The dao of senseless kindness

Earlier I had mentioned that Toto left a large streak along the front of our sofa where she had been rubbing herself for years.  I did eventually clean that off before we moved.  This week, however, I found some tiny, fossilized traces of her embedded in the rug in front of the sofa in our new apartment.  Far from “magical thinking” involved in cleaning them up.

In the April post about traces of Toto, I mentioned that I was reading Barry Allen’s Vanishing into Things, which talks about the Guo Xiang’s concept of the traces each unique moment leaves behind.   I followed Allen’s book with the book in which Allen found his title, Brook Ziporyn’s The Penumbra Unbound.  Ziporyn’s writing style is much more convoluted than Allen’s, preferring as he does compound complex sentences with multiple parenthetical asides throughout the sentence, layered among multiple repetitions of the same point in different words.  I struggled through Ziporyn before getting into the frenzy of the move and reading Grossman’s Stalingrad to keep sane during that process.

After Stalingrad, I resisted the temptation to re-read its sequel Life and Fate, and went back to my notes on Allen, Ziporyn, and the journal articles they had led me to read.  I had been excited by the prospect that two Chinese philosophers (the neo-Daoist Guo Xiang and the neo-Confucian Zhang Zai) were delving into the very dynamics I found missing in the Buddhist writers I’ve been criticizing in the essay I’m working on.  Because they seem to contradict two concepts central to Buddhism, causality and karma, I’m going to be interested to read Ziporyn’s later books on their role in Tiantai and Huayan Buddhism, which both influenced the more widely known Zen Buddhism.

All this background by way of reporting two fruits of reviewing these notes.  The first fruit actually will require work to digest.  Since my essay is about Disengaging from Things, I paid attention to Allen’s quote from Plato as how “things” are defined in the West.  Allen took this definition from Socrates in the Cratylus dialogue.  Being the nerd that I am, I re-read Cratylus, only to find Socrates criticizing Heraclitus and philosophies of flux or process.  Socrates argues that if everything is constantly changing, then we can’t know anything.  As someone who starts from the viewpoint of flux, I have to think more about Socrates’ critique, including Guo Xiang’s counter that cognition is the problem.

The second fruit of my labors came not from my notes, but from having to re-read Ziporyn’s The Penumbra Unbound again because he is just too dense and complex to pick up from hurried scribbles.  And what did I find but Guo Xiang seeming to make the same point that Ikonnikov makes in his letter I described in the last post: evil arises from trying to push goodness.

That which causes no harm to things does not do so because it is practicing benevolence, but the trace ‘benevolence’ moves in it; that which makes every principle hit the mark is not practicing righteousness, but the effect ‘righteousness’ appears in it.  Thus hitting the mark and causing no harm are not brought about by benevolence and righteousness.  But the world goes running after [these traces], discarding themselves to follow ….  Therefore, the disordering of the mind does not come from what is ugly but always from beautiful appearances, the disruption of the world does not come from evil, but always from benevolence and righteousness.  Thus benevolence and righteousness are tools for the disruption of the world.

Where Ikonnikov seems to emphasize the ill effects of pushing the Good on others, Guo Xiang faults any intention to practice goodness.  Guo Xiang’s attack on intention is another way in which he contradicts most Buddhists.

For years I have thought of myself as being an eclectic in a way I understood many Chinese to live, with Laozi, Kongzi, and the Buddha all guiding my path.  Now I’m beginning to understand more how they differ.  Lots more to study.  But, of this I am sure, these three sages teach the same kindness as Ikonnikov.  Their followers may argue over “senseless,” but the sages practice together.

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