Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Marsh Pheasant: "The Hub of All Things"

Scott Bradley


I have already written twice about the brief and seemingly unremarkable description of the marsh pheasant (Zhuangzi, 3), but it possesses a poignancy which continually draws my mind back to it. It is sometimes included as part of the story of the Commander of the Right, discussed in the previous post, and sometimes not. Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) prefers to address it as separate, as do I, though it is certainly related to that and every other story in the chapter.

Here is what Wu has to say about this story: "[T]he central story of the chapter, the hub of all things, is a brief description of the simple ordinary life of an unknown marsh pheasant." The realization to which he points is profound beyond words, and thus, even were I able to experience it, I would be unable to put it in words here. At best, I can only explore the fringes of its possibilities and perhaps thereby set the stage for the experience.

"The marsh pheasant, living on ten steps for one peck, a hundred steps for one drink, not wishing to be fed in a cage. To be hurt in spirit, though living like a king, is not good." (Wu)

The marsh pheasant is wild and free. It lives on the edge where dangers abound and a living is hard won. This is what it is to be a marsh pheasant, and this is how it lives. It lives and is perfectly what it is; nothing more, nothing less.

Zhuangzi points to the marsh pheasant; he might have pointed to the hare, or the black bird, the cattail, or a clump of mud. (For, as Shen Dao said, "Even a clod of earth never strays from Dao.") But he chose the pheasant which, in glorious plumage, struts about in a marsh oblivious to Zhuangzi, you or me, and makes us envision him in wonder. Yet it is significant that nearly all things in nature bespeak of that most essential and simple of perfections, that it is precisely what it is. (Or, as Guo Xiang has it, "each fits perfectly into precisely the position it occupies.") In this it is "the hub of all things". Yet, in the extremity of its uniqueness in being precisely what it is, it is one with all things which are equally precisely what they are. All things are "the hub of all things".

Yet, I said “nearly” all things are what they are; are there exceptions? Yes and no. I refer to human beings, and as with everything pertaining to humanity, there is ambiguity and paradox. There are also domesticated animals (and caged pheasants). Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with these. Their nature has been altered; the cat depends on its Whiskas, not the skills of the hunt. Yet, despite their having been sundered from what was original, even if declawed and neutered, they still “perfectly fit the position they occupy.” They live the circumstances of the reality that has been allotted to them. In this they are wild and free; for these are a function of spirit, not of circumstance.

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

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