Unity of knowledge a nd action

The extension of one’s innate knowledge is exemplified in what Wang calls zhix-ing heyi ^n|Tn’~ (unity of knowledge and action). Wang states that one must speak of action in knowledge as the same effort all throughout. Using the example of seeing beautiful colours, Wang claims that we already love the colours (action) upon being aware of them (knowledge). In his words (Section 6):

The person who wishes to rectify one’s heart-mind must rectify it in connection with the operation of one’s thoughts and will. If, whenever a good thought arises, one really loves it as one loves beautiful colours, and whenever an evil thought arises, one really hates it as one hates bad odours, then one’s will will always be sincere and one’s heart-mind can be rectified.

Here, action is one’s reaction to the colours whereas knowledge is the awareness that the colours are beautiful. Wang reasons that it is not the case that we are

Wang Yangming and environmental education 123 aware of the colours first (knowledge) before deciding to love them (action). A person who supposedly knows but does not act is simply one who does not yet know. To appreciate Wang’s reasoning, we need to take note of his unique definitions of knowledge and action. To him, knowledge is both practical and moral: to know is to realise the knowledge of the good by being true to oneself. Another way of putting it is that to know is to exercise one’s value-perception and self-examination, which directs us to act according to our knowledge.29 That is why Wang contends that if a person claims to know something but lacks sincerity and concrete action, that person is merely harbouring an illusion. As for action, Wang does not restrict it to outward behaviour but includes also one’s thoughts, motivations, desires, feelings and dispositions.30 This understanding of action means that human beings need to refrain from unethical acts as well as the accompanying thoughts and inclinations.31

If knowledge and action are the same effort throughout, why then do some human beings differentiate knowledge from action in real life? Responding to this question that was posed to him, Wang replies (Section 5):

^WfciWWIh WoTff,

The knowledge and action you refer to are already separated by selfish desires and arc no longer knowledge and action in their original substance. There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know. When sages and worthies taught people about knowledge and action, it was precisely because they wanted them to restore the original substance.

To Wang, the unity of knowledge and action is the original substance of knowledge and action which has not been separated by selfish desires.32 The unity of knowledge and action implies that we cannot claim to know about loving the natural environment without acting on it at the same time. Put otherwise, we demonstrate action in knowledge by loving our natural surroundings and forming one body with it.

To conclude this section, Wang’s notions of being one with all things, possessing innate knowledge and having unity of knowledge and action provide an ethical and spiritual foundation for EE. The ethical justification of EE is seen in Wang’s call for love for nature as an integral part of our ren. He talks about the “inability to bear” the suffering of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, “a feeling of pity” for broken and destroyed plants and “a feeling of regret” for shattered and crushed tiles and stones. He exhorts all to (re)turn to unity and harmony with the natural world, which is the original state and proper relationship between human beings and their surroundings. The spiritual basis of EE is displayed in Wang’s argument that our heart-mind, which is our human nature, is the principle (//) given by Heaven. I use the word “spirituality” here to refer broadly to making sense of oneself within a wider framework of meaningand seeing oneself as part of some larger whole. Wang’s metaphysical worldview inspires human beings to internalise and realise the values and feelings of oneness with Heaven, earth and the myriad things.

 
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