A NEW PHILOSOPHICAL DAOISM
It is necessary, therefore, that we distance ourselves from any belief that we can offer the correct philosophical interpretation of Daoism as represented in these texts. Should we wish to formulate such a philosophy we will have to declare it our own as derived from our biased interpretation of them. What shall we call it? Neo-Daoism immediately comes to mind, but that has already been used to describe a Fourth Century C.E. renaissance in Daoist thought. Since the thought of Zhuangzi lends itself most easily to our version of philosophical Daoism and we will make most use of him, we might call it Neo-Zhuangzianism—just this once. For it strikes us as pretentious as well as unwieldy. Let us call it instead a New Philosophical Daoism. And let us not presume that this present attempt is anything more than a halting first few steps toward that philosophy. Perhaps better minds than ours, even in their criticism, will help move the process forward toward the formulation of such a philosophy. Henceforth, when we speak of philosophical Daoism this is what we will mean; we will not mean it as a definitive expression of the philosophy of Zhuangzi or any other.
This distancing of ourselves from the disputed intended meanings of these texts is but the point of departure for our disengagement from Daoism generally. Though we are in our own estimation doing Daoism, we must declare it our own, and outside of tradition. In this sense, we are not Daoists at all, nor is our philosophy Daoism.
[We do not presume to represent the “correct” meaning of this or any other text.]
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary in terms of how to proceed in the presentation of philosophical Daoism as espoused by at least two of the ostensible founders of Daoism, Laozi and Zhuangzi. We must use them to make our case while admitting that we are unsure that this is in fact what they intended to say. But this problem of self-contradiction is by no means ours alone. Zhuangzi himself faced a similar problem when he suggested that every theory is equally affirmable, and then advocated that theory as the best one to follow. His critique of the limits of language, moreover, could only proceed through the use of language. Laozi faced it when, after declaring that “those who speak do not know while those who know do not speak”, according to the tradition that believes him to be a great sage, went on to write a treatise of approximately 5000 characters. Both they and we are caught in apparent contradictions. But again, this is Zhuangzi’s whole point; whenever we attempt to establish a fixed and sure foundation for our perspective on things, we will discover, if honest, that no such surety is possible. It is, as they say, turtles all the way down. We are, nonetheless, always required to walk on this very thin epistemological ice if we wish to say anything at all. This is the unavoidable “existential dangle” in which humanity finds itself. This is what it is to exist. Perhaps this is one possible meaning of the description of the sage as “careful, as if crossing a stream in winter”—the stream needs crossing, but the sage does not take its safety for granted.
We can also see a similar conundrum in Zhuangzi’s perspectival relativism. Every point of view emerges from one’s unique circumstances, and thus all points of view can only be relatively “true”. We are, nevertheless, required to have some view. We are thus obliged to hold a view that we know is ultimately “untrue”.
Our point, therefore, is that our attempt to discover the central themes of a philosophical Daoism in these sources must proceed on assumptions that we fully realize are ultimately indemonstrable. The alternative, however, namely to take any interpretation as definitive, would necessarily fail of self-awareness and honesty.
[I’m inserting this post into the stream because it has been on my mind and someone has recently asked me to clarify this above phrase.]
I cannot think of a single article or book that mentions mysticism in Daoism generally or Zhuangzi specifically that considers the possibility of a species of mysticism that lies outside one particular traditional definition. This definition holds that mysticism entails an intuitive insight into the Ultimate with which one is thereby in some way united, usually through a realization that that union has always already obtained. This, in my view, is an essentially religious definition since it presumes some form of positive understanding of reality. In the case of Daoism, a category into which Zhuangzi is always lumped, this means one realizes “the Dao”. Is there really no other possible form of mysticism?
I call mysticism “scary” for two reasons. It is scary to me. I am not interested in doing religion. I do not want to do it. I cannot consciously do it (though I likely frequently fall into it by default). Those that are, do and can are affirmed in their pursuits. It is scary to scholars; one must be careful not to taint one’s scholarship with a betrayal of actual subjective experience. Advocacy for anything other than “facts” is anathema. It is, however, acceptable to assign religious mysticism to Zhuangzi as a matter of fact. How one can speak of the subjective experience of others without any experience of that experience oneself remains a mystery to me.
There are exceptions. Among these is Chad Hansen who argues for Zhuangzi as a skeptical philosopher who doubted our ability to know anything of the Ultimate, intuitively or otherwise. I agree. But he also therefore rejects any mysticism in Zhuangzi, since his definition of mysticism remains within the traditional box. Ziporyn, to my thinking, does appreciate the mysticism in Zhuangzi as an expression of and response to his not-knowing, though he is careful not to advocate. His treatment of yiming (“making use of the light”), as “the Illumination of the Obvious” (our obvious not-knowing), instead of its typical association with “spiritual insight” (prajna) is indicative of this.
So, what other form of mysticism might Zhuangzi have suggested? A mysticism utterly innocent of all religious presumption of knowing anything about the Ultimate. One surrenders into utter Mystery as an act of trust. And though one is changed thereby, one emerges as clueless as ever. All is and must necessarily remain Mystery. What is Mystery? Everything is Mystery and Mystery is everything. Release into the most intimate of all mysteries, the mysterious experience of you. Or take a walk in the woods. Or contemplate a rock.
Surrender, release, acceptance—these are one, and they cannot help but issue into deep trust, affirmation and thankfulness. Amen. (Oops!)
As already suggested, very little that we might have to say of Daoism will be immune from scholarly dissent. To begin with, most every reference we have thus far made to Daoism could easily have been offered in quotes. The term “Daoist” does not in fact strictly speaking describe any of the aforementioned texts; it was only several centuries after their having been written that they were described as belonging to The School of Dao (daojia). The authors themselves did not identify as members of any known school. All their dates are disputed. All authorship is disputed. And, needless to say, all interpretive renderings are disputed. Yet, from the point of view of “Zhuangzi” as we understand “him”, none of this uncertainty is a problem. Indeed, it is to our advantage. If, as we believe, the entirety of Zhuangzi’s philosophy rests on our inability to know anything for sure, then clearly we would not want that our own interpretation of him require a belief that it is the “correct” understanding as espoused by a particular historical personage. For our purposes, we need neither an historical Zhuangzi nor a definitive understanding of what he had to say. We do not presume to represent the “correct” meaning of this or any other text.
This [the cultivation of a metaphysical Dao and qi], from our point of view, is a clearly religious enterprise, and one that Zhuangzi did not endorse. True, he speaks of qi and possibly makes reference to meditation, but never does he actually advocate for a belief in or practice of either. Traditional meditative practice is only alluded to anecdotally and even then must be inferred. This is far from the norm among those who take meditation as a central focus of their practice. Moreover, his qi, quite significantly, is described as “an emptiness”, the “space” that allows beings to arise, and not an actual thing. We must always remember as well that Zhuangzi’s work is ironic and playful; to take most anything he says literally is to miss his message altogether. He was not, in any case, a great believer in the ability of words to convey the truth of anything, and his use of them was therefore only as a necessary concession to the irremediable existential uncertainty of the human condition. We understand Zhuangzi to have made use of the cultural materials at hand—words, myths, sages, qi, spiritual practice, and dragons—to make a case for a response to the human experience in its givens, the chief of which being our utter cluelessness concerning just about everything, especially those that concern underlying metaphysical realities. Whereas the religious mind by its very nature must cling to “positive teachings”, Zhuangzi eschewed them all.
Needless to say, this take on Zhuangzi would be widely disputed if it were given sufficient airing for scholars to address, which to our knowledge it has not. The default position is to a religious Zhuangzi. One notable exception in this regard is Chad Hansen’s treatment in A Daoist Theory of Chinese Philosophy: A Philosophical Interpretation (2000) in which he argues for Zhuangzi as a skeptical philosopher who eschews all metaphysical belief and (consequently) all mysticism. Criticism of this work does not, however, typically address the question of religious over philosophical orientation, but rather focuses on issues related to the degree and nature of Zhuangzi’s skepticism.
As with seemingly most everything concerning Daoism this distinction between religious and philosophical Daoism is also controversial. Some see the distinction as completely artificial if seen from a purely historical perspective. Philosophical Daoism, if there ever was one, would appear to have been rather short-lived in any case. The human heart yearns for conclusive answers to its fears and since philosophical Daoism did not provide them, it was quickly co-opted by the religious mind. This, in any case, is our theory.
Nevertheless, we must admit that for the most part the primary texts themselves can easily be construed in a religious sense. The Daodejing (Laozi), traditionally believed to have been written by Laozi in the Sixth or Fifth Century B.C.E., is the primary source for Daoist belief and is enigmatic enough that it can easily be taken as advocating religious belief and practice. The Guanzi is an anthology of several different strands of thought, the “Daoist” leaning contributions of which may very well predate the final compilation of the Laozi (more likely in the Fourth Century B.C.E. and the work of many hands) and in these “Daoist” chapters clearly advocates for what amounts to religious belief and practice. The Zhuangzi, another anthology the earliest chapters of which likely also date to the Fourth Century B.C.E., though not quite so explicitly, can also easily be inducted in the canon of religious Daoism.
It is our belief, however, that the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi, those generally thought to be the earliest and possibly the work of Zhuangzi himself at least in part, represents a conscious attempt to move away from a religious presentation of Daoist themes toward a strictly philosophical one. Since it is likely that the aforementioned “Daoist” leaning chapters of the Guanzi were available to and known by him, his lack of a similar advocacy and his alternative suggestion that we eschew all metaphysical speculation, may very well have been intended as a conscious critique of those chapters.
We call these chapters religious primarily because they assume metaphysical realities with which one can engage and be transformed. Through meditation one “attains Dao”, a metaphysical reality, and realizes in oneself a greater accumulation of quintessential qi (chi), the substance of which all things are made, albeit only as it settles from its most rarefied quintessential form. This, from our point of view, is a clearly religious enterprise, and one that Zhuangzi did not endorse.
When most people hear the term Daoism they probably think of one of the world’s great religions, though they likely remain vague regarding what Daoists actually believe. There is “the Dao”, some kind of ultimate metaphysical reality that stands for the Source of everything and with which we can somehow mystically unite so as to live more successful and happier lives. This is central to religious Daoism. Other beliefs typical of religion also find a home in religious Daoism, though as in most religions there are significant variations that make broad generalizations difficult. Among these are some kind of immortality for the individual, the deification of its founders, and various projects intended to materially improve one’s life. However, it is not our purpose here to explore the tenets of religious Daoism, but rather to make the case that philosophical Daoism is something else altogether.
We will begin with a discussion of what we take philosophical Daoism to actually be. The Fourth Century B.C. classical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi will be our primary source. Ours will be but one possible reading and as such we will define it as a new philosophical Daoism.
Next, we will consider in detail how this philosophy can make those aforementioned philosophical contributions that may help us avoid destroying ourselves while enabling our own flourishing in joy whatever the outcome.
There is the question of hope. But philosophical Daoism offers no hope, if by hope we mean a belief in and need for the probable success of an endeavor. Rather, it suggests a perspective that creates a joyful freedom from all hope in a seemingly hopeless world. This is a hope that is also a non-hope, a hope dependent on nothing. The need for successful outcomes need not burden us when all can be envisioned as well and affirmable whatever happens. In this way we can engage in what often seems a hopeless battle while retaining our joy and positive outlook.
There are also aspects of the underlying assumptions of the environmental movement, especially as seen in Deep Ecology, that can be further reinforced and clarified through the insights of philosophical Daoism. Among these are a transcendence of speciesism and the realization of the inherent sanctity of all things. Philosophical Daoism can also help to provide an ethical rationale for the moral argument that naturally motivates environmental activism.
This is the purpose of this present work. The impending environmental apocalypse, or its possible partially averted half-sister, is well enough documented that we need not dwell on the need for radical environmental action. We assume an informed reader in this regard. What this work intends to present are the very real contributions that a new philosophical Daoism can make in providing a philosophical foundation for the perspectival transformation that turning around humanity’s flight to the cliff will necessarily require. These insights are neither complicated nor profound. Nor are they particularly new. Yet their simplicity can be deceptive if taken as merely ideas. Ideas are necessary, but unless and until they contribute to genuine transformative perspectival paradigm shifts, their value is limited.
All those who have stood up, all those who even now genuinely fight for environmental justice—how do they do it? How is it that they do not despair? What is the source of their hope? Some have put aside all hope; they do what they must because it’s the right thing to do. The unlikelihood of success does not stand in their way. Others genuinely believe that humanity will wake up, that a new globally aware consciousness will emerge. However they do it, we laud their efforts and wish to join their ranks. Yet, how many of us lack the courage to enter this tunnel with no promise of proverbial light to give hope to our endeavor? How many of us see no good reason to piss against the tide? Perhaps it would be best to let nature take its course, perverted as it has become in its creation of us.
All this hand-wringing, all this doomsday predicting, does have a purpose beyond the mere pleasure of reveling in pessimism and despair. Humanity is facing a critical moment where only a transformative leap in consciousness can secure its future as a flourishing species in a mutually nurturing environment. And for that we will require new perspectives on who we are and what is our place in this incomprehensible universe. To this, a new philosophical Daoism, I believe, has some significant contributions to make.