Sunday, May 9, 2010

Zhuangzi Roasts Guo Xiang, Part 1

Zhuangzi Roasts Guo Xiang
by Scott Bradley

It was Guo Xiang (252-312) who edited the Zhuangzi as we have it today and his embedded commentary has had an enormous impact on the interpretations of its meaning throughout history. It is acknowledged that while largely sympathetic to the teaching of Zhuangzi, Guo also used it to develop his own philosophy which diverges from it.

This brief study is of but one small portion of that commentary, albeit an important one, being as it were, an attempt to establish the metaphysical foundation for his thinking, and by proxy, that of Zhuangzi himself. This essay is inspired by a sense that Guo diverged significantly from Zhuangzi at this point and that a understanding of that divergence can assist us in better understanding what Zhuangzi himself had in mind.

Needless to say, Guo had every right to make of the Zhuangzi whatever he would. Our project here is not to protect the purity of holy writ, but simply to better understand Zhuangzi in examining, by means of contrast, the interpretations of his primary commentator.

This present commentator feels obliged to ask himself what difference such a study can make. In other words, Why bother? By way of answer he would refer to what seems indisputably the intention of Zhuangzi himself, that this philosophy should be a practical one, that is, a philosophy of life, and one which might lead others to personal transformation. The question as to whether a divergence by Guo from Zhuangzi’s thought is significant, therefore, resolves back to whether it effects that intended purpose.

The purpose of this essay is thus practical rather than academic. Yet, since the questions as to whether Guo did here diverge from Zhuangzi and, if so, whether that possible divergence impacts Zhuangzi’s intended purpose, are, as yet, unanswered for the commentator himself, the essay is, in that sense academic. The commentator begins without a clear bias in this regard, especially with respect to the question of the significance of Guo’s interpretation to Zhuangzi’s practical intentions.

As the title of the essay suggests, an attempt will be made to let Zhuangzi respond to Guo’s reformulation of his work, but in the end it is this commentator’s limited understanding of Zhuangzi that responds. For just as Guo made use of Zhuangzi as he would, so has this commentator, both deliberately and unconsciously. In a very real sense, therefore, it is this commentator’s understanding of Zhuangzi that may, or may not, ‘roast’ Guo.

The chosen portion of Guo’s commentary is his response to the pivotal passage in Chapter Two of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi, the ‘piping of Heaven’, that is, the analogy of the sounds of the wind in the trees as demonstrative of the relation between the expression of Nature in humanity and Nature itself. Guo’s particular interest in this passage, which has many other wide-ranging implications, has to do most specifically to the question of Origins. From whence did all this apparent ‘existence’ arise?

The translation of Guo’s comments and of the Zhuangzi are taken from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections from Traditional Commentaries by Dr. Brook Ziporyn.

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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