Yamazaki Ansai : biography

January 24, 1619 - September 16, 1682

Ontology and Morality

Like Zhu Xi, Ansai believed that the principles that guided the cosmic order were the same as the ethical principles that informed mankind's original nature (i.e. the same set of principles guided the cosmic, as well as the human world). Not only was there an inherent connection between the macrocosm (cosmos) and microcosm (humans), but they mutually influenced each other in a reciprocal and parallel manner. Just as the cosmic principles actively affect mankind (by informing humans of their natural, moral imperatives), so did human beings actively affect the cosmic order through their collective behavior. This is why Ansai believed it was a moral imperative for human beings to achieve unity with the cosmos. By understanding the ethical principles, they could simultaneously understand cosmic principles and positively affect not only themselves, but the universe as well. He linked morality with the Five Evolutive phases, to show that not only are cosmic and moral principles natural and inevitable, but that they mutually influence one another.Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, p.26

Cosmology and Filial Piety

Because cosmologically everything was interconnected, Ansai believed that the actions of individual (in a similar manner to modern chaos theory) affect the entire universe. He stressed the Confucian concept of Great Learning, in which a person's actions (the center of a series of concentric circles) extend outward toward the family, society, and finally to the cosmos. The Five Virtues (all contained in the idea of reverence and inherent in man's original nature) direct the Five Relationships, between: parent and child (humaneness), lord and vassal (righteousness/duty), husband and wife (propriety), elder and younger (wisdom), and friend and friend (faithfulness). There are five steps which Zhu Xi advocated to perfect these relationships (and virtues): "study wisely, question thoroughly, deliberate carefully, analyze clearly, and act conscientiously." For Ansai, learning was the means to the ends of morality. However, of all of the relationships (and virtues) that Ansai emphasized, the relationship between the lord and vassal (duty) was the most important. Departing from Zhu Xi (who saw humaneness as the most important virtue), Ansai believed that maintaining the social order (through duty to one's lord) was the highest responsibility that one had to fulfill.Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, p.27

Knowledge leads to Morality

To achieve reverence (the means toward personal cultivation) Ansai proposed quiet sitting. Through quiet sitting, Ansai believed that an individual could gain access to the storehouse of hidden knowledge (inherent in all individuals). This storehouse is where qi (the vital material force) resides. By channeling qi, one is able to stimulate humaneness, which consequently triggers the other virtues. Through knowledge, virtue grows. Through virtue, one can act in proper accord with the outside world (and the cosmos in general). Thus, knowledge is the source by which an individual realizes his innate, human potential (as described by Zhu Xi).Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, p.28


In his book, Tokugawa Ideology, Herman Ooms describes Ansai's analysis of Shinto texts as being grounded in "hermeneutic operations", preceding along four levels of interpretation. The first level is literal. From Ooms' perspective, Ansai believed the Shinto texts he read to be records of historical fact. The kami existed and Ansai believed in them. Second, Ansai employs an allegorical interpretation of the text, by analogically equating symbols he found within Shinto texts as expressions of Confucian truths. Third, Ansai interpreted the texts on a moral level, drawing ethical paradigms out of Shinto myths. The last level was anagogical, whereby Ansai argued for the supremacy of the Japanese nation (relative to all others), using his own interpretations of Shinto texts. Although often Ansai is criticized for his 'torturous rationalizations" found in Suika Shinto, Ooms argues that what distinguishes Ansai from other Neo-Confucian scholars of his time was the "systematic structure of his thought."Ooms, pp.282-283

Living octopus

Living octopus

In countries which are located near sea coasts, sea food is an important part of national cuisine