Cengzi’s Commentaries on the Great Learning & the Nei-yeh

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The brief introduction to the Great Learning introduced many questions. For instance, what does it mean to ‘purify the will (yi)’? What does ‘aligning the mind (hsin)’ entail? And how does ‘self-cultivation’ apply to harmonizing the family?

To clarify these points, many commentaries have been written. Cengzi’s Commentaries are the most significant as they are frequently included with the Great Learning. According to traditional history, the commentaries are attributed to Confucius as transmitted by his disciple Cengzi (505-436 BCE). Due to content and word choice, scholars feel that this attribution was designed to confer prestige, but is not based in facts.

The Great Learning was probably written during the Warring States Era. The commentaries could have been added up to a millennium later – during the Sung Dynasty. The commentaries are actually a compilation of sayings from a variety of authors, not just Cengzi. Perhaps Zhu Xi or one of his followers created the compilation of ancient Chinese wisdom to justify his particular order of the celebrated 8 points.

Regardless of actual historical events, Cengzi’s Commentaries, as they are called, illuminate the underlying meaning of the terse texts of both the Confucian Great Learning and the Taoist Nei-yeh.

Great Learning & Nei-yeh: Interaction between Will & Mind – Yi & Hsin

Both texts attempt to answer the same question: How do we best harmonize our social environment? The Great Learning addresses the preconditions that enable the patriarch to harmonize clan, state and the world. The Nei-yeh focuses upon the preconditions that enable a Sage’s words and actions to harmonize the world. The same two word-concepts, yi and hsin, are key elements of both processes.

What is the Nei-yeh’s take on these significant word-concepts? The end of verse 5 links yi and hsin. “If we employ yi, our will, to cultivate mental (hsin) tranquility, the Tao can be attained.” From other verses, we know that a tranquil hsin (heart-mind) is an aligned hsin. Mental alignment attracts the Tao, which leads to right words and actions that result in social harmony.

What about the Great Learning? According to this brief text, ‘making the will (yi) sincere’ and ‘aligning the mind (hsin)’ are essential features of the self-cultivation process that leads to a peaceful country. If it is necessary to make our will (yi) sincere, yi also has the potential to be insincere, i.e. corrupt. If yi is aberrant, then the fruits of exerting yi will also be tainted. As yi is fundamental to the self-cultivation process in both the Nei-yeh and Great Learning, a corrupt yi will definitely undermine the self-cultivation process.

The Great Learning merely asserts the importance of ‘making the will (yi) sincere’, but does not provide either a rationale or a method. Although indicating the importance of yi, the Nei-yeh does not even raise the possibility of either a sincere or corrupted yi.

What does it mean to have a sincere will? Or alternately, when is yi not sincere? And how do we make yi sincere? Cengzi’s Commentary provides some insights into these questions.

Cengzi: Sincere Will (Yi) = No Self-Deception

Aligning the mind is a key factor in the sequence of the Great Learning. However, aligning the mind (hsin) depends upon making our will (yi) sincere. Cengzi’s Commentaries clarifies this relationship.

Cengzi: “Making the will sincere” means “no self-deception.” Like when we allow ourselves to be disgusted by a bad smell or become infatuated with an attractive appearance. This is call ‘self-satisfaction”. Therefore the Superior Man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.”

According to both the Nei-yeh and the Great Learning, we must employ yi, our will, to align hsin, our heart-mind. However, to exert our will effectively, it must be sincere. According to Cengzi, this means ‘no self-deception’.

The examples that Cengzi provides have 2 differing interpretations. One possible, yet clumsy, translation of the 2 sentences illuminates the first meaning. “[Self-deception’] is like when we ‘make bad’ a bad smell, or ‘make good’ a good color/appearance.” Rather than perceiving things objectively, we deceive ourselves by placing pejoratives on sensory experience. This reading seems to imply that external features should not affect upon our judgment. According to the Nei-yeh: By cultivating a tranquil mind, emotions will not affect our perceptions.

Another possible translation: “[No self-deception] is like when we recognize a bad smell as bad or a good color/appearance as good.” Under this interpretation, we must see things for what they are, rather than ignoring their obvious characteristics.

In typical Chinese fashion, both interpretations can be true. We must both avoid profiling sensory appearances and ignoring what our senses tells us. For instance, if encounter a shabbily dressed individual, we should avoid both judging him as inferior and trusting him with the keys to our car. Similarly, if we encounter a well-dressed man, we should avoid both judging him as good and trusting him unconditionally. Self-deception occurs when we perceive circumstances through our personal filter, rather than seeing them for what they are.

Instead of personal filters clouding our judgment, we want to accurately reflect our world. In the above examples, we must find the balance point/the mean (zhöng) between judgment and trust. Those with a sincere will (yi) are able to perceive circumstances clearly without judging by appearance or ignoring the obvious. They neither vilify nor glorify.

According to the final sentence of this quotation, we must be vigilant when alone [with our personal thoughts]. This personal vigilance presumably enables us to avoid these flaws in perception. This common Confucian statement concludes several of the commentaries.

Emotional Consequences of Self-Deception

To better understand the quotation, here is a personal example: Sincerity, as the opposite of self-deception, is linked to personal honesty. Fooling ourselves frequently has negative consequences. Due to misperception, we mistake ‘branches’ for the ‘root’. This misidentification leads to aberrant behavior, which is either ineffectual or counter-productive.

For instance, I occasionally suppress my emotions due to ‘self-deception’. Having an elevated notion of my own maturity, I think I should be beyond certain types of emotions such as fear, jealousy or social rejection. As such, I inadvertently, not consciously, deny that I am feeling emotional pain or distress.

Acting from this state of denial corrupts my behavior. Instead of confronting the appropriate issues, I attack secondary targets and avoid the real problem. Unable to express my real emotions due to ‘self-deception’, my reaction is to run away and hide. This isolation results in negative feelings, e.g. insecurity and low self-esteem, that erode my jing, my life force. Projects stall as I enter a downward emotional spiral.

Better to cultivate a ‘sincere’ will, i.e. personal honesty. Seeing my Person for who he is, just an ordinary human being with the normal emotions, enables me to correctly assess his feelings. Neither vilifying nor glorifying my Person, I can just ‘feel the pain and know that I am alive’. Or I can ‘sing the blues’, actually naming the painful emotions to dampen their sting.

Master Ni on Sincerity & Hypocrisy

The Great Learning emphasizes the importance of ‘making the will (yi) sincere’. According to Cengzi, this phrase means ‘no self-deception’. He is referring to personal sincerity.

Making yi sincere’ can also be interpreted from a social perspective. In the above examples, the intent of the purification process is to eliminate, or at least minimize, personal self-deception. ‘Making yi sincere’ could also be viewed as maintaining personal integrity in order to avoid social hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the human tendency to be duplicitous, i.e. two-faced – one way on the outside and another way on the inside.

Master Ni speaks about why sincerity as personal integrity is essential if we are to ‘integrate internal and external’– one of his 12 principles for Tai Chi and life.

     “Along with uniting inner and outer comes idea of sincerity – a very big idea. Without sincerity, meditation disturbed. If inner disturbed, then outer is likewise distracted. So in an unusual way, distraction and sincerity are opposites.
     Sincerity leads to peace because there are no rough edges from tricky thoughts. The numinous egg is smooth. There is no guilt or guile to catch up the revolving chi in concentric circles of a shallow vortex. Guilt disturbs thoughts, which disturbs peace. Avoid guilt by right action, by sincerity in actions as well as in your daily life.
     This is where the integration of daily life and Tai Chi comes in. A guileless life leaves no residue and therefore does not disturb the movements through distractions.” (September 3, 1990)

In this quotation, Master Ni makes it clear that sincerity is an essential ingredient in the integration of inner and outer.

He then provides the rationale behind the assertion. A lack of sincerity, i.e. hypocrisy, disturbs our meditation, i.e. our inner state, which in turn distracts the outer, perhaps our social self and our actions.

The mental distraction due to hypocrisy also disrupts our qi flow. Presumably, if our will (yi) is sincere, our qi naturally revolves within our body and world. Rough edges arising from guilt, i.e. the result of insincerity, traps our qi in the ‘concentric circles of a shallow vortex’. Instead of flowing down the center of a fast flowing river, qi is trapped in the small pools on the perimeter.

Devious, hypocritical behavior leads to guilt, i.e. lack of sincerity. This guilt traps our attention in trivial matters. This obsession with a dishonest side path drains our capacity for attention. Lacking sufficient mental energy, we are unable to attain the higher psychic states, i.e. attract the Tao with all its advantages to our core.

It seems that lack of sincerity, i.e. personal integrity, disrupts our thoughts, which in turn disturbs our internal peace. Recall from the Nei-yeh that mental turbulence repels the cosmic energy sources, including qi.

If we engage in sincere, i.e. right action, we can avoid the inner guilt and external distraction that prevent us from integrating inner and outer.

 ‘Making the will sincere’ is an essential ingredient in right action. It is important to neither fool others nor ourselves. Either way, this deception simultaneously disturbs/distracts our inner peace and our qi flow. Conversely, personal sincerity enables us to achieve the mental tranquility and qi flow that are crucial to the integration of our psyche and realizing our potentials.

Cengzi: Mental Alignment basis of Self-Cultivation

The Great Learning asserts that ‘mental alignment’ depends upon ‘making the will (yi) sincere’, but provides no details. The Nei-yeh speaks extensively about how to align the mind (hsin) and why this is important, but doesn’t provide contextual examples. Cengzi’s commentary both fills this gap and adds some understanding.

Cengzi: “When one is under the influence of anger, one’s mind will not be correct (cheng); when one is under the influence of fear, it will not be correct; when one is under the influences of fond regard, it will not be correct; when one is under the influence of anxiety, it will not be correct. When the mind is not there, we gaze at things but do not see; we listen but do not hear; we eat but do not know the flavors. This is the meaning of ‘the cultivation of the person depends on the rectification of the mind.”1

Briefly, when under the influence of anger, fear, anxiety or desire, hsin (our heart-mind) is not correct/aligned. In this case, negative emotional states have an adverse effect upon hsin’s alignment.

From a modern perspective, the bio-chemicals of emotion corrupt our ‘correct’ behavioral propensities. For example, anger and fear have the potential to set off the fight-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. This biological system excretes bio-chemicals that short-circuit the prefrontal cortex, the center of reason and deliberation. We react to situations rather than making deliberate decisions.

The Nei-yeh also views the relationship between emotions and hsin (our heart-mind) in a harsh light. While Cengzi only refers to negative feelings, the Nei-yeh vilifies all emotions. Paraphrasing Verse 3: “Hsin’s natural vitality is inevitably lost because of sorrow, joy, happiness, anger, desire, and profit-seeking.” Even joy and happiness undermine the natural vitality of our heart-mind. According the Nei-yeh, if we can cast off disruptive emotions, both positive and negative, hsin naturally returns to the beneficial state of tranquility, which leads to mental alignment.

Cengzi adds another factor to the hsin/emotion complex. He implies that our mind (hsin) won’t be fully present, if it is not aligned. Lacking mental presence, we won’t be able to fully experience our sensations. Specifically, our experience of vision, hearing, and taste will be on superficial levels. When our heart-mind (hsin) is out of alignment, our ability to have a direct and immediate experience of reality is impaired.

Recall that emotions, both positive and negative, disrupt the tranquility that is the root of hsin’s alignment. As such, emotions erode our ability to be present – our presence.

Cengzi implies that an aligned mind is fully present. According to the Nei-yeh, an aligned mind attracts cosmic energy sources epitomized by the Tao. Connecting the dots: Mental alignment is the root of presence as well as the Tao’s vitality and power. Emotions, positive and negative, disrupt the tranquility of this natural harmony.

If our mind is not completely present, how can we hope to cultivate our person? For this reason, mental alignment is a feature of Chinese self-cultivation for both Taoists and Confucians.

Cengzi: Self-Cultivation basis of Harmonizing Family

Self-cultivation precedes harmonizing the clan or family. Why? Cengzi provides some suggestions.

“When there is someone you love, you are biased. When there is something you hate, you are biased. When there is something you are in awe of, you are biased. When there is someone you pity, you are biased. When you are lazy, you are biased. Those who love someone and yet know their bad points, or who hate someone and yet know their good points are few and far between. Hence there is the proverb: ‘The man does not know of his own son’s evil, or the richness of his own corn.’ This shows that if you do not cultivate yourself, you cannot harmonize you family.”

In other terms: The emotions of love, hate, awe, pity or laziness corrupt our judgment. Both positive and negative emotions have this potential for corruption of our critical thinking skills.

Only a few of us are able see the negative features of someone we love or the positive features of someone we hate.  Because of emotional bias, we see neither the evil of our loved ones nor our personal blessings.

These distortions of our judgment make it difficult to harmonize our family. Before attempting to align our social relationships, we must first practice self-cultivation. The implicit understanding is that cultivating the self enables us to rid ourselves of emotional bias.

The Taoist Nei-yeh and the Confucian Great Learning are complementary texts. Together they delineate a behavioral technology that has permeated the Chinese culture for millennia. Both documents stress the importance of self-cultivation. It is evident that Cengzi’s Commentaries refines and extends this behavioral framework.


1 Sources of Chinese Tradition, p.116


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