Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bad Lao Tzu! I

Scott Bradley


One of the more enigmatic passages in the Inner Chapters is that in which an apparent sage comes to the wake for Lao Dan and, observing an inordinate amount of weeping and wailing, abruptly leaves. A Laozian chases after him and asks why he did not stay and show greater respect. It is the sage's answer which leaves interpreters in a quandary. There are two ways to take it: either he denounces the disciples for their failure to exemplify their teacher's teaching through an excessive concern for his passing, or he denounces Lao Dan himself for having failed to teach them properly.

I favor the latter interpretation for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to me that this is how the text most naturally renders. Secondly, it's not what we might want it to mean.

Wu's very literal translation of the most relevant verse goes thus (bold type represents the meaning of the characters themselves): "Seeing that there is that which that party gathered like this, he must have had it exist in him that-which he did not wish worded and was worded, that for which he did not wish wept and was wept." (Zhuangzi, 3)

Lao Tzu's failure to inculcate his teaching in his disciples was primarily because he had a teaching in the first place. His disciples seized upon the message and thereby failed to make it their own, for the message was to go beyond messages. Lao Tzu failed to teach without words. Easy enough to say, but what does it mean? Here are two negative examples that might help to illustrate: What if Socrates, instead of asking the ‘knowers’ what is truth, told them what it is? What if the Zen master, instead of answering the question of what is Buddha with "an ass-wiping shit-stick", gave a long winded metaphysical exposition of Buddhist cosmology? In both cases these teachers knew that midwifery was the only way to truly teach: It has to be born of the student him- or herself.

This failure led to an even more damning indictment; Lao Tzu created a cult of personality. He embodied the message; he was holy, he was special. All this weeping and wailing over the loss of a 'master' must have appalled this sage. What was Lao Tzu that his passing could leave anything more than a decomposing sack of flesh? But let us not fail to notice that he thereby joins a regal pantheon of similarly co-opted sages — Buddha, Zhuangzi and Jesus among them, not to mention the array of canonized saints whose pictures surround their present day sainted-wannabes. Perhaps their task was an impossible one; perhaps that easiest default to religious grasping was more than any of them could overcome.

And this brings us to the second reason I prefer the rendering of this story as a criticism of Lao Dan — we would prefer it to be otherwise. We want our holy ones, our sages, our perfected examples, who, though we cannot attain to their supposed sagacity, at least provide an idealized goal to believe in, and who, by virtue of our attachment to them, might carry us along on their coat-tails. Might not Zhuangzi have intended to shatter just this?

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

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