In the Buddhist tradition, ‘enlightenment’ is sometimes referred to as “slaying the dragon”. What dragon is this? I think it can only be the delusional self. But Daoism, I believe, takes a different approach altogether. Buddhism is largely about negation; Daoism is about affirmation. Buddhism would eradicate; Daoism would transform. This may be an extreme over- simplification, but still it can help us to understand how they differ. Yet it needs also to be remembered that, however much these two approaches may seem to be diametrically opposed, they are but two sides of one coin, and their end is the same.
I won’t pretend to have a thorough understanding of the meaning of the dragon in Chinese culture, but I do know that it is considered a creature representative of vast spiritual power; the dragon is an object, not of fear, but of awe. Unlike the dragons of the Occident, which to slay makes one a saint, those of the Orient are revered.
Now the self, if it is to be likened to a dragon, also represents spiritual power; like all that is, self is a manifestation of the inexplicable up-welling of existence. It may very well be that self as it has evolved in the human experience has in effect put humanity at a remove from direct experience of and integration with Reality, but then it is Nature that has done this, not humanity. It may be that self in some sense deviates from Dao, but then Dao deviates from itself. To the extent there is deviation, Dao is this deviation.
I have hammered at this theme many a time, and do so again now because I think it is a transformative realization. Self is not evil. Self is not wrong. Self is not a “fallen nature”; it is Nature. Nothing Nature has wrought is either wrong or evil. If self is a dragon, it is worthy of reverence and respect. But like all dragons, self can be destructive of human well-being if its powers are not properly understood and harnessed.
Zhuangzi’s metaphor of riding upon “what is true of both Heaven and earth” by harnessing the powers of both, hitching them as dragons to his chariot and thereby riding transcendentally independent over them all, might also be profitably applied to our relationship with self. If the realization of no-self is a valuable aspiration, then it must be remembered that it is self that makes this possible; why else speak of no-self, if not for self? How can I denigrate that which makes “free and unfettered wandering” possible? If there is no-self, it is evolved of self. We do not despise children for their failure to be adult; we need not despise self for failing to mature into self-transcendence. Perhaps its time simply has yet to arrive. To chastise ourselves for being self-bound would be like berating “Lucy” for dragging her knuckles.
In the end, this is what all this spiritual blabber is about: becoming more adult. Perhaps some of us may find ourselves able to do so.
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