Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Under Heaven: Lao Dan

Under Heaven: Lao Dan
by Scott Bradley


The next philosopher that the author of the final chapter in Zhuangzi presents is Laozi, the purported author of the Tao Te Ching. I am assuming that his order of presentation is temporally sequential and thus find it curious that Laozi appears so late. Personally, I suspect that the Tao Te Ching was assembled from more ancient sources either contemporaneously with or shortly after Zhuangzi. He never quotes it himself, though others (his probable disciples) within the book that bears his name, do so extensively. He does, however, use a Lao Dan as one of his characters, a teacher of the Way.

Given the playful and irreverent character of Zhuangzi's writing, this does not thus establish Laozi as an historical figure and would seem to me to cast doubt on his authorship of the Tao Te Ching rather than strengthen that belief. To have spoken of and quoted the man without reference to what he supposedly wrote seems unlikely. None of this really matters in terms of the teachings themselves, of course.

The "aspects of the ancient Art of the Course (Tao)" which he is said to have exemplified sound more to me like the later attempts to explain his metaphysics rather than the actual raw ambiguity of his thought. "Regarding the hidden root as the finest quintessence and its manifest rectifications as the cruder part..." is, in my opinion, a dualistic interpretation foreign to the Tao Te Ching. Yes, there is the Mystery and Mystery manifest in named things, but it is all the same wonderful Mystery.

Likewise, he is said to have founded his way "on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it in the supreme Oneness." This is again saying far too much and rather reflects later attempts to systematize his philosophy. Indeed, I find it intellectually disturbing that "Taoism" is so often described as an emphasis on Non-Being as opposed to Being. The problem, of course, is that neither Laozi nor Zhuangzi provided enough 'positive teaching', enough content, for subsequent commentators and systematizers to get their teeth into. Yes, Zhuangzi discusses Non-Being and Being, but he concludes that it would all be too much for even the great sages of the past to understand, let alone himself. He simply let not-knowing be his gate.

Ironically, though he appears to me to have had little insight into his teaching, the author gives Laozi (and a certain Guan Yin) his greatest praise: "He was broad-minded and tolerant with all creatures, never slicing his way into the domain of others. This can be called reaching the zenith. Indeed! Guan Yin and Lao Dan, these where truly the vast and broad Genuine Human Beings of olden times!" (Ziporyn)

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

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