Home » Features » Wáng Yángmíng’s Fantastic Encounter 王阳明奇遇记

无善无恶心之体,
有善有恶意之动。
知善知恶是良知,
为善去恶是格物。

-《四句教》
王阳明

Without good and without evil is the essence of the mind,
Having good and having evil is the movement of the mind.
Knowing good and knowing evil is intuitive knowledge (i.e. conscience),
Doing good and eradicating evil is rectification of conduct.

– Four-Line Teaching (written a year before departure)
(Wáng Yángmíng)

Wáng Yángmíng (王阳明), also known as Wáng Shǒurén (王守仁) (1472–1529) was a famous calligrapher, general, philosopher, politician and writer during the Míng Dynasty (明朝). With some interest in Buddhism, his form of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理学) thought or Mind School (心学) called ‘Yángmíngism’ (阳明学) carries some Dharma influences too. An example of his teachings is in the verse above, which is said to summarise his thinking. (Although Yángmíngism contains remarkable ideas, lacking a clear transcendental path, it still falls short of the Dharma’s ability to lead all the way to Buddhahood.)

As he had a recurring dream of a monastery since young, he remembered its scenes clearly. Piecing several accounts together, when sick, and about four days before his death, he entered a monastery in Jiāngxī’s (江西) Nán’ān Prefecture (南安府) known as Nán’ān Chán Room (南安禅室) to rest. When he reached the monastery, as it had familiar scenery, he thought it might be the monastery in his dreams. (Genuine déjà vu experiences that cannot be otherwise explained might indeed be due to recollected visions from past lives.)

As he toured the monastery, he came across a retreat room sealed with strips of paper, with wordings on them stating it is not to be opened. (Chinese monasteries’ retreat rooms are traditionally sealed with a big ‘X’ with such ‘warnings’ as ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs.) Suddenly, he had a severe headache. Looking around in astonishment, he felt as if he had lived there before. Burning with curiosity, he requested permission from the receiving monastic to see the room.

The monk apologised, saying that the monastery has many big and small rooms, all of which he can visit – other than this one room. This was so as 50 years ago, a senior founding master, who instructed the room to be kept private had departed in it, whose body is still within, naturally preserved as a complete bodily relic (全身舍利). (The custom of maintaining relics which result from proficient Dharma practice is for inspiring present and future generations.)

As he strongly felt that he has some relationship with the room, he pleaded the room to be kindly opened for him. Also due to his high status, the monk finally relented and opened the door for him. While it was being unlocked, he remarked, ‘This was only then, waiting for me to arrive.‘ (姑俟我至。) Seeing it was so firmly locked, he said, ‘This has certainly been waiting for me.’ (固俟我也。) In the dim light of dusk, as Wáng walked in trembling with anticipation, he was shocked to see the master’s body, as if alive, still seated on a meditation cushion, whose face greatly resembled his own. When he opened a few dust-laden books, brushing the dust away, he read the following: 

五十七年王守仁,
启吾钥,拂吾尘。
问君欲识前程事,
开门即是闭门人。

At fifty-seven years old, Wáng Shǒurén,
will open my lock and brush away my dust.
To you who asked, desiring to know future’s matters,
the one who opened the door is precisely the person who closed the door.

Another account says on the wall was a poem:

五十年后王阳明,
开门犹是闭门人。
精灵去后还归复,
始信禅门不坏身。

Fifty years later, Wáng Yángmíng,
who opens the door, is still the person who closed the door.
With his consciousness gone after, still returning again,
only then believing this Chán (Dharma) Door’s indestructible body.

It was then that Wáng realised that the master was ‘him’ in his previous life. Thereafter, he instructed a pagoda to be built to enshrine the master’s body. This case is usually seen as humbling proof of the reality of rebirth, and of the prowess of good practice. It hints of the spiritual greatness of the departed master, who could part peacefully in Chán meditation, without bodily decay, with the ability to accurately predict his own future return, and even his future name in full. However, there are more important counter-intuitive lessons to be gleaned…

Of course, Wáng had since changed in character and inclination to some extent, which means the one who opened the door is only similar to the one who closed it – not being the exact same person. In fact, in the Buddhist perspective, Wáng had retrogressed in his spiritual practice. From being able to accomplish what the master did, he had forgotten and detoured from his initial path to liberation, to still be trapped in rebirth, to become more accomplished – but in another school of thought, that does not express the Dharma fully. Perhaps in anticipation of this, the poem was written to jog his memory, to rekindle and deepen his interest in the Dharma. However, this did not seem to bear fruit adequately in time.

Even if good Chán practice led to the master’s amazing results when he departed, Wáng did not have similar or greater results again when he departed. Thus, this is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of remaining in the rounds of rebirth, even for ‘great’ meditators. As long as yet to be great enough to break free from rebirth, there will be return to Saṃsāra, with most forgetting all learnt in past lives. Even with much positive karma once accumulated, a great practitioner can still backslide to become ‘just’ a great worldly person.

Surely then, it makes great sense to heed Śākyamuni Buddha’s advice to seek birth in Amitābha Buddha’s (阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó) Pure Land, where all past lives will be fully recollected, with no lessons learnt lost, where there is swiftest progress towards Buddhahood. It is there, that all will attain truly indestructible vajra bodies, not just for static veneration, but for actively mastering the Dharma, and being of service to all beings.

As the Pure Land Tradition’s 6th Patriarch Great Master Yǒngmíng Yánshòu (净土宗六祖永明延寿大师), who is also the Dharma Eye (Chán) Tradition’s 3rd Patriarch (法眼宗三祖) taught in the first half of his famed ‘Chán And Pure Land Brief On Four Categories’《禅净四料简》-

有禅无净土,
十人九蹉路,
阴境若现前,
瞥尔随他去。

With Chán and without Pure Land practice,
of ten persons, nine will detour on the path.
The intermediate state [between death and rebirth], if manifesting before them,
swiftly will they be followed [according to their karmic inclinations].

Even though Wáng as a Chán Master in his previous life mindfully chose to be reborn in our human world, he expected forgetting of his previous spiritual path. Thus, it can perhaps be said that if Wáng missed the message in the room, he would have missed the path to the Dharma. Yet, even after receiving the message, by not fully refocusing on learning and practice of the Dharma, he could be said to have detoured, thereby missing the Buddhist path’s full benefits – even if he did leave enduring secular teachings for many.

无禅有净土,
万修万人去,
若得见弥陀,
何愁不开悟。

Without Chán and with Pure Land practice,
of ten thousand cultivators, ten thousand persons will go to Pure Land.
If attaining sight of Amitābha Buddha,
why worry about not awakening?

Thus, even if Wáng did not engage in Chán practices in his previous or present life, focusing only on Pure Land practice instead, he would have reached Pure Land already, with no need to have his predecessor ‘standby’ the message to remind his future self. Having reached Pure Land, as perfectly remembered, building on all learnt in the past with swift mastery of the Dharma there, he can easily return to our human world with his memories intact, to offer even greater worldly and world-transcending teachings.

Wáng’s last words when sick and dying were ‘With this mind’s bright light, what again is there to say?’ (此心光明,亦复何言?) Probably not referring to the light of his Buddha-nature, this is usually interpreted to mean that his mind was clear, upright and honourable (光明正大), free from any regrets, despite the hardship from slander and obstacles he faced towards the end. May he also see the radiant bright light of Amitābha Buddha! As we can see in his poem below, he does have some affinity with the First Pure Land Patriarch.

远公说法有高台,
一朵青莲云外开。
台上久无狮子吼,
野狐时复听经来。

-《远公讲经台》
王阳明

The honourable Great Master Huìyuǎn (慧远大师) speaks the Dharma on a high platform,
like a blue lotus flower beyond the clouds blossoming.
The platform above has long been without his lion’s roar,
where wild foxes often come to hear the sūtras.

– Honourable Great Master Huìyuǎn’s Sūtra-Speaking Platform
(Wáng Yángmíng)

The platform refers to the Prajñā Platform (般若台) established at Dōnglín Monastery (东林寺) in 389, as founded by Great Master Huìyuǎn (334-417), the First Patriarch of the Pure Land tradition (净土宗初祖), where Wáng also visited. (It could also refer to a huge rock overlooking a stream on Mount Lú [庐山] nearby.) The lotus flower represents purity despite being surrounded by the defiled, also being the vehicle for birth in Pure Land. The lion’s roar refers to the kingly, authoritative and far-reaching teaching of the Buddha, or the equivalent by Great Masters, that naturally commands attention and respect of all beings, including small animals.

In the Chán tradition, wild foxes also refer to people who have strayed off to external paths, who have yet to awaken, but falsely claim to be enlightened, thus reborn as foxes as karmic retribution. The last line could refer to the wayward coming to redeem themselves, with the hope of finally learning the right Dharma from whoever is now teaching. Since the poem laments the long loss of the Great Master, who has already reached Pure Land, we should all together aspire to reach Pure Land, where we can surely meet all the Pure Land Patriarchs, including its ‘Chief Patriarch’ – Āmítuófó!

– Wù Wàngsǐ
(First contributed to TheDailyEnlightenment)

Related Articles:

Are You ‘Recycling’ Yourself Every Three Lifetimes?
您每三世都在’循环’自己吗?
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2010/08/are-you-recycling-yourself-every-three-lifetimes 

Do Not Be A Wild Fox ‘Zen Master’!
别成野狐’禅师’!
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2017/05/do-not-be-a-wild-fox-zen-master

Chán And Pure Land’s Fourfold Explanations
《禅净四料简》
https://purelanders.com/2009/12/15/brief-on-four-categories

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