Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Yuan Dao: The Sum of Daos

Scott Bradley

Discussing the Daoist attempt to understand the origins of the cosmos, Ames (Yuan Dao) writes: "Within the Daoist search for an explanation of origins, there is the assumption that the world is 'self-so-ing' (ziran) and autogenerative, with the energy of transformation residing in the process itself." Things create themselves.

This is a central theme in Guo Xiang's (252-312) commentary on the Zhuangzi, but not one I have seen much discussed elsewhere. The idea is that there was no beginning, and certainly no Creator, no Prime Mover. The world and the myriad things within it arise as process and not as the result of a diachronous series of causes and effects. It is a synchronous unfolding. Dao is now, in this present unfolding reality.

This is, as I say, an 'idea'; and perhaps its greatest value is not in offering us a new, ingenuous understanding to which to subscribe, but in shaking us loose from the understanding to which we already subscribe. Such ideas do not exist in a vacuum, however, but have a very real effect upon how we interact with the world. The belief that there is a Something 'out there', a God or Dao, causes us, in the project of self-integration, to focus on the external, rather than the internal. "Finding it in oneself" is the realization that you are it. Now. As process, not stasis.

Continuing with this line of thought, Ames writes: "Hence, the natural cosmology of classical China does not entail a single-ordered cosmos, but invokes an understanding of a dynamic 'world' that is the sum of daos construed by a myriad of unique particulars — 'the ten thousand things'. While from each perspective, dao as the context construed from that perspective is more of less coherent, dao as the sum of these contexts trades the coherence that would privilege one order among many, for continuity among them. Dao is, thus, the complex process of the world itself that does not reduce to any single order."

In this epistemological sense of Dao, it is Nameless because it is the sum of all the otherwise mutually exclusive names. Or, as in the Zhuangzian metaphor, Dao, like the wind, is the source of the each individual sound in the tress, the individual sounds themselves, and the sum of all those sounds. Each sound is 'right' in and for itself, yet all sounds are also 'right'. Dao is that perspective which gives coherence to the otherwise irreconcilable 'many', yet is itself rendered incomprehensible thereby.

Or, to use the Scottian metaphor, Dao is the flourishing of each and every bloom in the meadow, and the sum of all blooms, which is to say, the meadow itself. Being single, individuated blooms, we realize our own 'rightness', but not the 'rightness' of all the others (especially those tiny, insignificant white ones). The Daoist perspective is intended to enable us to transcend our particularity and see all blooms from the perspective of meadow. The consequence of such a perspectival shift is the breaking of the narrow confines of individual identity. We 'become all things', yet not at the expense of our individuality. Indeed, it is only in the loss of insular individuation that our individuality is most fully realized.

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

1 comment:

  1. Verse 1 of the Dao De Jing says this all so much more concisely. Once you know, you don't have to talk.


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