Monday, January 7, 2013

Letting the Gold Lie Hidden I

Scott Bradley


According to Mair (Wandering on the Way), the 12th through 14th chapters, together with the 33rd and final chapter, of the Zhuangzi represent the work of syncretist authors of Confucian bent. They are also, he suggests, the probable editors of the book. This is evinced in a more favorable portrayal of the core Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness than one finds in the more orthodox Daoist chapters and in the use of such Confucian catch phrases as "kingly virtue". (The idea that the true sage is politically involved. And this, I suspect, is the consequence of a (mis-)reading of Daoist sentiment as advocating withdrawal from the world.)

A syncretist takes what he likes from two or more traditions and combines them into a new perspective. On the one hand, this seems like both a positive and a necessary way to proceed, if we understand "proceeding" as growing and evolving. Zhuangzi was, in this sense, a syncretist. Clearly, he borrowed from several other sources. Graham even suggests that he may have, previous to his having developed his own philosophy, been consecutively a Confucian, a Yangist, and a logician (a student of Hui Shih).

On the other hand, syncretism must necessarily negate something of the orthodoxy of the traditions from which it borrows. This is the case with these above mentioned chapters. Not only might a Zhuangzian take exception at some of their ideas, but so also would a Confucian. Speaking from the perspective of the former, it seems like an oxymoron to speak of "Zhuangzian orthodoxy", but in the end we have to admit to certain core principles in his thought which, if violated, completely negate that thought. Among these, paradoxically, is the idea that there need be no orthodoxy. Zhuangzi suggested we cut ourselves free from conceptual beliefs (orthodoxy) so as to roam free in infinite possibility. How do we refrain from turning this into an orthodoxy?

The answer, I think, lies in that most convenient idea of "two roads". To begin with, we need to understand that orthodoxy involves not only attachment to an idea, but also the rejection of other ideas. Are we able then to both affirm Zhuangzian no-belief, on the one hand, and the beliefs of others, on the other? If we can, we have discovered, not the idea of freedom from concepts, but the spirit and actuality of that freedom. And this is in part possible when we take to heart the Zhuangzian idea of Qiwulun, the title of his second chapter: The Equalizing of Theories about Things. To the extent that Zhuangzi presents a theory about the way things are, he also throws it into the common pot where every theory is equally simply a human response stirred up as an expression of Dao. It must be ever self-negating, ever returning to critical zero. And all of this is possible because it is understood that though truth lies beyond us, we are all held equally within the embrace of an all-embracing Totality where all is always well in any case.

Thus can we come to these chapters open to what they can teach us.

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

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