Saturday, December 23, 2006

Lao Zi’s philosophy usually evokes different reactions from different mindsets. The content of the Dao De Jing is at once varied and complete, but can be rendered in many ways to suit the purpose at hand. The Legalist School in China interpreted passages such as “the sage governs by emptying the hearts and filling the stomachs of his people. He weakens their wills and strengthens their bones. He always keeps them ignorant and free from desire, so those that know will not dare to act. (chapter three)” quite literally, advising kings to keep the people docile so as not to challenge the authority of their rule. While this passage may be taken literally, it would not fit in with the rest of the Dao De Jing that advises rulers to be humble and sell-effacing. The point here is that any great book is usually taken in many different lights to serve the purposes of those quoting or commenting on it. This makes my little endeavor here a tenuous one as well, because I tend to look at the book as a metaphysical treatise on the eternal source of all creation. The emphasis on the sage and the rule through the eternal Dao may have been the original purport of the author, as it ties in well with the other intellectual activity happening during the time, but we are left undeniably with an overall picture of the process of creation and its link with the eternal, which may be described as a happy accident for Chinese philosophy. Perhaps Lao Zi inadvertently backed into a metaphysics, but there is one nonetheless.

Another label often times foisted on Lao Zi and the writings of the Dao De Jing is one of ‘mysticism.’ If you look at the passages that describe the goal of good governing through identification with the Dao, then it could be argued that the Dao De Jing is far from mystic. Looking at the original meaning of the word mysticism in English, we see it comes from the Greek root ‘mysterion,” which meant one initiated in the mysteries or secrets of a truer reality. The key in whether or not to render Lao Zi a mystic may lie in the verb initiated. If a mystic is initiated, then the reality in which he is part is not easily accessible to others, as he has a direct intuition into a higher reality. For Lao Zi and the rest of the more pragmatic minded Chinese thinkers, a sage was not necessarily a ‘chosen one,’ as any person could become a sage. Thus initiation had nothing to do with it. For Lao Zi, the identification with the Dao came through observation, not any mystic connection with an ultimate reality. While Confucius himself did not make any proclamation either way over the original nature of man, later Confucian thinkers, such as Mencius with his theory of human nature as originally good and Xun Zi with his theory of human nature as originally evil, developed their philosophies from these premises. Lao Zi gives us no clear-cut theory on the original nature of man, but rather an ideal sage that transcends good or evil. This is achieved through an understanding of the De that is the eternal part of temporal things. This then is given expression though an ordered state governed by the sage. There may be traces of mysticism in the Dao De Jing in the description of an ultimate reality that transcends sensual knowledge, but in the end the though is made applicable to the world of things and mankind’s place in it. Anyway, who ever said that mystics couldn’t be practical?


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