I may not be able to stray from Dao, but I have strayed somewhat from the profoundest message of the marsh pheasant, and that probably because it is just too simple. Let’s return to Wu’s summation of its importance: “[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 Butterfly as Companion) The mind seeks lofty and grandiose concepts; Zhuangzi offers us a pheasant going about the daily business of survival in a marsh. We can lose ourselves in either, but we have not truly done so until we have lost ourselves in both.
The key words in Wu’s comment are the adjectives: “simple”, “ordinary”, and “unknown”. It is when these have become their opposites in our hearts that we have begun to experience their meaning. When the ordinary has become boundlessly extraordinary, we have understood. This pheasant is a gateless gate. How so? — it is just a pheasant. It is so because it is just a pheasant. To experience the existence of this pheasant as “the hub of all things”, this is to experience the wonder of all things. (I know I’m onto something when I can’t find a way to say it well.)
Something in me wants to dispense with the marsh pheasant and simply retain the concepts; it is, after all, unknown and imaginary. But without some discrete existing thing these concepts are empty and meaningless. This is about experiencing the infinite value of the infinitely inconsequential, and for that we need the thing itself; it is only there that we can be sucked through the gate into universality.
We, of course, share with the marsh pheasant this inconceivable universality; is it possible then to find the gate within? Surely, it must be. To find it in the pheasant, is to find it in ourselves, just as to find it in ourselves is to find it in the pheasant. They are but echoes of each other. But perhaps to first find it in the pheasant is ‘easier’, a skillful means by which to realize it in ourselves.
The Zen experience equates to just this: Nothing special. Nothing is special when everything has become special. But it does not arrive there through universalizing things, explaining them away, dissolving them into nothingness through concepts like maya. Things may indeed be “empty”, but there is no emptiness without them. We live in a material world, and it is through and in the material that we discover the wonder and joy of materiality. This is it. Whatever ‘else’ there may be, it is discovered in and through its expression as this world.
The Zhuangzian vision seeks to be entirely innocent of escapism. Like the Minoan acrobat it would have us take existence by the horns, leap upon its back, and take an exhilarating ride into whatever ‘else’ there might be.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.