Sunday, December 9, 2012

Understanding As Creation

Scott Bradley

In his meditative Prologue Kuang-Ming Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) makes a case for his book as a companion to the Zhuangzi (and the reader) as distinct from a commentary on the Zhuangzi. Part of his argument makes the point that scholarship, though essential to providing the "rough parameters" for our understanding of the work, cannot bring us to a genuine understanding of the work; what is required is our involvement. "Chuang Tzu," he writes, "evokes our reflection by ambiguities and elusive metaphors. He does not say what he means; he does not even point to what he means, which is less important than what is aroused. The difficulty, and so the fascination, of Chuang Tzu is that he peculiarly requires our involvement."

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in reflecting on the Zhuangzi is that we are not meant to "understand" it, but to experience it in our own unique way. Though there is much to understand, principles to grasp, in the end Zhuangzi intends that we should experience the consequence of that shattering of so-called "common sense" which he experienced and which he was inviting his contemporaries to experience. Beyond that, the work is relatively content-free. It is intended, not as a catalogue of principles or 'truths', but as an occasion to experience a world without them. If ever there was a work in which "the message is in the medium", this is it.

Wu quotes from the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi where this very point is made: "He [Chuang Tzu] expounded them [his views] in odd and outlandish terms, in brash and bombastic language, in unbounded and unbordered phrases, . . . not looking at things from one angle only. He believed that the world was drowned in turbidness and that it was impossible to address it in sober language. . . . Though his writings are a string of queer beads and baubles, . . . they are crammed with truths that never come to an end." (Watson; with Wu's modifications) These "truths" never come to an end because they must be re-born uniquely in each one who would engage in the process.

As is frequently the case, the Zen koan comes to mind in this context. "Not paradox!" "Not hidden principle!" "Not secret meaning!" No, just an opportunity to experience life in a different way.

The Zhuangzi is not a 'sacred' book; it is just a book. If we use it as a tool for breaking out of our ingrained patterns of being in the world, it is only because we choose it from among any number of other possible tools. For those who are able, a tree would do — or anything else. Wu provides two adages which we would do well to remember: "He who reads 'Confucius' misses Confucius" and "Better be without the book than giving it full credence!" (Mencius 73B)

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

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