dao righting


Bessie, dear one, on a winter's day in our back yard

A deviation of a hair’s breadth at the center
Leads to an error of a hundred miles at the rim.
When the effort is so slight,
Why should you hesitate to set things right?

There are many people who endeavor to know Tao. In the greatest sincerity, they take music lessons, read scriptures, learn foreign languages, study nutrition, change their dress, and go to temples—all in the hopes that they will reach Tao. Sadly, they miss it by a hair’s breadth. For a person to awaken to Tao, someone must give them a spark. Perhaps this is what is called direct transmission. It is odd, but this is the only way that knowledge of Tao is passed on.

Book knowledge can help and give one a deep theoretical background, but the true understanding of Tao still comes person to person. There is no other way.

So if you have any true understanding of Tao, you got it from someone. If you meet someone else who needs that spark and you are in the position to give it, then do so. Don’t be selfish. Thee are so many people out there who want guidance and who cannot get it. If you can make a difference for at least one person, then you have tremendous merit indeed.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9

Bessie in her new back yard
© 1995-2005 lisbeth west
A Mountain Solstice
Wild birds flutter and land, soar off
with the treasure of sunflower
seeds in the snow.
Fred is grumpy and loving,
our daily paradox.
Chuckie bounces furry and retrieves
his new toy. It is
duck-shaped; daffy.
Brownie oversees all and lectures
wisely to all who will listen.
Kitty stretches in a ray of sun
light, waits by a mouse hole at
the edge of a garden.
Squirrel flies across the pine tree.
Spider weaves more web, eggs hatching.

Bessie’s grave faces East. A small
bowl holds morsels to sustain the
fox, deer, raccoon.

She frolics in the meadow now.
December, 1998

Our earlier stories papered over our knowledge that Daoism and Legalism, in particular, were not categories or schools in the minds of the classical thinkers themselves. Those "schools" were carved out of "intellectual kapok" by later historians trying to recover and understand a lost philosophical tradition. The new discovery also underlines another thing we "knew" but papered over: both Laozi and Shen Dao "inspired" two wings of this anachronistic divide-specifically both Hanfei-zi and Zhuangzi .

How should this new story affect our interpretation and understanding of Lao-Zhuang philosophy? It does give us reason to think that that Laoism may be appropriated by Huang-Lao systems (Mencius and Guanzi) from a comparatively early date-perhaps even before Zhuangzi. It does not, however, give us any other reason to deny a similar link to Zhuangzi! The inner-chapter mentions of the Lao Tan still stand as the first philosophical reference to the ideas of Laozi and the Zhuangzi Tianxia account of intellectual lineage listing Shen Dao and Laozi as leading to Zhuangzi is still the earliest "history of thought." The only way to undermine that lineage is to assume that there is only one authentic line of influence of the text.

Nonetheless, the new more complicated textual story does make a radical difference in our interpretive stance. First, this story of the text reinforces both trendy and philosophically warranted moves to "decenter the subject" in interpretation. The meaning of a text is function of the language of the community. This suggests that rather than one interpretation (the intentionality of the author) we now relativize interpretations to various audience communities and essentially, therefore, have to tolerate many "correct" interpretations. We may give reasons for preferring one community-say the one we think earliest, the one most influential over the history of the text, the one most consonant with Einsteinian physics, etc.

We can guide our account of the first communally witnessed reading by the position of Lao Tan in the Zhuangzi. That is the relevant and earliest quasi-commentary.

Go back, now, to my content description of Daoism. It corresponds roughly to the content Sima Qian identified as Huang-Lao. But I would argue that this new story means, paradoxically, that the traditional tail should now wag the dog. Zhuangzi's position is prior to Laozi's in history and interpretive importance in Lao-Zhuang philosophy. It includes Laozi only because he can be seen as a step toward Zhuangzi, not because Zhuangzi follows and elaborates on Laozi. So we should study Zhuangzi's reasoning free of the dogma that he presupposes Laozi's theory. When we see what Zhuangzi is saying, then we can give the appropriate sense in which Laozi could be seen as a step toward that view. Then we will see the "meaning" of Laozi within Lao-Zhuang philosophy (which may be radically different the "meaning" within Huang-Lao religion).

We now face the classic choice between two views of meaning: 1) that the proper use of a name is governed by a definition/description and 2) the view that names are rigid designators and their sense is a matter of what is true about the referents. Notice that the description in the mind of the coiner is irrelevant to the second view. He coins the word by reference and succeeding generations conform in the referring practice. That is consistent with our discovering that the coiner was wrong about the objects he identified by the name. (Whales are mammals despite the beliefs of the our Old English ancestors.) If we think the name "Daoist" has a sense (given by the above list) then the Lao-Zhuang tradition is not Daoism. Daoism is Huang-Lao, Mencius, and the metaphysics/epistemology of Legalism from Guanzi to Hanfei-zi as well as that of Han Confucianism, Neo-Daoism, Buddhism, and the Neo-Confucians. If Daoism refers to Lao-Zhuang and is whatever theory their writing expresses. The list (and Sima Qian's summary of beliefs) is simply been wrong about the theoretical content of Daoism!

I like the name "Daoist" and will continue to use and claim it-though as a Daoist, I can't worry too much if I am given the name or not. The correct interpretive theory for reading the Laozi in the Zhuangzi school, however, differs radically from the conventional theory of Daoism. I'm not denying that Daoism has an essence. I'm simply insisting that its essence is fixed by what is true of the Lao-Zhuang tradition, not by our beliefs however widely shared about definitions and doctrines.

The revolutionary insight into Zhuangzi then is that we can approach him without imposing assumptions on what he is trying to do. The revolutionary insight about Laozi is that we consciously view him through Zhuangzi. The correct Daoist reading of Laozi depends on getting Zhuangzi right.

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