Ishida Baigan

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ISHIDA BAIGAN (16851744) was a Japanese philosopher of the Tokugawa period (16031868) who developed the concept of a moral or ethical philosophy known as Shingaku. Ishida was born on September 15, 1685, in the village of Tōge in Tamba province (modern Kameoka City, Kyoto prefecture), the second son of a farmer. At the age of ten (eleven by Japanese count) he was sent to Kyoto as a merchant's apprentice. There he spent his leisure time studying Shintō doctrine and attending lectures by local Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks, and experts on the Japanese classics.

When Ishida reached the age of about thirty-five he began to feel an inner restlessness; he felt that he did not know the nature of human beings. In his search for a guide or a direction, he met a Buddhist monk, Ryōun, who led him to an awakening of the spirit such as that described by the Chinese founder of Daoism, Laozi. It was then that Ishida realized that humanity's true nature was egoless. In his writings, he pointed out that once one understood this aspect of human nature, one's life would automatically coincide with what he called the "universal principle" and one's kokoro ("soul" or "spirit") would be content and at peace. Ishida believed it would be possible to reach an egoless, natural state and to acquire instinctive knowledge by meditative restraint of the senses. In accordance with his convictions, he lived as a celibate ascetic, although he acknowledged that social responsibilities were also inherent in his view of human nature.

In 1727 Ishida left the service of the Kyoto merchant; two years later, he began to conduct lectures at his home in Kyoto. At these lectures, which were free and open to all, Ishida encouraged his listeners to seek individual awakening through meditation. To make learning accessible to all, Ishida distributed simplified manuscripts of his interpretations of Chinese and Japanese classical literature. He repudiated the critiques of scholars, whom he believed were interested only in the meanings of words. Ishida strove instead to capture the essence of the classics as he understood them, although his views did not always agree with the original intent of the authors.

In his search for a fundamental principle, Ishida believed that the first and last step in the learning process was to understand the human heart and thereby gain insight into human nature. He adopted the term jinsei, which refers to the total capacity of the mind, from the Chinese Confucian thinker Mengzi. According to Ishida, one must utilize all one's spiritual and mental capacity to overcome desires. Only when one's kokoro is empty and free of human desires is it possible to unite with the universal spirit. Overcoming the ego and its desires will enable one to carry out one's duty in life. One can then develop a spirit of self-sacrifice toward one's ruler, be properly filial toward one's parents, and discover one's proper vocation in life.


A number of works have been published on Ishida Baigan and his philosophy of Shingaku, or practical ethics. Robert Bellah's Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan (Glencoe, Ill., 1957) clarifies the religious morals of the Tokugawa period, morals that had their origin in Ishida's concept of ethics and that played a part in the modernization of Japan. Readers of Japanese will want to consult a translation of this seminal work, Nihon kindaika to shūkyō rinri (Tokyo, 1981), translated by Hōri Ichirō and Ikeda Akira. Ishikawa Ken's Shingaku, Edo no shomin tetsugaku (Tokyo, 1964) discusses Ishida's philosophy and its applicability to the common people. Sakasai Takahito focuses on Ishida's conversion to popular morality in "Sekimon shingaku no igi to genkai, sono tsūzoku dōtoku e no tenraku ni tsuite," Rikkyō keizaigaku kenkyū 18 (February 1965). Another work that deals with Ishida's ethics is Sekimon shingaku, edited by Shibata Minoru (Tokyo, 1971), in volume 42 of "Nihon shisō taikei." Finally, Takenaka Yasukazu's Sekimon shingaku no keizai shisō (Tokyo, 1962) emphasizes the economic aspects of Ishida's ethical philosophy.

New Sources

Takemura, Eiji. The Perception of Work in Tokugawa Japan: A Study of Ishida Baigan. Lanham, Md., 1997.

Haga Noboru (1987)

Translated from Japanese by Irene M. Kunii
Revised Bibliography

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Ishida Baigan (1685–1744). Founder of the Japanese movement, Shingaku (‘education of the heart’). Applying himself to meditation, he had several experiences of a total identity of mind and body. He set up his own class, teaching that the true and attainable goal is the overcoming of self-centredness by the deliberate appropriation of the Confucian virtues. Two of his works have survived, Toimondo (Town and Country Dialogues) and Seikaron (On Household Management).

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Baigan, Ishida (founder of Japanese religious movement): see SHINGAKU.