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] 
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.