Thursday, November 15, 2012

Situated in Timeliness

Scott Bradley


Mair (Wandering on the Way) renders the closing story in chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi more clearly than many translators. This is the story of the wake of Laozi in which another sage comes to mourn him only to abruptly leave after a few quick wails. A disciple, presumably of Laozi, asks him why. Some translations have him put the blame on Laozi; all the excessive mourning and wailing at his wake, demonstrates that Laozi, rather than freeing people from a fear of and denial of the naturalness of death, only managed to create a cult of personality centered on himself. 

 Mair and others render it so that it is the excessiveness of the mourners themselves who are the reason for the sage's early departure. This allows for the sage to contrast Laozi's message with the behavior of his mourners: "By chance the master's coming was timely, and by chance his going was favorable. One who is situated in timeliness and who dwells in favorableness cannot be affected by joy or sorrow." I suspect that by "chance" he means that it was fated. Everything is fated in that it is the way things have happened (not that it had to happen).

The "timeliness" and "favorableness" have absolutely nothing to do with what has happened or when; these are qualities that reflect the chosen attitude of the sage irrespective of what happens and when. To be "situated in timeliness" is to allow that everything that happens is accepted as perfectly okay. Every event is timely and favorable; no event could be otherwise. The sage is ever thankful and ever accepting of fate.

The idea of timeliness, as the concurrence of one's gifts and intentions with the opportunity provided by the times, was very much a part of the discussion concerning Confucius' failure to realize his aims. This failure weighed heavily on Confucius himself and his later disciples. Instead of being embraced by a ruler and having his way put into effect, he met with hardship and rejection at every turn. Can a sage be a failure? The times were not right, said he and his disciples; it wasn't his fault; it was fate. Philosophical Daoism replies that his fault lay not in a failure to fulfill his goals, but in his relying on the fulfillment of goals in the first place. All times are timely for those in harmony with the unfolding of events whatever they be. The Zhuangzian 'Confucius' describes himself as "a victim of heaven" for precisely this reason; he was at odds with reality. His way was one with an agenda.

In defense of Confucius, according to the Analects he was also able to situate himself in timeliness by remaining at peace even in hardship. This is reflected in a story reworked in the Zhuangzi where he is seen happily playing his lute even while surrounded by soldiers threatening to do him harm. The untimeliness of the times could be met with timeliness of the heart.

The Daoist Dao has no agenda; rather, it is a happy and affirming going along with things as they arise. This is why we are told the sage has no goals. Yet no-goals does not mean there are no goals, any more than no-thought means there is no thought; goals, thoughts, speech, self — all these things happen, but they do so in a larger context of freedom wherein they are unable to "enter one's Numinous Reservoir"; they do not disturb one's peace.

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

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