JUST ANOTHER DAO: A Review of Roth’s Original Dao: Inward Training (Nei Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism

This is a must for anyone who practices traditional Daoist meditation and who wishes to better understand the roots of that tradition. The translation of the Inner Training chapter of the Kuanzi alone is worth the price of the book.

The depth of Roth’s scholarship is clear, and all in all I think he makes a good case for the provenance of Inner Training as representative of the earliest advocacy for “Daoist” meditative practice. I do, however, think he gets carried away in his desire to sum up all of Daoism under the rubric of those who practiced breathing mediation rather than as defined by their philosophies. This stands if all who were of Daoist temperament made strong advocacy for this practice. Sometimes he must make a very long stretch in his attempts to demonstrate that they do. Sometimes his own advocacy seems to exceed his scholarship.

My real concern is that I understand Zhuangzi as making a radically different statement than that enunciated in Inner Training. The latter declares its belief in a metaphysical Dao that is real enough to “unite” with, and a ch’i (qi )that one can “accumulate”. All this leads to “understanding” the nature of Reality. Its Daoism is a very serious project of spiritual attainment. It is steeped in belief. Zhuangzi would have had none of it. His entire philosophy turns on believing in no such things. His call for radical non-dependence includes both the eschewal of all metaphysics and any dogmatic advocacy for a technique.

Yes, Zhuangzi speaks of meditation and ch’i. He also makes use of Confucius without being a Confucian, Mozi without being a Mohist (usefulness versus uselessness), and Logicians without being a Logician. When it comes to understanding Zhuangzi, it’s best to first get a sense of his spirit of intellectual anarchy lest one become entrapped by literalism.

Perhaps Zhuangzi cannot be taken as a proper “Daoist”, at all. Or perhaps I’ve got him wrong.  It doesn’t really matter; what matters is what works best for me (and you).

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