Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Big Bird

Big Bird
by Scott Bradley


The Zhuangzi opens with the fantastic story of a gigantic fish which transforms into an equally gigantic bird which ascends to ninety thousand feet to begin its journey to the Southern Oblivion. Had I begin consulted, I would have recommended something more down-to-earth to introduce what is in the end a very unmagical philosophy. But Zhuangzi was a master of irony and often taught by means of the negative norm — the fantastic, the grotesque, and the despised were his favorite themes. Madmen and criminals instruct the Sage, Confucius. Child shepherds instruct emperors in how to rule.

Looking up at this huge bird the fledgling dove laughs at its efforts. What folly! What wasted and useless effort! Is it not enough to flutter from tree to bush? The small consciousness neither understands nor appreciates the larger consciousness.

It is very likely that Zhuangzi intended this parable as a dig at his friend and philosophical sparring partner, Huizi. There are other, similar stories, where Huizi is seen as a small bird in comparison to Zhuangzi who pays him no heed. And here in this introductory chapter, when this story and an elaboration of its moral conclude, a series of dialogues between Huizi and the author follows. Huizi accuses Zhuangzi of having big, but useless ideas. Zhuangzi responds that Huizi would do well to learn the usefulness of the useless, a recurrent theme.

It does not escape me that often, as I critique the sayings of Zen masters, I am playing the fledgling dove. In the face of testimonials of such incredibly large consciousness, I stumble over philosophical minutiae. But perhaps I am just a dove and would best learn to find fulfillment as such.

The central point of this story is not truly a comparison of the differences between the large and the small, but of their sameness, and of how each is fulfilled in being what it is. Guo Xiang puts it succinctly: "Though some are larger and some are smaller, every being without exception is released into the range of its own spontaneous attainments, so that each being relies on its own innate character, each deed exactly matching its own capabilities. Since each fits perfectly into precisely the position it occupies, all are equally far-reaching and unfettered. How could any one be superior to the other?" (Ziporyn)

Every difference dissolves in sameness, and this sameness is our oneness. Yet every difference is precisely what we are and the unique expression of our oneness. Were we to view each other with the same equanimity with which we view the infinite differences within Nature, we would begin to experience something of the liberating power of openness.

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

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