Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Can Dead Ashes Frolic?

Scott Bradley


Ivanhoe (The Sense of Antirationalism), speaking to the "practice" side of the path of Zhuangzi, addresses the question as to whether he meditated or advocated a form of meditation. He thinks not and rather vehemently dismisses the arguments of those who believe he did. If nothing else, he makes clear that unless one comes with a conviction (and desire) that Zhuangzi belonged to a "lineage of meditating masters", one will not find it explicit in the text. I won't list his arguments here, but will rather consider his possible alternative explanation for those passages which do, in fact, seem to make mention of meditative techniques or consequences.

His explanation is simple: these are parodies. Confucians and Mohists, at least, apparently had documentable forms of meditation, and just as Zhuangzi parodied them in their various other idiosyncratic expressions, so he parodied their meditation.

I think "parodied" might be too loaded a word, suggesting disrespect. Perhaps, "made use of with a smile" might take some of that edge off. In Chapter 4 we have 'Confucius' instructing his favorite disciple Yan Hui in the ways of political activism and then finally proposing the "fasting of the heart-mind", one of those occasions thought by some to refer to meditation. If we understand this use of Confucius as parody (and we must), then how much of what he says is also immersed in parody? Similarly, when in Chapter 2 Ziqi is observed as having "a body like dry wood and a mind like dead ashes" is this an advocacy of the same? (This description does later become just that.) Or is it a caricature and "use" of those who attempt such a state? Did Zhuangzi believe there were sages who only supped on wind and drank dew? Or did he merely use the materials of popular imagination to make his points?

What most appeals to me in this interpretation as parody explanation is that it puts a fire under seriousness. How desirous we are to find answers, techniques, anything to which we might cling as a fixed and sure "way". I would suggest that we are best informed by Zhuangzi when we begin and end with his roaring laughter — or at least his bemused chuckle. The whole point is to not take this or anything else too seriously. Zhuangzi's vision of spiritual freedom is frolicking, not getting all serious and self-important about so-called enlightenment.

Whatever we do as practice in self-cultivation, whether meditating or not, if we accord with the way of Zhuangzi, we do it because we can, not because we must, and we do it as we might enjoy an ice cream cone now and organic brown rice later.

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

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