Shen Dao III
by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
"Just become like an inanimate object. There is no need for worthies or sages. Indeed, a clump of earth never strays from the Course (Dao)" (B. Ziporyn). Thus is Shen Dao quoted by the author of the 33rd chapter of Zhuangzi. What did he mean?
If he meant that one should literally become exactly like a clump of earth, then the criticism of his contemporaries that his way was not a way for the living, but for the dead, was probably justified. I don't think he did, however.
What we can say about a clump of earth is that it is precisely what it is; it is not divided within itself, from itself. It does not second-guess itself. To become like an inanimate object is not to become inanimate, but to be precisely what one is. Zen teaches that in sitting we should sit, in standing we should stand, and "above all, don't wobble". Be what you are, as you are, where you are. Be what you are doing. Do what happens. From the Taoist point of view, this means: Live in spontaneity. This is anything but acting inanimately.
No doubt the second episode in Chen Jen's Wanderings, "Pebbles", was inspired by this passage. In that story I have Chen Jen and Tzu Yu escape villagers who would possess them as their token sages, "greater than the sages of Lu", by offering them pebbles as the greatest teachers of all. The ruse worked, and they were chased from the village. But it was more than a ruse, for Chen Jen honestly intended that they should learn from the pebbles. "Everyone take one," he said, "and learn from it what it means to simply be content in what you are."
The author presents this opening quote as proof of his own analysis of Shen Dao's philosophy, and I think he might have got it right: "An inanimate object has no worries about establishing itself and does not get entrapped by the application of its cleverness. Neither in its movements nor in its stillness can it ever stray from the guidelines, and thus it remains forever free from praise [and blame]." Here he touches on three basic consequences of our failure to be content in who we are: The need to be-someone, the need to explain Mystery, and the need to be thought well of.
There is no need to expand further; should you wish to discover your own unclumpedness, you need only momentarily try to be like that clump of soil in its thusness to discover what it is in you that resists and says "no". For me, it's the inability to say "yes" to the mess — to be free of guilt for being no sage, or even an esteemed human being.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.