Chinese Texts on Innate Nature

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King & Don edit entire chapter: Part III

Nei-yeh on Innate Nature

The previous chapter illustrated the universality of innate nature in human culture. What do Chinese texts have to say about this mysterious term? What does the Nei-yeh’s literary chain add to our understanding? What new insights do Chinese sages and philosophers provide?

Curiously, Roth states that the Kuan Tzu texts, i.e. the NY and Techniques of Mind, virtually ignore innate nature altogether. Yet while certainly not the main theme, the NY places innate nature (hsing) in a prime spot, i.e. the concluding lines of Verse 22.

“Verse 22:
10   When you are inwardly tranquil and outwardly reverent,
11   You are able to return to your innate nature
12   And this nature will become greatly stable.”

The verse explicitly names its focus in the first line – cultivating vitality. Extreme emotions disturb our vitality. Music and poetry are antidotes to these emotions. External reverence for proper forms and inner tranquility are the basis of music, which curbs the emotions that disturb vitality. These same virtues enable us to return to and stabilize our innate nature.

In other words, both external reverence and inner tranquility calm the emotions that disturb our vitality and lead to our innate nature. In such a way, the NY links innate nature and vitality. This linkage fits the ideogram for hsing (innate nature), which contains the radical for hsin (our emotional heart-mind) on the left and the vitality ideogram in the center. In other words, innate nature is intimately connected to vitality.

What are the causal links between the two? Although we can speculate from personal experience, the NY is mute on the topic. Nowhere does the text give any hints as to what innate nature is or why we would want to return to or stabilize this mysterious construct. Nor do they reveal why it is connected with vitality. It is as if the authors of the NY assumed that their readers would know what innate nature is and why stabilizing it in our core is important.

While the NY and Mind Techniques are silent regarding its meaning, innate nature (hsing) is the primary focus of Huai-nan Tzu. Further, the 21 essays that comprise this collection discuss innate nature in different contexts – political, personal and cosmological. The basic meaning of innate nature remains the same throughout.

Like the NY, the Huai-nan Tzu also stresses the need for inner tranquility in order to better express innate nature. However, this text adds much more to the discussion. The collection expands, elaborates and refines our understanding of innate nature – even elevating it to a prime position in the hierarchy of constructs. Let us see how.

Manifesting Innate Nature is the Way of Personal Power

I could attempt to summarize some of the themes from the Huai-nan Tzu in my own words. Yet this approach is fraught with potential problems. For instance, my personal filter could easily distort the message to serve my own agenda. Rather than risk straying too far from the facts, let us examine some actual text.

“To act in accord with one’s innate nature is called the Way (Tao).
To grasp one’s heavenly nature is called the Power (te).
When this nature is lost, only then is benevolence esteemed.
When this Way is lost, only then is rightness esteemed.
Therefore when benevolence and rightness are established,
The Way and Power are exiled.” (Roth, p. 635)

This intriguing 6-line passage from Huai-nan Tzu is packed with information about hsing (innate nature). This includes both its dynamic positive characteristics and the dire consequences that ensue when hsing is ignored.  

The song poem makes an incredibly bold claim: Aligning with our innate nature is the Way – the Tao. Further, and even more powerful: aligning with the heavenly (higher, or more refined?) aspect of our innate nature is the same as expressing Personal Power (Te). Not too shabby.

In this passage, manifesting hsing is equated with both the Tao (the Way) and Te (Power). These are presumably the most important concepts dealt with in the Taoist classic, the Lao-tzu. The importance is indicated by the book’s popular name – Tao Te Ching. One plausible translation of the title: the Classic of the Way (method) of Personal Power. The author of these lines from the Huai-nan Tzu is suggesting that expressing innate natureis the Way of Personal Power. Indeed, that has been my humble experience.

The last 4 lines enunciate the dire consequences of neglecting innate nature. The song-poem is an indictment of Confucian top-driven values. This is a common theme of the Lao-tzu. The fact that Confucian social virtues must be stressed is a sign to the authors of the Lao-tzu that something is rotten or missing. When society finds the need to super-impose values such as ‘benevolence’ and ‘rightness’ under the guise of social norms, individual vitality is eroded and consequently society itself is damaged.

While the Lao-tzu is ambiguous about what it regards as the missing ingredient, the Huai-nan Tzu is very clear. People and society are much better off when individuals are encouraged, indeed trained to uncover and to express their innate nature. Nei-yeh style inner cultivation provides the foundation for this expression of each individual’s unique internal voice.

The manifestation of innate nature does not necessarily follow external rules, such as social morays. Rather innate nature’s manifestation is original, without precedent, unique. Rather than rule-driven, the power of individual expression results from inner quietude and body alignment.

In these 6 lines, Huai-nan Tzu challenges traditional Confucian values and simultaneously makes a specific claim about the Tao, which according to classic Taoism, supposedly can’t be named. How audacious!

Zen’s Hsin-hsin Ming on Innate Nature

Innate Nature is even referenced in a crucially important Zen document – the Hsin-hsin Ming. The Faith-Mind, a usual translation of the title, consists of four-character lines which become rhyming song-poems. The verses were chanted for centuries by monks as a way of remembering important concepts.

The document was supposedly written by the 3rd Zen patriarch circa 600 CE. The text was presumably attributed to him as a way of conferring the prestige of its ancient roots – in a style typical of Chinese culture. Due to textual analysis, scholars concur that this Zen song-poem was probably not so ancient – perhaps composed centuries later. As an indication of the enduring aspect of innate nature in Chinese thought, this work was produced over half a millennium after the Huai-nan Tzu from the Nei-yeh’s literary chain was composed.

Innate nature (hsing) is referenced only once in the Hsin-hsin Ming. Following are three translations of these lines.

“Accept your Innate Nature (hsing) and accord with the Tao
And you will walk freely and undisturbed.”

Here is another translation of these same lines:

“Let your Innate Nature blend with the Way
And wander in it free from care.”

In the above translations innate nature and the Tao are linked in a positive fashion. The two have a similar sense. In order to avoid the objectification of process that is characteristic of Western interpretations,  I paraphrase these translation with a Chinese gerund-like construction.

“Embracing our Nature places us on the Path,
And our journey will be free from care.”

The Hsin-hsin Ming’s use of the term hsing (innate nature) is virtually identical to our Taoist documents – adding little. Recall a similar quotation from the Taoist Huai-nan Tzu.

“To act in accord with one’s innate nature is called the Way (Tao).
To grasp one’s heavenly nature is called the Power (te).”

Both documents, i.e. the Hsin-hsin Ming and the Huai-nan Tzu, stress the same point: aligning with our Innate Nature is the Way. If we are on the Path, there is nothing to worry about. Despite difficulties, we are in the best possible place.

Taoist? Buddhist? Or is this congruence just an indication that Zen, i.e. Chan, is a blending of Taoism and Buddhism?

Indeed, the heart-mind (hsin), the Tao and their relationship are a prime focus in both Taoism’s Nei-yeh and Zen’s Hsin-hsin Ming. Further in both documents the solution is the same. Calming the heart-mind of emotions and desires enables the Tao to flow through us. The Huai-nan Tzu links a calm heart-mind with manifesting innate nature, which is the Way. No contradictions, only refinements.

Could Innate Nature = Buddha Nature?

While expressing innate nature is at the center of both Taoist and Zen thought, the emphasis is decidedly different. Taoism stresses personal expression, while Buddhism emphasizes expressing our Buddha Nature. Are the approaches really that dissimilar?

The Zen document could have been a form of expedient means (upaya). In order to make Buddhist ideas more palatable to their Taoist/Confucian audience, the authors of the text link well known Chinese constructs with Buddhist constructs. For instance, the Hsin-hsin Ming links attaining the Tao with Buddha’s way, i.e. the Path to enlightenment, and a purified hsin (the heart-mind) with the original Buddha Nature. However, convenient linkages are frequently transformative, as is true in this case.

Rather than negating classic Chinese morals and beliefs, this classic Zen Buddhist text reinforces them and gives them new meaning. The popularity of the text is, at least in part, due to the fact that it stresses traditional Chinese values in a Buddhist context.

To ground this generality, let us examine the first verse of the Hsin-hsin Ming.

 “The Tao is not difficult
For those not attached to preferences.
When not attached to love or hate
All is clear and undisguised.
If there exists the smallest distinction,
Heaven and Earth become divided and unbalanced.”

The very first line of the text is based upon the implicit assumption that aligning with the Tao is important. Chinese thought via Confucius, Lao Tzu and the Nei-yeh had already stressed this point a millennium before the Hsin-hsin Ming was written. In the 3rd and 4th lines, the Zen document instructs the reader to employ the Nei-yeh’s method of minimizing emotions in attaining the Tao. Even China’s classic Heaven/ Earth metaphor makes its appearance in line 6, as a way of stressing how important it is to avoid emotional attachments.

The similarities between the two texts is striking. Like the Hsin-hsin Ming, the NY stresses the importance of minimizing desires so that the heart-mind can be tranquil. A tranquil heart-mind is a necessary prerequisite to be on the Path: both the Tao and the Buddha’s Way. The final two lines of the Nei-yeh (presumably for emphasis) reflect this notion.

“Following the Tao of restricting sense-desires,
the myriad things will not cause you harm.”

Purifying our heart-mind (hsin) of desires enables us to return to our Buddha nature. The idea of returning to the One, the state of original purity, has been a feature of Chinese wisdom since long before Buddhism arrived on the scene. Returning to the One could be likened to returning to one’s Buddha nature. We also are advised to return to our innate nature. In this sense, Buddha nature and innate nature are One (get the pun) and the same.

In both cases, return entails calming emotions and desires to clarify the accretions that cloud the original purity, i.e. our Buddha-nature or innate nature. Of course, Buddha-nature is not a mathematical variable and so cannot be precisely defined. Although the processes are similar for returning, the adherents of the two positions, especially Buddhists, would never agree that the two are one.

Zen’s Hsin-hsin Ming & Taoism’s Nei-yeh: Complementary Texts?

Hsin-hsin Ming is frequently translated as the Faith-Mind. I suggest that this significant Buddhist text could also be translated as Truing the Heart-Mind. Why? The primary thrust of the document is identifying what it takes to purify the heart-mind of attachments, emotions and desires. In other words, truing hsin, our heart-mind, is a primary focus of this classic text.

In this role, the Zen document is an eloquent refinement and elaboration of primary themes of the Nei-yeh. Although brief, the NY is very clear: desires and emotions create turbulence in hsin, our heart-mind, which repels the beneficent presence of the Tao. Reversing this tendency, calming our heart-mind of disturbing emotions, thoughts, and desires creates a tranquil environment that will attract the Tao.

The Hsin-hsin Ming enhances the Nei-yeh by instructing us about the many ideas that generate turbulence. The brilliance of this classic Zen text shines when it identifies intriguing counter-intuitive cravings. These paradoxical yearnings include the desire to resist sense-desires, the desire to accumulate knowledge, and, most surprising of all, the desire to attain enlightenment.

Although addressing common themes, Truing the Heart-Mind definitely exposes mental traps that the compact Nei-yeh glosses over. Similarly, the NY reveals self-cultivation techniques, which Truing ignores. They address common themes with common constructs albeit from a different perspective. As such, the two texts, one Zen Buddhist and the other Taoist, could be called complementary. Their translated titles indicate this balancing very clearly. (Hsin-hsin Ming) Truing the Heart Mind is a feature of Inner Cultivation (the Nei-yeh).

Earlier chapters illustrated that the Confucian Great Learning and the Taoist Nei-yeh are also complementary texts. These two works address common themes with a common network of constructs. Rather than contradicting each other, our three texts enhance each other by providing differing perspectives on the same topics. Although part of differing traditions, it seems that Confucian, Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought all fit under the umbrella of Chinese philosophy - Three Doctrines in One.

Huai-nan Tzu: Desires are a Feature of Innate Nature

There are certainly many common themes in China’s Three Doctrines. However, there are significant points of divergence. One major difference between the Huai-nan Tzu and the other Chinese texts we have discussed concerns our relationship with desires. The other texts tend to consider emotions and desires to be a root problem of human suffering. According to Hsin-hsin Ming even the desire for enlightenment results in disturbing emotions that should be avoided. The solution to this fundamental problem is the complete elimination of desire – a classic Buddhist/Hindu notion.

In contrast, the Huai-nan Tzu counsels us to reign in our desires, but not to eliminate them altogether. Rather we should keep them within ‘appropriate limits’.

“Behaving in accordance with our innate nature,
Then desires do not exceed their appropriate limits.” Huai-nan Tzu

How do we know the limits of our desires? If we manifest our innate nature, then our desires naturally fall between these limits.

Why not eliminate desire altogether, like other wisdom texts suggest? Desire is an inherent feature of innate nature. For instance, my innate nature infuses my Person with the desire to paint a picture or write a book.

Desires are associated with suffering in many of the great religious traditions. Do the moderated desires associated with innate nature also result in suffering? Of course! Why?

Expressing our birth nature frequently results in the usual, and sometimes unusual, trials and tribulations of the hero. In this case, a hero is anyone who takes a proactive approach to the particular challenges and struggles associated with his or her social environment. As with every hero’s journey, these trials are periodically accompanied by woe and misery.

A certain sect of Buddhism believes that we must go through 81 ordeals, if we are to reach enlightenment. These ordeals typically entail a certain amount of personal suffering.  This pain, emotional and/or physical, is not necessarily the result of misunderstanding or ignorance, but is simply a psychic ‘growing pain’ due to the hero embracing the challenges that are inherent to being on the Path.

Martin Luther King was assassinated, not because of ignorance or spiritual immaturity, but simply because he was expressing his innate nature under difficult circumstances. Although the consequences were extreme, his birth nature impelled him to speak out against injustice. Rather than leading to wealth and power, his Path resulted in his demise.

Manifesting innate nature is a necessary prerequisite for being on the Path, according this Chinese tradition. Treading this Path (whether it be divine or secular) definitely results in suffering from time to time. It might even entail more suffering, especially when viewed from certain perspectives.

The Huai-nan Tzu’s advice to embrace the desires associated with manifesting innate nature is a uniquely Chinese perspective. This positive orientation towards our inner passions is very different from the religions and philosophies which teach us to avoid suffering by the total elimination of desires. If manifesting our Buddha nature results in pain and yet this is the Dharma Path that aligns us with the Tao, then pain and human suffering must be unavoidable consequences of just being alive.

Rather than eliminate desires altogether, it is essential to cultivate the desires that are associated with our innate nature. Rather than attempting to avoid suffering altogether, it is preferable to embrace the suffering associated with being on the Dharma Wheel (a Buddhist synonym for being on the Path)1.  

Don’t sit it out on the sidelines

Imagining yourself detached and enlightened

When you are actually afraid.

Rather play the Game, even if you might get hurt.

Expressing our innate nature does not enable us to avoid suffering. Quite the contrary. Expressing our birth nature puts us on the Path – for better or worse. Rather than being trapped in slow-moving eddies along the side, we seek the fast-flowing center of the river of Life. Rather than out of the Action, in the Heart of the excitement – which is individual’s unique personal Path.


1 A brief aside: each of us has at least two sides – our Person and Being. Our Person suffers from being on the Path, not Being. Being just is. Our Person creates an imagined narrative reality of which s(he)/we are the main character/star. Everything happens to our Person, at least s(he) imagines it does. Being looks on compassionately, hoping for the best for her Person as he is only one she has.

Like a mother for her only child, Being attempts to help out when she can - shaping and counseling. If his imagined suffering is too great for him to handle, she might tell her Person to realize that the Path is an illusion. However, when he has recovered his equilibrium, she whispers in her Person’s ear that being on the Path is the best place to be even if it entails suffering, witness Jesus.


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