Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How Things Are

Scott Bradley

Zhuangzi relates a story about the wake of Lao Dan (Laozi) in which one of his admirers, Qin Shi, arrives to participate in the mourning, but after a few quick expressions of grief, precipitously departs. Qin's disciple enquires as to whether he did not love the deceased and how such an apparently superficial expression of grief could reflect that love. The master replies that he expected to find mourners there who exemplified the teaching of Lao Dan, but instead he found an excessive expression of grief, a clear indication that they had failed to realize his teaching. He departed for fear that he, too, should get caught up in such folly.

(Some translators put the blame on Lao Dan for having acquired adulating and dependent disciples, rather than ones free of such excessive attachments. Ziporyn's translation seems to me the more likely meaning.)

Qin Shi explains that succumbing to this overflowing of grief, "would be to flee from the Heavenly and turn away from how things are." (Zhuangzi, 3:8; Ziporyn) Lao Dan, for his part, embraced the unavoidable with equanimity: "When the time came to go, he followed along with the flow. Resting content in the time and finding his place in the flow, joy and sorrow had no way to seep in." These mourners took death as a great tragedy, but he for whom they mourned understood it to be just one more transformation within the flow of endless transformation. He had effectively "put life and death outside himself".

There is something special about the inevitability of death; nothing serves better to bring us face to face with "the Heavenly". The Heavenly is that which is given, beyond knowing the what and the why of it; it is "how things are". Some might fear and flee it; Daoism embraces it as a means to liberation in life.

Death, though the most powerful example of the unavoidable, is not the only expression of "how things are". Indeed, every moment of our existence is nothing more than an encounter with the inevitable. It might be that our present circumstances were avoidable, but that does not change their present unavoidability. These, too, are thus an invitation to release and liberation through acceptance, affirmation and thankfulness. They are, each one, an opportunity to transcendence, an opportunity to flow without resistance.

It is normal that we should mourn the loss of someone loved; grief and sorrow, like joy and gladness, are authentic human expressions. Only to be balanced and healthy, they must also be informed by that open-ended 'bigger picture' which renders them relative. We mourn the loss of a loved-one, but we understand, too, that nothing is truly ever lost in Vastness.

The most authentic human expressions are both intensely experienced and transcended. Writes Fang Yizhi (1611-1671): “When he is sad, it is a sadness in which neither happiness nor sadness can get at him. Happiness is the certainly happiness, but sadness is also a kind of happiness.”

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

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