We maintain, therefore, that for philosophical Daoism ideas can indeed be a useful tool for the realization of what must go well beyond ideas. We are where we are today largely because of the power of ideas. Rationalism and speciesism are ideas deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and they have contributed significantly to the behaviors that have brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Only a philosophy that fails to understand the prevailing cultural world-views as philosophy would suggest that philosophy does not practically impact our being in the world. True, there are other still more powerful forces at work, but to dismiss philosophy—ideas—as an important means of gaining transformative egress into what motivates our behaviors is to miss the point of doing philosophy altogether.
Finally, we must take still other liberties if we are to proceed without endless qualifications. Because we do not represent our take on philosophical Daoism as a correct understanding of the texts, we can also make convenient assumptions about their authorship and dates without undermining our takeaway. We will thus refer to Zhuangzi as the single author of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi, assume that they present a single vision, and that they are in many ways distinct from the other portions of the anthology. All these assumptions are widely disputed by scholars and often dismissed by many. This need not concern us. This is our philosophy and we will profitable mine these resources without concern for their geological genesis.
[In response to the suggestion that Daoism does not make use of ideas:]
Zhuangzi’s method, moreover, to the extent that he can be said to have had one, is very much about the use of ideas—new perspectives—to transform one’s interface with oneself and the world. He suggests a kind of meditative imagining of different, broadening perspectives, whereby one can recontextualize oneself and be transformed. Imagine yourself as utterly non-dependent on anything, not even life itself. What then could you possibly fear? Imagine identifying, not with your isolated monadic self, but with the Totality of all things. “Hide the world in the world”. Where in Everything could anything be lost? Imagine life and death as a single string, not two different things, but one unit. How then could death represent a loss? Imagine humanity as the same and equal to all other things and creatures. How could we then not love and honor them all? Imagine the pronouncements of all our great theories as equivalent to the chirpings of a nest of baby birds. How could we then cling to our own dogmas as to sacred truths, and kill in their name? These and many other imaginative exercises have ideas as their point of departure and psychological transformation as their goal.
These exercises, however, are not intended to suggest anything as “true”. We needn’t believe in an actual Totality for its imagining to have a palliative effect. We needn’t think ourselves monkeys in putting ourselves in their ‘shoes’ and imagining how their preferences, so different than ours, are also as valid as our own. This parallels the use of words; though they can never replace experience, they nonetheless can point us in that direction. The celebrated metaphor of the fish trap attributed to Zhuangzi by a later contributor to the Zhuangzi makes this point: “A fish trap is for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. . . . Words are for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, that I might have a few words with him?” (Chapter 26; Ziporyn; Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings; 2009) Words are not experience, but they can point us in that direction. We do not believe in words, but we do believe in their power. In this way Zhuangzi makes upayic use of ideas without clinging to them as “true”.
A third theoretical objection to the formulation of a Daoist contribution to a philosophy of ecological concern is that the belief that ideas can be applied in such a way as to make a practical difference in the world is contrary to Daoism itself. In our case, this argument carries much more weight. Daoism is, above all else, a philosophy more concerned with the spontaneous, organic self-arising of the human experience than with the application of intellectual principles to life. This is what Zhuangzi called “adding to the process of life” and against which he proposed an alternative. Yet in doing so he too was in some sense self-contradictory. He argues for a movement antecedent to and beyond reason—and uses reason to make his case. This is the same conundrum previously mentioned. It is a grave mistake to take Zhuangzi as anti-reason, however. “Therefore, when the rationalizing mind restfully settles in what it cannot know, it has fully realized itself”, he writes. (Chapter 2; All quotes from the Zhuangzi are our own loose rendering unless otherwise stated). This is not a negation of reason, but the use of reason to proclaim the limits of reason and to suggest a movement beyond reason. Zhuangzi was an anti-rationalist, the belief that only reason can give proper guidance for the conduct of one’s life. He was not against the use of reason per se.
It also needs to be said that Daoism is by its very nature self-contradictory. If it were not it would not be Daoism. And, frankly, much that represents itself as Daoism fails of this. Daoism speaks of what cannot be spoken; to take it at face value is to turn Daoism upside down. Dao is not-Dao. Doing is not-doing. Knowing is not-knowing. Happiness is a kind not-happiness. Hope is a kind of not-hope. All that Daoism is and says is essentially upayic, a means necessarily incommensurate with its ends which cannot be realized by the application of any means. It is not what it says; it understands that its saying contradicts what it says; it is a finger pointing at the moon. Every definitive statement left standing without self-effacement is contrary to the spirit of Daoism. Including this one. Which is the point.
[We distance ourselves from Daoism altogether.]
With this we also obviate two theoretical objections to the use of Daoism in the formulation of a modern-day philosophy that underpins environmental responsibility. It is argued that Daoism is embedded in culture and that to extract so-called Daoist principles from them is to distort Daoism on the one hand and to offend those cultures on the other. Since this will not be our approach, these objections do not apply. We are not in any case, quite frankly, overly concerned with political correctness at a time when our collective well-being hangs in the balance. Let us then here declare that our underlying premise is that Daoism in all its religious forms has utterly failed of the original vision of its ostensible founders Laozi and Zhuangzi. This, of course, is a consequence of our own interpretation of them which we have admitted cannot be presented as more definitive than any other. This interpretation sees Zhuangzi especially as eschewing all metaphysical speculation and every salvific project that would otherwise depend upon it. We see the foundation of his philosophy as utterly non-dependent on any belief, principle, salvific project or method—in a word, on any and all religious pursuit. Such an assumption will no doubt offend many, but that is not our concern. “To be insulted is not a disgrace,” said Song Xing stating a principle to which Zhuangzi affirmingly alludes; let them then realize that to which they subscribe; we provide them that opportunity. We might also say that the founders of every great religion have similarly been utterly betrayed by their putative followers. We might say this of the militant followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Would Gautama countenance the worship of his golden image or the slaughter of Myanmar’s Muslims in his name? Would Moses endorse the ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s indigenous Semitic peoples? (Well, yes, but that’s a different problem.) Humanity naturally defaults to its most primal instincts and the teachings of those who have challenged them are soon co-opted. This is not intended as a dismissal of those of religious persuasion or of the religions they follow. They are as affirmable as any other aspect of the human expression, though we need not affirm the consequences. Only we would make our case that we are not therefore obliged to defer to their representations of the pronouncements of their founders.
[In this sense, we are not Daoists at all, nor is our philosophy Daoism.]
Scholars, much better informed and capable than we, have already made serious attempts to understand how Daoism might help inform the environmental movement. But though they have found significant strains of traditional thought and practice that lend themselves to environmental concern, most remain highly skeptical as to their actual effectiveness or applicability. The reasons for this are several, some practical and others theoretical.
In the case of the former, history does not demonstrate that traditional strains of Daoist thought and practice have led to any greater care for the environment then is found in the theist West. Industrialization and consumerism and the environmental degradation that follows in their wake are as much a part of cultures that have deep Daoist roots—China and Korea especially—as in any other. Our typical vision of a Daoist sage communing with the beauty of nature, though compelling, is essentially romanticism. Saying that traditional forms of Daoism have a greater respect for nature, even if theoretically so, does not make it practically so. These aforementioned scholars have thus been unwilling to glibly espouse Daoism as a remedy for our present heedless destruction of the environment. Those who do tend not to be scholars, but rather those of a religious sensibility that engages more in wishful rather than in critical thinking.
We will not, therefore, refer to traditional Daoist beliefs as evidence of how Daoism in any form can help to turn the trajectory of our present destructive course. We distance ourselves from Daoism altogether.
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.