Saturday, November 30, 2013

Another Look at the Laozi III

Scott Bradley


One way of understanding the received Laozi (and by inference, something of Zhuangzi) is to get a clearer picture of what its teaching is not and that to which it was in response. Ziporyn (Ironies of Sameness and Difference) does this in part by comparing it with its contemporary, the Neiye ("Inner Training"), which not only preceded our received Laozi and Zhuangzi's Inner Chapters, but continues to flourish even to this day.

(As a parenthetical note, this negative comparison is not intended to denigrate Neiye Daoism, but simply to make clear that they are not, to my thinking, the same. [And if they are the same, as they could possibly be (for this too comes down to a matter of personal perspective), then let it be known that I choose to make use of Zhuangzi in this particular, radically religion-eschewing way.] In the final analysis, again to my thinking, since no eternal outcomes are at stake, it is only temporal outcomes that matter; thus, if Neiye Daoism delivers the goods to its practitioners, then more power to them.)

We will move on from this comparison of Laozi and Zhuangzi's ironic disposition with that of the non-ironic Neiye in the posts that follow. Here, however, one more example of their differences is particularly instructive. "The Dao is not far away; it is by attaining it that people are born. . . . It is what people lose when they die, and what they obtain to live; it is what things lose when they fail, and what they obtain in order to succeed." This is clearly a metaphysical Dao. Though we cannot "know" it, we can "attain" it by other means (psychophysical exercise and emptying the mind, which I have referenced previously, but have omitted here). This definitive Dao is alien to philosophical Daoism, but it is the idea that it is lost in death and failure that is most telling in terms of its lack of an ironic negation of positive values.

In Zhuangzi, "failure 'succeeds in failing' by virtue of Dao" (Ziporyn). Like life and death, success and failure form a single string; we are in no position to define one as better than the other, or even to truly understand which is which. In Zhuangzi, Dao is that perspective which embraces these polar opposites and understands their larger coherence in the equality of our assessment of things. Here, in the Neiye, Dao is a positive, and apparently objective, force that can be "lost", whereas in Zhuangzi, it embraces every eventuality. In the case of the former, this leads to a religious pursuit of the realization of a force by which to overcome death (the pursuit of immortality) and to achieve ‘success’. In the case of Zhuangzi, with the world hid in the world, nothing can ever be ‘lost’ and “there is no success like failure, though failure is no success at all” (Dylan).

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