies all things, both internal (e.g.
ideas and emotions, and external (e.g. visual, sonic, olfactory, tastes,
and touches)? It is the task of the great learning to point to those qualities
whch are present in all existing things. Being present in all existing
things, they are constant. Being constant they are never non-existent.
And that is why this is the perfection of knowledge.
When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.
How does the extension of knowledge lead to sincerity of will. Iris Murdoch
in her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, points out that there
is an intimate connection between our core understandings and our behavior
in the world. For example, if we think that existence is just a random
heap of matter, then the consequences of ethical behavior will also take
on that aspect of randomness and lead to indifference. The Great Learning
makes clear that there is a connection between our conduct and our realization
of the knowledge which applies to all existing things. When we awaken to
this knowledge, and extend it to all things, our activity is grounded in
the constant. When our activity is grounded in the constant, our activity
has a constant basis. Having a constant basis is the nature of sincerity.
There is no need to be evasive, deceptive, or double dealing when one’s
presence is grounded in, and emerges from, that which always exists.
When the will becomes sincere, the mind is rectified.
To rectify the mind one must have a sense of direction. For example, if
I want to travel north, and begin to drift east, I can rectify my direction
if I have a compass which points north. Similarly, the extension of knowledge
to that which all things share, that which all things have in common, and
which is therefore the constant and always present, the principle which
marks all existing things, functions as a compass for my mind. Not forgetting
this presence of the constant, my mind is rectified. Furthermore, rooted
in the knowledge of this presence of the constant principle, I am at peace.
When my mind is at peace, I am undistracted and able to function clearly
in the world and in my life. This makes it possible to rectify my mind
and my behavior without rancor. If I do something correctly, that is simply
due to the constant principle. If I make a mistake, guided by the constant
principle, I simply rectify my mind. In this manner, the Constant Way becomes
When the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated.
To a great extent behavior follows mind. For example, if I think the earth
is flat, that belief will strongly effect my behavior, what I think is
possible and how I live my life. If, on the other hand, I discover that
the earth is round, that will alter what I think is possible and provide
a strong impetus for new possibilities.
Similarly, if I am unaware of the constant presence of principle in all
things, and all people, I will act as if each person I meet is distinct
and has nothing to do with me. This will strongly effect my behavior towards
other people and will effect what I think of as advantageous in my personal
life. If I awaken to that which is present in all things, constantly present,
and therefore present in all people as well, I will comprehend every person
as fundamentally not different from me; because we share the constant principle.
Even more, we share the capacity to awaken to and realize the constant
principle. Therefore, what we have in common is far greater than that which
differentiates us. It is upon this basis that the Golden Rule spontaneously
emerges. It is upon this basis that I can then cultivate my personal life
in a manner that is consistent with the Constant Way.
When the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated.
People learn primarily through imitation. This is the great power of “li”,
or ritual behavior, that Confucius emphasizes. Li, while it does
denote what English means by ritual and etiquette, is primarily concerned
with the influence of behavior, the influence set by example. Thus, Confucius
can remark that one of the Ancient Sage Emperors ruled by simply taking
the proper ritual position, facing south, at the appropriate time.
This is not as difficult to understand as it may seem at first. Human beings
like to look up to, and follow in the footsteps, of those they deem admirable
and worthy. This is the power of li.
When one’s behavior is grounded in the constant principle, that behavior
will be sincere and constant. This will be naturally attractive. Without
lecturing, punishing, or hectoring, the example of such behavior will be
imitated. It is in this way that such behavior will lead to the regulation
of the family. Regulation in this context does not mean “laying down the
law.” Regulation means simply the manifestation of sincerity within the
Such a context in some ways resembles the music produced by a jazz combo,
say a jazz quartet. Sincerity in this context means that each musician
is there to play the music, and for no other purpose. In this context,
the music is the constant. There is spontaneity, but there is also mutual
respect. There is improvisation, but there is also the song upon which
the improvisation rests. There is a time for each musician to perform a
solo, and there are times when they all perform together.
Similarly, in family groupings, and other social groups, sincerity, grounded
on the constant, allows the song of the group to present itself without
When the family is regulated, the state will be in order.
Confucianism is often viewed as a top-down political philosophy. Emphasizing
the role of the Emperor, Confucianism is often looked at as an authoritarian
philosophy. Works like The Great Learning, however, cast Confucianism
in a different light. Order in the state can only truly emerge from the
bottom up. When people are grounded in the constant principle, their behavior
is sincere. Their behavior being sincere, the government’s role becomes
Once again, consider a jazz quartet, or a classical string quartet. The
order in such music emerges from the commitment of the individual musicians,
which is a manifestation of sincerity. No one has passed a regulation which
would punish the musicians if they do not perform well. But, being sincere
the musicians naturally perform the best they can.
Similarly, human interaction, if grounded in the constant principle, manifests
sincerity. Manifesting sincerity, displaying the Golden Rule in all activity,
social interaction then naturally achieves its purpose.
And when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world.
Confucius was very concerned with how society can manifest in a peaceful
and constructive manner. Living as he did, during the warring states period,
when constant and brutal warfare was the norm, Confucius, and other Chinese
philosophers, longed for a society that was more conducive to human life
and the flourishing of the human realm. Part of the purpose of The Great
Learning is to show people how to bring about such a society. One begins
by reform of one’s self. Only with this as the foundation, can a peaceful
But note that the reform of self is not a psychological, or self-reformation,
in the sense of an interior kind of awakening or knowing. The reform to
which Confucius refers is the reform of human interaction. For Confucius,
there is no such things as an Enlightened Sage as an Enlightened Being;
there is only the Enlightened Sage as one who manifests Enlightened Activity.
This is the great contribution of Confucius to world spirituality.
This explains the centrality of the Golden Rule for Confucian spirituality.
The Golden Rule guides our interaction with other people. This is not to
deny that there is an internal element to the reform that Confucius has
in mind. But that internal reform, say the decision to live a sincere life,
is not an actual reform unless that decision manifests in activity. An
analogy might be helpful to understand the Confucian position. If I decide
to become a musician, that decision is important. If, however, I do not
follow up that decision by actually learning a musical instrument, that
decision remains just a thought. I have not actually become a musician.
Similarly, the decision to live a sincere life does not make one a Sage.
Only the activity that emerges from that decision can make me a Sage. Only
human interaction can make me a Sage. Therefore, it is the human community
and its activities which is the means for becoming completely human.
From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must regard cultivation
of the personal life as the root or foundation.
Thus all people are equal in this task of becoming fully human. Confucius
lived at a time when social stratification was very rigid and when any
other system of governance than that of a strong monarchy was literally
unimaginable. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Confucius
was able to comprehend that the task of becoming fully human weighed equally
upon all people. Even the Son of Heaven, the Emperor of China, was not
born fully human. Even the Emperor must cultivate his own person in order
to become a Sage and to become fully human. In other words, Confucius saw
all people as equal in this respect and equal in their potential for becoming
Sages and following out the course of The Great Learning.
There is never a case when the root is in disorder and yet the branches
are in order.
The Great Learning concludes by returning to the organic metaphor
of a growing plant. If the roots are mistreated, not cultivated, left without
nourishment, the plant may grow, but it will not grow to its full potential.
The roots in this case stand for The Great Learning. The roots are
the three aspects mentioned at the beginning of this work: 1) manifesting
the clear character, 2) loving the people, and 3) abiding in the highest
good. These are the roots. The method of cultivating and nourishing the
roots is the Golden Rule; to treat all people with respect and deference,
with honesty and sincerity, just as we would like others to treat us. And
the foundation of the Golden Rule is the investigation of things so that
the principle which permeates all of existence is clear, and knowledge
is thereby extended to its ultimate, unlimited, dimensions.
Confucius illuminates this point in the Analects:
12.2 Jan Yung asked about Humanity, and the Master said: “Go out into the
world as if greeting a magnificent guest. Use the people as if offering
a magnificent sacrifice. And never impose on others what you would not
choose for yourself. Then, there will be no resentment among the people
or the great families.”
“I’m not terribly clever,” said Jan Yung, “but I’ll try to serve these
Comment: If one greets people as if meeting an honored and magnificent
guest, one will be able to put the Golden Rule into action, and the way
to Sagehood will be clear. If one comprehends that all people are part
of a magnificent sacrifice, then one will comprehend how all people share
the same fate. A ritual sacrifice offers up goods to a higher plane. The
human community is the higher region that we all sacrifice to. We don’t
normally think of our work, of our everyday activity, as a sacrifice. But
if we can begin to think of it that way, then we begin to transform our
activity by consciously becoming aware of what we are leaving to the future
generations as our gift, born from activity, sacrificed to humanity through
our efforts. Opening to this dimension allows us to place our activity
in a larger temporal context. Thinking, how will my work effect future
generations, 3, 5, 7, 10, 100 generations from now? Will I leave behind
something of value? Something worthy of my efforts.
And if we never impose on others what we would not impose on ourselves,
then we can clearly see the Way of humanity. Through these three methods,
the human realm will truly be transformed.
There has never been a case when what is treated with great importance
becomes a matter of slight importance or what is treated with slight importance
becomes a matter of great importance.
These are the closing words of The Great Learning. I take it as
an admonition to refocus our attention on what is central, on what has
great importance. If we want to know why society is confused, disordered,
lacking in virtue, we only need look at what society views as important.
Today, getting ahead at the expense of others is considered the primary
virtue. The result is a withered society, a society that is confused, dangerous,
cynical, and violent. If we want a society that is truly human, fully human,
then we must be willing to emphasize the cultivation of The Great Learning.
Only this, nothing less, will bring about the peace which a fully human