Sunday, May 13, 2012

Guo Xiang: Neo-Daoist Philosopher I

Scott Bradley


Anyone who delves at all seriously into the teachings of the Zhuangzi cannot help but encounter Guo Xiang (252-312). It was he who molded our received version of the Zhuangzi, having edited it down from 55 chapters to the present 33 and, presumably, put them in their current order. And perhaps even more importantly, it his oldest extant interlineal commentary which became the 'official', canonical interpretation of the work; every Chinese commentator since has come to the Zhuangzi by way of Guo.

I specify "Chinese" commentator because, to my knowledge, this commentary has yet to be fully translated and published in English, or any other language. This quite simply amazes me — that such an important work should not be thought worthy of the effort to translate it, or the apparent belief that there are not many who would wish to study it. Please write your congressman.

I have previously discussed various aspects of Guo's philosophy based on the inclusion by Ziporyn in his Zhuangzi of various commentary extracts from Guo to modern times, and on his study of Guo's thought in The Penumbra Unbound. Having come to an extensive quote, within the former work, which summarizes several of Guo's central themes, I thought it worth the effort to revisit them. And I'll be doing so in several of the following posts. But here I would like to just make some introductory comments.

As I read Guo I have the impression of reading a philosopher, someone who has thought himself into a position. This is not the impression I get while reading Zhuangzi. The distinction is, no doubt, a purely subjective one, based largely on my appreciation of Zhuangzi as being, at least in approximation, a sage. Zhuangzi seems to me to have been largely speaking out of experience; Guo, on the other hand, seems to be making a reasoned argument for a certain point of view. This point of view, if actuated in experience, would no doubt make one a sage, for it is, in many respects, deeply mystical. But for this very reason it is suspect; had he realized his philosophy, he would have been known as a remarkable sage.

How then does one whose aim it is to realize the mystical in practice approach a work apparently largely theoretical? What does one do with a profoundly moving suggestion that he "vanishingly unite self and other" when written by someone who most likely never was able to do so? Where is the authority here? How do I know this is nothing more than hot air? Is it perhaps the case that all such pronouncements are similarly mental sand castles and thus to take them seriously is necessarily an act of self deception?

I confess to not really knowing my audience (or whether I even have one, for that matter) and thus cannot know if these questions are of any interest to you. But since these posts are necessarily simply an expression of my own pilgrimage, I can only ruminate as I wish and let things fall as they will. So, in the next post I will be addressing these questions.

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

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