Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Shen Dao Revisited IV: Perfect as Dirt

Scott Bradley

"He was whole and without fault, his deportment was without error, and he was always without guilt. What was the reason for this? . . . 'It's the clod [of earth] that does not lose the Way!'" (Mair)

Thus does the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi describe Shen Dao. What's to criticize here? Yet this description is the culminating argument against Shen Dao; how can we make sense of this? It must be that the author has been remarkably able to enter into the thought of Shen Dao so as to present the way he sees himself as a consequence of his identification with a clump of earth. Shen Dao experiences himself as whole, without fault, and guiltless. The author, however, sees him quite differently; Shen Dao has deluded himself.

Considering the reality that we are all essentially deluding ourselves, however, might Shen Dao's apparent delusion be a rather inviting option? If we are all dreaming, would not this particular dream recommend itself to someone who has awakened to the dreaming? Alternatively, we might be as the author, and find fault, error and guilt not only in Shen Dao, but in ourselves and everything else; for let us not delude ourselves here — we can only find it in others when we live with it in ourselves.

We might also find the author's delusion similarly inviting in that it is probably a double delusion; he is deluded regarding his own delusion. He has not awakened to his own dreaming. He is blissfully self-affirming and other-denying. But this is not really an option for one awakened to the dreaming; one might be deluded, but once one knows it, there's little hope of returning to the delusion of being un-deluded. Yet if it has an appeal, we might think twice about messing with the deludedness of others.

But has Shen Dao deluded himself? Or has he rather come to realize that he is the same as a clump of dirt, which is to say, perfect? But he is not perfect, we might protest; his faults are many. Would he not reply that his faults are perfect? And if they are, what need is there for guilt?

Here is a clump of earth and it has the fault of containing insufficient nitrogen for the growing of corn. From the point of view of the gardener, this is indeed a fault. Yet from the point of view of Earth, it is perfect just as it is. Could a gardener recognize both? Could he not plant soy beans in it instead? Or could he not leave it fallow and be thankful it provides him a place to stand?

Philosophical Daoism, like many philosophies of inclusiveness, calls upon us to always take a larger, more transcendent view, the view from Dao. Viewed from Dao, Shen Dao is perfect. Realizing this, his faults do not induce the burden of guilt, and free of guilt, upon what faults need he dwell? Dwelling in freedom, how can faults not fall away?

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

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