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.


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