Monday, March 11, 2013

Shen Dao Revisited II: The Suggestion of a Possible Experience

Scott Bradley


Summing up the philosophy of Shen Dao and his co-conspirators, Peng Meng and Tien Pien, the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi tells us: "They made the equality of the myriad things their principle doctrine." (Mair) I'm going to bounce off this a bit.

The equality of things, presented as a doctrine, is something quite different from the equality of things as experienced. Yet an experience cannot be transmitted, whereas an idea can. If Shen Dao and friends taught the equality of things as a doctrine, then one would hope that it was intended as a suggestion of a possible experience. In this case, it is not the equality of things that is important, as ‘fact’, but the experience of things as equal. However, we are not called upon to experience the equality of things, but to experience that from which an understanding of all things as equal emerges.

It may be that there are no things at all, but philosophical Daoism does not concern itself with what may be. Its concern is with life as experienced. It might be argued that we experience things as unequal, and we do, but what is on offer is the possibility of also experiencing them as equal. Experiencing things as equal, one is freed from the divisive tyranny of discriminating and choosing between things as if their differences mattered absolutely. The experience of things as equal allows universal inclusiveness; uninformed discrimination necessarily excludes, and where there is exclusion there is no unity. Once free, one is able to discriminate and choose in the larger context of an all-inclusiveness that does not allow differences to exclude or for the unacceptable in things to overwhelm their intrinsic acceptability.

We cannot know if Shen Dao actually experienced the equality of things, but it seems likely that he at least experienced enough to perceive its liberating potential. Hui Shih arrived at the equality of things through the manipulations of reason, but apparently failed to experience it. Zhuangzi took up Hui’s arguments as a means to arriving at the threshold of experience. Whereas Hui could not go beyond the ‘understanding mind’ which can only proclaim ‘doctrine’, Zhuangzi suggested that the limits of reason are an opportunity to experience that which is beyond reason.

Zhuangzi was a mystic. Yet his is a mysticism without myth; it neither begins nor ends in ‘doctrine’.

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

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