Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Many Suns, Many De

Scott Bradley


In chapter two of the Zhuangzi we have a brief story about Yao, a legendary ruler of a greater China, who, disturbed that there were three much lesser nearby kingdoms not yet under his sway, became obsessed with the idea of conquering them. But when he consulted with Shun, another legendary worthy, about his ambition, he was admonished to let them be. "Once upon a time," Shun declared, "ten suns rose in the sky at once, and the ten thousand things were all simultaneously illuminated. And how much better are many Virtuosities [de] than many suns!" (Ziporyn)

Ziporyn tells us in a note that this story is a parody of one later related in the Huainanzi in which all these suns cause widespread devastation and thus Yao has all but one shot out of the sky. This is an allegorical apology for the necessity of a single ruler and, by implication, a single "truth". Zhuangzi, as he so often does, sets it on its head and tells us that, quite to the contrary, many "truths" (perspectives) are to be encouraged since they help to illuminate the world as no single truth could possibly do.

The relation between the "One and the many" is a matter of constant debate. For Zhuangzi, who, though he fully embraces the idea of oneness, sees that oneness as necessarily manifest in and as the many. One realizes Oneness through affirmation of the many. This is because for him Oneness is an experience, not a metaphysical "truth". It is a waste of time trying to intellectually (objectively) "make things one" (as did Huizi), he tells us, since that oneness remains without our help or our ability to comprehend it. What we have is myriad things with myriad points of view, and it is through embracing them all that the experience of Oneness arises.

It is not the question of the rightness and wrongness of these many perspectives which most concerns Zhuangzi, but the attainment of a perspective unaffected by them. There is certainly a time and place for discriminating between things and their various truths in this way, but for philosophical Daoism, that takes place in a larger context where such distinctions do not exist. Until we can transcend the dualism that these and other "mutually generating opposites" create in our hearts, we will remain divided in ourselves and from the world.

I am writing just before the next American presidential election. This is like being tossed into the fire while subscribing to the metaphorical immunity of the sage from fire; it burns. If the proof is in the pudding, mine has been left to burn on the stove. I am trying to "not-care" (for "all is well") while caring (for wellness realized in the particular matters), but with little success. Yet the hardest trials yield the greatest benefit. So I try to transcend my own rights and wrongs, while thankfully affirming my failures. Sometimes the best we can do is to transcend the rights and wrongs implicit in our ‘failure’ to transcend rights and wrongs.

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

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