Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Rethinking the “mystical” in the Dao De Jing

Joel Dietz, a regular follower of the blog, has written up the following summary of research he has been doing into the nature and background of “mystical” texts like the Dao De Jing. It’s fascinating stuff; enjoy! Please address comments to Joel.

In a certain sense, the nature and substance of the “philosophical” Dao De Jing has always been contested. Though popular before among a certain class, it became broadly acceptable only when simplified by Wang Bi, and it is more or less his interpretation that has lead to it becoming what it is commonly accepted as today, a philosophical classic.

However, when we examine the origins of the text the picture is less clear. Wang Bi’s ability to render things acceptable to the Confucian hierarchy depended largely on his reductionism, taking obscure passages and reducing them to “nothingness.”  For instance, no further explanation is given of the valley spirit in chapter six beyond that it is centered in “nothingness”  (谷中央無); numerous other passages are similarly glossed over.

Prominent modern interpreters and translators of the Dao De Jing often take this traditional interpretation more or less for granted. The Dao De Jing is simply regarded as “mystical,” as though deliberate ambiguity is introduced in the text simply for the purpose of confounding the reader – or as though the Chinese language itself is not capable of conveying more complex philosophical ideas and must resort to more “muddled” thinking.

However, a careful reading of the text in light of other contemporaneous literature and alternative commentarial traditions reveals that, even if certain language in the Dao De Jing is obscure, it can be obscure in a very deliberate way, just as the “old master” claims regarding his own muddledness( 我獨悶悶) .

Take, for instance, the passage of “filling the belly” in the third chapter of the Dao De Jing:

虛其心,[ Empty the heart-mind]

實其腹,[ Fill the belly]

弱其志,[ Weaken the will]

強其骨;[ Strengthen the bones]

常使民無知、 [ Ensuring commoners remain without awareness ]

無欲,[ without desire]

使夫智者不敢為也。[ Ensuring that clever dare not act ]       

為無為,[ with actionless non-action]

則無不治。[ nothing is ungoverned] [1]

Absent a contrary oral or commentarial tradition, it is easy to see how a reader would come up with the now common interpretation that “filling the belly” in the sense of making sure you have fat, happy peasants. Unremarkably, this is also the interpretation of Wang Bi, who may have had equally little access to alternative ways of interpreting this passage. However, the He Shang Gong commentary interprets this in the light of esoteric Daoist practices in which the various organs are filled with “Qi” (vital energy).  It could also be the case that the following lines refer to filling the bones or bone marrow with vital energy, something that is a staple of the body hardening “iron shirt” techniques found in various martial arts traditions.

The interpretation of the Dao De Jing in the light of esoteric Daoist practices, however, is not unique to the He Shang Gong commentary, it is also found in other early texts such as Guanzi and Huai Nan Zi, in which “clearing the heart-mind” is clearly seen within the light of antique meditation practices, not to mention the other similar techniques mentioned in the macrobiotic hygiene texts of Ma-wang-dui and Zhang-jia-shan, which detail certain aspects of meditation postures (e.g. straightening the spine 直脊) or the “breathing through the heels” of the Zhuangzi.

Another place where we see references to such practices is the paramount philosophical classic of the Indian tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. Besides the several themes common to both classics (e.g. actionless action, disparaging reliance on written texts, emphasis on personal experience), there is also repeated mention of various “yogic” or “macrobiotic” techniques, which at the very least clearly involve meditation in defined sitting positions, attempts to manipulate the breath, attempts to utilize the “third eye,” and a certain type of energy which much be brought to the head through utilization of various other techniques.

A curious feature of both texts is that although there is at the very least an implied metaphysics which involves various types of vital energy that are linked to breath (including a qualitative division of these same energies), there is no attempt to specific in great detail either the techniques that were being used or anything close to a systematic exposition of the various energies involved.

This problematic feature may be, in fact, the primary stumbling point of scholarly efforts to decipher the “mysteries” of these texts, since both are fairly explicit in claiming to exposit secrets of various kinds. However, the method of exposition indicates that it is just that the “old master(s)” to whom the secrets are ascribed, are just as likely to be attempting to retain other “secrets.”

Here, in attempting to exposit a theory of language and exposition which deals with esotericism, I must admit my debt to scholarship on modern occult movements, including the work of Joshua Gunn on Modern Occult Rhetoric and various scholarship on the work of Julius Evola, a hermeticist involved in various syncretic attempts with Daoism and Tantrism, as well as the epic work by David White on the history of Tantric-Daoist alchemical exchanges during the middle ages.

Although there are clearly many people attempting to claim to have secrets in order to sell them to the highest bidder, it is equally clear that emperors and aristocracies of various states took the work of many of these esotericists quite seriously. It is equally clear that many other people considered their work a threat, since the presence of people who believed in a directly discernable reality outside of some dogmatic canon was considered to undermine the state orthodoxy of the age.

As Maspero, Boltz, and other have pointed out (see esp. my work on esoteric themes in epic poetry and primordial Dragon myths), it was common Confucian practice to reverse euhemerize founding myths, and to excise parts that would or could not easily be understood, a process that seems to have happened equally often in the West when Christian state orthodoxies, perhaps simply out of ignorance, attempted to limit access to certain books and ways of thinking that were not consistent with the official orthodoxy.

This is all a manner of saying that “mysticism,” once explored carefully, is a good deal more complicated that simply a bunch of happy mystics talking about a supposedly “ineffable” reality. It involves a large number of sometimes complicated techniques which have been transmitted through primarily oral tradition, often politically suppressed, and, frequently, a vital link to oral poetic traditions which are also sympathetic to the point that a deep intuition based on aesthetics is frequently a better vehicle for transcendence than anything that can be learned from books or performed by rote.

One particularly helpful mode to explore this may be the ancient mode of “initiation.”  Modern Westerners often counterpoise two different modes of thinking, a Christianity which through a single “initiation” in the form of baptism and acceptance of a new faith renders the world approachable for all by simple mechanism of faith, and a modern scientific view which sees all of nature’s secrets already available and exposed to the naked eye. The view of Greco-Roman antiquity, however, included an understanding which evolved in multiple stages. Among other things, this allowed it to remain comfortable with the idea of various mysteries (Eleusinian notable among them).

This allows a very different approach to myth than one can find in either of the other two moduses previously described. Myth is not an attempt to give a historical account, it is the description of a greater reality that cannot be described in another way (e.g. Homer). In this sense, we can find that there is frequently an “esoteric” interpretation of myths that was accessible to initiates in different traditions, and of which Apuleius’s Golden Ass stands as a paradigmatic example. The fact that the keepers of said “mysteries” were either unwilling or unable to put these things in writing and insisted on a certain path of initiation makes tracing their history a rather tenuous task, even for the most enterprising scholar.

In this sense, regardless of whatever light can be shed on the text via study of commentaries which highlight esoteric Daoist techniques, similar intellectual claims and techniques in the Indian tradition, or the history of suppression of esotericists by state orthodoxies, the insistence of the original authors and compilers to express their thoughts in poetry means that we will never have a full picture unless we are able to take seriously poetic modes which hopefully complement rather than replaces our careful academic inquiry.

Here we might also say that as we lose the ability to appreciate these aspects of our own classics, we may also lose the ability to appreciate our own classics of other traditions. If our knowledge of Homer, Plato, and Pindar is weak, then certainly it will be difficult for us to appreciate similar modes and implicit claims in the Dao De Jing or Vedic traditions of epic poetry.  There remains here, as elsewhere, the simply claim that words are not enough. If modern scholarship has done an excellent job in uncovering other supplementary objects which shed light on ancient texts in other ways, it seems thus far to have failed to take seriously these implicit and explicit claims regarding initiatory knowledge and aesthetics.

The author has trained in several Daoist and Tantric Yogic traditions and is currently finishing his M.A. at the University of Pennslvania.  A longer version of this paper will be presented at the International Conference on Daoist Studies this summer. 

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March 30, 2012 - Posted by | Daodejing, Daoism, Taoism

15 Comments »

  1. I’m quite sympathetic to all of this of course, as any reader of my blog post on the Daoist worldview will notice. I think the significance of “the poetic” mode of discourse is well taken and might be compared to similar points that have been made with regard to the Illuminationist tradition in Islamic philosophy and mysticism:

    “The impact of the specifically Illuminationist theory of knowledge, generally known as ‘knowledge by presence’ (al-‘ilm al-hudūrī), has not been confined to philosophical and other specialist circles, as Illuminationist logic has been, for example. The epistemological status given to intuitive knowledge has fundamentally influenced what is called ‘speculative
    mysticism’ (‘irfān-i nazarī) in Persia as well as in Persian poetry. By looking briefly at a paradigm concerning the poet-philosopher-mystic’s way of capturing and portraying wisdom, this point will be made evident. [….] In my view, the most distinguishing characteristic of

    Persian poetry taken as a whole is its almost existential perspective regarding the outcome of philosophy…. From this viewpoint, the end result of philosophy, which is wisdom, can be communicated only through the poetic medium. Innate poetic wisdom thus informs the human being—the philosopher-sage; the sage-poet; and, ultimately, simply the poet—of every facet of response to the total environment; the corporeal and the spiritual, the ethical and the political, the religious and the mundane. The ensuing perception of reality and historical process is constructed (as in the Persian shi‘r sākhtan) in a metaphysical form—an art form, perhaps—that consciously at all stages employs metaphor, symbol, myth, lore and legend. The consequence is that Persian wisdom is more poetic than philosophical, and always more intuitive than discursive. This, in my view, is clearly the more popular legacy of Illuminationist philosophy and of its impact.” (Ziai in Nasr and Leaman 1996: 451)

    The communication of what is essential to the pursuit of wisdom, to the achievement of mystical states of consciousness, is best accomplished with figurative language, with poetic or poetic-like language that is suggestive and evocative, analogical and metaphorical, one best suited to a keen appreciation of the limits of communication and understanding through language and propositional knowing, while relying on linguistic forms more sensitive to the nature of non-propositional knowledge and awareness.

    Although Daoists declined to systematically elaborate the epistemology of meditative states of consciousness on the order of their Indic and Islamic (Sufi) counterparts, there is nevertheless an esoteric phraseology (discourse) referencing meditation and mystical states of consciousness generally, be it in the Neyie (Inner Cultivation), the Daodejing or the Zhuangzi, hence, for example: “carrying your po,” “concentrating qi” “cleansing and purifying the mysterious mirror,” from the Daodejing. And from the Zhuangzi:

    “The ‘Yingdiwang’ chapter tells us, ‘Just be empty, that is all. The perfect man uses his mind like a mirror, responding but not storing, and thus he can overcome things without being harmed by them.’ The ‘Renjianshi’ chapter also glosses this concept of ‘emptiness’ (xu), saying not to listen with the ear or the mind, but rather with the vital force (qi): ‘The vital force is empty and waits for things. Dao gathers in emptiness. This is called the fasting of the mind.’”(Ziporyn in Cook 2003: 50)

    Harold Roth has written about this phraseology of heart-mind training and mystical experience in both his translation and commentary on the Neyie (Nei-yeh) (1999) and in his discussion of “bimodal mystical experience” in the Zhuangzi (Roth in Scott, ed., 2003: 15-32). The Daoist notion of wu (here: ‘emptiness,’ ‘nothing’) as a mental state and goal of self-cultivation generally and meditation in particular cannot be the direct or immediate product of the ego or will, as the effort to will such a mental state is thought to entangle one in a pragmatic contradiction identical to similar efforts at “willing what cannot be willed” (Elster 1983: 43-108). The attempt to simply will the state of wu “tends to posit and entrench the very object whose absence is desired,” for “If I desire the absence of some specific thought, or of thought in general, the desire by itself suffices to ensure the presence of the object” (46). The state of mind sought by the Daoist is close if not identical to the “emptiness” or state of “no-mind” sought by the Zen Buddhist (cf. too the pinnacle of meditation in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, namely, asamprajñāta-samādhi, a non-conceptual state of awareness of reality [nirvikalpa]) that permits the absence of “self-consciousness,” allowing one to relate directly to the world, without “without relating also to the relating” (or non-relation to self). We might better see this with examples of “positively defined states that similarly elude the mind that reaches out for them” (p. 50). Elster culls a handful of examples from the late psychologist Leslie Farber: I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; scrupulosity but not virtue; bravado but not courage; congratulations but not admiration; religion but not faith. As he explains, the goal of meditation for the Zen Buddhist (and the Daoist) is a state of mind that “is essentially a by-product. Nevertheless the belief cannot be wholly false, since Zen masters [and Daoist sages] do accept pupils and train them” (49). The state of an empty or still mind, be it for the Buddhist or the Daoist, is essentially a by-product, because the attempt to will the absence of a mental object is self-defeating, involving one in a pragmatic contradiction not unlike the one intrinsic to the folly of what Elster (after Farber), terms “willing what cannot be willed.” Put differently, our Daoist sage lives in harmony with the Dao such that she relates directly—spontaneously, gracefully, wisely—to the world without, in Elster’s words, “relating also to the relating” in a self-conscious or egoistic fashion. And yet there remains the desire, the goal or aim, the intention (or an ‘intentional project’) to attain an empty mind, the state of no-mind or, (as some Indic philosophers would say) the absolute transparency or translucense of pure consciousness (what is called the state of asamprajñāta-samādhi in Yoga philosophy and praxis).

    Daoist teachers (and their Yogic and Buddhist counterparts) rely on mind-training and meditation techniques employing breathing exercises in conjunction with other kinds of ascetic practices (e.g., fasting, celibacy, dietary restrictions, etc.) as part of wider moral psychological and spiritual strategies designed to subvert natural or habitual reliance on the will, including routine recourse to familiar modes and patterns of reasoning and a largely egoistic-relating to others and the natural world. These pedagogical strategies are crafted, in the end, to bring about a different way of living and thus a different kind of person, one naturally (as a ‘second’ nature in Kupperman’s sense, for if it were natural simpliciter, there would be no need for mind-training, self-cultivation, or ascetic practices of self-discipline) and spontaneously virtuous and wise, meaning a life lived in harmony with the dao of nature, the dao of tian, and Dao itself. The consequences of living a life attuned to Dao are crystallized in the notion of wu-wei (lit., not-doing or non-acting). In wu-wei, one has wholly given oneself over to Dao inasmuch as it is understood to mean the “absence of action motivated by the agent’s desires, will, knowledge, education, language or socialization” (Fraser 2007: 99; see too Slingerland 2003). Be careful: this does not mean that desire, will, knowledge, education and so forth are without a necessary role to play in the (eventual) attainment of wu-wei , for they are, again, necessary yet not sufficient conditions to achieving a state of awareness and being, a state characterized as spontaneous and effortless, graceful and wise, and thus truly “natural” in the way the world naturally “acts” in harmony with the Dao. Such action is therefore by definition free and spontaneous in contrast to the intentional or conventionally volitional quality of the motivated action that characterizes life in the daily round, the way in which most of us act, most of the time, in our relations or in concert with others and the natural world. Moreover, the freedom and spontaneity of such action is evidenced in and exempified by the manner in which one is able to respond to the exigencies of any situation or circumstance (either the product of our design or one in which we appear to be the mere plaything of forces beyond our control): in a spontaneous, intuitive, and non-self-conscious manner, in effect, in harmony with Dao. Yet wu-wei is still a kind of acting and can be considered, provided we expand our time frame, no less connected to an intentional project (as the philosopher Chris Fraser reminds us) in the sense that a student of Daoism is committed to attaining the goal of wu-wei, to living in harmony with the Dao, and involves herself in the heart-mind training and other ascetic practices crafted to bring that about, as part of the necessary but not sufficient conditions. Thus embarking on an intentional project in this more expansive sense, likewise does not guarantee natural and spontaneous action in the Daoist sense, even if it serves as its necessary condition. What is more, it seems our Daoist needs to rely on indirect pedagogical psychological and spiritual strategies in the short-term if she is to avoid getting entangled in the pragmatic contradiction of “willing what cannot be willed” or the directly intentional effort to attain an empty mind or the state of wu-wei: just ask the novice meditator who seriously entertains the imperative to “empty” her mind to achieve the state of “no-mind,” who struggles to stop the seemingly endless stream of (waking) consciousness.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 30, 2012 | Reply

    • Would you say the wu-wei state is the end in and of itself or is it a means to an end (e.g. something that can be defined along a soteriological axis or simply “inner peace”)? I think there are a bunch of different frequently interwoven motivations for the various practices when may end up described as Daoist praxis, which include escaping suffering in this world and attaining immortality. Describing a wu-wei state may be sufficient to describe the former, insofar, in a sort of proto-Buddhist statement, the fixation on the object of the action leads to entrapment in the cycle of action and reaction. However, the myriad activities involved seem to indicate that even if on has achieved a state of being “spontaneous and effortless, graceful and wise,” that this is not the whole picture.

      One aspect that is missing is the political — how does my advocacy of inner actions relate to the larger polis and am I implicitly or explicitly advocating a certain form of governance. Another is the metaphysical — how exactly can we claim the possibility of “natural” harmony in a world in which the often brutal nature of human and animal “survival of the fittest” is described and often advocated for as the only possible way to live. What exactly are we implicitly claiming about “nature” that is beyond this?

      I have my own answers to these questions but will leave them as questions for now.

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | March 30, 2012 | Reply

  2. I wanted also to note I think we need to be well acquainted with some of the literature in the philosophy of mind on the nature of consciousness and the mind (at least the non-reductionist, non-materialist, non-physicalist literature), as well as the sundry mystical traditions that is sensitive to both commonalities and differences between these traditions. Perennial philosophy ignored the latter, while approaches like Katz’s preclude due appreciation of the former.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 30, 2012 | Reply

    • I’m actually reasonably skeptical of philosophy of the mind at this point, since my understanding of the neurological evidence at present indicates that we know very little about brain function and especially about “higher” brain function, if we can posit the existence of this as a distinct category. Consequently, to separate and subdivide what properly seems to be epistemology into focusing especially on the “mind” is to me erroneous. I would even posit the reverse: we could probably use a good dose in the West of a pre-Cartesian framework which includes the extent to the whole body is involved, at least in a passive sense, in cognition. This sense in which cognition is not merely a private “mental” activity and involves the whole body I believe crucial to understanding the early Chinese trend of “correlative thinking,” in which the macro and microcosm are forever intertwined and believed to be influencing on each other.

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | March 30, 2012 | Reply

      • Joel, The mind and the brain are two different things and correlative thinking is not something the brain does as brains don’t “think.” I am not thinking of “the mind” as somehow apart from “the body” (or, and especially, the world for that matter). Nothing I said states that mental activity is “private” nor do I mean to imply any such thing. And, for what it’s worth, I think neurological evidence is of little or no value on this topic. Some of the relevant literature I have in mind and you might want to look at:

        Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

        Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

        Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, tr.). The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

        Finkelstein, David H. Expression and the Inner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

        Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.

        Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999.

        Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

        Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

        Luntley, Michael. Contemporary Philosophy of Thought: Truth, World, Content. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

        Lynch, Michael P. Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

        McCulloch, Gregory. The Life of the Mind: An essay on phenomenological externalism. London: Routledge, 2003.

        Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson, “Minds, Brains, and Norms” (July 10, 2009). Neuroethics. Forthcoming. University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper. Available: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1432476

        Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. “Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience” (February 6, 2009). University of Illinois Law Review, 2010. University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 1338763. Available: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1338763

        Putnam, Hilary. The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

        Ram-Pradad, Chakravarthi. Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

        Robinson, Daniel N. Consciousness and Mental Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

        Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999 ed.

        Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, England: Acumen, 2011.

        Travis, Charles. Unshadowed Thought: Representation in Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

        Velmans, Max. Understanding Consciousness. London: Routledge, 2000.

        That said, I wish you all the best with your research and other projects!

        Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 30, 2012 | Reply

        • One title I left out above but well represents my presuppositions and assumptions with regard to philosophy of mind is P.M.S. Hacker’s Human Nature: The Categorial Framework (2007).

          Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 30, 2012 | Reply

          • Patrick,

            Do you think you could recommend something in particular that specifically addresses the concerns I raised? I suspect there is something in your long list that is probably responding to the problems I’ve outlined (which are by no means unique to me), but I can’t tell from the titles.

            Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | March 30, 2012 | Reply

        • Thanks!

          Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | March 30, 2012 | Reply

          • You could leave out the Finkelstein, Luntley, McCulloch, Ram-Prasad, and Travis, perhaps even Velmans as well if you want a shorter, more-to-the-point list regarding non-reductionist philosophy of mind material relevant to questions of consciousness and mind with bearing, in turn (at least by my lights), on the topic of mystical experience. Robert K.C. Forman’s work on “pure consciousness” is important and suggestive as well. Metaphysics (and/or ontology) and epistemology come together in a “foundational” way (I realize such things are not too popular these days) in Tallis’s I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (2004) that transcends the well-worn boundaries between pre-modern and modern philosophy (e.g., the ‘whole body’ is involved while salvaging the ‘existential intuition’ that lies behind the Cogito argument of Descartes). Tallis’s trilogy in fact nicely demonstrates or illustrates how we are at once part of the natural world and at the same time transcend that world (I’ve always understood Dao in these terms as well, i.e., in both immanent and transcendent terms that are integrally related to each other…). I hope that’s at least a tad helpful.

            Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | March 30, 2012 | Reply

            • Very. Thank you.

              Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | March 30, 2012 | Reply

  3. Thanks, Joel, for a very interesting post. I’m not initially sympathetic to a reading of the DDJ that makes meditative technique a central or important part of it, but whatever I am on this is just initial.

    You write,
    … there is no attempt to specific in great detail either the techniques that were being used or anything close to a systematic exposition of the various energies involved. This problematic feature may be, in fact, the primary stumbling point of scholarly efforts to decipher the “mysteries” of these texts, since both are fairly explicit in claiming to exposit secrets of various kinds. However, the method of exposition indicates that it is just that the “old master(s)” to whom the secrets are ascribed, are just as likely to be attempting to retain other “secrets.”

    I wonder whether, at the time of first writing of the lines in question, distributing something in writing didn’t much impinge on its being a secret?

    And I wonder whether it might (also) have been the case that the lines existed first as part (perhaps the core) of a purely oral and somewhat esoteric tradition, so that the fact that they were eventually written down wouldn’t show that the composer had in mind secrets not covered in the text?

    And I wonder whether a defense of a more political reading can plausibly hold that the secrecy of the secrets is functional only in the setting up and especially maintaining of good order, while in the “current” task, defending the picture of good order and recruiting agents, the secrecy might not matter so much. Later we can just keep the peasants from e.g. learning to read.

    And I wonder whether in the DDJ it’s necessary to read such terms as miao 妙 and xuan 玄 as meaning “secret” rather than e.g. subtle, amazing, and/or key. (As we might say in advertising a book, “Learn the secret to vibrant health that has helped millions of others!” – or in a physics lecture for schoolchildren, “The secret is something we callgravity !”)

    You write,
    This allows a very different approach to myth …Myth is not an attempt to give a historical account, it is the description of a greater reality that cannot be described in another way (e.g. Homer). In this sense, we can find that there is frequently an “esoteric” interpretation of myths that was accessible to initiates in different traditions .… [T]he keepers of said “mysteries” were either unwilling or unable to put these things in writing ….
    In this sense, … the insistence of the original authors and compilers to express their thoughts in poetry means that we will never have a full picture unless we are able to take seriously poetic modes …. There remains here, as elsewhere, the simple claim that words are not enough. If modern scholarship has done an excellent job in uncovering other supplementary objects which shed light on ancient texts in other ways, it seems thus far to have failed to take seriously these implicit and explicit claims regarding initiatory knowledge and aesthetics.

    Granted, one might be able to express some things in in poetry or myth that one can’t express in more literal language.

    I don’t see an immediate connection between that point and the idea that there are some things one can’t express in words, i.e. in writing. Also I’m not sure what it has to do with the idea of esoteric expositions. ?

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 31, 2012 | Reply

    • P.S.

      I seem to remember that somewhere in Plato (or Aristotle?) there is mention of someone who blabbed the Eleusinian Mysteries, which I gather were a fairly popular piece of ritual theater by that time. So my picture of the E.M. has been that their secret was a secret in roughly the sense that the end of The Crying Gameis, or was, a secret; and my guess has been that the two secrets are similar.

      Comment by Bill Haines | March 31, 2012 | Reply

      • Curiously in the letters of Plato (including those that I believe current scholarly opinion assumes to be genuine) and also in Plutarch on Aristotle there are rather explicit statements that both teachers deliberately did not put all of their most important teachings in writing. Although I would be hesitant to say that this means that they had “secrets,” it certainly indicates that they did not believe that transmitting things via writing was always the best strategy — on this one might Heidegger’s lecturing style, which has a transparently aesthetic element as well.

        Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | April 1, 2012 | Reply

    • First a general comment. I’m somewhat hesitant to emphasize “secrets” myself, since, even various “esoteric” practices are referred to, it is not at all clear to me that information is deliberately being withheld. It may simply be that a full exposition is not possible or desirable from the standpoint of the expositor, which may simply be a byproduct of the fact that information, like texts, was distributed piecemeal rather than systematically (e.g. even with the Indian yogic tradition there was no formalization of yoga postures until the 20th century). In general, I would tend to the view that the exposition is simply incomplete due to the sporadic nature of the composition except when there are explicit grounds to believe that something is deliberately withheld and, thus, a “secret.”

      That said, as previously suggested, I think the viewpoint of the compiler/author(s) of these texts may have been somewhat closer to Greco-Roman antiquity, insofar as “understanding” is not simply a binary function of having it or not (something I argued was a byproduct of a Christian simplification of pagan religion), but closer to a gradation on a spectrum of light. I think if one attempts to view things in such a manner, it is relatively easy to see how there is not an incredible amount of incentive to exposit everything to the “novitiate” who is at the dark end of the spectrum. Only study and praxis in the context of a tradition will allow one to move along the spectrum and this process must be guided by someone who has followed a similar trajectory. The tradition is thus responsible for providing learning aids, not a textbook of what can be understood by the initiate.

      In this sense, you would be absolutely right to de-emphasize the “secret” part of the equation. The fact that part of the spectrum is “esoteric” or invisible is not because it is part of a “secret,” it is only because the appropriate practice has not been engaged in yet that makes it approachable.

      To attempt your specific questions:

      > I wonder whether, at the time of first writing of the lines in question, distributing something in writing didn’t much impinge on its being a secret?

      I don’t know.

      > And I wonder whether it might (also) have been the case that the lines existed first as part (perhaps the core) of a purely oral and somewhat esoteric tradition, so that the fact that they were eventually written down wouldn’t show that the composer had in mind secrets not covered in the text?

      I’d have to know more about the nature of oral transmission, but I suspect that anything that is subject to formalization in a set of poetry and memorization is probably going to be a subset of the oral tradition and thus a simplification. There simply isn’t enough in the DDJ to qualify as instructional material, which means either that whatever bands of Daoists (or proto-Daoists if you like) either had only vague instructions when it came to meditation or that there was a separate oral tradition that explained more explicitly what you were supposed to do. I suspect the latter, although the imperfect nature of distribution of knowledge and the general emphasis on master-disciple relationships indicate to me that one of the distinguishing features of the “Daoist” tradition is that many people have been out in their hermitages in diverse lineages doing very different things (e.g. from practicing meditation, to ingesting pills and killing themselves, to organizing revolutions). In that sense, the “vagueness” DDJ is helpful insofar as it can be a catch-all counterpoint to the Confucian tradition that allows us to describe a “Daoist” tradition which emphasize something “ineffable” without describing what it is. The lack of explicitness and vague reference to old master(s) is a consequently a boon.

      > And I wonder whether a defense of a more political reading can plausibly hold that the secrecy of the secrets is functional only in the setting up and especially maintaining of good order, while in the “current” task, defending the picture of good order and recruiting agents, the secrecy might not matter so much. Later we can just keep the peasants from e.g. learning to read.

      Depends on what the secrets are. As mentioned, I’ve left my own personal statements regarding the political philosophy of the DDJ out of this essay since I think it requires a fuller treatment and understanding of the broader context of “esotericism.”

      > I don’t see an immediate connection between that point and the idea that there are some things one can’t express in words, i.e. in writing. Also I’m not sure what it has to do with the idea of esoteric expositions. ?

      The basic point is that there are various things which cannot be fully exposited in writing and that aesthetics (and an evolved “aesthetic sense”) serves as a proxy for. One might simply say that my written description of a sunflower will not do justice to the sunflower itself, but I might get much farther with a painting of a sunflower, which you will be able to appreciate much more than my written description. Along these lines, there are curious phenomena like synthesia that can appear with aesthetically induced states. For instance, it may even be that with the viewing of a Van Gogh Sunflower, you may “feel” the flower, or even believe that you can smell its fragrance.

      I’m not particularly knowledgable about the neurobiology of such states, but I can speak from personal experience.

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | April 1, 2012 | Reply

  4. I think writing (the abandonment of ‘from mouth to ear’) does pose questions for the transmission of “secret” or, perhaps better, “esoteric” knowledge. And we might say that writing makes for what we could describe as “open secrets,” which remain secrets in the sense that their meaning is not readily available to anyone, yet esoteric knowledge hereby becomes democratized in the sense that, potentially, at least, such knowledge is, in principle, available to anyone, provided they conform to the tradition’s intellectual and practical requirements as spelled out in the texts, requirements that take us beyond the texts themselves. And it’s possible to examine and speculate on the sort of rhetorical strategies that might develop as a result of this. For example, we might imagine that written discourse is capable of several layers of meaning, that the text can yield interpretations suitable to sundry sorts of readers (as, for instance, Jewish mystical traditions have done with Torah and Sufis with the Quran): their cognitive and affective dispositions, their character types, their levels of moral psychological development or awareness. In Judaism, the attempt to keep the teachings of the Kabbalah secret was eventually abandoned (although perhaps not completely within Hasidic traditions), the rationale for such secrecy having had something to do with the level of human development and civilization, the belief being that until the modern period man was not “fit” to be indiscriminately exposed to such teachings. Yet such teachings can still remain “secret” insofar as they are opaque or difficult to comprehend, or simply inaccessible for many readers despite their public availability.

    It does of course seem to be the case that religious and spiritually oriented philosophical discourse is often polyvalent and exploits figurative forms of language designed to show the limits of literalism and, like poetry, pointing, evoking, suggesting, hinting, implying, and so on in some manner to that which cannot be properly put into words (e.g., who or what God is), or the limits of names, propositions, and images to capture experiences, like the mystical, or even other forms of religious experience, experiences best described as non- or para-rational but not necessarily irrational. In the New Testament gospels, we learn that some of Jesus’ teachings were reserved for his closest disciples alone, and Mahayana Buddhism develops an elaborate tradition of secret and not-so-secret teachings (the latter, while now ‘public,’ like many tantric teachings, frequently come with explicit warnings about indiscriminately attempting to understand and put into practice the teachings without proper ‘initiations’ or ‘empowerments,’ as well as personal guidance from a teacher/guru, hence they are said to dangerous for those fail to understand why such teachings were once secret or are, in some sense, still ‘secret’ with regard to their true intentions and meanings).

    Of course propositional rhetoric or poetic discourse that refers to that which is non-propositional need not be about “the mystical” (responding to Bill’s comment about what can’t be put into words and esoteric exposition), but it certainly is one such possibility, and if Joel is right about the passages he listed in his original post, and I think he is, then that would lend more plausibility to the case that the discourse contains allusions to the possibility and value of mystical experience. In fact, if the Daoists, for instance, are hoping to get at least some readers drawn to mind/heart training techniques that set the stage for mystical or mystical-like experiences, then several rhetorical possibilities are open to them by way persuading or pushing a possible aspirant in that direction. In the case of the Daodejing and other Daoist texts, one finds the exploitation of ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox, the use of poetic discourse to frustrate or subvert conventional, habitual, and or simply rational thinking about both the world and oneself. It appears designed to awaken the reader to his ignorance, to transform ignorance about such ignorance into “knowing ignorance,” such that one is no longer satisfied with reason simpliciter, such that one is attracted, like Pascal, to reasons of the heart, such that one sees the urgency of engaging in a spiritual askesis or “therapy of desire.” This does not mean that the Daodejing need be read only as a mystical text, some readers by nature not being susceptible to such a reading in any case and yet they may nonetheless still benefit from a careful consideration of the text’s meaning, given the fecund nature of the text. The trick is to rhetorically employ the written word such that one becomes intimately apprised to its (i.e. the written word) limitations with regard to providing a coherent picture of reality as such, or the way things really or truly are, with the essence of things, so to speak; yet one cannot come to an appreciation of nonpropositional insight without propositions, without images, without words (this is, according to Francisco Gonzalez, the rationale behind Platonic dialectic). True wisdom, according to Plato’s Seventh Letter, cannot be put in writing, but writing can be used to suggest the possibility of same, indeed, the necessity of same. One might read Gonzalez’s discussion of Plato’s Seventh Letter (in hid 1998 book, Dialogue and Dialectic) for more on this. All the same, the rhetorical makeup of the Daodejing suggests the possibility of several coherent or warranted readings, and all we need establish is that the “mystical” rendering is plausibly one such reading, perhaps even the most important, but it need not be the only possible reading of the text, it being capable of interpretations on several levels, each appealing to individuals of corresponding degrees of self-awareness and moral psychological individuation, much like a good novel that can be read several times throughout the course of one’s life, its meaning and insights deepening in consonance with one’s own cognitive, affective, and moral development through the years.

    To further fill out what Joel may be getting at with regard to aesthetic experience, we might look to Indic rasa theory for example of how words are used to bring about forms of emotional experience that are in several respects “beyond the cognitive,” even if they have cognitive antecedents or cognitive components. As the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) noted, it is the poem’s cognitive content that allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience is said to be self-validating (or –certifying), svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, ‘a form of self-contemplation.’ Thus ‘rasa as “aesthetic flavour” comprehends both the arousal and development of an aesthetic emotion in the mind of the aesthete, as well as the objective components of the art object, which arouse and sustain that emotion’ (Harsha Dehejia). Aesthetic experience, for Abhinavagupta, might be considered a “taste,” or foretaste, as it were, of mystical experience itself, (in particular, with tranquility, ‘the rasa of rasas’), such delectation or profoundly joyful experience is said to serve as a foretaste of the bliss of emancipation or moksa. But that’s a discussion for another day, if not another blog!

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | April 1, 2012 | Reply


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