April 29, 2007 at 12:45 am #22098
Transcending the Human World and Attaining the Heavenly World
by Antonio Claret
Here we concentrate on the practical and humanistic aspects of the ideal of a
sage (shengren) in Daoism, which reveal its paradoxicality or bi-directionality. The
analysis is based of some stories from Zhuangzi, ideas from Laozi and teaching of
Quanzhen school masters of the 20th century China.
It is argued that the peculiarity of this ideal in Daoism stems from the idea of mutual entailing of opposites and the principle of reversibility (fan) as presented in Laozi and Zhuangzi and developed later into the practical view to return into ordinary life after trans-cending divine life, which is still living in the 20
th century Daoism.
Some reasons for its development and rebirth are indicated. One of the most significant changes in the comparative studies of Confucianism and Daoism in the recent decade seems to be the dissolution of the long-lived stereotypical
treatment of those two Chinese schools as opposite and incongruent ones (of
Confucianism as this-worldly, active, human-oriented, and Daoism as other-worldly,
non-active, nature-oriented, for example). Today, they both are acknowledged as
concentrated on the same topics, namely those of self-cultivation and self-
transformation, and oriented to the bodymind practices, although their ways and tasks often differ.
Accordingly, they both could be conceived as teachings about the ideal
person, since man is treated as a potential rather than actual, a creative rather than created being both in Confucianism and in Daoism.
Moreover, they share the same ideal of the sage (shengren) which is the highest one in the Kongzi and Mengzi schools as well as in Laozi, and therefore this ideal has received the most scholarly attention. Some sinologists even tried to compare it with the person of ancient sages rulers in the other cultures, and their charismatic sacral power as the embodiment of the universal idea of the primordial unity of human and divine realms.
There are a good person (shan ren), benevolent person (ren ren), gentleman (junzi), sincere person (chengren), a sage (shengren) in Confucianism, and a great person (da ren), integral person (quanren), genuine person (zhenren), superlative person (zhiren), spiritual person (shenren), immortal (xianren), a sage (shengren) in Daoism.
Shengren of Laozi was investigated mainly from the political point of view, since it is associated with Dao as the symbol of the ruleless ruler of the universe here. In a similar manner, his actions are ascribed to the realm of Heaven in Zhuangzi.
However, this ideal seems to me more complicated and richer in its meaning,
especially as presented in Zhuangzi and developed after Han in the Daoist religious
traditions. Here, I would like to re-examine the ethical and practical aspects of
shengren in Daoism, as they are implied by the idea of mutual entailing of opposites and the principle of reversibility (fan) in Laozi and Zhuangzi, which were developed later into the practical view to return into ordinary life, after transcending divine life.
It is argued that the ideal of shengren seems to be the most evident embodiment of the paradoxical Daoist worldview and tasks, i. e. its keeping to the roots of Heaven and being in the human world at the same time, or being in the world without being in it instead of ignoring the human realm in preference to the realm of Heaven, as was
usually supposed by many sinologists. This ideal sheds also more light on the ethical
aspects of Daoism, which were ignored for a long time in Western sinology.
At least three interconnected methodological problems of the analysis of shengren
should be taken into consideration here as the possible foci of criticism of my essay.
First, it is the problem of historical approach, since it would be not correct to regard it as some unchangeable entity or idea. Its meaning was transformed considerably from Han times onwards and was influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. Second, the problem of doctrinal approach, or the possibility to extract some particular Daoist features of shengren as different from Confucian ones. This problem is already evident in Zhuangzi and its outer and miscellaneous chapters in particular, since they are products of many hands and schools. Third, the problem of conceptual consistency, which is also very problematic in Zhuangzi. To try to give a consistent definition of shengren here would be the same as to describe the virtue of benevolence (ren) in Lunyu, and sometimes it seems to me that Zhuangzi is talking about one ideal only named differently in different contexts and from different aspects, in order to confuse the reader who is concerned with the correct use of names.
The problems indicated above need more careful study than the present essay. Thus,
my approach will be rather Confucianist in order to reveal some particular human
aspects of Daoist self-cultivation, which connect or disconnect it with Confucianism.
Chapter 15, Ingrained Opinions of Zhuangzi, opens with a description of a few
kinds of people and their style of life and self-cultivation who aim at the perfection of the world. First, among them there are arrogant scholars of mountain and valley who try to be different from the common society, leaving the world behind and engaging in lofty discussions and resentfully slandering others.
Next, there are the moralists who aim at discoursing on humaneness, righteousness, loyalty, and trustworthiness, thus being concerned with learning and bringing peace to the world through teaching and instruction. Yet next there are the scholars of court who are concerned with the means of governing, discoursing on great merit and establishing great fame, observing the ceremonies for lord and subject, and rectifying those on high and those below.
They are followed by the scholars of rivers and lakes who prefer non-action, fishing, living leisurely, fleeing from the world and being idle. At last, there are the searchers for longevity who bear strides and bird stretches , channel the vital breath , nourish the physical form so as to emulate the hoary age of Progenitor Peng.
All those persons are practitioners of Dao, but their ways of doing this seem to be
one-sided and too demonstrative. The only person who is able to avoid such vice, or be lofty without having ingrained opinions, cultivate himself without humaneness and
righteousness, govern without merit or fame, be idle without rivers and lakes, and live long without channelling and flexions is the sage.
What makes him different from the others is his placidity, mildness, quietude, indifference, emptiness, non-being and non-action, which are the signs of his integrity as well as of Heaven. His action of non-action is simply responding to the stillness and movement of yin and yang and is not disturbed by anxiety and joy, likes and dislikes. Thus, the characteristics of shengren here remind us those of Laozi, with an emphasis on the purity and stillness of his mind and on guarding the spirit in the integrity. Nevertheless, do those features of shengren suggest his associality or supra-sociality rather than a special kind of sociality? Or, to put it in other words, how should the sage cultivate such indifference to the things in dealing with the things and yet to preserve his universality?
The answer to this question could be found in another story from Zhuangzi, namely
the dialogue between Yao and a border warden of the Hua kingdom. The latter,
thinking that Yao was a sage, asked him for three blessings which were long life,
wealth and many sons, but Yao declined all of them. The border warden was surprised
why Yao did not desire such things which all men desire.
Many sons, said Yao, bring many fears. Wealth brings many affairs. Longevity brings many disgraces. These three blessings are of no use in nourishing virtue. Therefore, I decline them. At first, said the border warden, I thought you were a sage. But now I see you are a superior man. In giving birth to the myriads of people, heaven is certain to assign them their duties. If you were to have many sons, you would assign them their duties, so what is there to fear? If you were wealthy, you could share with others, so what affairs would there be?
As the sage, according to the border warden, is not affected by any tribulations, so
no any disgrace would be dangerous to him.This story could be interpreted in various ways, especially since it is ascribed by some sinologists to the type of syncretic and latest ones,in which some Confucian virtues, condemned in previous chapters, are treated in a more positive light here.
However, it doesnt seem to be simply a propagation of Confucian ideas. It implies an
example of a real Daoist ideal, i. e. of shengrens ability to comprise in his Dao all things, all opposites, or the Way of Heaven and of Man, without being attached to
anyone of them. First of all, he is the one who is able to adapt to the circumstances and to act accordingly, including the resolution of human affairs and sympathy with people, without being involved in their anxieties. It means that Daoists are no less concerned with the realization of wisdom in real life, or the cultivation of the simplicity of life in its civilizationality rather than ignoring the human world and civilization. Such people were presented in the later literature (Baopuzi, Guan Yinzi) as talented, able ones or those who know how to act.
They look sometimes foolish, sometimes intelligent or ignorant, but more often they look like masters, and because of this they are not recognisable by clever or common people. Clever men are concerned only with higher affairs and forget low ones, and common people are concerned only with low things, overlooking higher ones, whereas shengren is different from both in his ability to be imbued to the same degree with both the upper and the low things.
In other words, he is able to look in both or all directions. In a similar manner shengren is presented in Yijing which influenced Daoism and Confucianism.
This ability of shengren to look in both directions actually implies the principle of
the reversibility of Dao, later developed into the idea of returning to the secular realm after transcending the sacral realm. It points to the limitlessness or inexhaustibility of self-cultivation, which was described in practical terms as the advice Dont stop after you attain the top, but go further, and became especially important in the 20th century Daoism.
The full realization of this idea could be found in a unique story about the life
and search for Dao of the contemporary Daoist master of the Quanzhen school, “Wang
Liping” (born 1949), written by Chen Kaiguo and Zhen Shunchao.
The most impressive and instructive seems to me the last precept given by two teachers of Wang Liping after he had finished his way of learning and had to start his way of a teacher.
They told that it is difficult to be intelligent as well as to be stupid, but it is much more difficult to return to stupidity on becoming more intelligent, or having learnt the things that are not understandable and acceptable by common people. Nevertheless, he should not in any way oppose himself to them or show his superiority. Instead, he should realize that everything and everybody has his own place in the world, and he must hide his secret knowledge in the midst of ordinary life and not to let anybody know or guess about it. Moreover, according to the teachers of Wang Liping, the ability to live together with ones relatives, in ones home and in the human world means a full realization of ones sincerity and following the natural way which could be treated as returning to the primordial simplicity and enjoying the heavenly genuineness.
One should not aim to attain the upper realms if his knowledge has no limits.
This lesson could not be regarded only as an attempt to popularize Daoism in
contemporary Chinese culture in the conditions of the loss of traditional values and
involvement into the processes of globalization, or to adapt its secret wisdom to
common thinking and thus making it more open for more people, which is indispensable for its survival. Rather, according to teachers of Wang Liping, it is making use
of a favourable moment or of changes of the world for a more universal dissemination
of Dao in order to help people who are in need. It is, moreover, making use of the idea of Dao (and of shengren) as being intermingled with both the light and dust, as it was presented in Laozi.
This idea, unmasked in the light of practical wisdom, means that
the main task for the Daoist self-cultivation is helping others through the cultivation of ones virtue (de) or wisdom. To put it in other words, we should help in improving others through the improvement of ourselves according to the Daoist principle of mutual support, which was later reformulated into the common axiom
order your own personality and govern the empire (zhishen zhiguo),
which could be ascribed to Confucianism as well. In this regard, the Daoist shengren is similar to the Confucian one. The influence of his virtue (de) is described by Kongzi as natural as that of wind. According to him, shengren is the one who integrates in himself the virtue of all under the Heaven (Tianxia) and is able to communicate it to others, thus being above other people like the polar star which stays in one place but makes the other stars go round it. However, the Daoist shengren, being superior in his power over others, nevertheless has to disappear
in the crowd of people and to be like all of them, or to take the heart of the people as his own.
As Ames comments on such immediacy of sagacious thinking, it lies in
inspiring and transforming the ordinary and routine business of the common people
rather than in some I-know-not-what altered state of consciousness. The influence of Daoist shengren should be as imperceptible as no-influence, no-wind, because the wind seems too evident in its action. According to Laozi, any show of the virtue or even an intention to influence others is artificial. Consequently, as some sinologists note, many Daoist adepts (including the authors of the dialogue in
Zhuangzi Ch. 12 cited above) have condemned the practice of escapism and living in
reclusion as following not the genuine and integral Way.
Of course, such a view could be taken as a sign of the process of interaction of Daoism and Confucianism,which became more active after Han, especially in the period of Six Dynasties, when the main models of reclusion were developed.
On the other hand, such an ideal of shengren as being involved simultaneously in
self-cultivation and the realization of the order of the world could be conceived as the embodiment of a paradoxical coexistence of opposite orientations, namely con-
centration on oneself and participation in everything, or, to put it in Daoist terms, as the harmonization of the inner (nei) and the outer (wai). The Daoist could attain through his mastery of bodily and spiritual powers such an inner freedom which makes needless any outer dissociation from the human world and its affairs.
Nevertheless, such person looks like an ordinary man in his words, actions and thoughts, but he is different from others in his no-talks, no-actions and no-thoughts, and because of this he could live in safety. As Maliavin has pointed out, he is neither involved into the ordinary life nor separated from it, i. e. he is like a mirror in the emptiness of his heart, which reflects all the things and is not in opposition to them.
This is why the ideal of shengren is not limited by the political sphere only, but is
aesthetical and ethical as well. This is why the name of shengren could be deservedly
given also to the most talented artist who know how to act and unite in themselves the creativity of Heaven and man. Zhu Jinxuan, for example, called the ideal painter a sage because of his ability to find the room in himself for everything that could not be embraced by the Heaven and Earth.
In conclusion, the Daoist ideal of shengren could be helpful in explaining a few
It makes clear, first, why Indian Buddhism under the influence of Daoism took
its most popular form in China as Chan Buddhism, with its ideal of Bodhisattva which
requires not to transcend the world after attaining Enlightenment; second, why there
were principled Confucianists rather than non-principled Daoists who suffered because
of their personal persuasions, since their sense of self-respect and ambitions of a
gentleman sometimes were not reconcilable with the realities of social life, and they
had to give up the former or the latter one. In this regard, the ideal of a sage in Daoism seems more realistic and practical than that of a gentleman (junzi) in Confucianism.
Third, we realise why the various and subtle methods of Daoist self-cultivation have
penetrated into the many realms of Chinese culture and life and thus extended in all
directions the limits of mans perfection. The cultivation of virtue (de) in Daoism leads to a bi-directional rather than one-directional way, namely transcending the human world and attaining the heavenly world in order to become a Great Person (da ren) and then returning to the human world with the transformed heartmind.
Thus, the criticism of the ordinary (more often Confucian) virtues and norms of life
in Daoism could be understood not as the readiness to reject but to broaden them, which helped to broaden also the boundaries of Confucian culture. The look taken from the perspective of shengren, or the unity of heavenly and human ways, helps to treat in a more comprehensive way the phenomenon of culture itself as self-cultivation and
self-creativity rather than the creation of conventional norms and embellishment of
human nature. Such a treatment does away with the boundaries between nature and
culture, or naturality and artificiality as they are discussed and emphasized in the Western world, but it could not be adapted in the interpretation of Chinese “Daoist” culture in the same way.April 29, 2007 at 11:13 pm #22099
Thanks for finding another interesting piece. Do you have a source/URL for the piece?
michaelApril 30, 2007 at 7:22 am #22101
No it’s from a ms word handout; from a class I took in 1999..SnowlionJune 22, 2007 at 2:38 am #22103
Hey Snowlion! I would like to meet you brother.
Care to elaborate on the source? the class? (In case one was to use this for a future class, which it seems to deserve?!)
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