Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Dao of Poltical Power V: Nowhere Transforms Everywhere

Scott Bradley

Lao Dan said, 'When a clear-sighted sovereign rules, his achievements cover all the world, but they seem not to come from himself. He transforms all things, and yet the people do not rely upon him. There is something unnameable about him that allows all creatures to delight in themselves. He establishes his footing in the unfathomable and roams where nothing at all exists.
(Zhuangzi 7:5; Ziporyn)
I began this series with the questions as to whether Zhuangzi offers us a genuine political theory and if so, whether that theory can (or ever did) actually work. I've been pretty much thinking on my feet ever since. In answer, I think we can say that he does offer us some theory, but that that theory is and has always been largely impractical. This vision of the rule of the sage-king is an inspiring one, but is completely outside the realm of the possible given the present nature of the human character. Power corrupts only because human beings are by nature corruptible. The structures of power that actually exist in the world moreover are inaccessible to any but those whose ambition betrays the antithesis of Zhuangzi's enlightened ruler.

At the same time, I believe Zhuangzi's philosophy more generally does offer some powerful tools for the formulation of more practical responses to and engagement in political power. The core of these responses would have to be liberation from all ideologies as discussed in the second chapter of the Zhuangzi. We would need to break out of our own ideological boxes. This is precisely what Zhuangzi's sage-king has done: "He establishes his footing in the unfathomable and roams where nothing at all exists."

This 'place', like my favorite, "the vast wilds of open nowhere", though necessarily poetic, does reflect a genuine experience of transcendence above the tyranny of ideology. It is the view from Dao, the "Axis of all daos", where the sage abides in the center, able to watch the rising and passing of all the various 'rights' and 'wrongs', affirming them all, yet attaching to none. This is formulaic, of course, and open to being yet another ideology, and subject to the critique of other ideologies, whereas the actual experiential realization of this view is not, in that it offers no counterpart with which to debate.

Imagine being free of all ideology. "If you wish to know the 'truth'," says the Xin-Xin Ming, "only cease to cherish opinions." This is truth beyond truth, a truth devoid of all knowing; there is nothing to know, nothing that can be known. None of this is likely to make us feel comfortable; we cherish our opinions and have good, 'moral' reasons for doing so. There's right and wrong, and more importantly, there's genuine suffering and oppression in the world. Things aren't as they should be. Yet, within paradigm of Zhuangzi's philosophy of life, breaking free of these opinions and into the realm of "not even anything", "where nothing at all exists", that place of "open nowhere" is that which enables us to truly bring transformation to the world, because we no longer use the paradigms that are themselves a great part of the problem.

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

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