Thursday, January 19, 2012

Do You Exist?

Scott Bradley

"The weakest thing in the world / overcomes the strongest thing in the world / what doesn't exist finds room where there is none / thus we know that help comes with no effort / wordless instruction / effortless help / few in the world can match this." (Tao Te Ching, 43; Red Pine)

Do you exist? Of course you do. Do you also not exist? That's a question a bit harder to answer. Did you exist prior to birth? Will you exist after death? If we assume that existence after death requires existence prior to birth, then it would seem clear that there is some sense in which we do not exist. Outside this moment of time, the span of our lives, it would seem that we do not exist as we, as existents, understand existence — which is not, of course, to pronounce an extinctionist conclusion.

Can we simultaneously both exist and not exist? The Taoist literature seems to think we can. In fact, Taoism teaches that the best way to fulfill our existence is to also realize our nonexistence. After King Hui's cook said, "When what has no thickness enters into an empty space, it is vast and open, with more than enough room for the play of the blade," the king exclaimed, "I have learned how to nourish life!" (Zhuangzi, 3:6; Ziporyn) Is this not what it is to wander in our homeland of nothing and nowhere, to both be and not be?

This is also part of the lesson of the Tao Te Ching quoted above. We are familiar with the use of water as a metaphor for the weaker overcoming the stronger (TTC 78), but here it goes beyond things to no-thing: "what doesn't exist finds room where there is none." We can choose to see this statement as completely absurd (for it is), or we can let it suck us through to an altogether different way of being in the world.

Li Hsi-Chai (fl. 1167) comments: "Things are not actually things. What we call strong is a fiction. . . . Or do you think the reality of nonexistence cannot break through the fiction of existence?"

Are you a thing? In some sense you are. But how might it be helpful if you could also be no-thing? Has someone hurt your feelings? How would it be if you could not be a someone with feelings to be hurt? How would it be to be an empty boat?

Would you 'help' others? Su Ch'e (1039-1112) wrote: "If we control the strong with the strong, one will break or the other will shatter. But if we control the strong with the weak, the weak will not be exhausted, and the strong will not be damaged. . . . If we use existence to enter existence, neither is able to withstand the other. But if we use nonexistence to enter existence, the former will not strain itself, while the later will remain unaware." Like the subjects of the sage king, they will believe they did it all by themselves.

I smile to think how we typically would want to remind those we 'help' that we have done so.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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