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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Chuang Tsu

When I think of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, what first comes to mind are the ancient Greek rational thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) moving then into the Roman era (Lucretius, Seneca) then to Christian (Augustine, Aquinas) and Islamic (Averroes, Avicenna) civilizations down to the European enlightenment (Spinoza, Descartes) into the modern (Kant, Hume) and postmodern eras (Foucault, Rorty). But I was recently reminded of that other great tradition begun in the Middle Kingdom of China. It is called Taoism and the greatest of philosophers was, according to Thomas Merton, Chuang Tsu whose tradition is carried on in Zen Buddhism.

The Tao is the Way. And Taoism is a way of living, thinking, and acting to achieve union with the Tao which (or who) operates, supports, and links everything and everyone everywhere. Taoism of Chuang Tsu is more than the high morality of Confucius which prescribes for the cultivated leader and citizen. It goes beyond the Golden Rule which is born of compassion though it founds and directs  both high morality and compassion. The Tao is not achieved even by spiritual or corporeal exercises. The Tao diminishes achievement and the markers of success. The true Taoist simply accepts and allows the Tao working through him or her. Simply, with utmost humility, avoiding any aspects or claims of grandeur or greatness.

In my Euro-traditional pragmatic phenomenology (Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger), as I reflect on consciousness and our existence in the world through speech and other symbolic expression, I see the Tao as the inexpressible in both the expressing and the expressed. It is the union of and reconciliation of opposites. Tao is found not by choosing one or the other or trying to walk the balance beam between them. I have noted the tensions of existence between past and future, interior and exterior, individual person and community, real and ideal. Chuang Tsu notes sadness and joy, action and contemplation, comfort and discomfort, yes and no, I and not-I, good and bad, nothing and something, happiness and misery. The way is not to grasp one or the other pole of the tensions but to grasp both and hold on for the ride of our lives. The ride of the Tao.

Or is it to allow the poles and the tensions themselves to work through us in our living, thinking, and action? Perhaps the ultimate spiritual exercise is foregoing spiritual exercise altogether.




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