Sunday, May 5, 2013

More on Xunzi III

Scott Bradley


I have no way of knowing why (not to mention if) you are reading this, but if it is because you have an active interest in Zhuangzi, things Daoist, or Chinese thought in general, I would certainly recommend the Xunzi, if for no other reason than it is filled with wise counsels regarding one's conduct in the world. If we can forget his Confucian obsession with the past and the extremes of his rationalism, he has much to teach us.

It is this extreme rationalism that I hope to consider in this post and will begin once again with his criticism of Zhuangzi: "Zhuangzi was obsessed with thoughts of Heaven [i.e., Nature] and did no understand the importance of man." (21; Watson) It is Watson's interpolation that what Xunzi meant by "Heaven" (tian) in this context is "Nature". I am not so sure. Certainly that is what it meant for him, but I suspect he thought it meant something else to Zhuangzi, namely the quasi-supernatural. I think he was mistaken.

Xunzi's rationalism is so thorough in its dismissal of the supernatural as mere superstition that he could have been writing in the last century. "You pray for rain, and it rains. Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway." (17) In this I personally find resonating agreement. Yet here, too, we find a certain close-minded rigidity that I also have experienced and from which I have found some release in Zhuangzi.

Sorting out the nuanced meanings of the Heaven, Earth, Man triad in any of these early philosophies is no easy matter, and especially so in Zhuangzi (who also declares himself unable to do so), but I think we can say that for him, ultimately and practically, there is only Heaven. Humanity is the Heavenly.

What this means in terms of Zhuangzi's spirituality and mysticism is that it is decidedly not an appeal to the supernatural, the otherworldly, but to an exploration of the human itself. And this exploration leads him to understand that the human experience is a great deal more than the "understanding consciousness" which parses reality into graspable packets of knowledge and moral discrimination. Our roots are deep in ineffable Mystery and it is in our openness to and experience of this that most profoundly determines how we go about doing our humanity in the world. Might not Zhuangzi then reply to Xunzi that he has become obsessed with one corner of his humanity, reason, and has not understood our profound rootedness in what reason cannot know? In this context, all of Xunzi's practical wisdom which reason has divulged remains as valid as ever, for it, too, is an affirmable expression of our humanity.

What is different is the spirit of our perceptions. The Zen (and Zhuangzian) metaphor of mountains coming to be seen as not-mountains only to be seen as mountains again speaks directly of this spirit. The full gamut of our humanity is most wonderfully experienced when informed by an open and contentless release into the mystery of our apparent existence.

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

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