Friday, May 7, 2010

Flying Without Wings, Part 2

FLYING WITHOUT WINGS:
A COMMENTARY ON A PASSAGE IN THE ZHUANGZI, CHAPTER 4
by Scott Bradley

Yan Hui said, “What is the fasting of the mind?”

Confucius said, “If you merge all your intentions into a singularity, you will come to hear with the mind rather than with the ears. Further, you will come to hear with the vital energy rather than with the mind. For the ears are halted at what they hear. The mind is halted at whatever verifies its preconceptions. But the vital energy is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings. The Course alone is what gathers in this emptiness. And it is this emptiness that is the fasting of the mind.”
“The vital energy is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings.” This statement is pivotal to an understanding of the entire passage. We must “hear with the vital energy” for this will facilitate “the fasting of the mind”, “emptiness”, and this is the key to understanding how best to live in the world.

Listen to that mysterious impulse to life and existence that is within you. Unite with your rootedness in the inexplicable spontaneous up-welling of life within. Open to the Great, All-Embracing Openness that is the source of all that is, yet itself has no apparent life or existence. Accord with the foundationless foundation in which your being is founded. Ground yourself within the groundless ground in which you are grounded. Unite with the formless root of all forms. Experience the emptiness in which all things arise. Return to the very birthplace of the Universe, to the empty, spontaneous, mysterious emergence of beings. It is ever-arising.

Zhuangzi amplifies this experience in Chapter 5 where he speaks of our “Numinous Reservoir”. This is the mysterious interface of the spontaneous up-welling of life and its conscious experience within us. It is numinous because it is enshrouded in Mystery. It is a reservoir, because it is a ceaselessly flowing source of life and existence. It is the “unending sustainability” that we discover in ourselves when we reconnect with qi. Here the vital energy is described as “the springtime of each being” and “connecting up with This, your own mind becomes the site of the life-giving time.” Zhuangzi tells us we can unite with the very ceaselessly flowing Source of life itself, because that Source is not other than our own experience of conscious existence.

The vital energy is qi. What is qi? It is an emptiness. Shall we fill this emptiness with explanations and meanings? Shall we define it and bandy it about as a concept safely tucked away in the security of our understanding? To do so would be to negate whatever the word was intended to convey.

Shall we establish qi within a pantheon of forces and agencies at work in the world, line it up next to principal (li), Tao, Yin and Yang, the Heavenly Impulse, and spontaneity? We cannot; there is only one Unknowable Source and from it all things arise and to it all things resolve. Qi is a conceptual expression of an aspect of this, as are all the afore listed terms, and thus, they all point to the same ‘reality’, and this is unknowable.

We can call it vital energy if we understand that it is not this. We could call it ‘life force’ if we understand that it is neither life nor force. We could call it ‘spirit’, as many translators do, but this would be to bind it as some mere component of the human experience. Let us not slip back into the folly of “knowing” what qi is or conceiving of it as some sort of entity. Qi is the “Heavenly Impulse”, “rooted in the recesses of oblivion”[ix], the birthplace of all that is, and that is Mystery.

What are you other than qi? You do not receive, have, or participate in qi. You are qi. Life is not something you possess, it is what you are. However, as we shall see, it is only when you realize that ‘you’ are not, that you can discover that which you are.

Qi has a long history in the development of Chinese philosophy, but we must be careful not to understand its use here in that context. We must ask what it meant to Zhuangzi in the 4th century BCE and this might best be accomplished by referring to how he has used it here.

Chan defines qi as “an originating power, an inward spring of activity, an emergence not yet visible.” Qi is all of these. It is the “originating power”, the Source, Tao, the Unknown. It is the unknowable, spontaneous up-welling from which all things arise. It is that spontaneity expressed in this inexplicable experience of existence. It is the Source, the mysterious ‘event horizon’ where all things arise, and it is the actual experience of this ‘life experience’. Though we speak of these different aspects, there is but one ‘Reality’, one Mystery. My experience of qi is rooted in that which has spontaneously arisen as ‘me’, and this is rooted in and inseparable from that from which all things arise, the Source.

“The vital energy is an emptiness . . . .” What is this emptiness? Giles calls it “a negative existence”and this helps us to understand that it is beyond true description, having no attributes which we can name. Emptiness is context without content; apparent existence without essence; the “presence of beings” without beings; existence without existence.

Nothingness is nothing. Emptiness is something that is also nothing. In nothingness there is no cup; in emptiness there is a cup but it is empty and emptiness defines its being. It is “a waiting for the presence of beings”. What beings? All beings. Emptiness is infinite receptivity. From it all things arise, and within it all things are contained.

Note: At the conclusion of this miniseries, a link will be provided for those interested in downloading or printing the entire document replete with footnotes.

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