Friday, November 2, 2012

Saying No to "True Self"

Scott Bradley

Again, I am writing in response to Chris Jochim's article, "Just Say No to 'No-Self'" which appears in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi (Roger Ames, ed.). His basic thesis is that most commentators, both Chinese and Western, have imposed a modern, primarily Western, conception of "self" on the thought of Zhuangzi. "Self" as a concept and even as an experience was not the same for him as it typically is for us. Concepts such as "no-self" and "true self", though discussed and advocated by Zhuangzi, meant something entirely different to him than what they mean to us.

I have only read a portion of his article thus far, but I think I can accurately relate some of his assertions with respect to how Zhuangzi actually did understand self. "Self" is the person, which is to say, it is a complex of many elements, among which are the body, the thinking mind, and the emotions. Self is a "plurality" of functions, not a "unitary" entity. Most importantly, "self" is not a "thing", not an actual entity.

To achieve "no-self" is not, therefore, to lose something, but to realize a change in perspective which results in changes in behavior. Self, as a complex of functions and behaviors, remains. The apparent contradiction between the twin advocacies of "losing one's self" and "self-cultivation" is thereby resolved. The "egoic" inclination is an orientation of the self; it is not a thing; loss of the egoic is not the loss of self.

This may seem obvious enough to many students of Zhuangzi, but Jochim offers numerous examples of scholarly interpreters of Zhuangzi where a modern conception of self as a discreet entity is imposed upon the text. Most of these are highly dualistic; there is a "true self" and a "false self"; there are layers within the self through which one must delve to discover the true self. Frequent interpretations of Zhuangzi through the lens of Chan Buddhism with its belief in "original nature" and "buddha-nature" as hidden realities, which in the end amount to actual entities, only adds to this mistaken interpretation.

To achieve "no-self" is the equivalent of realizing "true-self", and neither have anything to do at all with the gain or loss of anything actual; they are the realization of an expression of self, one's person, consequent to a change in orientation and perspective, resulting in a change in behavior.

As always, it is hoped that by this point one will have asked that most important question: "So what?" To begin with, if we think the philosophy of Zhuangzi worthy of our study with a view to personal growth, then it is essential we understand that philosophy as best we can. I would submit, also, that it makes a profound difference in terms of how one goes about the work of self-cultivation. There is obviously a vast difference between growing one’s self and trying to eradicate it. Most importantly, it keeps us here at home with the reality we are; it affirms our experience of selfhood, while offering means to heighten our enjoyment of it.

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

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