Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mystics All

Mystics All
by Scott Bradley


Lau concludes his introduction to the Mencius by suggesting that contrary to common opinion, it is Mencius who was the true mystic and not the Taoists, Laozi and Zhuangzi (his contemporary). The Tao Te Ching, he tells us, “contains ideas that are down-to-earth rather than mystic.”

In his brief summary of Zhuangzi's philosophy he tells us the whole aim of his thought is “to foster an attitude of resignation.” He then goes on to say, "In ChuangTzu's thought there is a sense of oneness with the universe, and that is what qualifies him as a mystic, but a true mystic, it seems to me, ought to feel that the universe has a purpose, and this is missing in Chuang Tzu. Mencius, on the other hand, is more truly a mystic. Not only does he believe that a man can attain oneness with the universe by perfecting his moral nature, but he has absolute faith in the moral purpose of the universe."

Personally, I think this is a ridiculous distinction; Zhuangzi's mysticism was profound, precisely because it saw the apparent purposelessness of the universe as a springboard to transcendence. (Which is not to say that it is purposeless.) At the risk of sounding like an over-confident dilettante, I declare that I am continually amazed at how poorly these scholars (and they truly are) understand the spirit of Zhuangzi's philosophy. Brook Ziporyn is a conspicuous exception.

Waley tells us that wu wei [non-action] is “the phrase applied by the Taoists to the immobility of self hypnosis.” [!] And now Lau tells us Zhuangzi was not a mystic because he didn’t believe in what amounts to a moral God. This, I think, is largely because these scholars have their own preferences, and the irreverent musings of Zhuangzi are not among them. They are themselves Confucians at heart.

There is also the simple reality that his thought, like Zen, is not reducible to rational analysis; it has to be experienced. And this is what these people do — analyze.

In a previous post, I spoke about a learned study which throws doubt upon the authorship of the Inner Chapters. This is how one 'publishes' and gets ahead in the scholarship game. I doubt that writing about how one experienced joyful transcendence through not-knowing and purposelessness will get one tenure. Scholarship is necessarily 'objective', but to truly understand the things about which they write requires 'subjective' experience. They write 'about' ideas; they do not experience them. Consequentially, they don't even get the ideas right.

Mencius believed that Heaven is Moral and has Decreed morality in man. If one can believe these things, then they may assist one in the growth of moral character and perhaps even to 'sense oneness with the universe', though I frankly can't see that other such belief systems have been particularly successful in doing so. And though I do not doubt that Mencius experienced 'delight in the Way', it seems a stretch to suggest he experienced anything beyond an intellectual 'oneness' with the universe. It's not a question of whether one 'has a sense of oneness', but whether one experiences it.

In any event, I cannot believe, nor do I wish to do so. So, I follow a different path.

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

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