We're getting serious in my ancient Chinese thought class this week, turning to the texts themselves. I may be a bit unconventional because the first text I have the class read is the Yi Jing (I Ching). Manyul mentioned (on Facebook) that this is a difficult book to teach,and he wondered about my experience; so, I thought I would blog it.
First, let me mention the order of the texts as I teach them. I start with the Yi Jing, then move to the Dao De Jing. The Analects is third, followed by Zhuang Zi and then Mencius. And we finish up with Han Feizi. The weakness of the class is that we do not read Mo Zi or Xun Zi (can't do everything!). But I think this line up works as a first class in ancient Chinese philosophy.
I start with the Yi Jing and the Dao De Jing (I am assuming it is more common to start with The Analects) because I want to get the students engaged with a broad notion of Dao (Way). Of course, the Dao De Jing provides such a notion, but I start with the Yi Jing because it opens the door to a broad notion of Dao, one that is shared by Daoists and Confucians alike, and it also provides some insight into the importance of contextuality in both Daoism and Confucianism.
Truth in advertising: I come at Confucianism by and large from a Hall and Ames perspective (I know some will find fault in this); that is, I think their notion of Ars Contextualis gets at something important in Confucius and Mencius. And even if the concept (at least the ars part of it - might be too active for an wu-wei mindset) may not be quite as applicable to Daoism , contextuality is certainly important in both the Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.
But contextuality I simply mean the orientation of understanding things in context. As Hall and Ames define ars contextualis, the "art of contextualizing":
The art of contextualizing seeks to understand and appreciate the manner in which particular things present-to-hand are, or may be, most harmoniously correlated. Classical Chinese thinkers located the energy of transformation and change within a world that is ziran, autogenerative or literally ‘so-of-itself’, and found the more or less harmonious interrelations among the particular things around them to be the natural condition of things, requiring no appeal to an ordering principle or agency for explanation.
I don't want to go into all the implications of this idea here. But if one is taking this perspective on Chinese thought, the the Yi Jing makes for a sensible starting point because it is, essentially, a tool that illuminates the immediate context the questioner finds himself in. It is a way of apprehending where in Way we are at a particular moment.
So, how to teach it? I use the Wilhelm/Baynes edition. I first have the students read the Jung Forward and the Wilhelm Introduction as well as the complete texts of the first two hexagrams. I then teach them how to consult the oracle - it is a divination manual, after all - and then we engage the text through questions. We also read the Shuo Kua and the Ta Chuan commentaries. I realize that actually using the text as an oracle risks trivializing it. But I emphasize to the students that my point is not to have them believe in some sort of supernatural powers of the text (though they can so believe if they want) but, rather, to use the text as it was designed to be used.
My purpose is to use the Yi Jing to get at a general sensibility (as opposed to an explicated argument) about Dao. The randomness and coincidence that attends to any use of the text as oracle is a direct experience of the complexity and fragility and spontaneity (ziran) of context. I like Jung's Forward for this reason (even if it is dated with a few "Chinese mind" references). His notion of "synchronicity" unfortunately has been appropriated by silly New Age types, but it is helpful in distinguishing correlative from causal thinking.
But there are problems with the Wilhelm edition. Two stand out in particular
At several points Wilhelm brings "God" into the translation. Now it may be true that the divination practices associated with the Yi Jing stretch far enough back into history that the Shang dynasty notion of a supreme ancestor-god (shangdi) is a relevant reference. But Wilhelm's use of "God" comes a bit too close to a Christian monotheistic notion, which I take to be something unnecessary for reading and understanding the text.
A second problem (and perhaps any of you who have read this far can help me out with this) is Wilhelm's seemingly veiled Platonism. Take this passage (lvi):
The second theme fundamental to the Book of Changes is its theory of ideas. The eight trigrams are images not so much of objects as of states of change. This view is associated with the concept expressed in the teachings of Lao-tse, as also in those of Confucius, that every event in the visible world is the effect of an "image," that is, of an idea in the unseen world. Accordingly, everything that happens on earth is only a reproduction, as it were, of an event in a world beyond our sense perception; as regards its occurrence in time, it is later than the suprasensible event...
This seems rather close to a notion of Platonic forms to me. It is not at all my sense of the Dao De Jing (all things in Way, being and nonbeing, are always present; there is no other world). I am not good on neo-Confucianism, so perhaps someone can enlighten me as to whether Wilhelm is here drawing on some Song revision. In any event, the above assertion is not one that squares with my reading of The Analects or Mencius either.
But, beyond those shortcomings, Wilhelm is useful as a first book (I find his translation a bit more accessible and easier to use for divination than Lynn's; and I keep Shaughnessy on hand as a historical reference). This week my students should be getting some sense of Dao and Ziran through it. I'll let you know how it goes.....
UPDATE: Fung Yu-Lan makes the connection between Plato and Neo-Confucianism, here: "Neo-Confucianism: School of Platonic Ideas."