Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Zhu Xi was one of the most prolific writers in the history of Chinese philosophy. He developed the notion of the li and qi, roughly translated as principle and matter. While there is an inherent and eternal li as part of the nature of everything in the universe, the qi is what condenses the principle and allows for the particular and temporal things that exist in the world. But as the eternal li were as numerous as the things they endowed, there needed to be a ultimate standard in which to unite them, which for Zhu Xi was the Supreme Ultimate or the Tai Ji. This notion of the Tai Ji is something Zhu Xi developed from his predecessor Zhou Dun-yi. Feng You-lan gives an account of Zhu Xi’s description of the Tai Ji in his Short History of Chinese Philosophy (page 297):

“The Supreme Ultimate is simply what is the highest of all, beyond which nothing can be. It is the most high, most mystical and most abstruse, surpassing everything. Lest anyone should imagine that the Supreme Ultimate has bodily form, Lien-hsi (i.e. Zhou Dun-yi) has said of it: ‘The Ultimateless, and yet also the Supreme Ultimate.’ That is, it is in the realm of no things that there is to be found the highest li.”

Fung’s translation of Zhu Xi’s account is interesting as it shows perhaps the greatest Neo-Confucian was influenced by Zhou, who himself was clearly influenced by the content of the Dao De Jing. That being said, it is no secret that the Neo-Confucians took great pains to distance themselves from their Buddhist and Daoist influences. Once again, the highest ideal of a sage in Confucianism was one who took part in the aspects of human life, trying to forge a system where the ultimate goal of ‘peace under heaven’ could prevail. In this passage though, it is hard not to think about the metaphysical beginnings put forth in the Dao De Jing and how they have come to play a part in the development of all Chinese thought. While it may be a stretch to say that Zhu Xi’s cosmology of li, qi and the Supreme Ultimate were influenced directly by the Dao De Jing, I would like to take a look at the relationship between the Dao and De in the next section to outline an interaction between the metaphysical and the world of things much earlier in Chinese thought.

Neo-Confucianism had its roots in the thinking of some Tang Dynasty philosophers such as Han Yu, Li Au and Zhou Dun-yi. The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and lasted until 907. It is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese culture, with Chinese rule stretching over more territory than ever before. It was during this dynasty in 622 that the examination system to select court officials was reestablished. Emperor Tai Zong was responsible for bringing Confucianism back as the official teaching of the state by establishing a Confucian temple in the Imperial University and ordering scholars to prepare official commentaries on the Confucian classics. (Feng You-lan A Short History of Chinese Philosophy page 266)

Feng You-lan continues here to say though that by this time Confucianism had already lost its vitality. Philosophical speculation had been made available to the common people through the teachings of Buddhism and Daoism, making Confucianism seem like a philosophy for the elite to maintain power. In order to face these challenges, Confucian philosophers needed to reinterpret their tradition and breathe some new life into it. Wing-tsit Chan calls Zhou Dun-yi the founder of Neo-Confucianism. (The Way Of Lao Zi page 149) and recounts that in Zhou’s philosophy is based on the Great Ultimate, which really reads as the Non-Ultimate in Chinese characters. Chan says the Non-Ultimate generates the cosmic forces of yin and yang through which in transformation the myriad of creation is produced. This notion of the Non-Ultimate can be found in Chapter 28 of the Dao De Jing:

“He who knows the white and yet keeps to the black, becomes the model for the world. Being the model for the world, he will never deviate from eternal virtue, but returns to the state of the Non-Ultimate.” (Translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

Both Feng and Chan mention the debt to the Confucian classic the Book of Changes for the development of Zhou’s cosmology. Chan says that he borrowed the concept from the Lao Zi and added to it the idea of the Great Ultimate in the book of changes. In the speculations of Zhou Dun-yi, we see the initial attempts to develop a metaphysical basis for Confucianism, which was then later developed by the great thinker Zhu Xi in the Sung Dynasty.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Through Wing-tsit Chan’s explanation of the sage and his place in Chinese tradition, we see that no one was excluded from becoming one. This ties in well with the idea of the Buddha nature being in all men in Daoism. In fact, Hui Neng, the founder of the southern school of Chan was an illiterate peasant. Hui Neng’s advocated a “sudden enlightenment” to achieve Buddhahood. As mentioned above, this was through non-cultivation or having no deliberate mind. Wing-tsit Chan says that Chan masters taught the “absence of thought,” “forgetting one’s feelings,” and “letting the mind takes its own course” as ways to achieve the end. At the risk of pursuing a pedantic argument, the cultivation of non-cultivation in itself may have been a slippery slope here for those wanting sudden enlightenment. But that point aside, we can see the Daoist influence in some of these Chan notions. While “forgetting one’s feelings” and “letting the mind takes its own course” may have been more along the lines of something Zhuang Zi would have advocated, we can see a very close association of “absence of though” to chapter forty-eight in the Dao De Jing:

“To learn, one accumulates day by day.

To study Dao, one reduces day by day.

Through reduction and further reduction, one reaches non-action,

and yet everything is acted upon.” (translation by Chang Chung-yuan)

The Dao, like the Buddha mind, takes an emptying instead of an accumulation or deliberate cultivation. In accumulating the positive facts of a busy, dusty world, one strays farther and farther from the source of the Dao or Buddha mind. In letting go of the mind or ego, one identifies more closely with the source of all beings. The sage of the Buddha does not act on them or interfere, but lets thing take their own course.

Here I would like to add a few notes to why I altered the translation of Wing-tsit Chan in his English rendering of chapter twenty five. While the Han Dynasty philosophical genius Wang Bi used the word “king” as one of the four greats in this chapter, later commentaries switched back to the use of “man”. The argument for king is that he is the representative of man and the pinnacle of his achievement in the form of a sage. Keeping with the spirit that “anyone can become a sage,” which will we look at closer in some of the Neo-Confucian philosophers, I opt for man. To use a western slant, perhaps we could explain the greatness of man here with a notion from the renowned German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger calls man the “being that shows concern about his being.” In this way, man is great as he is the being that “identifies with the Dao.”

The other slight alteration I made in the Wing-tsit Chan translation was to change the last line from his original “And Dao models itself after nature” to “And the Dao is the self so.” The term nature here is Chan’s translation of the Chinese term “zi-ran.” The contemporary scholar Liu Xiao-gan notes that this term began with Lao Zi and, although it means nature in modern Chinese usage, it meant something different in the Dao De Jing. Liu writes “that the concept zi ran clearly began with Lao Zi. Other early Chinese classics such as the Book of Odes, Zuo Zhuan and the Confucian Analects all fail to use this term. The basic meaning of zi-ran is the ‘self-so.’ The adverb zi modifies the adjective ran, which comprises the full term, but philosophically the term can be considered a noun.” (passage self-translated from Liu Xiao-gan’s Lao Zi, pages 67-68)

Thus reading this important passage as the Dao models itself after nature would be misleading, as the Dao is the highest concept in Lao Zi’s philosophy. It would better be rendered, as many other scholars do, as the self-so or Chang Chung-yuan’s rendering “the Dao is in accordance with that which is.” The natural world in ancient China was often referred to by the common term “wan wu,” literally meaning “ten thousand things” and often translated as the “myriad of things.” Thus, in my view, the translation of the last line of chapter twenty five in the Dao De Jing as “the Dao follows nature” would be misleading and out of sync with the rest of the message in the text.

Wing-tsit Chan also gives insight into the influences Daoism has had on Chan with the notion that the “Buddha-mind is everywhere and the Buddha nature is in all men.” Keeping with the spirit of Chinese thought, the Dao De Jing is also a very practical book in many aspects. Though it gives us a glimpse of what seems to be a very abstract, esoteric Dao, this notion is in fact not divorced from the realities of life for mankind. In what I feel is one of the more philosophically beautiful and complete chapters of the Dao De Jing, chapter twenty-five paints the following picture:

“There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before heaven and earth.

Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change.

It operates everywhere and is free from danger.

It may be considered the mother of the universe.

I do not know its name; I call it Dao.

If forced to give it a name, I shall call it Great.

Now being great means functioning everywhere.

Functioning everywhere means far-reaching.

Being far-reaching means returning to the original point.

Therefore Dao is great.

Heaven is great.

Earth is great.

And man is also great.

There are four great things in the universe, and man is one of them.

Man models himself after the Earth.

Earth models itself after Heaven.

Heaven models itself after Dao.

And Dao is the self-so.” (Translation by Wing-tsit Chan with minor alterations.)

Here we see that man is considered one of the four great things in the universe after the Dao, heaven and earth. Throughout the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi writes how the sage can come to rule through the identification with the Dao and bring about harmony within the world if men. Perhaps chapter twenty-five lays the groundwork for this identification in calling man one of the four great things of the universe. Speaking to critics who say thus that the book is a mystical one and devoid of value for the common man, Wing Tsit-chan says “This is most unfair. Although half the chapters (of the Dao De Jing) deal with the sage and how he should rule, the other half do not, and it is here that the most important ideas are expressed. Furthermore, the sage is no more than an ideal person, which everyone could become through the practice of the Dao. In the Chinese tradition in general and in Daoism in particular, everyone has the potentiality to become a sage. There is not the slightest hint in the Dao De Jing that the sage is a different species.”


As mentioned previously, it was Emperor Wu who ruled during the Han Dynasty from the year 141BC to 87 BC who made Confucianism the orthodox state philosophy. Over three hundred years later, the Han Dynasty collapsed and China was thrust into turmoil much like it had seen during the Warring States period. Confucianism too had lost some its luster by this time, as it stagnated into a scholastic school by practitioners merely interested in advancing their own careers as court and government officials. This led to a resurgence in earlier schools that had been quelled during the time of Emperor Wu in favor of Confucianism. The School of Names as well as Mohism made a comeback, but the most intriguing comeback of all had to have been that of Daoism. While Daoism was not completely dormant during the Han Dynasty, the troubles of the time led to Daoism coming back into vogue in order to find some answers that werent adequately being supplied by Confucians.

What grew out of this Daoist renaissance was two schools that were to make up a movement later known as Neo-Daoism. In his book, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Feng You-lan gives the names Rationalists and Sentimentalists to distinguish between the two different sects in this Daoist revival. Feng used the English term rationalists to name the school in Neo-Daoism that is known as the xuan xue in Chinese. This school took its name from a passage in chapter one of the Dao De Jing that calls the Dao the xuan, or dark and mysterious door. Feng uses the English word sentimentalists to describe the parallel Daoists school that enjoyed engaging in an activity known as qing tan, or pure conversation. This practice was usually carried out by people of like-minded metaphysical pursuit. While both schools brought back Daoism, it was the former rationalists who interpreted Daoist texts that made a lasting influence on the development of later Chinese thought.

One of the most celebrated scholars to come out of the era was Wang Bi. Wangs candle burned bright and short as died at the young age of 23.He lived after the collapse of the Han Dynasty during the Wei Dynasty from 226-249. Wangs interpretation of the Dao De Jing solidified the metaphysical groundwork already in the Dao De Jing. I emphasize that the groundwork was already in the Dao De Jing as many scholars seem to write as if Wang actually bestowed a metaphysics on the book. While many contend that it was not Lao Zis aim to write a metaphysical text, instead keeping with the zeitgeist of his period and writing on how the sage should rule, Wangs metaphysical interpretation could not have come out of thin air. In other words, the interpretation couldnt have been metaphysical if there were no metaphysical notions in the Dao De Jing to begin with. What Wang Bi did do, however, was strengthen the basis of this metaphysics. The notion of wu or nothingness is very apparent in the Dao De Jing and what Wang Bi does is equate that notion with the Dao itself. This rendering of the Dao as nothingness may be hard to fathom for western thinkers used to thinking of the concept as a vacuous and empty one. In western thought, nothingness is the absence of being and thus considered unfathomable. In Wangs interpretation, the Dao as nothing is significant in that it does not define the Dao and leaves it in its unrestricted wholeness. The source of all creation can not itself be a thing, as all things are prone to change and ultimate annihilation. The Dao then that cannot be described is one that is no thing. Wang Bi called this nothingness ben-wu or original non-being. In his Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (page 316) Wing-tsit Chan states that Wangs rendering of original non-being was:

original non-being transcends all distinctions and descriptions. It is pure being, original substance (ben-ti) and one in which substance and function are identified. It is whole and strong. And it is always correct because it is in accord with principle. This emphasis on principle is very conspicuous in his commentaries. Where Lao Zi had destiny (ming, fate), Wang Bi would substitute principle, thus anticipating the Neo-Confucians, who preferred to speak of the Principle of Nature (Tian Li) instead of destiny declared by heaven (Tian Ming).

These notions of nothingness and principle laid the ground for later developments in Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism. While it cannot be argued that there was a direct link between these later two schools of thought in China and the developments of the Dao De Jing made Wang Bi, there are nevertheless some obvious influences involved that we will take a look at.

Before going into those, however, it is necessary to point out that while Wang Bi interpreted the Dao De Jing, he also made other commentaries on the Confucian Analects as well. He was in fact not a Daoist thinker in the purest sense as he considered Confucius and not Lao Zi to be the true sage. For Wang, Confucius never talked about the Dao because he was close to the Dao and Lao Zi always spoke of the Dao because he was far from it. In his understanding of wu-wei or non-action, he said the sage was one who could transcend all things. In his identification with original non-being, the sage could stay amidst the clamor of everyday life and remain one with the Dao, thus making the perfect ruler. This was the epitome of Confucius and not Lao Zi.

Aside from Confucianism and Daoism, Buddhism has also played a prominent part in the history of Chinese thought. In his Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Feng You-lan puts the date of Buddhism’s introduction into China around the first half of the first century AD, though he states some consider it had been heard about in China before then. Feng continues to explain that in the early days of Buddhism in China, many thought the teachings to be a foreign variant of the Dao De Jing. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the practice of Ko Yi or matching concepts was prevalent. This was an analogous method in which a concept from Buddhism was interpreted with the use of Daoist thought. Early on this was probably due to an attempt by the Buddhist schools in China to make some inroads in their new surroundings and win over converts. Feng states that by the fifth century when more Buddhist translations were made available, the practice of Ko Yi was abandoned due to inaccuracy and distortion. But before that time, notions such as “being” and “non-being,” basic in the Dao De Jing, made their way into the nomenclature and were still being used in the fifth century.

Feng You-lan continues to make an important distinction in distinguishing “Buddhism in China” and “Chinese Buddhism.” The practical slant of the Chinese mind may have not been fertile ground for the development of such an other-worldly metaphysical philosophy that Buddhism was offering. That’s why after a while the Chinese took the tenants of Indian Buddhism one step further and gradually began cultivating their own style of Buddhism more suited to their pragmatic needs. While there developed a few schools of Buddhism in China, the most notable is Ch’an or Zen, as it is more commonly known in the west. Ch’an is the Chinese word translated from the Sanskrit for meditation, but it is a philosophy grounded in this world. The Chinese mind could not conceive relying on things of the world to live and then denying their existence. One of the basic tenants of Ch’an is that enlightenment is not something to be cultivated but something that comes suddenly and can come when going about the daily tasks of life.

Feng continues saying that in “Cha’anism, the best method for achieving Buddhahood is not to practice cultivation. To cultivate oneself in this way is to exercise deliberate effort, which is yu-wei (having action). This yu-wei will, to be sure, produce some good effect, but it will not be everlasting.” This deliberate action is something anathema to achieving enlightenment, and has its roots in the Daoist notion of wu-wei or taking no action.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

It has been said numerous times that the Chinese are a practical minded people and that this is reflected in the development of their thought. While this is often said in defense of the argument that Chinese does not have speculative philosophy per se as the ancient Greeks (the inventors of the word) did, the idea that the Greeks themselves were not a pragmatic people would be a false one. Greek philosophy gave birth to speculation on the principles of nature, which in turn led to the development of a scientific tradition in the west that is very practical in nature. What many scholars do contend is that the Chinese tradition of speculative thought grew out of an attempt to bring back order in a chaotic situation that was the Warring States period in China. The Greeks too had to deal with constant war and strife among its many city states, but the philosophy of the polis was only one aspect of the development of thought, while it could be contended that the development of Chinese thought was solely concerned with establishing social order. Aristotle contended that philosophy was a leisure activity and that only the aristocrat who had the time and wherewithal could dedicate himself to the pursuit of abstract thought. Chinese thinkers, on the other hand, while mainly coming from the upper echelon of society, would think it anathema to say that thought would be borne out of leisure time. The Chinese thinker devoted himself to finding a system to bring order back to society, and would find little use in sitting around mulling on first principles unless they could lead to this end.

Thus for the Chinese, it was paramount for a thinker to advance his system to bring about these practical ends. The Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period in Chinese history was also one known their “hundred schools of thought.” The school of thought that came out of this period to become the most influential throughout Chinese history was unarguably Confucianism. The master Kung Fu Zi founded the school by refining the culture of the state of Zhou, especially in the example of the Duke of Zhou, whom he found to be the most moral of sages. Confucius wanted to bring back the morality of the Zhou as a basis for governments in his troubled times to rectify the chaos that was rampant in the Warring States Period. Lao Siguang contends, however, that it would be a mistake to consider Confucius merely a conveyor of ancient tradition. Lao Siguang write that the Zhou were a people who changed the direction of their government from a ancestor worship based system prevalent with the previous Yi people and geared it toward a more humanistic approach. It was this humanistic aspect that Confucius reflected on and tried to bring back into vogue during his times. Lao Siguang says that as the founder of a new school of Ru, Confucius brought the thought of the Zhou into maturity, disavowing other earlier schools in the process. The harkening back to the earlier sage kings Yao and Shun was something that later Confucian scholars did, but not Confucius himself. He felt that effective government could be brought about by reestablishing the principles of human relationships from the top with the king all the way down to the familial relationships that constituted the basic bonds of society. As it often is with influential thinkers, it takes a while for their ideas to take hold. Confucius was not taken seriously by the leaders of his time and he lamented his relative lack of influence to bring about his ideal society. The Qin Dynasty, though it did unite all of China for the first time in its history, was an oppressive regime that relied on the realpolitik methods of the Legalist school to carry out its brutal objectives. Consequently all other schools of thought were banned during this time, including the thought of Confucius as well as later Confucian thinkers such as Mencius and Xun Zi. It wasn’t until Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty instituted Confucianism as the state philosophy that it became the orthodox thought of the state and began its long reign over the minds of the Chinese people. Emperor Wu made Confucian ethics the basis of his empire and took it one step further by beginning a school for administrators to study the classics, which was also the beginning of the state exam system for those who wished to serve in the emperor’s court. This system has had a long-ranging influence on Chinese society and is still very much alive today.


While Confucianism has taken hold in China, that does not necessarily mean that all other schools have been eliminated along the way. Some of the other main schools during the Warring States Period included Mohism, Legalism (as mentioned above), the School of Names and probably the most famous Chinese school of thought in the west along with Confucianism: Daoism. The name Daoism as a school came into vogue during the Han Dynasty, but the seeds of the school were planted much earlier with the two main contributors being Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. While Daoism itself did not become the official state philosophy during the Han Dynasty, its influence starting from this time has nonetheless been as important on the development of Chinese thought, The modern 20th Century Chinese philosophy scholar Wing-tsit Chan states succinctly in the opening of his translation of the Dao De Jing that:

“Chinese civilization and the Chinese character would have been utterly different if the book Lao Zi had never been written. In fact, even Confucianism, the dominant system in Chinese history and thought, would not have been the same, for like Buddhism, it has not escaped Daoist influence. No one can hope to understand Chinese philosophy, religion, government, art, medicine and even cooking without a real appreciation of the profound philosophy taught in this little book.

Chan’s statement implicitly states that although Daoism has been more or less relegated to the background of the development of Chinese thought, its influence has nevertheless been just as important. Perhaps some of the central ideas of Confucianism and Daoism have to do with this arrangement. While Confucius and later Confucian thinkers advocated a “hands-on” approach to rectifying social relationships to bring about good government and the ultimate goal of “peace under the heavens,” early Daoist thinking, especially as laid out in the Dao De Jing, emphasized a more subtle approach by calling for a philosophy of “non-action.”

A closer look reveals the crux of Chan’s assessment lies in the underlying push of the Dao De Jing in the two other schools that have played a major part in Chinese thought: Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.

Monday, November 06, 2006

New Chinese Philosophy Research Method
In writing this thesis, I would like to borrow the methods of philosophical research mentioned by Professor Lao Siguang in his History of Chinese Philosophy. First and foremost, we have to take a look at the problem being addressed by the philosopher in question, in this case the author of the Dao De Jing. The first step is to try and extrapolate a system from the text. The next step would be to investigate the historical background in which the text was written and the final step is to analyze what the text means in this context. From there, the thesis will try and speculate further on how the text can be used to advance philosophical thought.
About Historical Openness reflection on Chinese Philosophy
Rethinking on Dao De Jing
Introduction It is the purpose of this thesis to show what I see as a strong case for openness in the thought of Dao De Jing and how it has contributed to the advancement of Chinese philosophy. While it may have not been the original intent of the author to develop metaphysics, the content of the Dao De Jing provides a clear metaphysical view of the universe as well as the development of an ontology that I believe has been a happy accident for Chinese philosophy. The content of the Dao De Jing has provided thinkers of other schools in Chinese philosophy, such as Legalism, Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, with the needed theory to help bolster their own arguments and develop philosophical thought in China. Whenever there has been a period of challenge to Chinese thinkers, It seems the Dao De Jing has helped them to meet these challenges and forge on. I believe that this has been due to the very openness of Dao De Jing. Through examining the text of the Dao De Jing I would like to show how it has developed a perpetual creative nature that contributed metaphysics and ontology to Chinese thought.