The following is an introduction to some key concepts from the Daoist tradition, in particular, by way of what falls under the rubric of “philosophical Daoism.” As Chad Hansen points out, philosophical Daoism owes more to “philosopher Zhuang” (Zhuangzi) (4th Century BC), than to the Daodejing or the earlier Neyie, but here I’ll be focusing largely on the Daodejing and only infrequently cite the Zhuangzi, the principal reason owing to the length of dicussion the latter would require, even in an introductory examination such as this (as Hansen reminds us, the former is ‘terse and poetic,’ while the latter ‘is prolix, funny, elusive and filled with fantasy dialogues’). I have a clear bias evidenced in the interpretation that follows as a result of my belief that the Daodejing is a “mystical” text of sorts, not in the sense that it provides us with descriptive accounts of mystical experience as such, but insofar as it urges the reader to take up mind-body or heart-mind practices, what are often otherwise called ascetic practices or “spiritual exercises” (John Cottingham), that are a necessary yet not sufficient condition for mystical experience. Thus we might say that instead of first-person stories narrating the states and stages of mystical experience, there are direct and indirect allusions to the nature and salutary (personal and political) effects of mystical experience.
I suspect a clear if not overwhelming majority of philosophers specializing in Chinese philosophy would not find this interpretation congenial or persuasive, perhaps some of them would not even find it plausible. A training in Religious Studies may account in part for my way of looking at things here and, in any case, it’s clear that this text, as well as other Daoist texts, are liable to a variety of plausible readings, including the “mystical” one, if only because of the literary and rhetorical forms they take. As I noted in the earlier treatment of basic Confucian concepts, I’m not an expert in Chinese philosophy and thus I write as an ardent and inspired amateur wholly dependent on the philosophical labors of others, a dependence that, for better and worse, has not gone so far as to render me completely deferential with regard to the interpretations and conclusions of my betters, although a “mystical” reading is not without scholarly support. I trust my academic colleagues in philosophy will forgive my temerity or chutzpah.