From the fragments of his writings that have survived we understand that Shen Dao (395-315 BCE) was a Legalist (one whose pessimism about human nature led him to discard the idea of societal order through self-cultivation, and instead advocated for strong laws). As he is represented in the Tianxia (“The World under Heaven”) chapter of the Zhuangzi, however, he sounds much more like a proto-Daoist. It is he that said, “Just become like an inanimate [unconscious] object. . . . Indeed, a clump of soil never strays from the Dao” (33; Ziporyn, p 122).  This led his detractors to declare: “Shen Dao’s dao is no practice for the living, but it is a perfect guideline for the dead!”

To my thinking, Shen Dao was on to something important, especially if we take his statement as speaking to ontological reality—it is impossible for anything to stray from metaphysical Dao if Dao is whatever happens. With respect to the ideal of fully realizing spontaneity, on the other hand, his statement serves to illuminate a fundamental problem, namely, how we can act spontaneously while remaining self-reflective. We are told that Shen Dao “was like a twirl in the breeze, like a spinning feather”—he let himself go without reflection. This would indeed be a good dao for the dead.

(I cannot resist making mention here of the apparent belief that because Shen Dao advocated something, he actually realized it. When we see how ridiculous this is, we can bring that discernment to bear on every such advocacy. I certainly apply it to Zhuangzi. The religious mind hungers for a fixed ideal—“the way”, the sage, the Buddha—so as to escape the inescapable unfixity of the human condition.)

This long-winded introduction is intended to make the case for an appreciation of the dialectical character of spontaneity. Even in spontaneity there is always self-reflection; we are not yet dead. The dialectical is non-linear; it is an organic process that does not lend itself to final and definitive statements. And it is applicable across the board—it speaks to every aspect of life and every project of self-cultivation. It projects no arriving, only growing. It suggests no final realization, only approximation. If one were to stumble into a theoretical buddhahood, it would (likely) be because one had truly let go into the dialectical nature of the human experience.

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