Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Audience of Zero

Scott Bradley


Referring to the dao of living as exemplified in the of dao of butchery exercised by Ting, Prince Wen-hui's cook, (Zhuangzi 3), Mitchell (The Second Book of the Tao) remarks: "For decades he had been putting on his one-man show for an audience of zero: no one was watching — not even he." This puts me in mind of a certain Nanrong Chu, who, having failed to realize the view from Dao after years of discipleship, was sent by his master to his master, the legendary Laozi. (Zhuangzi 23) "Why did you bring so many people with you?" asked Laozi as Nanrong approached his front door. Nanrong didn't get it, and looked over his shoulder in alarm.

What Laozi immediately saw was that Nanrong lived with a crowd, even while alone. He was thoroughly exteriorized. As he explained his problems to Laozi it became clear that he forever worried about how others perceived him; he allowed the opinions of others to enter his "Numinous Reservoir" and disturb his peace. Similarly, his pursuit of freedom was itself guided by a desire to be esteemed by others. He wanted to be a sage as an extension of his desire to be a someone. Yet a sage is no one. He neither cares for the opinions of others regarding himself, nor does he hold an opinion regarding himself. He has "an audience of zero". He does nor perform; he lives.

Granted permission to remain, Nanrong immediately returned to his program of self-torture, "trying to summon up what he liked about himself and get rid of what he disliked." (Ziporyn) After ten days of agony he entreated Laozi for help. "If there are external things that entangle you", said the sage, "it is useless to come to grips with them by tying your hands up in them. That just connects them with [what's entangling you] within. And if something inside is entangling you, it's useless to get a grip on it by further tying yourself up in it."

Self-cultivation is a worthy task, but when it is motivated by that most essential attribute of self, the ceaseless need to establish itself as a someone, it is doomed to failure. “Fight fire with fire,” said Chen Jen, “and surely you will burn.” Wishing to win the esteem of the crowd living in his mind, Nanrong lived on the battlefield of good and bad and thought the way to freedom was to be had in winning the war.

Ting the Cook stood joyful and amazed before his completed task, the butchered ox. How did it happen? Who did it? How was it that his knife remained as sharp as when the work had begun? He paid no attention to the watching prince, nor to his own observing self, but simply let the process unfold. And in this dao of butchery the prince recognized the dao of living.

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

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