Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Walking in the Nameless, Part 2

by Scott Bradley
Empty space is vast and unshifting, and so the radiance of Heaven shines forth through it. When the radiance of Heaven shines forth, it reveals the humanness of the human, the thingishness of things. Hence, when the humanness is cultivated it comes to possess its own unending sustainability even in this very moment. Sustainability means that when abandoned by the Human, one is instead aided by the Heavenly. Abandoned by the Human, one is called a citizen of the Heavenly. Aided by the Heavenly, one it called a Son of Heaven.
~ from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections from Traditional Commentaries by Brook Ziporyn ~
There is considerable variation in the translation of this passage with each of the other translations consulted favoring a view that this radiance issues from the sage himself. Here, as throughout this commentary, I will follow Dr. Ziporyn’s interpretation.

The central idea here is “unending sustainability”. Indeed, the entire passage is an explanation of and an invitation to experience this sustainability. And this is, I believe, the purpose of the entire philosophical project of Zhuangzi and the ‘school’ that apparently arose in his name. In the light of Nature, in the open inquiry into the nature of our existence, the character of our humanness is revealed. Through the cultivation of this humanness, that is, through self-inquiry into the character of one’s humanness and the project of coming into accord with that humanness in the light of one’s interface with apparent reality, one discovers an inner resource of sustainability which transcends what is normally thought of as the Human.

The Human is the ‘normal’ exercise of one’s being in the world, a humanness still in bondage to the limitations imposed upon it through its identification with an ego-identity which is discovered to be unsustainable. The light of reality does not support its grasping after fixity, concreteness and sustainability. Indeed, it is this very unsustainablity which is the source of one’s existential suffering. And this is the root of the inquiry into the nature of our existence in the first place; it is an inquiry the end of which is to discover sustainability where there appears to be only unsustainabilty.

This sustainability is not experienced in the ordinary human experience. For this reason it is realized in experience only when we have abandoned that way of being human. The text says “abandoned by” but the active or passive here amount to the same thing — the ‘normal’ is transcended. As it is as equally difficult to envision abandoning the human as it is to be abandoned by the human, we are confronted with the inexplicable ‘how’ of the method or means by which this transcendence takes place. We are like Nanrong Chu who, earlier in the chapter, is told by Laozi: “You want to return to your real condition and inborn nature but can find no way in.” Yet it is enough for us now to consider that such a transcendence from unsustainablility to sustainability is possible.

This transcendence of humanness means that one is sustained by something “Heavenly”. One is “aided by the Heavenly”. For Heavenly read Natural — that is, one is sustained by what is natural in oneself, but something which is unrealized by and incompatible with the ‘normal’ function of the human. The normal function of the human is to have a ‘deliberate mind’ which views all things from the point of view of ego-identity and thus orders all things so that they might be said to revolve around this ego-identity. This is an implied entity which does not truly exist and yet cannot realize that fact. This identity believes itself to be in charge of itself and it’s reality and thus cannot recognize something more fundamental in itself which is not only outside its control but is what makes its false sense of control possible.

When one has realized this inner sustainability he might be described as a “Son of Heaven”, a lordly term reminiscent of the Confucian sage, “the uncrowned king”. It also implies that one who has realized this sustainability is heaven-like, having become a scion of Heaven. Just as the realization of this sustainability is the discovery of an organic connectedness to Nature, so this sustainability enables a greater harmony with Nature (the Heavenly, the fundamental givenness of reality).

This understanding of the ‘normal’ human as inherently dysfunctional is implied here, but not discussed. I feel obliged to address it here, but will keep my comments brief. Since it is basic to philosophical Daoism to understand Nature and its givens as ‘good’, this description of the human as inherently dysfunctional seems a glaring contradiction.

The simplest explanation is that the human, though essentially ‘good’, has the capacity to act in disharmony with Nature and nearly universally chooses to do so. However, I see this dysfunctionality as organically inherent in the human experience, though not so as to be insurmountable. Following the evolutionary paradigm, we can imagine how, with the appearance of reflective consciousness, an ego-self might have likewise arisen to facilitate and order its experience. Other ways of coping with the phenomenon of ‘self’-awareness might have been possible, but apparently did not arise. In this sense, the ‘self’, like everything else, is an ‘accident’ of Nature.

No purposiveness, ethical or otherwise, is attributed to Nature or the process of evolution. Indeed, throughout the course of evolution as we understand it, there have arisen numerous forms of life that have proven dysfunctional in that they have failed to survive as species, however marvelous they might have been. I would suggest that the ego-self is an evolutionary accident which, though it has doubtless helped lead humanity to the incredibly wonderful experience that it is, has likewise created in the human a great deal of angst and despair, on the one hand, and the possibility of a self-inflicted extinction, on the other. Perhaps evolution will solve this problem itself and humanity will come to transcend this bondage to ego. In any case, the daoist project was and is to achieve this transcendence “in this very moment.”

There also appears to be a contradiction here regarding the nature of the human. Humanness is to be cultivated, on the one hand, and abandoned (or allowed to abandon one) on the other. Yet it is the cultivation of it, i.e., the realization of the character of the human, that leads one to a transcendence of this sense of the human, the habitual expression of humanness. The realization of sustainability within the human leads to a more genuine expression of humanness. One transforms from ‘human nature’ to ‘original nature’ which is to say one becomes more genuinely human. Thus “ the human” speaks here of the ‘normal’ functioning of the human complete with the aforementioned dysfunctional aspects.

These are essentially the ‘deliberate mind’ and self-identity, and these both can be summed up as an attempt by the human to establish itself as other than Nature by finding sustainability in its own concrete and conceptual world. When the “radiance of Heaven” illumines this dysfunctionality, the unsustainable human is abandoned in favor of a new expression of humanness. And here it is that one discovers that in that very abandonment, Nature has provided in one’s own being what completes one’s being in an entirely different way than the human previously attempted to fulfill itself. To abandon the human is a frightening prospect for the human and yet one can be assured that Nature is there to “aid” one—provision has been made; sustainability is to be found.

What is the “radiance of Heaven”? Let us begin by understanding that “Heaven” is Nature in the sense that it is all that is given, Reality as a whole. It is not an outside agency which works upon the human to purposely show it something. It is not an entity, nor the expression of an entity. It is not a god, or spirit or tao. Remove the human mind and there is no such radiance. The “radiance of Heaven” is that which arises at the interface of the human mind and apparent reality. That ‘reality’ tells us about ourselves—reveals ourselves to ourselves. Yet Nature has no words. It is the human mind that forms them.

Space is described as empty, vast and unshifting in order to show the reliability of its radiance. We can trust the testimony of Nature because it represents ultimate reality and has no agenda of its own.

It is significant that it is through the cultivation of humanness that humanness “comes to possess its own unending sustainability”. This is not a flight from the human. On the contrary, this the fulfillment of the human. But this fulfillment is by virtue of a realization of the limits inherent within it. That realization becomes the portal through which it restores its connectedness to aspects of its nature from which it has grown estranged—that is, it reconnects with “its own unending sustainability”.

What is “sustainability”? When the text says “it means” it refers only to the source of that sustainability, its connectedness to Nature, to one’s ‘inborn nature’ as opposed to the false, ‘independent’ human nature of the mind’s own making. But what is sustainability?

There is no definition provided in this passage. Throughout this literature the experience is not defined; it is described on the basis of its experiential manifestations but these are also lacking in this passage. For the sake of establishing some idea of what is meant by the term I will simply here call it free and unencumbered contentment. It does not imply that there is no end to the human experience, but that while having that experience, one is able to realize contentment despite the limitations of that experience, most significantly, the limitation of life by death.

“In this very moment” expresses the immediacy of this experience. It happens now, in this life, and not as some fulfillment in death. Conversely, it makes no claim to somehow extend this sustainability beyond death.

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.


  1. Dear Mr. Bradley,

    Your recent commentary strikes me as quite round, as well as having been handled with an exceptionally polite degree of deference towards Dr. Ziporyn, which does not at all seem misplaced.

    The concept of "sustainability" seems not unlike the reasons Zen Buddhists give for revering Zen -- when they feel like giving reasons, that is. Of course, such an unlikely term does have the feel of a carefully translated term, corroborated by your explanation that there are many translations, early on in your piece.

    The idea that a sustainable, nigh-permanent entity would be preferable to an existence in chaos and in flux does not seem very Tao to me, though I feel certain that this has been implied (not by yourself, Sir, but by the concept of sustainability). I also feel certain that this implication stems from a sort of unavoidable extra-communication; that is, I believe that the terms have too many denotations to approximate the intended one.

    Yeah. So. What have you got for me, RT? It's always a pleasure.

    Yours Truly,


  2. P.S. -- sorry for the post-script, but I wanted to mention that I realize Tao does not require flux; I merely meant that I cannot imagine that it would embrace the sort of stagnancy involved in a kind of permanence. Please excuse my lack of clarity. I'm tired.

  3. Hi Mr. Botheyesshut. Plz call me Scott. I'm going to make a brief reply here because I've got guests at the moment and my time for study is limited.
    It seems to me that what is 'unsustainable' in Z-z's thought is precisely anything that thinks itself to be an entity or in any way permanent, that is, anything 'fixed'. What is 'sustainable' is whatever arises, whatever IS, whatever happens. If one surrenders into life as it happens, one is 'sustained' in this. Z-z does not seem to care much for a complete dismissal of the experience of being in some way an individuated expression of the up-welling of Reality. He speaks of having no-fixed-identity, but something seems to be there, namely the experience of being an individual human being. There is identity, but it is unfixed--there is no 'self', 'soul' or other entity that we can cling to. (Though this does not mean that these things don't exist--how could we know?) This is the how (being an individuated expression of Reality) and the why (having no-fixed-identity) of our 'wandering'. Scott (iniscott@yahoo.com)


Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.