Friday, March 30, 2012

The One Assertion

Scott Bradley

In a well-known passage in the Zhuangzi the author has someone question Zhuangzi about where Dao might be found. His answer, "There is nowhere it is not", does not satisfy the inquirer; surely there must be some distinctions between things, some being more noble than others? It is not until Zhuangzi declares Dao to be in "piss and shit" that his interlocutor is silenced. Personally, I would dispense with the preposition "in" — Dao is piss and shit — and instead of "nowhere", I would say, "There is nothing it is not". But I suppose that in the general context of Daoist thought, it amounts to the same thing.

Zhuangzi then presents the one great Daoist assumption, that there is one underlying ground of all things about which we can have no definitive understanding. "'The Ubiquitous', 'The All-Pervasive', 'The Omnipresent'—these are three terms with the same meaning. They all point to the same thing. Let us try to wander together in the palace of not-even-anything, merging it together in one single assertion that is nowhere brought to a halt! Let's try doing nothing together, shall we?" (Zhuangzi, Chap. 22; Ziporyn)

Always statements about Dao call for a human response; never is the discussion academic. The "one single assertion that is nowhere brought to a halt" where there is not-even-anything is an acknowledgment that despite being everywhere and everything, Dao is unspeakably beyond place and thing. Our only recourse, should we wish our lives to be informed by Dao, is to wander in that which the understanding consciousness cannot know.

Wandering is Zhuangzi's favorite metaphor for a life lived internally severed from every explanation of things and every conventional value intended to provide meaning and purpose. There is only wandering. Yet we walk Two Roads. Because our minds are free of clinging to foundationless values we are able to live those values more truly. It is no great stretch to imagine how we might better love and care for others when these qualities are no longer means to self-interested ends.

Philosophical Daoism is unapologetically mystical. It invites an experiential journey beyond knowing. If there is an apparent contradiction between its eschewal of all 'knowing' on the one hand, and its mysticism on the other, this is largely resolved in the concept of wandering. One wanders because he knows no place to go in a medium without definition. Philosophical Daoism is mysticism without a metaphysics. Thus can the one assertion never be “brought to a halt”. And thus can we wander together. If we can agree to the ground of unknowable Oneness, every disagreement is of no real importance.

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

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