Sunday, August 12, 2012

Human Nature I

Scott Bradley

What is bestowed on us at birth
is called human nature.
The fulfillment of human nature
is called the Tao.
The cultivation of the Tao
is the deepest form of learning.

~ Chung Yung, adaptation by Stephen Mitchell ~
Stephen Mitchell's The Second Book of the Tao, from which this quote comes, is an adaptation with commentary of selected passages from The Book of Zhuangzi and the Chung Yung. By "adaptation" is meant that he often makes free with the literal to clarify intended meanings and also to give voice to his own philosophy. In the case of the latter, he does have a distinct point of view. As to the name of the book, I find his explanation a bit confusing, but basically his intention is to juxtapose the Zhuangzi to the Daodejing. How the Chung Yung, a Confucian work believed to have been written by his grandson, Tzu-ssu (c.483-c.402 BCE), fits into this contrast, I am not sure.

This quote is a beautiful summation of the work of self-cultivation, equally valid for Confucian and Daoist alike. Somewhere I have read that Confucius spoke more of Dao than did Laozi, but we must remember that his understanding of what Dao is differed from what it often, but not always, means in Daoism. Here, Dr. Ziporyn's "Course", as in a course of study, would be a good translation. Dao is that path that leads to the fulfillment of who we are as human beings. Daoism shares this understanding of Dao, though it also understands it in other, more metaphysical, senses.

The essential message here is that the most important thing we can do is to work to realize the full potential of our humanness. It is understood that, without that work, we fall short of that potential; it understands that, for reasons unknown, our conscious lives are 'naturally' a mess.

As much as I find this passage inspiring, I do stumble over the concept of "human nature". I have often spoken to this issue. Like most every concept it suggests something definite and fixed. At birth it is bestowed upon us, as if it were a platonic Idea, as if it preexisted our birth and was common to all. And this presumes some kind of birthright to which we are all equally entitled. And this introduces purpose and ultimate meaning to Reality.

Mitchell also stumbles on this concept, but not because it is a concept; his position is that we fail to properly understand what it is, and that our ideas about what it is hinder our realization of what it really is: "We're born into the open, into the vast mind empty of meaning." Personally, I find this concept still more confusing. I can understand how we might possibly come to realize this reality, but not how one could be said to have been born with or into it. Always we wish to inject purpose, a plan, into Reality and this becomes a "road map for the soul" (Dylan). We proceed toward something preconceived and foreordained.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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