Saturday, August 4, 2012


Scott Bradley

Chapters 8-11 of the Zhuangzi have been called the "Primitivist Chapters", and are thought to be the work of one hand. They are in many respects divergent from the philosophy of Zhuangzi and, according to Dr. Ziporyn, are more informed by a certain reading of the Daodejing than by Zhuangzi. The essential idea is that there was a time when humanity was perfectly fine spontaneously being what it is, but then this natural goodness was destroyed by the imposition of 'wisdom' and morality by so-called sages. The Confucian values of Humanity and Responsibility are the arch-villains in this regard, and the anti-Confucian sentiment is palpable.

Although this appreciation of the essential virtue of our primal reality and of the spontaneity by which we may allow its expression is also found in Zhuangzi, there are many ways in which it diverges significantly. Dr. Ziporyn points out that among these is its belief that our primal reality is a "constant inborn nature" whereas Zhuangzi speaks of "no-fixed identity". (This difference is also seen in concepts like "true nature", "buddha-nature", "True Self", etc.) Another divergence is in the primitivist's advocacy of "neither right nor wrong", whereas Zhuangzi advocates "both right and wrong". For the later, every point of view sees the rightness of its perspective and the wrongness of others, so that, taken together, every point of view is both right and wrong and thus relative.

However, one of the most important differences I see between the Inner Chapters and these Primitivist Chapters has little to do with points of doctrine, but rather with tone. Tone is the actual quality of one's expression of a point of view. Does that tone evince the spirit of the philosophy espoused? If not, it matters little what that point of view might be. The tone of this Primitivist is, upon my reading, angry, confrontational, negative, and divisive. It is not a positive presentation of a point of view which stands on its own merits, but instead founds itself on the rejection of another point of view. This tone may very well be consistent with his philosophy (though I suspect not), but it is not consistent with that of Zhuangzi, nor, in my opinion, with that of the Daoist vision in general.

Such negativity is, of course, chiefly rooted in the nature of the egoic-self. This is the way it works and how we generally go about conducting ourselves in the world. But there is also a relationship here between what is believed and how it manifests. For this Primitivist, things were better and have been ruined by others. There is apparently no vision of the equality of all things, the imagined past and the present among them. Moreover, there is a "constant inborn nature" and thus a fixed something to find and defend.

Tone is a primary component of what I previously called “the ring of truth”. It is necessarily a subjective determination and depends upon what philosophy one espouses. For me, though admittedly largely theoretical (my tone being variable), harmony born of a non-discriminating mind is that tone which immediately (“obviously”) reveals whether words ring hollow or true.

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

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