A Brief Explanation of the Five Knowledges in Buddhism
Using ‘for path’, ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’ to explain the Five Knowledges in Buddhism
With Reference to the Traditional Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism Philosophy
What is before birth? What lies after death? What is the meaning of life? Where are we heading to after death? What is the basic nature of life? These are life issues that human beings have long been concerned about. The human life is just a few decades long, one can complete one’s life by following whichever way of living; in the process, the most valuable thing to do is to make good use of this short human life to elevate one’s mind, to understand the above issues and to think about how to add value to one’s life. The traditional Confucianism-Buddhism-and-Taoism ‘for path’, ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’ thinking thus provides one with a philosophical reference.
Confucianism’s worldly ‘for path’ thinking is presented as cultivating one’s moral character, managing one’s family affairs well and governing the country to bring peace to the world. Self-cultivation and family management is for self, it is benefitting self; country governance is benefiting others, by becoming an official, one can govern the country and bring peace to the world, this is what the traditional intellectuals pursue; to reach this ideal goal, they diligently read the books of the sages and learn the Six Arts, this is ‘for learning’; if they fail to become officials, they turn to teach, to become a folk-culture person, to impart skills of the Six Arts or to develop talents, this is ‘for tools’.
Taoism advocates ‘refining self’ and ‘nothingness’, its ‘for path’ objective is to become immortals. The teachings explained in Laozi’s book, Dao De Jing, “Tao is like the natural working of the universe”, “Truly virtuous people are like deep pools of water”, “Everything under the sky comes from being and being comes from nothingness” and the like, are ‘for learning’; Tao school of thoughts later evolved into Tao religion, with Taoists passing down the knowledge and skills of body-spirit cultivation, Chinese alchemy, Chinese medicine and the like, or propagating the teachings of Dao De Jing, these are ‘for tools’.
Buddhism can be divided into Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism. Hinayana Buddhism’s ‘for path’ is the pursuit of individual liberation, its objective is to become arahats. Its ‘for learning’ is to follow Buddha’s teachings, to practice the Three Trainings – Ethical Discipline, Concentration and Wisdom diligently; the Hinayana monks perform rituals and help the deceased, this is ‘for tools’. Mahayana Buddhism’s ‘for path’ is to become buddhas, before attaining Buddhahood, practitioners are known as bodhisattvas. Its ‘for learning’ is to practice according to the Six Paramitas, its ‘for tools’ is the learning of the Five Knowledges.
Integration of ‘for path’, ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’
‘For path’, ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’, they form combinations that enhance one another. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism follow the ‘three fors’ to educate the world. The ‘three fors’ are interrelated and they permeate each other; using the pyramid metaphor, ‘for path’ is at the top, it touches upon the ultimate nature of being, it is the pursuit of the spiritual realm, it is similar to Taoist teachings of “beyond form is for path”; ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’ are at the body and base of the pyramid respectively, they represent the levels of cognition and application, they are similar to Taoist teachings of “form and below is for tools”.。
At the top of the pyramid, ‘for path’ thinking emphasises morality, self-cultivation, pursuit of ideal realm, these noble truths are very abstract, one must go through the actual operation at the body and base of the pyramid to know them, thus Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism uses the Six Arts, the Five Knowledges, and the Principles of Taoism as value orientation to realise these great truths; and the spirit of Mahayana Buddhism remains forever in this world as a result of the great tools and great use of the Five Knowledges.
The following is the pyramid construction of the concepts of Mahayana Buddhism:
The Five Knowledges are the bodhisattva’s area of learning. The following are two important points about the top and body of the pyramid:
1）‘For Path’: Generation of Bodhicitta is the Aim of Mahayana Buddhism
Master Sheng An said, “The key to entering the path is to generate bodhicitta, the urgent task in practice is to make vows”; for one who can generate bodhicitta and make vows, one’s real virtuous mind can then arise. To be a bodhisattva, one must first generate bodhicitta, bodhicitta is the mind that benefits all sentient beings, it is the aspiration to enable sentient beings to attain Buddhahood.
Aspiration depends on perseverance; with perseverance, the fruit can eventually be seen; perseverance includes the spirit of no turning back, having no fear and a strong-like-diamond determination. The first important task at the top of the pyramid – ‘for path’, is to establish this, the aspiration bodhicitta of Mahayana Buddhism.
2）‘For Learning’: The Core Learning in Mahayana Buddhism is the Six Paramitas and the Three Trainings of Ethical Discipline, Concentration and Wisdom
Having generated the aspiration bodhicitta, the next is to implement it in practice using mainly the Six Paramitas, this is the knowing and understanding part of Mahayana Buddhism’s ‘for learning’, this cognitive process includes self-regulation; through the practice of the six powerful methods of generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyous perseverance, meditative stabilisation and wisdom, one learns to control one’s words and actions; in the process of practising the Six Paramitas, one is also practising the Three Trainings – Ethical Discipline, Concentration and Wisdom, as the Six Paramitas are derived from the Three Trainings and they serve the Three Trainings (see the picture below).
Generosity counteracts greed and reduces attachment; ethical discipline means doing appropriate things without harming sentient beings; patience prevents hatred from arising; joyous perseverance counteracts laziness; meditative stabilisation trains the mind to be clear and wisdom dispels ignorance. People change due to learning and progress due to introspection, and the Six Paramitas is the resource for developing these qualities.
Although Bodhicitta and the Six Paramitas are common conversation topics, they are extremely important as they are the mental motivation for learning the Five Knowledges.