Monday, September 3, 2012

Fool's Gold

Scott Bradley


When an unusual seabird appeared near his palace, the Marquis of Lu had it captured so he could show it the depth of his respect and kindness. He offered it the finest foods from his own table. He had his orchestra serenade it with the most sacred and moving music. But the bird seemed unappreciative, pined, and was dead in three days. Alas, the author of Zhuangzi 18 tells us, if the Marquis had truly wanted to honor the bird, he would have left it alone to wander in the forests, lakes and rivers where it could do just as it pleased.

What was his true motivation? Who was he really trying to please? Himself, we might readily say, and we wouldn't be wrong. Only, it's always easier to see it in others rather than in ourselves, and it's that that we are encouraged to do.

This is a recurrent theme in the Zhuangzi — we saw it in the last post about Shorty the Duck, and previous to that in the death of Chaos — so, it must have some importance to the overall proto-Daoist philosophy of Zhuangzi. It is about laissez faire, letting things find their own natural way. It is about having a non-discriminating mind; one that does not judge others and prescribe how they should otherwise be. It is about understanding that an essential part of taking responsibility for oneself is breaking the habit of juxtaposing self and other; there is only one life and complex of attitudes for which I am responsible, my own.

In his commentary on this passage, Mitchell (The Second Book of the Tao) introduces the contrast between competing "Golden Rules". That of Jesus, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", would seem to be the one applied by the Marquis. Is this not precisely what he did? If he loved the food of his table and the music of his orchestra, then it's only natural that he should "do" them to others. Though we can understand how this 'rule' could be applied in awareness of our fundamental desire to be left alone, too often it is not. Self likes to meddle, for in so doing it believes it authenticates itself.

The 'oriental' version of this rule which predates that of Jesus is found in the Chung Yung: "Do not do to others what you wouldn't have them do to you." Perhaps this would have better served the Marquis (and the bird), but still the ego seems to possess an uncanny ability to twist everything to its own ends. We can hear the Marquis' reply, "I would want these things done for me."

Mitchell also quotes Hillel the Elder (c. 40 BCE-10 CE), often quoted as part of the Jewish push-back against Jesus as the so-called Reformer: "What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor." Why these three traditions have yet to fight a war over these competing 'rules' is probably just a question of circumstances.

"Rules" are always subject to abuse, and are often the cause of abuse. Thus, although we agree with Mitchell's own offering (just as we agree with the others), we repeat it here with some reservation: "Love thy neighbor as yourself: Leave him alone."

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

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