Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


There was a time when the trees were luxuriant on Ox Mountain. Because it is on the outskirts of a great metropolis, the trees are constantly lopped by axes. Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine? With the respite they get during the day and night, and with moistening by rain and dew, there is certainly no lack of new shoots which emerge, but then cattle and sheep come to graze upon the mountain. That is why it is as bald as it is. People, seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees. But can this possibly be the nature of a mountain? Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations? A man 's letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes. . . . If, in spite of the respite a man gets during the day and night and of the effect of the morning air upon him, scarcely any of his likes and dislikes resemble those of other men, it is because what he does in the course of the day once again dissipates what he has gained. . . . Others, seeing his resemblance to an animal, will be led to think that he never had any native endowment. But can this be what a man is genuinely like? Given the right nourishment, there is nothing that will not grow.



The steady decay Confucius had seen in Chou civilization became an irreversible and accelerating trend in the century after his death. So consistently did petty states fight with one another, larger states gobbling up smaller ones, that this time in Chinese history became known as the Warring States period. The ancient feudal system was disintegrating before an onslaught initiated by dukes and chieftains who sought to establish a centralized government which ruled the state through newly constituted administrative districts. Whilst this tendency freed people from some of the excesses and inefficiencies of the old system, it also fostered a political expediency rooted in Legalist ideas. Legalist philosophy presupposed that human beings are, without exception, egotistical and motivated only by rewards and punishments. The old feudal ideas of loyalty and devotion were replaced with state sanctions which could be applied to every subject, and this allegedly progressive approach led to a kind of amoral cynicism which simply denied that human beings were moral at all. Lip-service might be paid to Confucian and Mohist ideals, but the Legalist view pervaded all the states. Mencius, convinced that man is essentially a moral being, chose to stand against the tide of normless modernity.

Very little is known of the life of Mencius. Traditionally, he was said to have lived from 371 to 289 B.C.E., but there is no evidence that his life fell outside the fourth century. Meng K'o, as he was originally called, was born in Tsou, a small state adjacent to Lu, the birthplace of Confucius, in modern Shantung province. After his father died when he was three, his mother took great care to see that he was raised in a proper environment. According to one legend, when she lived near a cemetery she found him playing at grave digging and soon moved to a house near the market-place. But there she discovered him imitating the hawkers and she moved again, this time near a school. When she saw Meng K'o playing at studying sacred rites, she was satisfied. Once when Meng K'o grew slack in his studies, his mother took a knife and slashed the weaving on her loom to show him that he should never lose the thread again. Meng K'o was fortunate to be taught by disciples of Tzu Ssu, the grandson of Confucius, for he received a rigorous and profound Confucian education. By the time he had completed his studies, he knew he had a mission in life and set out to fulfil it. His great learning and capacity for winning debates earned him the revered name Meng Tzu, which was Latinized as Mencius. Reflecting on his own work, he said:

In former times, Yu repressed the vast waters and the world was reduced to order. The Duke of Chou took in hand the barbarous tribes of the west and north and drove away ferocious animals, and the people enjoyed repose. Confucius made the Ch'un Ch'iu (Autumn Annals), and rebellious ministers and villainous sons were struck with terror. . . . I also wish to rectify men's hearts and put an end to perverse doctrines, to oppose biased action and licentious expression, and so to carry on the work of these three Sages. In what way do I like disputation? It is simply that I have no alternative.

Mencius saw in the rise of personal princely power and the replacement of the complex hierarchy of feudal obligations by central state authority an abnegation of the fundamental principles taught by the ancient Sages. For Mencius, the age-old lineages preserved a deep natural and social wisdom, and it mattered less who ruled than the method and purpose of their government. Government should preserve and enhance the welfare of the people and revere the timeless truths transmitted from generation to generation. Even though the rapidly expanding Warring States had in certain respects afforded some people chances for advancement and had stimulated economic growth, Mencius detected a startling lack of concern for universal welfare and a disregard of principles and values which give worth and purpose to human existence. Power and pleasure inexorably replaced integrity and duty, and Mencius determined to uphold the ancient ideals cherished by Confucius, even though he knew he was virtually alone in the task. Having learnt the teachings of Confucius and trained himself in the art of dialectical debate, he began to travel from state to state to infuse the emerging social order with a fundamental sense of moral obligation. Although no record was kept of his journeys and en counters with the rulers of various states, his own writings show that he spent time with many of the prominent political and military figures of the time. Some treated him with great respect, and others ignored him to the point of rudeness, but he persevered regardless of the response.

When Mencius visited Ch'i, King Hsuan appointed him a minister at court, but soon Mencius discovered that the affairs of state were not to be entrusted to him, so he resigned and left. Relatively late in life, he returned to Tsou and gathered disciples about himself. Even then he was asked to serve as an emissary by one or another ruler from time to time, but he increasingly concentrated on assuring the transmission of Confucian principles to future generations. His teachings were gathered together in a text known as the Mencius, apparently written in part by Mencius himself and expanded and edited by his disciples. This text became so influential that it was eventually made one of the four Confucian classics, and Mencius was called the "second Sage", after Confucius, and has been honoured for many centuries as the co-founder of Confucian thought.

Confucius taught largely in response to the questions of disciples, and owing to his concern that people understand and live according to the most ancient and fundamental values, he showed no interest in setting out a systematic philosophy or in elaborate public defence of his views. But his thought and the radically changing socio-political climate of China joined together to make those views controversial, and Mencius found himself in the midst of an animated discussion of Confucian ideals. The virtually unstated assumption of Confucius that men are moral beings became a subject of dispute, impelling Mencius to restate Confucian thought in terms of an explicit philosophical framework. Hence he had to rethink the concept of morality and its source in human beings, the nature of the Mandate of Heaven, and the social and political implications of both.

Before the advent of the mighty Chou dynasty, the house of Yin had ruled for so long that its members had come to think of ming, the Mandate of Heaven, as their exclusive possession. When the Chou dynasty acceded to the imperial throne, the Duke of Chou taught that the Mandate could be withdrawn, owing to corrupt rule. He sought thereby to keep the Chou rulers vigilant in respect to themselves, and he retained the ancient idea that ming affected the people only through the emperor, who was simultaneously its pivot and focus. With the poignant irrelevance of the emperor during the Warring States period, and with all kinds of princelings and chieftains claiming ming for themselves, ming had come to take on additional meanings. First of all, ming was applied to all human beings, so that each individual has his own ming. Secondly, ming came to mean 'fate' in a narrow, deterministic sense. With the appearance of the Legalist conception of the human being as essentially an egotist driven by animal desire, thinkers had begun to wonder whether a person could comply with the decrees of Heaven. And if not, a person could not be moral, because categories of value which imply will and intention cannot be applied to entities incapable of acting in terms of them.

Mencius quoted a famous verse from the hoary and revered Book of Odes: "The Mandate of Heaven is not immutable." For Mencius, this meant that each human being did indeed have his own ming, but that ming is not fate but rather destiny. This view in turn rests upon a conception of human nature which allows for intention, choice and change. Hence the unspoken assumption of Confucius that human nature is at root moral, that is, good, became for Mencius the central thesis of all Confucian thought. When Kao Tzu, a contemporary of Mencius, denied that human nature is either good or bad, declaring, "Appetite for food and sex is nature", Mencius did not contradict him. Rather, he said, "Slight is the difference between man and the brutes. The common man loses this distinguishing feature, whilst the gentleman retains it." Kao Tzu, speaking from an empirical perspective, had merely observed that many human beings had lost their subtle but distinctive human character and were, practically speaking, no different from animals. But, Mencius held, there is a difference, which if preserved, nurtured and allowed to burgeon, reveals the fundamental moral character of humanity. Only one counter-example shows that Kao Tzu may be right sociologically and psychologically, but wrong morally, philosophically and spiritually. Unlike Confucius, Mencius had to demonstrate precisely what the difference is which sets human beings apart from animals.

"A gentleman, chun tzu," Mencius said, "differs from other men in that he retains his heart." For Mencius, the distinguishing feature of the human being is hsin, the heart, which is not a physical organ but the embryo of moral possibility and the capacity to fulfil one's ming. Because one is born with hsin, he called it the 'original heart' and the 'true heart'. Like a muscle or mental capacity which is never exercised, hsin can atrophy and be lost. Hence the heart must be nurtured and sustained, and all learning serves the sole purpose of "going after this strayed heart". The exceptional nature of the heart lies in its capacity to think, which is the ability to respond to the world without being enslaved to the principle of attraction and repulsion. The other faculties, being suffused with desire, are hand- maids of this principle. Hence the eye is attracted to beautiful and alluring sights, the ear to pleasant sounds, and so on. In this, the organs of sense behave no differently from inanimate objects, such as iron filings in the presence of a strong magnet. Hsin, being able to think, is not merely captive to desires awakened by sensory stimuli, and this sets human beings apart from creatures. For Mencius, the only kind of mental activity which qualifies as thinking is moral cogitation, for ethical thinking establishes priorities, assigns values, discerns duties and recognizes obligations, all with a sense of purpose in life – that destiny which is the ming or Mandate of Heaven for each person. All other mental activity is merely one or another form of attraction or repulsion. Since hsin is the most valuable organ and faculty of the human constitution – because it is the defining feature of being human – the difference between the great man (chun tzu) and the small man is his acknowledgement of the rightful sovereignty of hsin over the other faculties that constitute the human being. Cultivating the heart is therefore the highest duty because it has the greatest moral value.

Although there are higher and lower elements composing the human being, neither Mencius nor other Chinese thinkers divided man into body and soul. Man is in their view a natural unity, such that what can be called mental has immediate physical correlates, and what is physical involves mental correspondences. Healthy moral states, due to the cultivation of the heart, will be reflected in general physical health, and the converse also holds. There is no laboured distinction between purely somatic and psychosomatic conditions. Likewise, there is no judgement of faculties as 'good' or 'bad', but only assessment as to whether a person has ordered them in their natural hierarchy or distorted their relative worth by fixing wrong priorities. The man who lives for his stomach is not inherently evil; he has misunderstood the relative worth of his faculties. There is nothing wrong with the stomach, which serves a critical function, but it should not be placed on the throne rightfully belonging to the heart.

Hsin is not merely the voice of enlightened reason, however. It contains in embryonic form possibilities which, when awakened, transform the human being. Specifically, Mencius discerned four ssu tuan, principles or incipient tropisms, abiding in the heart. There is, first of all, the beginnings of the heart of ts'e yin, compassion, which finds the sufferings of others unbearable and validates the conviction that benevolence is rooted in human nature. Although many people do not seem to be particularly compassionate, Mencius pointed out that the social and physical environment often encourage a person to lose his heart. If a person is exploited to an extreme degree, forced into harsh work and not properly fed and sheltered, there is little chance for ts'e yin to manifest in him. On the other hand, spontaneous acts, in which an individual's second thoughts – usually conditioned and narrowly self-interested – do not have the opportunity to interfere, reveal a tendency towards compassion. For example, if a person sees a young child crawling into a busy thoroughfare where it will almost certainly be harmed, he rushes to the child's aid without thinking whether it will benefit him. Just such acts, Mencius believed, showed that man's nature (hsing) is good.

Secondly, there is the germinal heart of hsiu wu, shame and dislike. Shame is less an emotion than the realization that one's actions do not measure up to one's ideals. Unlike guilt, which accompanies awareness of wrongdoing or the failure to maintain the minimum required to be a full moral being, shame encourages one to redouble one's efforts to do better. Shame, for example, demands honesty and integrity. "He who indulges in craftiness", Mencius said, "has no use for shame." The heart of shame is the germ of dutifulness, the willingness to restrain oneself for the sake of what ought to be done. "Only when a man will not do some things", Mencius taught, "is he capable of doing great things." Thirdly, the heart of tz'u jang, courtesy and modesty, is the basis for observing sacred rites and social rituals. Courtesy and modesty are more than a show of politeness and elementary respect, however, because they restrain self-interest and rein in self-seeking. When modesty is developed, an individual will not rush to claim credit even when it is merited, not because he self-righteously stands aloof, but because he did his deeds for their own sake rather than for any name and fame which might be attached to them. Courtesy is willingly making way for others, so that they may have a moment in the sun.

Finally, Mencius held that there is an incipient heart of shih fei, right and wrong, which is the power to discern right from wrong. Even more, it is also the capacity to approve of what is right and disapprove of what is wrong. When one engages in wrongdoing, or when one fails to do what is right, one can see what one is doing and disapprove of it. If the heart of shame is also awakened to some degree, one will spur oneself to avoid repeating the error. If spontaneous or sudden action reveals the presence of the heart of compassion, which in turn points to an inherently benevolent human nature, the presence of the heart of right and wrong points to the same fact even when people do not act benevolently. If one can know that one is doing wrong and disapprove of it, this is only because human nature is fundamentally benevolent. The four principles latent in hsin are aspects of the innate goodness of human nature. Mencius taught:

If a man is able to develop all these four germs that he possesses, it will be like a fire starting up or a spring bursting through. When these are fully developed, he can take under his protection the whole realm within the Four Seas, but if he fails to develop them, he will not be able even to serve his parents.

The man in whom hsin is fully aroused is a Sage, and one who cultivates the heart assiduously is a chun tzu. To allow the heart to lie dormant is to be a small person, and to lose the heart through ossification is to become a brute.

The teachings of Mencius on the heart have far-reaching implications for the social order. By putting duty before self-seeking, Mencius did not claim that morality and self-interest were necessarily in conflict. Rather, he insisted that when they did come into conflict, one should give priority to morality. This is, in truth, the difference between the benevolent man and the small man. The former devotes himself with single-mindedness to the ethical life, whilst the latter exhibits the same single-mindedness in respect to self-interest. The small man is oriented towards the external world of praise and blame, deprivation and gratification, but the benevolent man is oriented towards the heart within, where the pursuit of what is right is reward enough and results are only secondary. The gentleman recognizes that results depend, at least in part, upon fate, which is beyond his power to control. Hence he lets go of what cannot be guaranteed and devotes his attention to what he can cultivate – his heart.

Benevolence is like archery: an archer makes sure his stance is correct before letting fly the arrow, and if he fails to hit the mark, he does not hold it against the victor. He simply seeks the cause within himself.

< mencius redefined the ancient chinese idea of ch'i, the vital force which sustains life. From very early times, ch'i was understood as both gross and subtle, the grosser ch'i constituting the body and the subtler ch'i circulating throughout the body from its seat in the heart. Thinkers had long debated whether one was born with a fixed inventory of ch'i which had to be husbanded, or with the capacity to gain ch'i which could be augmented. Mencius took the second standpoint, but he spoke of the ch'i of moral rectitude. Whilst physical and breath-like ch'i gives a kind of courage akin to excitement or bravado, moral ch'i furnishes true courage, which is the ability to stand by what is right and seek the welfare of all, even when inconvenient or costly to oneself. Individuals can test their progress in cultivating the heart and becoming benevolent. The freshness one feels with the coming of morning is unclouded by self-centred concerns. One nurturing the heart will be able to carry that state of mind further into each succeeding day, increment by increment. In time one will begin to discover the joy of being a good man.

Mencius anchored his political philosophy on Heaven, just as he had his ethics. Ming, the Mandate of Heaven, is bestowed and withdrawn precisely because the ruler can fulfil its decrees. For Mencius, the Mandate is given to the ruler so that he may benefit the people, and for no other reason. Since ming is given to every human being, the ming of the ruler requires that he aid them in fulfilling their destinies. "The people", Mencius declared, "are of supreme importance; next come the altars to the gods of earth and grain; last comes the ruler." Long before Mencius, Chinese thinkers had generally accepted the view that kingship existed to benefit the aristocracy, and that the great mass of subjects indirectly benefitted from serving the nobility. Mencius enunciated the idea of the king as the servant of all the people, a view which required courage to state frankly. He not only declared his view, but did so in every conceivable context, despite its unpopularity in ruling circles. Furthermore, he taught that if a ruler positively endangered the welfare of the people, the Mandate of Heaven had already been withdrawn, and those responsible for government had the duty to remove him. The ideal Mencius appealed to was that in which a true king was first a Sage, for he had to understand the human heart in order to serve the people.

The ruler and high local officials have the right to tax the populace, but only to have funds for aiding all the people. The government should be seen more as an administrative centre for the rational redistribution of goods so that all are benefitted than as a focus of power. Similarly, every village or town should set aside an adequate parcel of land to be cultivated by all for mutual assistance. The authorities then have grains and produce to give to those in need. In such a view, the cost of raising troops for war is justified only for self-defence and to prosecute great evil, and war for mere expansion or fleeting glory is condemnable. Neither the political nor the economic system has to be radically restructured, according to Mencius. When rulers and ruled alike begin to cultivate hsin, the heart, they will transmit its benevolence to every aspect of their institutions, which will gradually come to function on a different basis, and excess will drop away.

Wherever the chun tzu, the gentleman, passes through, transformation follows. Wherever he abides, there is a spiritualizing influence. He is in the same current as Heaven above and Earth below. How can one say that he heals society only in little ways?


That steadfastness by which one holds the mind
(manas), the vital energy (prana) and the senses (indriya) in
unswerving concentration
(yoga) is sattvic determination.