Monday, November 11, 2013

The Dao That Is Not Dao II

Scott Bradley

In his argument against a 'mystical' reading of Zhuangzi, Chad Hansen uses Shen Dao (c. 350-275 B.C.E.) as a negative foil. All the works of this 'proto-Daoist' have been lost and thus all we know of him comes by way of his critics. Chief among these is the author of the 33rd chapter (Tianxia) of the Zhuangzi, the earliest extant summation of philosophies of the Warring States period. Hansen finds in his thought the absolute monism that he believes was mistakenly projected onto Zhuangzi by Han scholars and has ever since warped our understanding of him.

For my part, I have a much more favorable feel for Shen Dao's philosophy as portrayed in the Tianxia; it strikes me as very consistent, or at least compatible with Zhuangzi's thought generally. There is the question of his monism, however. What is monism? "All is One." The reader will know that I basically subscribe to such a view. (I am, after all, a member [albeit the sole member] of The Church of Pernicious Oneness.) But this is a metaphysical assertion and thus inconsistent with my understanding of Zhuangzi's purposed avoidance of any such beliefs, an approach with which I also agree. Does it help to say that I am inclined in the monist direction, but do not assert it emphatically? The important thing is that it doesn't need to be 'true' for the philosophy to work. Once again we see Dao, not as an assertion about Reality, but of an attitude toward Reality.

Let us assume that Zhuangzi eschews all assertions about the ultimate nature of reality and that when he speaks of the oneness of things he is either parodying others or merely suggesting a helpful perspective. How then can he be considered in any way consistent when he also tells us to "hide the world in the world" or to "follow along with the inevitable" except in that he too is "inclined" toward monism because he finds it therapeutic to be so? The Tianxia tells us that Shen Dao also "followed along with whatever was unavoidable"; he shared Zhuangzi's sense that we can entrust ourselves to reality as it unfolds because, in the end, we have no choice but to do so in any case.

Because Shen Dao says that even a clod of earth cannot stray from the Dao, Hansen tells us that for him "the one actual world history is the Great Dao." I would prefer to say, "Dao is what happens." ("History" is about the past, and I see no need to introduce it.) It is because Dao is what happens that we can follow along with the inevitable whether it was inevitable or not; that it happens is all that matters. We can be affirming of all that arises because all that arises is Dao and we have entrusted ourselves to Dao. But this inclines toward a monist view of reality.

However, the Dao to which we have entrusted ourselves is not an entity, not an asserted Ultimate, but simply a point of view by which we interface with the world. In the obvious context of our not-knowing we choose to entrust ourselves to the unknowable, and the consequence of that entrusting is Dao, a frame of mind.

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

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