Sunday, May 6, 2012


Scott Bradley

"He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it, even to the very depths. He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things." (Zhuangzi, 33; Ziporyn)

The practical side of Zhuangzi's identification with the undifferentiated vastness leads, paradoxically, to complete engagement with every differentiated particularity encountered. Or rather, assuming that we all engage with things encountered whatever our outlook, his identification with the vastness leads to a uniquely accepting relationship to all things encountered. Having put life and death outside himself he is free of the fear of loss and immune to the need for gain. Nothing can harm him. Nothing need be added. His dis-attachment to things (events) enables him to attune to them in such a way as to transcend them. They are the wave upon which he surfs, the current with which he swims, the mountains by which he attains a wider view.

Blyth (Zen in English Literature) quotes from Othello to make a similar point: "The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief." He then quotes Ryokan's haiku:
The thief
Left it behind —
The moon at the window.
There is that which cannot be taken from us, and when we dwell within it, we are impervious to both gain and loss. With regard to the alternative, he quotes Johnson: "If you are pleased with the prognostics of good, you will be terrified likewise with tokens of evil."

Yet it is the things themselves which are the vehicle to this transcendence. Life is not lived in a vacuum. Transcendence comes by virtue of something transcended. For this reason, the sage, far from removing herself from the events of the world, fully engages herself with them, embracing them for the opportunities they provide.

This is the Zhuangzian dialectic, a detachment arising from engagement. We see it likewise in his perspectival relativism wherein the various rights and wrongs of the philosophic schools are understood to demonstrate that all our judgments are determined by our adopted points of view. We discover that they are all both right and wrong, and thus, that there is no point of view to which to cling — including our own. We can only affirm and make use of them as 'temporary lodgings". We flow, rather than cling.

Though the author of this chapter seems to believe Zhuangzi fully realized this dis-attachment, I think it more likely that he was required to continually engage himself in the process. It is not a question of having 'arrived', but of continually meeting each successive wave and harnessing its energy — instead of being tumbled and cast bruised upon the shore.

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

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