Sunday, July 3, 2011

Under Heaven: Shen Dao

Under Heaven: Shen Dao
by Scott Bradley

Shen Dao intrigues me and I have several times tried to find out more about his philosophy. There is actually a paper out there which attempts to reconstruct that philosophy, but when I search for it I always come to the portal of a Very Serious Scholarly Site which requires the truest expression of my earnest quest for Truth, my money.

Shen Dao and two others of his persuasion, Peng Meng and Tian Pian, are said by the author of chapter 33 of Zhuangzi to have found and delighted in these aspects of the Way: "All-embracing and non-partisan, unstrained and unbiased, unhesitating but without any fixed direction, going forth to things without secondary considerations...choicelessly moving along with things."

It is easy to see how this chapter found its way into the Zhuangzi anthology; despite his Confucianism, the author has a most Taoist (and un-Confucian) understanding of the Way. What is Confucian, however, is his understanding of the Way (Tao) in terms of a way of life, not a metaphysical reality.

Philosophical Taoism, on the other hand, because of its mystical aspirations, uses the term in both senses. If we are to be experientially rooted in the Ultimate, we must use a word to discuss it, even if it is essentially empty of meaning. Laozi tells us he doesn't know its name, so he arbitrarily calls it Tao.

Some positive aspects of Shen Dao's way are: He "followed along with whatever was unavoidable. Letting all things flow on...undertaking no moral practices, he critiqued the world's high regard for sages. Abandoning both right and wrong...he simply towered alone in his place. Moving only when pushed, proceeding only when pulled, he was like a twirl in the breeze, like a spinning feather..." (Zhuangzi; B. Ziporyn)

Shen Dao, according to the author, also thought to imitate inanimate things. "Hence, he said, 'Just become like an inanimate object. There is no need for worthies or sages. Indeed, a clump of earth never strays from the Course [Tao].'" Though extreme, there is some wisdom here, I think. Chen Jen considered pebbles 'the greatest of teachers', since they had no desire to be other than there are.

One of Zhuangzi's words for Tao was 'the Great Clump'. "It does nothing, yet nothing is left undone." Is there not a sense in which a tree is the 'highest' life form? It is and lives, and worries not. What is special about human beings, however, is that the consciousness made possible by the 'split mind', allows one to see and enjoy the world, as well as to suffer 'a lack' within it. And the great work of the mystical pursuit is to transcend that 'split' and attain the great synthesis: The self-aware clump.

Typically, the author dismisses Shen Dao because his teaching was rejected by others. "In the end he was regarded as a mere eccentric."

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


  1. My version of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer, has a note that "Shen Tao is known as an originator of certain Legalist concepts."

    When I read the passage, it sounds like a description of deep meditation... "becoming like an inanimate object." Interesting that the character's name is "Shen Tao."

    Palmer's version goes:
    "People in positions of authority laughed at him together, saying. 'Shen Tao's Tao is not for the living but is the way for those who are already dead, which is why they are so odd."

  2. You've probably seen this paper:

  3. Intriguing post...
    the characters for Shen Tao seem to be "careful" or "cautious" (shen) and "considerate" (tao).

    Sounds like an interesting guy indeed.


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