Sunday, April 24, 2011

Guo Xiang III

Guo Xiang III
by Scott Bradley


I mentioned when I first introduced Guo that I had my disagreements with his interpretations of Zhuangzi. Were he alive today, I doubt that this would concern him all that much -- my opinion is of little import in, any case. Still, I share here some of my reservations about his revision of Taoism since it helps to illustrate what philosophical Taoism really was in its infancy.

First, a bit of silliness: They thought their sage was better than my sage! Like many of the Neo-Taoists, Xuo believed that Confucius was the true and greatest sage. This was because many of them were themselves Literati, Confucians educated in the Classics and administrators within government. Guo himself held a government position.

The true sage of the Literati was a sage-king; that is, he was "sagely within and kingly without". He was involved in bettering the world through sagely government. It did not matter that Confucius was never able to obtain the government rank necessary to enact his sagely government; he always sought to do so.

Zhuangzi, on the other hand, supposedly turned down an offer to become prime minister, declaring he would rather be like a turtle, free to drag his tail in the mud. Guo's revision of Zhuangzi's Taoism attempted to re-interpret this and other stories and teachings so as to make them fit the Confucian the mold.

Another issue I have with Guo is a more important one, I think (though it's all just words in any case.) Neo-Taoism decided that Taoism needed an articulated metaphysics. Laozi's Nameless Tao became for Guo (and Wang Pi) literally Nothingness. Sophisticated arguments showed how this was so. Being and Non-Being became the fundamentals of the Universe. The Ultimate was explained.

For example: "Not only is it the case that Non-Being cannot become Being, but Being cannot become Non-Being...Therefore there is no time when there is no Being. Being eternally exists."

This all may be harmless enough, but personally I find a great deal more honesty in Zhuangzi's simple: I do not know. Indeed, it is precisely the not-knowing which becomes the gate to mystical experience. "The Radiance of Drift and Doubt IS the sage's only map."

Fung quotes a certain Chan master who speaks to this distinction: "People say that it was Guo Xiang who wrote a commentary on Zhuangzi. I would say that it was Zhuangzi who wrote a commentary on Guo Xiang." In other words, what Zhuangzi critiqued in the knowing of his contemporaries five hundred odd years before, likewise critiques the knowing of the Neo-Taoists.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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