Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Scott Bradley

Xiaoyaoyou is the term used by Zhuangzi to describe his vision of personal liberation: "free (xiao) distant (yao) wandering (you)". We need to be careful, I think, in labeling this or any other concept with the original words, now largely extinct, in order for them to seem somehow more profound, but such labels can help to focus attention on the concept nonetheless. Jargon is sometimes a cloak for an egoic involvement contradictory to the very concept under discussion. A parallel analogy might be the peculiar pride expressed when someone suggests that his religion is older than someone else's, or just that it’s ancient. So what? Really — so what?

As is often the case, I have already strayed from the intended focus of the post, but I wanted to express my ambivalence in using technical terms, though I have obviously deemed them useful in some cases. What needs to be avoided is the reification of spiritual expression in a culture now dead, the intellectual equivalent of adopting new dress of a special color and taking a new name. If it doesn’t belong now, in this culture, it doesn’t belong.

Ge Ling Shang (Liberation as Affirmation) provides a succinct and inspiring summation of Zhuangzi's vision: "To be a person of xiaoyaoyou is to be one with ziran and to dance with the rhythm and flow of life in an absolute affirmative state of mind."

Ziran is another 'special' term, the use of which helps to focus the attention on what is unique in proto-Daoist thought. Generally, I believe it is translated as 'spontaneity'. However, Ge Ling Shang renders it as 'nature' or 'self-so'. All three are the case. Nature ('Reality') is understood as a spontaneous, un-caused, arising, which is to say, it is 'self-so' (or 'so-of-itself'). As Jesus might say, "Go thee, therefore, and be likewise."

'Free and distant wandering' is participation in this spontaneous arising; it is to be one with transformation. Nothing is fixed. Truly. To be free is to be unfixed. To truly participate in this unfixedness, one's sense of self must also become unfixed. How do we know when this is the case? When, for example, that apparently greatest of transformations from life to death, does not bother one in the least, this is being unfixed. When first I started to think on these things, before ever I heard of Zhuangzi, I realized that indifference to one's own death was the ultimate test of one's freedom, for freedom, though freedom for, is also freedom from, though freedom itself recognizes neither.

This wandering is “distant” in that it transcends the limits and boundaries of all fixity. It is ‘beyond’ not as a place, but as a distinctly different way of being in the world.

The affirmation of all that arises is the proof of one’s identification with nature, for nothing arises that is not nature. It is an openness thankful and fearless. One’s participation in xiaoyaoyou, Ge tells us, is ultimately “tested by his love of fate” (ming). Think about it.

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

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