There is mysticism in Zhuangzi’s suggested response to life. This mysticism does not, however, fit within the standard representations of mysticism. One of these is the belief that one can “unite” with some ultimate reality. In the case of most representations of Daoism, this would be “the Dao”, the Source that interpenetrates all reality. There is also qi (ch’i), the “vital force” that gives life (and being) to all things. This can be “accumulated” by the sage, extending her life and giving her inner power. The relationship between these two is unclear.

Secondly, when one unites with this ultimate reality, one gains insight into the Truth. Since Dao interpenetrates all things, communion with Dao enables an understanding of all things. This can lead to powers of prognostication.

Thirdly, this union with metaphysical Dao and accumulation of qi is accomplished through the practice of breathing meditation whereby one empties one’s mind of all thought and emotion.

If this is the mysticism of Daoism, then Zhuangzi was clearly not a Daoist. His mysticism takes the absence of any and all imagined metaphysical realities as its point of departure. It begins and ends in not-knowing. This is fundamental; absent this and his philosophy collapses. As for meditative practice, he may very well have done some, but its purpose and importance would have been much different. Reliance on any “technique” is depending on something, and for Zhuangzi dependence on nothing lies at the heart of his mystical movement. We need only witness the near obsession of those who do advocate such practice, to see that Zhuangzi did not share this commitment. His allusions to meditative practice, like his narratives generally, seem designed more to suggest positive outcomes than the means to their realization.

Alternatively, we could broaden our understanding of Daoism to include Zhuangzi’s skeptical branch. But he does, in fact, seem to be such an anomaly within the context of Daoism that it might be best to remove him altogether. Daoists, needless to say, would find no need to do so, since they have thoroughly molded him to their purposes.

This is not about the right way versus the wrong way, or even the correct way to interpret Zhuangzi. What is important to me is to preserve the way in which I have molded him to my purposes. This is not to suggest that there are no textual justifications for my understanding of Zhuangzi, but only that these are prejudiced by my experience. Nor do I wish to depend on however I understand Zhuangzi; having caught my fish, I’d rather eat it than the fish trap.

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