Friday, May 7, 2010

Flying Without Wings, Part 3

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

“If you merge all your intentions into a singularity, you will come to hear with the mind rather than with the ears.” What do the ears hear of that which only speaks in silence? Can they, like the vital energy, “blend with the boundless silence?” Even the mind, when properly focused in that single project, the realization of unfettered fulfillment, cannot connect with the mysterious root of your existence. To attempt to do so would be to take “your mind as your instructor.”

The understanding consciousness finds its agreement in that which it can understand; but that which you seek is beyond all understanding. Let it find fulfillment in its limitations; let it “stop and rest on what it does not understand.” Be like King Hui’s cook who declared, “My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow.” It is when you connect with qi, what is beyond all sense perception and understanding, that you will experience the indeterminate vastness in which all things are embraced.

Yes, here you will understand how best to operate in the political world. But having realized this union with Mystery, how little such concerns effect you! Looking for a lost coin with which to buy some bread, you have stumbled upon a treasure of immeasurable worth. Yes, you will have the bread and everything else besides.

“The Course alone is what gathers in this emptiness.” Emptiness is the expression of the Nameless Source and the place in which you are united with It. Would you experience the Tao? It is found in emptiness. What will you find there? Nothing at all. It is empty.

“And it is this emptiness that is the fasting of the mind.” How can Yan Hui free himself from his own scheming mind so as to be the sage he wants to be before setting out to transform others? By the fasting of the mind. “To have something in mind and then go out and do that thing — do you think this is an easy matter?”, chides Confucius.

This is the deliberate mind at work, thinking itself in control and its opinions “fully formed” and real. The cure for this sickness is an empty mind. But empty of what? “If you wish to know the truth,” wrote Seng-Ts’an, “then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.” It is to be empty of opinions and of bias. It is not the understanding of the mind and its thoughts that are at fault—it is the self which motivates them.

How does one go about this fasting? Zhuangzi does not clearly tell us.

Yan Hui said, “Before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real. But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist. Is this what you mean by being ‘empty’?” Confucius said, “Exactly.”

This rendering appears to be unique, but all translators agree that emptiness means the loss of ‘self’. And this is the heart of the matter. How ever we might describe emptiness within, its every manifestation is an expression of this: the realization of no-self.

The ego-identity, the ‘self’, is a mental construct which poses the concrete existence of an entity ‘me’. Considering itself an actual being, a ‘soul’ one might say, it attempts to deliberately control itself and the world in which it finds itself. This is why Yan Hui schemed and followed his diverse ‘intentions’. And this is why he desired to set off for Wei in the first place. He wanted to be a sage, to have a name, and this is what he understood a sage to be.

In Chapter 7, Zhuangzi sums up this central message succinctly: “It’s just being empty, nothing more.” And what does it mean to be empty? To realize ‘no-self’, to have ‘no-fixed-identity’, this is to be empty. In Chapter 2, Ziqi discovered this and proclaimed, “I have lost me.” We are told in Chapter 1 that “the sage has no name.” There is much that is difficult to understand in Zhuangzi, but this point seems clear. Is emptiness no-self? “Exactly.”

“Before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real.” What is this that moves him to activity? It is the vital energy, qi. Before he finds it, he thinks himself real and complete. He thinks himself an entity, a ‘self’.

“But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist.” Having discovered and listened with qi, he realizes ‘no-self’—that precious ‘self’ that he thought he was and defined his every activity and thought turns out to never have existed at all. What a glorious and revolutionary revelation!

What is it about listening with qi that precipitates such an extraordinary transformation? First, let us move beyond the metaphor of listening; what absorbs qi’s attention does not speak. This experience goes well beyond a subject responding to an object. Indeed, the loss of ‘self’ is the loss of both subject and object, the two being mutually generated. Rather, this experience is one of being organically re-connected with the unknowable Mystery of one’s spontaneous up-welling. It is to “let your mind be rooted in the unthinking parts of yourself,” and “to let your body be moved by the totality of things.” What moves you is beyond all knowing and yet you are moved. Become one with this, and all you do will likewise be done in spontaneity.

How is it that qi leads us to a realization of no-self? Qi is rooted in emptiness; we emerge from emptiness and emptiness knows no ‘self’. “When you accord with what is within you, you walk in the nameless.” What is within you is, at the very heart of you, this emptiness, and to harmonize with emptiness is to likewise be nameless.

Theists speak of a god-shaped vacuum in the human heart and would fill it with God. But this is a vacuum that “can be called the Heavenly Reservoir — poured into without ever getting full, ladled out of without ever running out, ever-not-knowing its own source.”

Emptiness is not a hole to be filled, but a freedom in which to glory in the unending flow of life and death, the endless transformations of existence. It is very like the “spill-over goblet” descriptive of the words of Zhuangzi—always filling and pouring forth because it is forever emptying. According with this emptiness within us, we become like the cook’s blade, the no-self, which, having “no thickness, enters into an empty space . . . (which) is vast and open with more than enough space for the play of the blade.”

“Find what moves” you, discover emptiness, realize no-self—is this then a simple causal chain? Far from it. One does not discover emptiness without being empty of self, nor does one truly find qi without being empty. The body lives because the heart beats, but the heart beats because the body lives. They form an organic whole and no one thing exists without the other. When all things are caused by all things can it be said that there is anymore causality?

But without cause can there be method or means? Are we not goners like Nanrong Chu, who “want(ed) to return to (his) real condition and inborn nature but (could) find no way in?” Is this not perhaps the greatest Mystery of all—how to do what cannot be done and be what ‘you’ cannot be? Nanrong Chu “tortured” himself in the doing and was thereby unable to even get a hold of the proper Way let alone discover the true means of realizing it: “Release your hold on the Course (Way) so you may walk it.”

“Before I find . . . . as soon as I find . . . .” The use of the simple present tense here suggests that Yan Hui goes in and out of this experience. The usage speaks of habit or recurring events. The simple past tense would have given the idea of finality. I don’t know that any particular tense in mandated by the Chinese. There seems to be a problem here with respect to tense, in any case.

When exactly did Yan Hui accomplish this realization of no-self? The suggestion is that he has indeed done so—this is a question based on experience, not a hypothetical event. Since the conversation appears uninterrupted, it would seem that he did so just then, on the spot. Or perhaps, he has had this experience previously but has suffered a relapse of ego-identity. None of this really matters, of course, since the essential point has been made and the narrative is a fictitious one, in any case.

Confucius said, “Exactly. Let me tell you about it. With this you can play in his cage without impinging on his concern for a good name. When he’s receptive do your crowing, but when he’s not let it rest. Do not let him get to you, but do not harm him either.”

Confucius is still Confucius and concerns himself with the transformation of others. Being empty of self, Yan Hui can likewise now concern himself with the politics of the Prince of Wei without disturbing the latter’s own self. It is self that gives rise to other, but if self does not find the other self opposing itself, it does not feel threatened. If Yan Hui’s boat is empty, none will oppose him. The Prince will not feel harm to his ego and thus will not have cause to harm the egoless Yan Hui.

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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