Monday, August 6, 2012

The Equality of Value

Scott Bradley

From the point of view of the Course [dao], no thing is more valuable than any other. But from the point of view of itself, each thing is worth more and all the others are worth less. And from the point of view of convention, the value of things is not determined by themselves.
(Zhuangzi, 17; Ziporyn)
Chapter 17 of the Zhuangzi, "Autumn Floods", is one of the most polished in the anthology and, although sometimes divergent from Zhuangzi's thought, is clearly an expansion of that philosophy. For this reason, it has been labeled with other chapters as "School of Zhuangzi". In the passage quoted above is a development of "the view from Dao".

"From the point of view of Dao, no thing is more valuable than any other." This statement is a revolution in itself; it can have all the power of a koan. The degree to which it cuts against the grain of our own thinking, is directly proportional to its transformative power. Absolutely all things are of equal value — from the perspective of Dao. And we are invited to share this perspective — not merely intellectually, but in reality. How this can happen, should we wish it to happen, is, of course, the outstanding question.

The author of this chapter does make mention of "the masters of the Great Method", but he does not elaborate, and I suspect that it is largely an intellectual exercise as evinced in his writing here. This leaves us with a gradual and approximating approach, in contrast to a sudden transformative experience, but these two need not be taken as mutually exclusive; in the exercise of the first, the stage may be set for the second. In the mean time, the claim to being such a master would make for a great pick-up line.

The power of this first statement is seen all the more clearly in its contrast with the second: "But from the point of view of itself, each thing is worth more and all the others are worth less." This is natural. The first job of life is to preserve itself. But, if it's natural, is it not best left as it is, Daoism advocating as it does a return to what is the most natural in us? Should we aspire to the view from Dao, is this not a contradiction? Here I take a somewhat heterodoxical view; in the case of the human, what is — what has by chance evolved — can be improved upon. There is no known grand plan, either in what has arisen, or in what may arise. The egoic self has probably been a necessary and helpful adaptation to the emergence of self-awareness, but might there not be further adaptations still more helpful?

"And from the point of view of convention, the value of things is not determined by themselves." We judge between things and other humans and assign them a value accordingly. They are of unequal value. It might be argued that their value is determined by themselves in as much as they possess the qualities whereby we judge them, but their value has nothing to do with these perceived qualities nor our misguided moral discriminations about them. This is non-dual 101, and the foundation for Zhuangzi’s “following along with the rightness of the present ‘this’”.

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

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