Sunday, January 20, 2008

Just what are Daoists up to?

Over the summer I read The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell and wrote a post about how much I enjoyed the experience. What I didn't say there, however, was how unsatisfying I found his concluding remarks. Campbell was a firm believer in the maxim that "the East is East and the West is West, and never the twain shall meet". At the core of this belief was his thought that the Eastern faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism were ultimately life denying. Instead he posited that the emergent Western ideal of romantic love and the heroic individual---as exemplified in the Holy Grail legend---was a evolutionary step forward.

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this point of view since then and have come to the conclusion that Campbell was wrong. To understand why, though, I had to do some serious thinking about human consciousness, and how the Daoists understand it. To that end, I've been reading A.C.Graham's tremendous survey of ancient Chinese philosophy, Disputers of the Dao. The chapter on Zhuangzi is apropos. As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi believed that human beings are at their best when "heaven" lives through them, or, when people "merge with the Dao". This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time---without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the "knack" of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar "knack" for living.

For Zhuangzi, this "knack" only comes about when a person is able to cut away their attachment to the ordinary world and totally identify with the world around them (i.e. the "cosmic Dao".) At this point the sage simply cannot be harmed because he can no longer distinguish between himself and his surroundings. As long as he lives, he can flow with his surroundings. When he dies, he merely returns to the source.

As practical spirituality, Daoist internal alchemy has developed practices aimed at stripping away the distinction between the individual and his surroundings. The core practice of "sitting and forgetting" is aimed at quieting the "internal dialogue" that constantly reminds us that we are individuals instead of just knots of sensory experience. The study of martial arts and other kung-fu allow us to develop and explore the spontaneous action that only comes from mastery of a subject. And on a lyrical level the literature of Daoism is full of stories about adepts who were forced to go through tremendous ordeals in order to burnt out the egoistic impurities of their soul.

Where Campbell goes wrong, however, is to think that these egoistic impulses that the Daoist seeks to leave behind are what it means to be who we are. Instead, they are the junk and slag that are left over from our abusive childhoods, deranged culture and destructive instincts. For example, any freedom that I may gain will not come from giving into the anger that is the result of being beaten as a child but rather in going beyond it. That would only be the acting out of old karma---to use the Indian term. Instead, if I can clear away all this sewage from the spring in my soul, I will be able to drink deeply from the Dao's life-giving water.

The key question that people like Campbell get confused about is freedom. As I have mentioned before, true freedom is not the right to sit on a couch, watch television and eat potato chips. But I had never really been able to get my handle on what it is before I came across a quote from Cicero: "Freedom is participation in power". This is a very important saying for political activists (I came across it because it was quoted by Ralph Nader), but it also has relevance for spiritual folks. The goal of burning off the spiritual impurities in Old Lao's furnace is not to become some sort shadow of a human being, but rather to become the most free person possible. This comes about because by doing so we are learning how to directly participate in the central power of the universe.

This is what it means to "merge with the Dao".

1 comment:

gukseon said...

I think this is a really succinct and well-worded summary of the Daoist "Project", and it's all the more valuable because it addresses the all-too common complaint that Daoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are "nihlistic". As you point out, they only appear so to people who misunderstand just what their true "self" is.