Monday, November 26, 2012

Friendship II: Being Without Being

Scott Bradley

There were three men who, in the course of a philosophical discussion, agreed on this: "Who is able to be with others without being with others, be for others without being for others? Who is able to climb the skies, roam the mists, and dance in the infinite, living forgetful of each other without end?" (Zhuangzi 6; Lundberg?) At this, they smiled at each other and became fast friends.

Lundberg ("A Meditation on Friendship"; Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi) begins his essay with this passage and I have gotten no further. One is struck with how what might seem on the surface to be a negation of friendship becomes the bedrock for the deepest of friendships. How can this be?

Forgetfulness of others is a much suggested theme in Chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi. One anecdote that I have often mentioned is that in which a species of fish, when in distress for lack of water, will spit on each other and yet, as soon as water is restored, quickly forget each other. In another story Zhuangzi has 'Confucius' quote a saying: "[F]ish forget one another in the river and lakes, and human beings forget one another in the arts of the Course [Dao]." (Ziporyn) I say "suggested theme" because it is largely left to the reader to figure out what it means.

I won't pretend to have gotten through to depths of this theme, but I will presume to suggest a possible dimension of it. Above all, I think it has to do with an understanding of and commitment to interdependence without actual dependence. To be able to "be for" someone without actually "being for" them might be mirrored in the political sphere as being, for example, "for Obama" without being unreservedly for everything he does or so partisan that his failure would cause distress. Once again "two roads" suggests itself; we care about the world, but the loss of the world would not distress us in the least. Free from care, we are free to care freely. Friendship, the truest friendship, is not founded on dependence, but on non-dependence. To the extent that we need a friendship, we fail of friendship.

Zhuangzi's vision of freedom is one of absolute non-dependence on anything. Does not the sage require water like everyone else? Yes, but she does not depend on survival and thus, while she responsibly seeks to sustain her life, she does not cling to life. Aware of the mutual interdependence of all things, she thankfully plays her part in that ecological web of life, but her greatest contribution to it is freedom, born of non-dependence, from the fear of that web being broken.

This is a reflection of Zhuangzi's (especially as elucidated by Guo Xiang) understanding of oneness as only and necessarily expressed in the uniqueness of each individual representative of the many. All things are One in being fully what they are, not-One. It is in the fullest realization of their differences that things are most similar. Our efforts "to make all things one" are thus a denial of their oneness.

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

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