Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Marsh Pheasant -- Nourishment in Suffering I

Scott Bradley

Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) observes that a central theme of the third of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi is the role of suffering in life and what to do about it. I had not previously thought of its message in that way.

The title of the chapter (Yang Sheng Chu) is variously rendered (despite being only three characters) but I agree with Wu that "The Principle of Nourishing Life" best represents its content and successfully includes other renderings. It begins by telling us that knowledge is limitless and life limited, and thus to pursue knowledge in the hope of nourishing life (finding contentment) will only cause more and unnecessary suffering.

We might see this by analogy in the scientific pursuit of the ultimate, foundational principle behind Everything. If we begin with the atom, which means that which is indivisible, and arrive at what is the latest in understanding the bits that make it up (having discovered that we can, in fact, divide it), the Higgs boson, we are told that it "arises". Arises from where? There is no end to where knowledge can take us, which is great, as long as we are not following it to arrive at meaning. In nourishing life, contentment will elude us if we think it will be discovered in limitless, ever-receding knowledge.

The way to nourish life, Zhuangzi tells us, is to take it as it is and to live it as it is. How is it? Life is many things, but among these suffering is a large part. There are many stripes of suffering in life, but it is principally 'existential' suffering to which he refers. We live in self-conscious awareness and hunger for 'meaning' and continuity, but we discover no guarantor of either. We suffer "the Lord's dangle", hung out over an eternal void, waiting for our turn to drop.

The way to nourish life, Zhuangzi suggests, is to embrace this existential suffering as that which nourishes us. He suggests, not an escape from this suffering, but a conscious use of it. We are nourished in and through the suffering. The greatest cause of our existential suffering is our complete not-knowing the why and the wherefore of it all. Embrace and use this, Zhuangzi suggests.

We see this in the brief and simple reference to the marsh pheasant. Its life is tough; it's a long way between seeds to eat and even farther to get a drink. But it would not for a minute consider living in a cage though everything were provided. To do so would be to fail of the task of living as a wild pheasant and would thereby destroy that which it intended to save.

Religious 'answers' are, for Zhuangzi, analogous to this cage. They compromise the suffering that is essential to existence. Our spirituality is most authentic when "wild"; living without answers in not-knowing we truly nourish life. Free and unfettered wandering is the call of the wild pheasant in the midst of its struggle and its response to it.

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

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