Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Mutual Transformation

Scott Bradley

Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) speaks a great deal about "the mutual transformation of things" (wu hua) and this post will be a reflection upon one aspect of what this implies. We understand that transformation (change) is a central aspect of reality as we encounter it, if not the central aspect. Everything is in flux, as the pre-Socratic Heraclitus tells us. Always it seems important to remind ourselves as we begin such a discussion that this, and everything else we might say about 'reality', can be said only because we are here to say it. It is we who introduce change versus unchanging into the world; without us, no distinctions exist. To step back and consider this is enough to radically challenge and alter our self-absorbed perspectives on things. All our "knowing" is artificial. We slice up 'reality' to suit our purposes. This is not in itself a problem; the problem is that in having done so, we come to believe that this is really how reality 'is' when it is not.

Consider this example: Here is a human being whom we can analyze in terms of biology, psychology and sociology, all of which are ways to understand this particular individual, but none of which truly touches her core humanity. Science takes occasional dips into such reductionism, but always we pull back and declare that a human being is more than a sum of her parts. Similarly, when we judge someone as 'bad' or 'unworthy', we rob them of their core humanity. Is this mere sentimentalism? I don't think so; but it must remain indemonstrable. One thing that does at least moderate the charge of sentimentalism, however, is the understanding that this core affirmability of humanity is predicated on an understanding of the affirmabilty of all things. In this regard, there is nothing special about humanity. Again, this perspective alone offers a gateway to larger, more inclusive (transcending?) perspectives.

I have digressed, but perhaps this provides a good segue into what I think is the most important implication of an understanding of the "mutual transformation of things". And this is that things do not transform in a linear sense, one which preserves the identity of a thing; rather, things transform into each other. This is the "mutuality" of transformation. This is a large part of the message in Zhuangzi’s dream that he is a butterfly (or was it the other way around?). This vignette concludes with the observation that there were definitely “two separate identities” involved here. If Joe dies and becomes a “bug’s arm”, that arm is the bug’s, not Joe’s; there is no longer any Joe. Zhuangzi often suggests a continuity between present identities and future ones, but this is not a continuity of individual identity, but of identities. This continuity of identities, in order to be a continuity, requires a sense of Wholeness, of Totality, of Unity. And it is this to which Zhuangzi appeals as the most liberating place to wander.

Do you see it? (I ask not because I doubt your intelligence, but because I have said it so poorly.) Imagine this: While retaining your identity, you allow it to become unfixed (un-grasped and un-reified; a momentary and passing phenomenon), and thus the impending loss of that identity into other identities is no longer in any way an issue because your true non-identity is in identification with (“dim submergence” into) the Totality.

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

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