Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Dao That Is Not-Dao I

Scott Bradley


I only just recently discussed Chad Hansen’s take on Zhuangzi as expressed in his contribution to Hiding the World in the World (2003) (“Guru or Skeptic? Relativistic Skepticism in the Zhuangzi”) and now I find that same opinion expressed in an earlier article (“A Tao of Tao in Chuang-tzu”) in Experimental Essays in Chuang-tzu (Mair, ed,; 1983). Still, it provides such a rich opportunity to further explore the essential character of Zhuangzi that I think it worth another look.

Hansen’s basic premise is that the Zhuangzi has been mistranslated, or more accurately, misappropriated as far back as the Han Dynasty in an attempt to reconcile it with Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism (and some Neo-Daoism, though he does not say so) happily played along thereafter. This mistranslation can be summed up as the assertion that Zhuangzi’s finger points toward a metaphysical Dao. However ineffable, there is an Ultimate and for convenience, we call it Dao. His purported mysticism, therefore, has to do with some form of union with this Dao. I would not want to say definitively that this is the assertion of the Daodejing (Laozi), but that work seems to lean more in that direction, and Zhuangzi is, in this misinterpretation, thought to be a perpetuator of that idea.

Hansen provides comments from contemporary, prestigious commentators that echo this sentiment. The Zhuangzi is said to be about “finding the Dao”, the One. Even chapters that actually make no mention of Dao at all are, we are told, still about this Dao. I am gratified that he too cringes at these assertions.

Hansen completely rejects this understanding of Zhuangzi: “The accepted view has it that Taoism is a metaphysical theory about an absolute entity — the Tao. I reject that view.” So do I. Where I differ, however, is in what Zhuangzi’s actual intentions were. Hansen would have him to have been a philosopher of language who participated in the current debate about that subject as represented by “The School of Names” and who simply emerges as a linguistic skeptic, nothing more. But it seems overwhelmingly clear — to me at least — that Zhuangzi saw this demonstration of the limits of language and the “understanding consciousness” as an opportunity for mystical experience empty of metaphysical belief. Hansen does not seem able to entertain the possibility of a mysticism founded on clear-headedness (“the Illumination of the Obvious”) rather than belief in an “absolute entity”.

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

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