Zen and the Eastern Spirit

Selflessness and Sincerity

Faithfulness and sincerity have formed the core of the Japanese spirit. Because of this, until World War II, Japan was respected by other Asian countries as the "noble country of the East."

1, A Man of Sincerity − The Japanese Ideal

From ancient times, the Japanese have considered "sincerity" as an ideal character trait.

For example, D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen all over the world, characterized both his first, deeply respected master, Kousen Roshi, and his friend, the philosopher Kitaro Nishida, as "men of sincerity." Or again, a disciple of Nagazane Motoda (who was the educator of the young Emperor Meiji) was deeply moved after listening to his lecture and admired Nagazane as "a great Confucian with genuine faith and sincerity."

These examples show that "sincerity" has been the core of the Japanese spirit. As the following passage will show, this spirit is derived from the Chinese classics.

2, The Teaching of Sincerity in Confucianism

The following quotations are from The Doctrine of the Mean and Mencius.

"Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. Acting sincerely is the Way of humankind."

The Heavenly way is sincere and honest. The change in the four seasons, the growth of all life, movements of celestial bodies, all of these are acting in sincerity. Though human beings are born with the same sincerity, our desires keep us from preserving this pure sincerity. Therefore, people need to seek for this pure sincerity as fervently as possible.

"Only the man of sincerity is able to correctly influence the world."

"Sincerity is the beginning and the end of all things. Without it there would be nothing."

"Sincerity never stops [i.e., its activity does not rest and is eternal]"

"If, when reflecting upon ourselves, we do not find sincerity and a true heart, our parents will never be pleased. But there is a way to make ourselves truly sincere. If we don't clearly distinguish good from evil, we are far from being sincere. Thus, sincerity, (because it flows out from our nature), is the heavenly way, and the origin of all things. Therefore, trying to use the best of our sincerity is the way of humankind. There is nothing in the world that cannot be moved by means of sincere devotion."

How noble these sayings are! They have all flowed out from the true heart of sincerity, and they differ from the common teachings in the world. If we learn these kind of noble teachings from an early age and give more thought to how we should live and make our lives better, our lives will be more fulfilled and joyful as we grow older.

Kaibara Ekken has also described how pleasant and important it is to learn from the teaching of the saints and the sages. "Reading the words of the saints and sages, and enjoying their spirit, is the supreme way of pleasure."

3, Sincerity and Selflessness

A man of sincerity is also a man of selflessness.
The founder of the Yang-ming School (Youmeigaku) and the greatest Confucian since Mencius, Wang Yang-ming (Ouyoumei) said the following in his main work, Instructions for Practical Living (Densyuroku).

"When people's minds are natural, following the inevitable rule that heaven has made, they are simple and clear and it is selflessness itself which permits no artificiality and distinction. There shouldn't be any ego in our mind. If we have ego we will be arrogant. The eminence of ancient saints comes from their selflessness. Selflessness naturally brings modesty with it. This modesty is the root of all goodness and arrogance is the basis of all evils."

Thus, while selflessness is usually considered as the fundamental character of Buddhism, it is also the principal state of mind for Confucianism and Shinto. People are not able to display sincerity unless they have mastered true selflessness.

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