UNDER HEAVEN LXXII

“Covering over what is in people’s hearts with their embellishments and altering their ideas, able to defeat their mouths, but not convince their hearts—this is the trap in which all such debaters get stuck.” (p 125)

More than once the author of the Tianxia comes across as a populist, an advocate for the common person and for common sense. Commenting on Mozi’s asceticism, he writes: “The people of the world cannot endure such a thorough rejection of what is in their own hearts.” (p 120) Of Shen Dao he concludes: “In the end he was regarded as merely an eccentric.” (p 122) And now here the Logicians are similarly found lacking because people don’t wish to question their common sense distinctions.

From a Daoist point of view this is in fact a thorny issue. Daoism turns the “natural human inclinations” (our unmediated emotions, our belief in the fixed sanctity of conventions, our bondage to reason, and our sense of an absolute right and wrong) completely on their heads. It tells us we have got it all wrong.

Yet Zhuangzian “Daoism” also suggests that the way that people are is perfectly alright, just as they are. We affirm this incredible mess called humanity just as we do the wonder of nature, irrespective of its ceaseless death and decay and self-devouring necessity, “red in tooth and claw”. (How do we do this latter? However we do it, it is little different than how Zhuangzi would have us do the same with humanity.)

And yet, he also tells us that people generally live in self-imposed bondage, and consequentially suffer needlessly. How do we reconcile these two apparently self-contradictory beliefs? Once again, the concept of walking two roads answers, though this too cuts against the grain of common sense.

This also answers the apparent contradiction in a call for spontaneity in living and the criticism of living our “natural inclinations”. These are still lived, only they are lived enlightenedly. Anger becomes an anger that is also a non-anger; happiness is also a non-happiness; wrong is also “right”. Our natural inclinations cease to be coupled to their opposites. A happiness that depends on no circumstance is no longer coupled to its former opposite, sadness. Nor is our sadness coupled to happiness.

Daoism is by no means unique in its assertion of near universal human bondage. Every religion does the same. In the judgment of humanity, humanity clearly requires some remedial intervention. The real questions then are to what degree that change is necessary (are eternal outcomes at stake?) and how we propose to effect that change. The first answer determines the second. And this is yet another great parting of ways.

Zhuangzi’s dao was for Zhuangzi alone. Whether we wish to incorporate that dao into our own personal dao, is purely a question of preference. Because no cosmic or personal redemption is imagined, no proselytizing is required.

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