Friday, May 4, 2012

Beyond Life and Death

Scott Bradley


Speaking of Zhuangzi, the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi writes: "Above he wandered with the Creator of Things, below he befriended whoever could put life and death outside themselves, free of any end or beginning." (Ziporyn)

It is curious how so often what someone has said by way of advocacy is taken by later commentators for how that someone actually lived. This is certainly the case with our author here, who seems to assume that each philosopher (with the notable exception of "the debaters", Hui Shu and his ilk) lived his philosophy. Personally, I am more inclined to think of them as more like myself, approximating aspirers. In any event, it is the possibility which concerns me here.

I, of course, have difficulties with the "Creator of Things", though I doubt that Zhuangzi would have given it much thought in as much as he wasn't hung up on the issue. There are occasions, in fact, when he uses similar terms. Strict orthodoxy was not one of his vices.

I would like to focus on the implications of the second part of this quote and rework it into an imperative to that end: "Put life and death outside yourself, free of any ending or beginning." This offers us an opportunity to exercise our imagination and, perhaps, to experience the world from a different point of view, if only for a moment. I don't know if you do these kinds of things, but I do, and find them illuminating.

We understand how Zhuangzi saw life and death as "one string", as a single reality, so that to be thankful in life is also to be thankful for death. Accepting death as part of life, life is freed from the fear of, or antipathy for, death. But this act of putting both outside oneself would seem to be going a step further. One becomes dis-attached to the whole package. This is very reminiscent of the suggestion, found in the Zhuangzi and later in Zen, that we become who we were before our parents were born. Imagine that.

It seems to me that what we were before our parents were born is either Nothing or Everything. And I suspect that these two are the same so that we are both Nothing and Everything. But these are mental constructs and it is something else, something experiential, we are after. And this is something that words cannot address.

Assuming we have in some sense managed to put life and death outside ourselves, it might also be assumed that we now live and die in a different way. Including death in the life package, we do not cling so tenaciously to life. Putting them both outside ourselves, we complete the process. Now we are able to live more freely than ever; now life can be more like a natural up-welling flow we ride, and less something we strive to make happen and fear to lose. And this is at the heart of the Daoist vision: enjoying the ride.

We are told we must let go the way in order to walk it; so also with life.

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

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