Sitting in oblivion as a Taoist practice of positive alienation: A response to negative alienation in the Tang dynasty

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Changing, especially deteriorating, social conditions may engender (negative) alienation. Common strategies of de-alienation include social movements. Alienation takes on a positive form when actively practised. In this paper I briefly review how positive alienation is reflected in Taoist thought, and use it as a starting point to examine in greater detail how this form of alienation can be achieved, as discussed in Zuowanglun or Discourse on Sitting in Oblivion, a Taoist work by Sima Chengzhen who lived in the late eighth and early ninth century during the Tang dynasty. The social background and historical moment in which the Taoist work was produced are analysed. To grasp the Tao, seven steps - respect and faith, interception of karma, taming the mind, detachment from affairs, true observation, intense concentration, and realising the Tao - are discussed in Zuowanglun. These seven steps are examined here in the light of positive alienation. Through the seven stages, a process of double forgetting is carried out sequentially - the forgetting of social affairs and relationships and that of the very method of meditation and forgetting. In parallel, the forgetting of the dialectical processes between society and the individual and between the socialised and non-socialised components of the self - a form of positive alienation - is achieved. As an alternative to social movements, practising positive alienation served as a response to negative alienation in the second half of the Tang dynasty. Recent Chinese interest in qi gong, a breathing exercise influenced by Taoism and its contemporary relevance are also discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)479-492
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Sociology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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