Friday, April 27, 2012

The Right Way

Scott Bradley

"But the world is presently in great chaos. People no longer understand real sagehood and worthiness. . . the Course [Dao] allowing one to be inwardly a sage and outwardly a king is obscured and unclear . . . . Each man in the world now fashions his own technique out of whatever part of it happens to suit his own desires. How sad!” (Zhuangzi, Chap. 33; Ziporyn)

If you have been following these posts with any regularity of late you might have noticed that I've been working my way through the Zhuangzi once again. I have now arrived at the 33rd and final chapter, "The World under Heaven". I have already written quite a bit about this chapter, especially that part which critiques the various philosophies of the day and those of the past which the author still sees as influencing his present. I won't revisit that part here, but instead wish to comment on the author's introductory comments.

That the author is a Confucian is clear enough even though he is careful not to say so explicitly. (If I may be permitted a wild conjecture, I would speculate that he, like other authors represented in the Zhuangzi, was a participant in an early Han academy where scholars of many schools assembled to exchange ideas, and where extreme partisanship would be frowned upon.) Being “inwardly a sage and outwardly a king” is the standard formula descriptive of the Confucian sage. Remnants of the true way can still be found in Zou (home of Mencius) and Lu (home of Confucius). And then, there is the fact that he lists neither of these worthies in his extensive inventory of “nook and cranny scholars” who understand only one piece of the true way.

It is not his agreements and disagreements with the various competing schools of thought which I wish to address here, however, but an attribute which he shares with many of them, namely the belief in a golden age wherein the “true way” reigned supreme. Belief in a golden age is a convenient way of lending support to a more fundamental belief, that there is, in fact, one “right way”. Utopian visions serve the same purpose. Even the seemingly innocent attempt to achieve a “true” understanding of ancient texts (the Zhuangzi, for instance) can be motivated by the belief that, if we can just completely understand what was said, we will have discovered the “right way”.

Why exactly we harbor this need must certainly be a complex question. In any case, like the author here, it distresses us to think of the world and our place in it as an open-ended journey without a road map by which to safely negotiate our way. A multitude of opinions would seem to challenge the authenticity of our own. Many ways of equal worth would seem to render them all worthless. Uncertainty is among our greatest fears. Why is this so? Daoism takes this question as one of the most fundamental to understanding how we might realize greater peace along the way.

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

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