Friday, November 24, 2006


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.


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