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Explanation of The Five Knowledges

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.

‘For Tools’:
The functional Five Knowledges comprise of the science of language, logic, crafts, medicine, and inner knowledge. Mastering the study of language, like how word, sentence, paragraph and essay are formed, will enable one to read Buddhist scriptures well; mastering the study of logic and epistemology will help train thinking; the science of crafts includes craftsmanship, technology, calendrical calculation, mastering it will help others solve their problems; mastering the study of medicine, which includes traditional Chinese medicine and western medicine will help rejuvenate and restore the body; inner knowledge is Buddhism, mastering it will enhance one’s spiritual qualities.

The value of the Five Knowledges lies in the ability to gain certain experiences and competencies in real life; base on their capacities and conditions, Mahayana practitioners choose what suits them and what they need, to work purposefully towards benefitting others and self.

The following summarises the workings, significance and characteristics of the Five Knowledges:


1)The Top-Down and Bottom-Up Operation of the Five Knowledges
Generally speaking, ‘beyond form’ is from theory to reality, ‘form and below’ is from reality to theory; the ideal goal at the top of the pyramid is Bodhicitta, the essential teachings at the body of the pyramid is the Six Paramitas, without the reality push of the Five Knowledges from bottom up (‘for tools’/ ‘for learning’ -> ‘for path’), the ideal at the top cannot be clearly seen or understood; vice versa, without Bodhicitta at the top permeating down (‘for path’ -> ‘for learning’/ ‘for tools’), the expansion of the Five Knowledges will lose its noble meaning, thus their relationship should be a whole.

2)Reveal Buddha’s Wisdom by Learning the Five Knowledges
The sutra says that a bodhisattva must attain all-inclusive wisdom, the combination of fundamental wisdom and subsequent wisdom. Fundamental wisdom refers to the wisdom of having no differentiating thoughts and complete eradication of all afflictions; subsequent wisdom is developed from this foundation, worldly thoughts then arise to learn the skills of the Five Knowledges to benefit others. These two wisdoms are of utmost importance, the former emphasises on ‘beyond form’ (for path), it embodies the right cognition and right mindfulness of Buddhism; the latter ‘form and below’ (for tools) fulfils Mahayana Buddhism’s real practical function.

3)The Five Knowledges assist Mahayana Practitioners in their Causal Period Training
From ‘form and below’ learning of the Five Knowledges (for tools), one can gain different experiences, use various ways to form good relationships with others and to serve the worldly beings, these are trainings of Mahayana practitioners in the causal period. However, some Buddhist learners focus only on the learning of inner knowledge and logic, they neglect or are unwilling to learn the other three knowledges, or they do not want to have contact with people and matters of the world, as a result, they are unable to relate to the ‘for path’ bodhicitta at the top of the pyramid, thus they are unable to develop the subsequent wisdom to become bodhisattvas.

4)The ‘Knowing’ and ‘Practicing’ of the Five Knowledges
Firstly, the bottom-up approach of learning and practising the Five Knowledges usually begins from kindness, not bodhicitta, however, with guidance from the Buddha’s teachings, the six paramitas as the bridge (for learning), this kindness can be gradually elevated, refined and transformed into bodhicitta; in such a situation, the practice-first and realise-later effect can be achieved.

Secondly, some people generate aspiration first (for path), they have profound understanding of Mahayana theory but did not really put them into practice, this is of no use as well; knowing but not practicing is as good as not knowing; therefore, only by unifying ‘knowing’ and ‘practising’, you can say that there is real practice of application bodhicitta.

In addition, the standard Five Knowledges and the spirit of ‘for path’, ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’ of Confucianism-Buddhism-and-Taoism as mentioned earlier, can be a reference for value orientation of our country’s education system.  As our former Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat had pointed out that Singapore’s education system had been changing with the times, from the ‘survival-driven’ in 1959, to the ‘efficiency-driven’ after 1979, and to the ‘ability-driven’ after 1997, this implies that education then was all linked to the economy.  This phenomenon makes university professional knowledge seems like just a tool for making money – ‘for tools’, and it lacks ‘for path’ flavours; as such, when former Education Minister, Mr Heng proposed moving towards Student-Centric, Value-Driven education system, one that put values and character development at the core of the system, the intention is to correct the utilitarianism greater than humanism deviation.

Indeed, for moral education and intellectual education to develop in a comprehensive and healthy manner, they must be backed by a fundamental spirit; this is like the Confucianism-Buddhism-and-Taoism’s ‘for path’, ‘for learning’ and ‘for tools’ conceptual framework.  As can be seen, traditional thinking is quite helpful to modern society, it can be used not only for self-cultivation, but also as a reference for governing the country.

Furthermore, I am pleased to hear that Singapore Nalanda Society has plans to establish Pancavidya Buddhist Institute, it is amazing and worth commenting, I wish that Pancavidya’s torch of wisdom illuminates the world!