Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Return of the Shadowy Splender

Scott Bradley


As I cycle through the Zhuangzi, I usually find that the same passages speak to me most, and since a big part of what I do here is a study of this book, I am guilty of lots of repetition. I say this somewhat apologetically, but not so much so as to change my ways; since I believe that repeated exposure to the these teachings leads to both a better understanding and a growing embodiment of them, this is the course I follow. Perhaps there are some who might likewise profit from the exercise.

I like to say that whatever path one follows, it can most likely be summed up on one page, double-spaced, large font for the visibly impaired. Yet the words keep flowing and books follow on the heels of books. And though much of this is no doubt superfluous, it seems a necessary part of the process.

Thus I return to a pivotal statement of Zhuangzi's philosophy:
Hence, when the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know, it has reached its utmost....it can be called the Heavenly Reservoir — poured into without ever getting full, ladled out without ever running out, ever not-knowing its own source. This is called the Shadowy Splendor.
(2:36-7; Ziporyn)
For Zhuangzi, not-knowing is much more than a simple admission of the limits of reason. It is an experience. I like to think of this discovery of the frontier of our understanding as arriving at a precipice, the end of our world as we know it. Here we come to realize that we are indeed 'unfixed'; within the world of the understanding consciousness we discover that we are completely ungrounded; we have tried to drop anchor in the midst of the sea where no bottom can be reached. Zhuangzi sees this as a wonderful opportunity to participate in that unknowable vastness; all we need do is leap in trust.

The psychological consequence of such a leap is to experience a mind like a Heavenly Reservoir. The similarities between this experience and the 'qualities' of Dao are remarkable, but then Dao might best be called a state of mind, in any case. Certainly, we do not wish to make it a 'thing'. It is an ever-filling, ever-emptying experience consequent to the interface of consciousness and vastness, an exposure of the limited to the limitless.

He calls it the Shadowy Splendor because it is an "ever not-knowing (of) its own source". It is a kind of knowing that knows nothing of knowing. It is the Shadowy Splendor, Zhao Yifu (1189-1256) tells us, because "its illumination derives from its darkness." It is a knowing derived from not-knowing.

Augustine wrote, “I believe in order that I might know.” Zhuangzi would agree with him, only he might substitute “trust” for “believe”, for unlike Augustine, he knows nothing to believe.

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

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