Tuesday, March 12, 2013

She Dao Revisited III: Learn What You Wish

Scott Bradley


Speaking of Shen Dao, the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi writes: "He renounced right and wrong so that he might carelessly avoid involvement.” (Mair)

I began this series about Shen Dao by attempting to demonstrate the clear bias of this author against the thought of those he critiques. The problem with bias, in this instance, is not simply that he tells us what Shen Dao said and then dismisses it, but that his telling is already a distortion. It is one thing to understand a philosophy and then dismiss it, and quite another to fail to understand it and then dismiss it. Admittedly, to truly understand this, and many similar philosophies, requires a level of participatory engagement that approaches acceptance. In other words, you cannot understand it unless you experience it. But since we cannot possibly participate in all these philosophies, the only honest option would seem to be not to judge them at all.

I, of course, have a bias for Shen Dao. This is because I see in his thought an echo of Zhuangzi in whose philosophy I do participate. That bias leads me to understand this author's presentation of Shen Dao as 'distorted'. The truth is, however, we cannot know for sure what he thought and said; this presentation here is almost all we know of him. In the end, therefore, we are left to find and learn what we wish from this critique. Unless we are in search of 'authorities' and "truths" by which to legitimize our points of view, this should not pose a problem. In this case, "Shen Dao" becomes an opportunity to grow in our own perspectives without him having ever existed or said a thing. In the final analysis, it does not matter what he thought; it is what we think that matters.

I understand this statement of Shen Dao's philosophy as a distortion for two reasons. Firstly, the author has already clearly stated his bias — all these philosophies are partial and imperfect reflections of the Great Way to which, ostensibly, the author is himself privy. Secondly, the emotive terms in which he couches his representation of Shen Dao's thought are precisely those which we hear today from those who have obviously not actually participated in it to the degree that its nuances can be understood. To say that philosophical Daoism's position vis-a-vis "right and wrong" is highly nuanced is to grossly understate the case. This position arises from experience; how else could it be understood except through experience?

Thus, we are told that Shen Dao "renounced right and wrong". If he was a proto-Daoist of similar insight as Zhuangzi, and I think he was, then he would not recognize this caricature as even remotely representing his thought. He would not, in fact, have "renounced" anything. With respect to right and wrong, he would have discovered their limited value in understanding the world, and thus, like reason itself, would not have rejected them, but would have deconstructed their claim to supremacy and then re-integrated them from the perspective of Dao.

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

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