Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Theoretical Sages I

Scott Bradley

One of the ironies of the debates among Chinese philosophies is that after demonstrating how the understanding of one party is misguided, they precede to describe their vision of the 'true sage' in precisely the same way as has their opponent. Guo Xiang, for instance, having thoroughly roasted Zhuangzi for being impractical and thus no true sage, then describes a true sage exactly as we find him in the thought of Zhuangzi. The same can be said for the Confucians and Neo-Confucians.

Personally, I find this encouraging. We all seem to be pretty much agreed that there is a 'higher' expression of our humanity to which to aspire. And we largely agree as to what that expression might look like.

Where we don't agree is on how that expression, the 'genuinely human', might be realized. Even Buddhism, with its advocacy of formal meditation, is fraught with divergent opinions as to what form that meditation should take. And we should not forget that a principle element of the Eightfold Path is "right view". All these traditions, it seems to me, tell us we have to get it right in order to get it. If we do not correctly understand the nature of things, we cannot realize the fullest expression of our humanity.

It is my opinion that none of these schools and none of us has this 'correct understanding'; nor do I believe that we ever possibly could. Frankly, I think it is ridiculous to think we could. It is Mystery. And if it is truly so, then it will forever remain so.

This is not to say that we cannot 'get it'. Only we don't have to get it correctly to get it.

But I have to admit that I have serious doubts whether anyone has ever really gotten it. Has there ever really been a true sage? I don't doubt that many have had deeply transformational experiences, but do they then meet the specified criteria of the theoretical sage?

We know something of that to which we aspire, and it is consequentially not so difficult to construct a theoretical embodiment of those aspirations, the sage. But our descriptions are not the proof that there has ever been or even can be such a one. I wonder if all the words of all the schools aren't really just a lot of hot air. I suspect they are. But I also think the hot air is blowing through them; they are giving expression to what is, in fact, the essence of the 'genuine human being', namely the aspiration to be such.

To be genuinely human would, in this case, be to be thoroughly engaged in the aspiration to be genuinely human. In other words, it is not to be some fixed and theoretical idea of a sage, but to be deeply committed to approximating that vision. It is becoming, not being.

In this case, all the schools offer a way to aspire.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

1 comment:

  1. If all you do is read and not practice, then all you get is theory and no application.


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