Episode 8: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Daoism
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
Lao Zhou, believed to be the founder of Daosim, was a contemporary of Confucius and they may have met. However some scholars believe Daoism resulted from the combined efforts of several different scholars.
In many ways Daoism, which favors individualism, is directly contrary to Confucianism, which favors collective action. While Confucians emphasized the preservation of culture and order, Daoists focused on the nature of human life itself in the context of nature. Viewing government, law and education as “artificial devices,” they taught only withdrawal from life and non-action could resolve negative social conditions. In general, the Daoists were pessimistic about humanity’s ability to create a constructive political system, viewing all social (human) harmonies as contradictory to nature. Instead they emphasized the need for people to understand their place in the universe (thus more easily accepting death).
At the same time, according to Benjamin, different scholars interpret Daoism in different ways. Some see it as a political movement (like Confucianism), some as a quasi-religious movement based on meditation and some as a philosophical approach to understanding reality.
In general, most Confucians accepted the philosophical, but not the religious, aspects of Daosim. Generally compatible with Buddhist doctrine, Daoism has become extremely popular in Southeast Asia and the West. Throughout history, many Chinese officials practiced Confucianism by day and Daoism in their private lives.
Benjamin identifies the Daodejing and the Zhuangnzi as the foundational texts of Daoism. The enigmatic nature of the former seems designed to tap into the subconscious mind and has led to numerous contradictory interpretations of its meaning.
According to the Daodejing, it’s impossible to identify or quantify the Dao (translated as “The Way” or the material force or energy of everything). The attempt by human beings to name things trivializes them. Like Buddhism, the Daodejing advises people to stop striving and live as simply as possible.
The Zhuangnzi was purportedly written by Zhunagnzi (369 -286 BC), though the writing style suggests it had multiple authors. It consists of dialogues, essays, epigrams and parodies of the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. It emphasizes that only the Dao is unchanging and everything else is impermanent and must be kept in perspective. It asserts that only relative truth, happiness and knowledge is possible.
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