Sunday, November 25, 2012

Friendship I: Two to Tango

Scott Bradley


There is one more essay in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, “A Meditation on Friendship” by Brian Lundberg, which I have yet to read, and I have decided to reflect on the theme a bit on my own before I do.

I begin with the poignant story in chapter 25 of the Zhuangzi where Zhuangzi, while part of a funeral procession, passes the grave of his friend Huizi. Needless to say, we remain uncertain about the historicity of this story as much as nearly every other passage in the Zhuangzi, but the lessons here, as elsewhere, are not to be derived from facts, but from anecdote.

On this occasion Zhuangzi turns to his companions and describes the impact of the loss of his friend Huizi by way of yet another anecdote. There was a carpenter named Shih who had a friend who would put a tiny bit of plaster on his nose and invite Shih to whirl his axe and then cut all the plaster from his nose, which he did without any harm to the nose. Sometime after the death of Shih’s friend, Lord Yuan of Song heard of this feat and invited Shih to perform the same on him. Shih answered that, though it was true he had once performed this feat, he no longer had the counterpart upon which to do so, and thus could not duplicate it. To his companions Zhuangzi then explained that since the loss of Huizi, he no longer had anyone with whom he could really talk.

Despite their radically different philosophies of life, Zhuangzi and Huizi had a great deal in common. Much of Zhuangzi’s use of logic to demonstrate the limits of reason (so as to free the mind to wander where reason cannot go) was derived from Huizi (who apparently was content to stop at those limits and go no farther). In fact, Graham conjectured that he may very well have at one time been a disciple of Huizi. But their shared belief in the limits of logic and presumably common intellectual acumen was only a part of what made their friendship so mutually profitable. Theirs was a catalytic chemistry without which Zhuangzi’s philosophy might very well not have developed as it did. Huizi was his whetstone.

One thing that seems clear is that for both men their friendship was much greater and more important than differences of opinion. From the side of Zhuangzi we can see how this was an expression of his belief that all opinions are a matter of personal perspective and thus of only secondary importance. Secondary to what? In this case, secondary to the inclusiveness and mutual respect of friendship. My recent silly post about supporting Romney was in part a response to hearing stories about friendships that have been shattered by the deep ideological divides which plague us today. We can take this friendship as representative of that transcendence which, because it refuses to cling to any one ideology, is able to embrace those who do.

It takes two to tango, but not everyone is willing to learn the steps, nor admittedly, is everyone able to do so.

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

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