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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunyata and the Golden Mean - a Taoist Rapprochement between East and West, Courtesy Seraphim Rose

One of the most simultaneously iconic and controversial figures in 20th century American Orthodoxy was Seraphim Rose, a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and monastic founder who quickly achieved "guru" status and veneration as a saint, despite the violent controversies he stirred within and without the Church. Born under the name Eugene Rose, he was by education a linguist, studying Chinese at Pomona College with the unique and fascinating Taoist philosopher Gi-Ming Shien.  In his masters' thesis, Emptiness and Fullness in the Lao-Tzu, Rose argued against a nihilistic interpretation of the concept of emptiness in the Tao Te Ching (or, as he idiosyncratically calls it, the Lao-Tzu, after the purported author), in favor of an interpretation governed by the concepts of the "opposite" and "return".  This interpretation is surprisingly fruitful in hinting at a solution to the seeming impasse between the essentialist and ontotheological metaphysics of the Socratic/Western world and the "emptiness" experientialism of the Buddhist Orient.  An examination of Rose's thesis is a worthwhile exercise for the purpose of re-grounding and recasting the problematic ontotheological tradition in Buddhist terms, as well as for freeing our understanding of Buddhist thought from Western categories.

The Taoist syzygy of "emptiness" and "fullness" corresponds to an analogous conceptual duality in Buddhism, "emptiness" and "form", where "emptiness is form and form emptiness", an idea that resonates closely with modern physics.  As superficially interpreted through a European lens, talk of emptiness can appear to be a nihilistic denial of being, but Rose argued that for Lao Tzu emptiness is a golden mean between unbalanced affirmation and apathetic negligence.  "Emptiness" and "fullness" are not nouns in Lao Tzu's Chinese idiom, but rather verbs (which may be better translated as "waning" and "waxing"); however, the concept he elucidates corresponds remarkably to the Aristotelian concept of the "golden mean", also appropriated by Christian theology.

As Rose explained, the nihilistic concept of "emptiness" is referred to by Lao Tzu by a word best translated "exhaustion".  "Exhaustion" or "finality" means death, "reaching the end of the breath, total expiration" (Rose, Emptiness and Fullness, 33).  This is not the word Lao Tzu uses many many times to explain the "good" sort of emptiness, however:  "In the usual understanding of the word, both in English and Chinese, "emptiness" has a contrary, "fullness"; but if this kind of emptiness, and extreme, is what Lao-Tzu has in mind when he speaks of it, all that we have said on the "mid-point" as the ultimate goal of his thought is set at nought.  But in fact this is not what he had in mind.  To be "emptied" is not the same as to be "exhausted". "  (Emptiness and Fullness, 29)

Lest we mistake "emptiness" and "fullness" for metaphysical concepts, Rose reminds us that Lao Tzu's language is oriented around verbs, not reified nouns, and that "emptiness" and "fullness" are translations of words literally meaning the "waning" and "waxing" of the moon.  The comfortable Western concepts of “substance” and “person” are simply absent from Lao Tzu's vocabulary.  By contrast to Aristotelian essentialism, for the East a static or permanent plenitude of being or "nature" or "essence" is not what constitutes form, but rather emptiness, becoming, or sunyata.  The Hindu language of maya and illusion is avoided by the Taoists, but a somewhat more Heraclitean ontology of becoming and doing still eclipses any possibility of ontotheology.

This lack of substantive ontology has ramifications for Lao Tzu's quietism.  Since he did not reject appearances or phenomena or things as illusions, Lao Tzu did not embrace the violent rejection of being seen in certain strands of ascetic Hinduism, and since he did not regard "things" as real (lacking the vocabulary to place "things" as ontological categories at all), he did not embrace the worldly attachment to them.  Instead, he preaches the quietistic and apparently (though misleadingly so) complacent acceptance of the Tao, by exhorting us to be supple and fluent with the Tao - it is through suppleness that is found power (the famous "wu wei" paradigm).  "Wu wei" should not be viewed as cynical, nihilistic, or pessimistic resignation - it is through suppleness that is found power; it is through the Tao that we flower into who we are, that we find our "true potential", as humanistic psychology might see it.  As Lao Tzu said, “If one uses it [the Tao], it is inexhaustible” – for while the Tao is emptiness, all form is emptiness, so there is no contradiction in saying that this emptiness is inexhaustible.

The challenge for cross-cultural philosophy remains reconciling the Western categories of personhood and substance, so essential to Christian theology, with the common Oriental tradition of emptiness and fullness; Lao Tzu's placement of the "golden mean" within the context of sunyata provides a possible clue to its solution.

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