Nerve/Nurses of the Cosmic Doctor: Wang Yang-ming on Self-Awareness as World-Awareness

Asian Philosophy 26 (2):149-165 (2016)
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In Philip J. Ivanhoe’s introduction to his Readings from the Lu-Wang School of Neo-Confucianism, he argues convincingly that the Ming-era Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529) was much more influenced by Buddhism (especially Zen’s Platform Sutra) than has generally been recognized. In light of this influence, and the centrality of questions of selfhood in Buddhism, in this article I will explore the theme of selfhood in Wang’s Neo-Confucianism. Put as a mantra, for Wang “self-awareness is world-awareness.” My central image for this mantra is the entire cosmos anthropomorphized as a doctor engaged in constant self-diagnosis, in which effort s/he is assisted by an entire staff of the nerves/nurses—individual humans enlightened as Wangian sages. In short, I will argue that the world for Wang could be meaningfully understood as a mindful, self-healing body within which humans are the sensitive nerves, using our mindful awareness to direct attention to the affected areas when injury or disease occurs. We are, and must thus recognize that we are, the bold but sensitive nervous system of the cosmos, sharing (like neurons) our loving excitement, carrying out (like a medical nurse) the doctor’s orders for the self-care of our cosmic body/medical corps.

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Joshua M. Hall
University of Alabama, Birmingham


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