by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
Hunchback Limpleg the lipless cripple presented himself to Duke Ling of Wei, who was so delighted with him that when he saw the unimpaired their necks looked freakishly long to him...Thus, where Virtuosity [te] excels, the physical form is forgotten. But people are unable to forget the forgettable, and instead forget the unforgettable — true forgetfulness!In an age such as ours, dominated by the cult of beauty, this passage might seem especially apropos. And it is. But we have heard many other similar maxims, and lumped together they may dull us to the truths they wish to convey. Yet there is potential here for that delightful experience of having one's understanding turned inside-out. We just have to really think about it in such a way that the idea is forgotten and awareness arises. We need to experience understanding.
(Zhuangzi 5:20; B. Ziporyn)
Zhuangzi is unique in his use of the outcast as exemplar of virtue, even within the book that bears his name. Outside the Inner Chapters the theme all but disappears. I say 'outcast' because in the conventional thinking of his time, to be physically deformed or disabled was indeed to be a moral outcast.
One's physical self was thought to be a reflection of one's moral character, much as one's caste or fated physical condition, in India, is thought to be a reflection of previous karma. Moreover, to have lost a limb as punishment for a crime, as many of Zhuangzi's protagonists have, was considered a double crime; not only has one committed the initial crime, but one has irrevocably failed to return his body intact to his ancestors.
Thus, Zhuangzi's use of these outcasts was much more than a protest against a cult of beauty; it was a revolutionary breaking asunder of a complete world view. It was a declaration of freedom for each and every human being, because true freedom lies beyond the physical and fated.
"Virtuosity" is te, the essential and innate expression of what something is. It is not 'being good and virtuous.' I would translate the Tao Te Ching as the Way and It's Expression. I am no scholar, however, and thus this is just my personal interpretation. I recognize no distinction between 'Tao', as Mystery, and particular things — all things are an expression of Tao. Te is the truest expression of what something is, whether rock, tree or human being.
In the case of the human, it is possible to forget — to lose touch with — the innermost heart, the roots of one's existence, and thereby fail to realize the truest expression of one’s humanity. And that is to forget what is best not forgotten. We can forget the rest.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.