Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Walking in the Nameless, Part 1

by Scott Bradley

My purpose in writing this ‘commentary’ is to better understand the teachings in The Book of Zhuangzi and to further develop my own philosophy of life which has been significantly influenced by those teachings. The purpose of that philosophy is to realize a transcendent freedom in my own experience. Anything that “deviates from this”, that is, any motivation other than this that might have arisen in the process has, I hope, been largely trimmed away by Heaven the Potter’s Wheel.

This ‘commentary’ concerns itself with only a small portion of the second half of Chapter 23 of the Book of Zhuangzi although an effort has been made to understand it in the larger context of the chapter as a whole. The passage begins where there is a clear break with the preceding narrative. The first half of the chapter is narrative in form; it is about the exploits of a disciple of Laozi, Gengsang Chu, whose own disciple, Nanrong Chu, is unable to make ‘progress’ in the Way and is thus sent to Laozi to see if he can help. Instruction in this portion of the chapter is thus mediated through the dialogue of these three characters. (It poses an interesting question that Gensang’s abilities are, by his own admission, “insufficient to transform” Nanrong and yet his ‘teachings’ are, in some sense, offered to us for instruction.)

The remaining portion of the chapter, on the other hand, appears to be the direct and unmediated instruction of the author. This makes for a logical place in which to excise a passage for commentary. Where I end the passage, however, is much more arbitrary and is chosen primarily as a matter of convenience. What follows this chosen passage is also pertinent to the instruction as a whole and is thus kept in mind so as to be faithful to the entire context.

With respect to the chapter as a whole and its context as part of the larger book, I see it as the work of a disciple of Zhuangzi or a member of his ‘school’, and itself a commentary on the Inner Chapters (1-7), a work generally attributed to Zhuangzi himself. (It is largely understood that the book as a whole is the work of many hands, not all of which were in complete agreement with each other.) This is because the author borrows extensively from the Inner Chapters to expound his own understanding of the philosophical Daoist teachings which appear to be in near complete agreement with the Inner Chapters.

It needs to be said that this ‘commentary’ is an amateurish effort, the object of which is personal edification; there is nothing definitive to be found here. I lack the necessary tools of scholarship — in this case, a knowledge of classical Chinese and a broad understanding of its usage at the time, as well as a more in-depth understanding of philosophical Daoism itself—for it to be otherwise.

I have used only one translation, Dr. Brook Ziporn’s, which is by his own admission (following the caveat of every honest translator of these difficult works), also very much an interpretation. Speaking purely subjectively, yet as informed by my own immersion in and deepening understanding of the Zhuangzi, I find this translation to be the most in harmony with the meaning and spirit of its original authors’ as any I have read.

Nevertheless, it is informative to realize that this ‘commentary’ is on a ‘commentary’ (interpretive translation) on a commentary (Chapter 23) on a work (The Inner Chapters) itself sometimes very difficult to understand. Where in all this is the ‘true meaning’ to be found? I would suggest that every attempt should be made to understand correctly the meaning of the original author, but in the end, the ‘true meaning’ is that meaning which the individual comes to understand within himself. And that meaning can only be said to be ‘true’ when it finds expression in his life.

Note: At the conclusion of this miniseries, a link will be provided for those interested in downloading or printing the entire document replete with footnotes.

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