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I have recently taken on a position as interviewer for the New Books Network, an exciting new project to hold podcast interviews with the authors of recently published scholarly books. I will be interviewing for New Books in Buddhist Studies, a position I share with Scott Mitchell. I’ve completed a first podcast which is not yet available online, but I’ll let you know when it is.

I mention this now because that first podcast is with Jason Clower on his The Unlikely Buddhologist, the study I recently mentioned of 20th-century Confucian Mou Zongsan. The podcast is there to explore Clower’s ideas; here I’d like to add my own.

The book asks why Mou, a committed Confucian, spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about Buddhism. Its answer is that Mou found East Asian Buddhists expressing metaphysical distinctions with a clarity that the Confucians had not. Mou is deeply concerned with the metaphysics of value – specifically, the relationship between ultimate value and existing things. One might refer to this as the relationship between goodness and truth, or between God and world, even creator and creation. Mou thinks the Buddhists provide conceptual tools to discuss this relationship which the Confucians didn’t have.

The key metaphysical distinction Mou takes from the Buddhists is between “perfect theories” (yuanjiao 圓教), monist theories according to which existing things are ultimately identical to the one good, and “separation theories” (biejiao 別教) in which they are fundamentally distinct. Mou identifies Tiantai Buddhism as the key example of perfect theory, and Yogācāra as separation theory; both believe in “buddha nature” as an ultimate value in the universe, but for Tiantai we are identical with it in a way we are not for Yogācāra (or so Mou claims). He is a strong advocate of “perfect theory,” and with that monism he sets his Confucianism apart from many others’. Especially, he rejects the thought of Zhu Xi, probably the most influential Confucian thinker since ancient days, because Zhu insists that Heaven (tian 天, the ultimate source of goodness in Confucianism) is separate from the human mind.

The debate Mou examines between perfect and separation theories may seem like the kind of abstract technical debate that is relevant only to Buddhist-influenced neo-Confucians. But I don’t think it is. I’m coming to think the distinction is quite a powerful one for cross-cultural philosophy – because it applies even to traditions Mou doesn’t really think about or care about. It seems to me that in key respects it is the same debate that I – following Skholiast – have previously characterized as a debate between ātmanism and encounter.

Perfect theories are “ātmanist”: they claim that created things, trees and jars and human beings, reveal themselves in the end as equivalent to the ultimate truth or good. The idea of ultimate “encounter,” by contrast, requires that the ultimate source of value (Heaven, Buddha-nature, God) remain ultimately distinct from flawed, fallen worldly beings. Here’s the thing: I spoke of this debate primarily in the terms of Indian Sufism. Sufis typically aim at an experience of mystical oneness with God; the Indian Sufis debated whether this meant that human beings really were one with God, or whether God must ultimately be irreducibly distinct from us. That is exactly what’s at issue between perfect theory and separation theory as Mou describes them – even though Indian Sufism is a tradition which, to my knowledge, Mou had absolutely nothing to do with.

It goes further. Skholiast, in setting out the terms of ātmanism and encounter, was drawing on still other traditions. He used the term “ātmanist” to refer to Ken Wilber, who draws perhaps most heavily from Aurobindo, and clearly draws the term from Advaita Vedānta, the tradition whose central teaching is that everything is all one ātman (self). And “encounter,” with which Skholiast contrasts Wilber and Advaita, draws heavily on the thought of 20th-century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. Yet neither Judaism and Vedānta registered much on Mou’s radar either – when he looked outside of China philosophically it was mainly to Kant, with occasional references to Christianity and Indian Buddhism.

It seems to me, then, that in exploring perfect and separation theories, Mou is asking a perennial question. Across very different philosophical contexts, people have struggled at length with perfect and separation theories, the question of the relationship between ultimate value and everyday things. It’s a question well worth thinking about.

Mou’s answer also bears some thought, because it leads in a fairly distinctive direction. The perennial questions I’ve most commonly examined have been the questions of ascent vs. descent and intimacy vs. integrity. How do perfect and separation theories (ātmanism and encounter) relate to these questions? At first, perfect theories seem to map relatively well onto theories of integrity ascent, like Advaita, which aim to transcend this world for a solitary unity, and theories of intimacy descent, like those of Lévinas or Martha Nussbaum, which embrace the physical world and its relationships. Integrity-ascent views, like perfect theories, point us at a metaphysical unity we can identify with if we cast off our mistaken identifications with the physical world. Intimacy-descent views, like separation theories, warn us of the arrogance of a quest for perfection and ask us to embrace a flawed world that will never fit a perfect good.

Mou, however, flips this all around. His metaphysical “perfect theory” is combined with an ethics of intimacy descent. In practical terms, Mou is resolutely Confucian. Not for him any monastic rejection of worldly goods; the human life is best lived in the everyday world of work and family. We live best when we recognize that ultimate metaphysical value is found right in all of these everyday things. Mou is unusual in thinking that perfect theory makes a good fit with an intimacy-descent life. His approach resembles that of the Bhagavad Gītā: act in the finite with your eye on the infinite. Moreover, I think it gets around the objection that Nussbaum makes to the Gītā’s kind of view: she claims that one isn’t really living in the material world if one doesn’t identify with it, if one goes through the motions like a “play-actor.” Here Mou’s view of perfect theory is distinct: unlike Advaita, the material world for him is no illusion. Heaven or buddha-nature, the source of ultimate value and goodness, are all there in the material world, and that’s exactly why it’s so important to live in it and play by its rules.