Friday, March 23, 2012

Transcending the Conundrum I

Scott Bradley


I have previously made mention of the occasional divergence of so-called School of Zhuangzi writings within the Zhuangzi from those presumed to be by Zhuangzi himself, that is, the Inner Chapters (1-7).

One such example, which Brook Ziporyn takes as an opportunity to make this point, is in "Autumn Floods" (Chap. 17) where we are told definitively what is Heavenly and what is Human: "That cows and horses have four legs in the Heavenly. The bridle around the horse's head and the ring through the cow's nose is the Human." This follows on the heels of a statement concerning how best to live: "The Heavenly is internal, while the Human is external, and Virtuosity (te) resides in the Heavenly. He who knows which activities are of the Heavenly and which are of the Human roots himself in the Heavenly."

I have always liked this passage for the very reason that Zhuangzi would have dismissed it — it neatly packages an otherwise troublesome conundrum: What is the relationship between Dao and human activity (culture), especially 'un-Dao-like' activity?

For his part, Zhuangzi, after making similarly definitive statements, says, "How do I know what I call the Human is not the Heavenly, and what I call the Heavenly is not the Human?" Once again, Zhuangzi overturns the knowability of Reality.

Here might be a good place to ask, What the hell difference does it make? In terms of content, ideas, it probably does not make any difference at all. But in terms of one's fundamental approach to Reality, it makes a significant difference. Zhuangzi was not interested in "not-knowing" for its academic honesty, but for the mystical alternative it facilitated. It is when "the understanding consciousness" discovers its limits that one is released into "the Radiance of drift and doubt" and the "unfettered wandering" that that implies.

Yet it is also important to remember that Zhuangzi would not have outrightly rejected this formulation of the Dao versus Human question; transcendence is not negation. Understanding the relative character of our ideas does not mean we need discard them; only our hold upon them is loosened in such a way as to not be bound by them. It is not so much the definitive character of this formulation with which Zhuangzi would take exception, but for the dogmatic grasp with which it is held. There is indeed some 'truth' to the idea that what the human purposively does and Nature spontaneously is are at odds. In fact, the Daoist vision is to transcend the purposive in favor of the spontaneous, and thereby become more Dao-like.

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

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