Friday, August 12, 2011

The Shadow of Shadows

The Shadow of Shadows
by Scott Bradley


In a recent post I found myself agreeing with Guo Xiang that all things are 'self-so' — ‘self-create' and utterly free of dependence on anything. I say, 'found myself' because these posts tend to develop as I write them and often go where they will, and because I have previously found this aspect of Guo's take on Zhuangzi hard to swallow. Yet, I find myself more and more gravitating toward many of his ideas. They are, of course, only ideas, but because they alter our perspective of the world, they can also effect a change in us. There is no 'getting it right', only getting it in such a way that leads to a quality of life that most pleases us.

Guo develops this theme of the utter independence of each thing in part with reference to Zhuangzi's conversation between the penumbra and the shadow. The penumbra, figuratively speaking, is the shadow of a shadow. It is that area of diffused light which surrounds a shadow — for a shadow does not often have sharp edges. According to Brook Ziporyn, it was also, for the Chinese, a mythical creature, though its literal meaning is 'neither of the two'.

Thus, this most tenuous of creatures, mythical and a mere shadow of a shadow, asks the shadow why it is forever moving about, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing. And the shadow replies that it depends on nothing to do these things, but simply does them: "How would I know why I am so or not so?"

We, of course, know. There is a Creator (or Source) which causes a form, an actual thing, which causes the shadow to move as it does, and the shadow of the shadow, the penumbra, to follow suit. But there is another way to look at things. Guo essentially reminds us that 'Tao' does not create and thus the chain of causation is broken at its source. There is no 'Unmoved Mover'. "Hence, of all things involved in the realm of existence," comments Guo, "even the penumbra, there has never been one that did not transform itself in its own solitary singularity, consistently positioned in the realm where all agency vanishes. Thus, creation is without any lord or master, and each being creates itself." (Zhuangzi; B. Ziporyn)

This is something very difficult to wrap our brains around, but its value is rather in the unwrapping. I cannot pretend to understand it so well as to be able to explain it, even had I the space to do so, but I would like to suggest that it provides us with a perspective from which to re-evaluate how we relate to the world. It speaks to me of the essence of the existentialist mandate that existence itself requires that we create ourselves. And it re-focuses our attention to the absolute immediacy and thusness of each and every thing and moment, which is, for me, the essence of the Zen experience.

I recently read that how we view the world, transforms the world. And this is another brain unwrapper, because we think the world defines how we think, and not the other way around. Perhaps the point is to be like the penumbra, 'neither of the two', and beyond even that.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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