Sunday, December 16, 2012

More On Parody II

Scott Bradley

Here's a final example among those provided by Ivanhoe (The Sense of Antirationalism) that illustrates the sense in which Zhuangzi's stories which include apparent references and even advocacy of meditation are best understood as parody. I find these helpful not so much as arguments against taking Zhuangzi as an advocate of meditation, though this is important lest we fall into the trap of clinging to any or any one technique, but for the light they shine on the passages themselves. For these passages are clearly of special interest in understanding the mystical experience that Zhuangzi suggested is there for any who should wish to pursue it.

This passage is that which has Yan Hui, Confucius' favorite disciple, coming to him on three different occasions to report his "progress", concluding with his declaration that he simply "sits and forgets" (Chapter 6). Again, I think "parody" might be too negative a term; "ironic use" might be less so. Zhuangzi is clearly trying to show an alternative dao to that of the Confucians and what better way to do so than by making ironic use of their founder and his core virtues. Yan Hui, now on the path to Daoist realization, first "forgets" humanity and righteousness. Confucius, also now of Daoist persuasion, replies that that is indeed progress, but it's not enough. This in itself is irony in the extreme; for this is the very core of Confucian moralism. The idea that to be consumed by trying to be "good" is an obstacle to realization puts Confucianism on its ear.

"Forgetting", a frequently advocated experience, is here introduced as the theme of this story. This belief in the need to be "good" is one of the deepest ingrained of our human inclinations. We need to be clear that Zhuangzi does not take issue with "goodness", but with the consequence of letting it dominate us. All the bits that make up our humanity are good and affirmable, only we must take care not to let any one attribute "rule" over the rest. Neither the "understanding mind" nor the moral sense should be allowed to decide our orientation to the world. When they do, we cage and limit ourselves.

The pursuit of goodness is inextricably bound up with the pursuit of an egoic, fixed and insular self. We want to be good for a reason, and that reason is that we believe it helps to establish us as someone special. Here, it falls under the rubric of "merit". A sense of merit is a powerful prop to one's ego-involvement. Good, better and best, these three words of discrimination serve to divide the world and us from it. Most of us are relatively content with "better", for it goes a long way toward separating us out from others. And who, no matter how lowly, is not, after all, better than someone else? "The sage," Zhuangzi tells us, "has no merit." Daoism invites us to look beyond our Ptolemaic solar system to the vast Universe beyond and find our home there.

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

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