Monday, December 24, 2012

"Wu Loses Wo" I

Scott Bradley


At the beginning of the second chapter of the Zhuangzi we have Ziqi declaring "I (wu) have lost myself (wo)". This loss of the wo-self so as to establish the wu-self is so absolutely pivotal to the overall Zhuangzian vision of spiritual freedom that any insight into what it involves seems of vital importance.

Yet I feel compelled to ask myself at the beginning of this discussion what difference it really makes. Bandying about ancient Chinese words and making seemingly profound psycho-philosophical statements about imagined reality certainly helps to give one the impression that it makes a difference, but does it really? It is so easy for the study to become an end in itself; is it all just a pacifier? Does it all amount to little more than doing crosswords or watching TV? If so, what's wrong with that?

There is nothing wrong with it per se, but since the project is to realize an altogether uncommon and atypical experience of transcendence in the human conscious experience, it behooves us to ask these questions. Yet, as things stand, I have no easy and ready answers; at best, I can only hope that in asking the questions the exercise won't become a closed system, but one open to experience beyond these mental stretches.

So now, am I going to discuss wu and wo or whether discussing them is worthwhile? I think I'll put a Roman numeral "I" in the title and go with the latter. To some extent, my engagement with this topic in this particular form has already yielded experiential fruit; I have made use of them to imaginatively and experientially glimpse the psychological ramifications of wu losing wo. But again, so what? Is this anything more than titillation?

Titillation observed is more than just titillation. From the Zen perspective, it's all vain titillation until "suddenly" the real-thing happens, and yet it would not have happened without the titillation. What is important is that the titillation be self-aware, which means that one is more than the involvement. Then it becomes "effective means", a useful fish-trap of only temporary value.

I don't understand Zhuangzian liberation as a "sudden" event, however. This is not to say that it could not be, only that it does not promise to be. Rather, I think it leans more toward a "gradual" transformation of perspective and consequent engagement in the world. I mention this here because it speaks to the possibility that small, incremental insight might lead to similarly incremental transformation. Can an academic discussion of wu and wo help effect transformation? I think it can, but since the effects are incremental and cumulative, this immediate efficacy is not always easily seen. “Growth takes place unawares.” (Wu)

When wu-self loses the wo-self it joins the vast community of all things; it participates in the Great Thoroughfare where "heaven and earth are born together with wu". But that's all the space allows us to say here.

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

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