Monday, August 26, 2013

To Be or Not To Be: Is Not the Question

Scott Bradley


I have long argued that the 33rd and final chapter of the Zhuangzi is the work of a syncretist Confucian. This seems so abundantly clear to me, a non-scholar, that I am always amazed when I read actual scholars who suggest otherwise. But though I cannot remember where I have read the case for a Confucian author for this chapter, I am sure I must have done so. In any event, something I recently read in Brook Ziporyn's Ironies of Oneness and Difference provided one more demonstration of this probability. This question is important because we rely so heavily on this chapter for an understanding of many of the more obscure proto-Daoists that without understanding its Confucian spin we might easily misunderstand their contributions.

Ziporyn's point, made only in passing, is that the Confucian criticism of Daoism as having over-emphasized Non-Being at the expense of Being is based on a misreading of the Daodejing. He suggests (if I understand him correctly) that Laozi actually presents Being and Non-Being as mutually dependent concepts that give rise to each other just as does every conceptual set of paired opposites. These are intended as conceptual tools, not definitive statements about reality.

The author of the 33rd chapter thus misrepresents Laozi when he says of him and Guan Yin: "They founded their way on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it on the supreme Oneness." What this betrays is a failure to understand that philosophical Daoism eschews any definitive metaphysics; the author has defaulted to the seemingly insurmountable human propensity to fill the void with something, even if it is with 'the Void'. In the end, there is no difference between Being and Non-Being; in either case it's still a something.

At this point we might correctly ask 'So what?'; for my part, at least, these subtle nuances of philosophical perspective are important only to the extent that they help or hinder the realization of a transcendent experience. The point is to experience freedom, not to have the "correct" understanding of apparent reality. However, the absence of any and all 'answers' or conceptual foci is so pivotal to Zhuangzi's way that to follow this path back into explanations of 'the way things really are' is to subvert it.

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

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