As I have already related, Kuang-Ming Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) makes the case that if one wants truly to allow the Zhuangzi to speak it is necessary to engage in the process of deconstructing the 'common sense' boundaries of which it is itself an example. Zhuangzi chose a medium of expression, "odd and outlandish terms, in brash and bombastic language, in unbound and unbordered phrases . . . a string of queer beads and baubles . . ." (Chap. 33), the intent of which is to free the reader from rationalistic and pedantic bondage so as to discover new ways of being in the world. Like Zhuangzi, Wu tells us that "the understanding consciousness", in this instance expressed in scholarship, is perfected when it does all that it can do and then concedes the field to other, more intuitive ways of understanding. He then provides examples of how we might do this by way of a series of "meditations".
One such meditation is on the story in Chapter 18 where Zhuangzi finds a skull beside the road and questions it as to the reason for its death. Receiving no reply, he uses it as a pillow for the night. The skull then appears to him in a dream and tells him he talks like a "sophist" and tells him how joyful his present condition is. Incredulous, Zhuangzi asks whether, were it possible, he would not prefer to be flesh and blood and restored to his family once again. The skull replies that it would be ridiculous to give up his present joy to return to that vale of tears.
In all my referencing of the Zhuangzi I have never mentioned this story. Why? Because it is obviously one composed by a later follower of Zhuangzi who, in my opinion, introduces an unorthodox, pie-in-the-sky, conception of death. Zhuangzi does himself mention the possibility of joy after death, but only as a "what if?", and only to show the folly of fearing death.
Wu chose this story for those same reasons — scholarship would dismiss it. Scholarship would not allow it to speak, so Wu does. What he in effect does is demonstrate that this self-imposed "orthodoxy" is precisely the kind of rationalistic bondage that Zhuangzi wished to shatter.
So what experience does his meditation turn up? He experiences how this skull is his skull; it is his death; and he carries it around with him always. “[T]his story is for us who are alive and yet carry death as we live on.” “Enjoy our living death — this is the story’s message.” “Chuang Tzu’s living in death makes life enjoyable; we live as if we were already dead.”
It will take the following post to explore this more fully, but I will set the stage here by asking if this idea of “living death” strikes you as morbid. If it does, then this message is for you.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.