Friday, April 13, 2012

Embracing the Inevitable I

Scott Bradley

"In being merely some specific being, every person in the world is nothing but a temporary lodging place! . . . They understand what to do about that which something can be done about, but they don't understand what to do about that which nothing can be done about. It is impossible to escape from having something you do not understand and something that nothing can be done about! Is it not tragic to try to escape from what cannot be escaped?" (Zhuangzi, Chap 22; Ziporyn)

Philosophical Daoism, especially the Zhuangzian variety, puts great emphasis on the value of understanding our relationship to the inevitable. The essential character of the inevitable is its inevitability. Yes, this is a tautology, but something must focus us on what exactly it is of which we speak. Nothing can be done about it. It will happen. Or it is presently happening. Or it has already happened.

Daoism sees this as the closest approximation we have of actually knowing something. I know, for instance, that, should I be 'fortunate' enough to live to old age, my body will continuously and progressively fall to pieces. And then I will die. Forget the bit about taxes; death is the only surety we know.

Focusing on death can certainly become a life-negating morbidity, but it need not be so. For Daoism, it is a wonderful opportunity to discover how it might inform our living. It has value. I won't attempt to enumerate those values here, except to mention how it moves us to understand our temporal existence within a vastly larger context.

Daoism is certainly not unique in this focus on death; it shares this with every one of the world's religions. Where it might be unique, or where we at least might make it so in our adaptation of it, is in its refusal to provide some kind of "escape". In some sense, this might be called the essence of religion — the co-option of the implications of death. This is the proverbial "pot of buddha-flesh" which I like so much to quote. In fairness, I should note that Fang Yizhi applies it to Zhuangzi: "Zhuangzi too makes something of the other side in an attempt to nourish himself on this side, cooking up a pot of buddha-flesh for his own nutriment." And perhaps he does sometimes go "too far" in suggesting , if only in innuendo, the perpetuation of identity beyond death, "unfixed" though it be.

If it is indeed "tragic" to attempt to escape the inescapable, it is only so by virtue of an opportunity lost, and only when it has failed to provide true consolation. It seems pointless to me to disabuse others of their consolation in religion. The consolation found in philosophical Daoism is for those no longer able to find it in myth, and even then, as seen in Fang's accusation stated above, it must, if it is to remain true to its spirit, forever purge itself of the natural tendency to find solace in escapism.

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

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