Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Being An Insect

Scott Bradley


"The sage is skilled at the Heavenly but not at the Human." (Zhuangzi, Chap. 23; Ziporyn)

I've written a note besides this in my edition to the effect that this is essentially a quote from Xunzi (a Confucian and probable contemporary of the author) which is a mistaken statement of the Daoist point of view. I probably got this from Graham, but I am not sure. No matter; the point is that this author, like Zhuangzi whom he seeks to emulate and explain, states a point of view for the purpose of deconstructing it.

Xunxi's criticism of Daoism is that it is other-worldly and does not address the needs of the real world. This is a common enough belief; Daoism is frequently described as "quietist", its sages recluses off in the woods, estranged from humanity and uninvolved in attempts at its improvement. Our author disagrees.

"It is only the Whole Man," he responds, "who is skillful at the Heavenly and also good at the Human. Only an insect can be an insect, and it is only by being an insect that it can succeed in being the Heavenly." This simple statement is profoundly significant. There is no disconnect between the fullness of the human experience and being in complete harmony with Reality. To the extent that we alienate ourselves from our humanity, we likewise alienate ourselves from the Totality. In being fully human we are heaven-like. "Realize your humanity," says Chen Jen, "for there is nothing else to be."

The author continues: "The Whole Man hates the Heavenly, for he hates what other people [contrast to themselves] as the Heavenly." What he 'hates' is the idea that so-called 'spirituality' is disdainful of the so-called profane. A Zen master would burn incense to this sentiment. "Glorious activity! Chopping wood and carrying water!" Being human is being in accord with Dao.

The appellation "Whole Man" is itself instructive of the author's point of view. Nothing is discarded; nothing in abandoned. Only each dimension of the human experience is informed by the totality. The understanding consciousness knows when to stop; this is its perfection. The conscience guides, but does not rule. One wanders in his essential emptiness, but does the dishes. One fully engages with life because life in its fullness is affirmed. It is through the pursuit of one dimension of the human experience at the expense of others which psychologically sunders us from Dao: “It is always what they like most that cages people”, even when it is ‘spirituality’.

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

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