Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What Is Daoism?

Scott Bradley

The goal of Daoism is to gain an understanding of the Dao, the great way of nature and the cosmos, in order to attain spiritual freedom and acquire a knack for living and a pristine perspective on the world.
(Shuen-Fu Lin; "Transforming the Dao: A Critique of A. C. Graham"; Hiding the World in the World)
This quote by an authoritative Chinese scholar of Daoism leads me to ask, What is Daoism? The question has no easy answer, of course, for the simple reason that there are numerous brands of Daoism. More than that, it has no answer, unless one were to insist that one particular version or, more specifically, one particular take on one particular version of Daoism is the 'correct' representation of Daoism. But whatever Daoism is, let us hope that it would dissuade us from doing so.

The answer to the question, What is Daoism? would therefore seem to be, Whatever you want it to be. I feel comfortable with this answer since it allows Daoism to be for me what I discover it to be while not obliging me to label as 'wrong' those takes on Daoism that are contrary to my own, and this seems to me to be an exercise of Daoism as I understand it.

None of this obviates the potential value of critiquing other points of view; this is how we all come to better understand our own points of view. For myself, such a honing of my understanding of the Daoist vision can really have value only in as much as it enables me to better realize that vision in myself. There is nothing wrong with scholarship for the sake of scholarship per se, but this is not why I am spending all this time and effort with Zhuangzi. My interest is in personal transformation. I will leave it to the reader to imagine why this is so.

Returning to the quote above, I do not think this view corresponds with my own. "To gain an understanding of the Dao" would seem to imply there is an objective Dao to understand. This is further suggested by "the great way of nature and the cosmos", as if there were some one principle to be discovered and followed. I would be more inclined to say, "to gain an understanding that is Dao". This is because I think the only Dao that can be seriously discussed is a psychological Dao. This is Dao as a way of being in the world. To "attain Dao" is to have realized a point of view that is all-embracing and unfixed from all objective belief. We might say this is a reflection of our speculations on the nature of a metaphysical Dao, but that speculation should not become something objective to which we aspire; that would be to put a stake through the heart of Zhuangzi's radical vision.

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

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