Saturday, January 12, 2013

"One Short"

Scott Bradley


Wu (The Butterfly as Companion), in his discussion of the story of Cook Ding in the third chapter of the Zhuangzi, ventures into a somewhat fanciful (to my thinking) exposition of the significance of numbers used in the story, specifically, "three", the number of stages it took him to learn the skill of no-skill in the "loosening" of an ox, and "nineteen", the number of years he has been exercising this skill. I say "fanciful" because I am wary of assigning meanings where none were necessarily intended. The broad strokes of Zhuangzi's meanings are more than sufficient to teach us what he had in mind, in any case. Nevertheless, Wu has something to teach us irrespective of whether it was what Zhuangzi intended or no.

Why did Zhuangzi choose "nineteen" as the number of years Ding butchered oxen? Because, Wu tells us, it is "one short" of twenty. Heaven is one. Earth is two. The perfection of either is ten. The perfection of both is twenty. Nineteen is one short of twenty. And this, from a human perspective, or rather, within the human context, is "the best condition — being full yet having room to grow, for a complete fullness is a step before decline." Human perfection, therefore, is to always fall short of perfection.

The idea of achieving individual perfection is fantastic to begin with. If any one thing is perfect, then all things are perfect. We really are all in this together; what applies to one, applies to all. Perhaps this is implied in the idea of buddhas-on-the-cusp, bodhisattvas who refuse Nirvana until all are "saved". (This is usually praised as an expression of "compassion"; I see it as complete delusion — the belief that anything or anyone needs to be saved at all. If things are not already perfect, they never will be.)

So, if you are one card short of a full deck, rejoice. You are not alone. We all are. Even the hypothetical sage is. And we will all remain so for as long as we live. Perfectly imperfect. How liberating it is to realize that so-called perfection is beyond us. Perfection for existential women and men is in open-hearted growth, and that presupposes a continued "gap". If you stumble upon a perfected saint who has completely closed the gap and become one with all that is, please take a shovel and bury her; she is dead and will soon stink the place up.

Personally, I do believe in perfection; not as something achieved, but as the way things already are in their imperfections. All is well. If the Great Clump is just that — mindless, purposeless, morphing energy — and life and humanity are but strange and momentary anomalies within it, then that's perfectly alright. Whatever this all "is", it is perfectly so. And this is why we can say there are no conditions we need meet to be perfect. Either we are as we are, or we never shall be.

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

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