Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) remarks that many think the final story of Chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi would have been better omitted, but he declares: "This is a man standing at the mouth of the great furnace." This is a man on the cusp of despair or insight.
The story is simple enough. After ten days of terrible weather a man goes to check on the welfare of his impoverished friend and finds him mournfully playing his lute and singing a song that sounds more like weeping. "Father? Mother? Heaven? Man?" he laments. Asked what the problem is, he replies, "I search for some doer of it all but cannot find anything — and yet here I am in this extreme state all the same. This must be what is called Fate, eh?"
I think Fang has it right; this perception of the brute reality of simple fate cuts like a knife through the default human inclination to interpret reality purposively. Shit just happens. Without aim and without reason. No one's in charge. Nothing is ‘fated'. (Fate is not ‘destiny’, but, as Mencius has it, “what arrives although nothing makes it arrive,” (5A7)) Nothing is 'leading', 'arranging', 'moving'. Dao has no plan for your life. Quite to the contrary of everything having a 'reason', nothing has a reason.
Standing at the mouth of this furnace, one has the opportunity to be delivered from belief. Here is the possibility of complete abandonment of one of the great underpinnings of a fixed identity. Give it up. Hand it all over to the unknowable. Empty of purpose, vastness enters.
It is curious how such an occasion for despair might also be a gate to freedom. What is it that makes the difference? Is it the undeniable affirmation and will to self-preservation that is the essence of life? I think so. Life cries "Yes!" and leaps into the fire where it is affirmed in its purest expression. It realizes life without delusional adornments. But it is also this will to preservation which typically inspires us to default to form; new delusions are embraced. What makes the difference? There is an undeniable difference. Perhaps it simply comes down to whether one wishes to break through to another way. And perhaps that, too, is just Fate. It is of little consequence, in any case.
There are those much more ‘spiritually realized’ than I who take an entirely different view. They speak of purpose and of the Universe somehow actively involved in their lives. Things don’t just happen, they happen so as to move us to where the Universe wants us. They are not ‘wrong’. I am not ‘right’. If our orientation is ultimately not about Truth — defining an objective Reality — but in simply creating an inner, subjective space to flourish, then these disagreements are equalized. What matters is what works for us, and only we can make that determination.
Fang alludes to a Zen aphorism to illustrate the impact of the immediacy of unadorned reality: “In Dao there is only this one moon; there is no second moon.” Nothing need be added to life.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.