Sunday, April 14, 2013

Responses to Panikkar III

Scott Bradley

With reference to the Daoist principle of wu wei Raimon Panikkar writes: "Nevertheless, it is not mere passivity, not quietism, because it is part of Man's dignity of being commissioned to bring the universe to perfection." (A Dwelling Place for Wisdom, p. 62)

I won't pretend to be able to explain wu wei (non-doing, intentionless action); at best I can only suggest some of its attributes. Just as one cannot intentionally do non-doing, so one cannot define it. It happens. It is spontaneous reality, not mediated reality. It is not done "because" of anything. We do not practice wu wei because Dao does. ("Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.") We do not practice wu wei because it the right way of going about things. Life is wu wei, spontaneously arising. Wu wei happens in us when we let life live us.

It always seems necessary when speaking of wu wei to say what it is not: "It is not passivity, not quietism." We cannot say what it is exactly, so we must bracket it. Panikkar correctly tells us that it is not 'doing nothing', but rather a way of doing everything. But he also negates it when he tells us that it is doing everything "because" of some ordained purpose.

As for this purpose . . . well, this is as far removed from Daoist thought as one can go. "Commissioned"? By what or whom? "Bring the universe to perfection?" It's not already perfect? It's hard to find traction here; these are simply beliefs carried over from Christian theology (and others) which did not even enter the minds of the proto-Daoists.

Daoism does not assign special purpose to Man; if there is purpose — and Daoism sees no need to say there is — then it resides as much in rocks, ants, piss and shit as in anything else. I won't pretend to understand Panikkar's system (it's broad and deep, and I’ve read little and understood less), but it does seem, in his triad of realities, God, Man and the Cosmos, that he has endeavored to make Man special. Daoism suggests quite the opposite. It is not in the exalting of one thing over others, but in the equalizing of all things that it finds freedom. And this freedom issues in a caring for all things.

When I first read this statement, I thought immediately of Teilhard de Chardin, another philosopher with roots in Roman Catholicism, who also attributed to humanity some special creative destiny. He has been identified by eco-philosophers as partly responsible for the perpetuation of the belief that, because Man is special, he has priority over all other things, a belief that has partly led us to our present ecological crisis. Panikkar, for his part, is a powerful advocate for respect for all things, and yet he has imported this Judeo-Christian dualism of human exceptionalism into his philosophy and whatever his personal advocacy, it can only serve to undermine a truly holistic and integrated sense of unity with all things. We are not ‘stewards’; we are fellow creatures.

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

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