Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Marsh Pheasant: Wild and Free

Scott Bradley


"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." (Zhuangzi, 3; Wu)

The marsh pheasant must live on the edge in constant danger and the hard scramble to find food and drink. Yet it would not for a moment consider living safe in a cage where all things are provided; for this would irreparably "harm its spirit", the spirit of living wild and free. To live like a king, Zhuangzi tells us, in comfort, safety and ease, is "not good" at the price of our authenticity.

We considered the exception of domesticated animals to the rule that all things in nature are perfect in that they are perfectly what they are and concluded that though they have been robbed of the externality of being wild and free, they are still so internally, in the conditions which pertain to them. Even the marsh pheasant, captured and caged, can remain wild and free by living true to itself in the conditions imposed. But what of human beings?

Let's begin by saying with Shen Dao that not only can a clod of earth not stray from Dao, neither can a human being. But let us also say that the human being can stray from Dao in the subjective sense, while never truly doing so. To deviate from Dao is also Dao. Could there be anything or any expression that is not Dao? I think not. Consider this, if you will, not as some abstract metaphysical statement, but as how it might infiltrate and permeate your sense of being in the world. It equates to "no conditions to meet"; to infinite affirmation and authentication right here and now, just as we are. If realizing this with one's entire being isn't "enlightenment", then I admit to being clueless. I admit to being so, in any case.

But Zhuangzi points to the authenticity of the marsh pheasant in contrast to the human being who would surrender the vicissitudes of existence for the safety and comfort of a cage. What might that cage be? We are certainly not speaking of some external experience of being wild and free in nature, throwing off our clothes and digging in rotten trees for edible grubs. No, it pertains to our inner life, how we choose to live out the tenuous reality of our existence.

Here is where I list elements of that tenuousness — absolute cluelessness, certain mortality, moral adrift-ed-ness — but I will leave it at that; you know the drill. The Philosophical Daoist’s project is to face these realities squarely, refusing all packaged and easy answers, denying nothing, riding life on the edge, mounting these realities as if harnessing a dragon and soaring wild and free, released into "the vast wilds of open nowhere."

The great news is that we already know everything we need to know; it's right here, even now, in our own experience. No belief is required; no regime need be followed; no esoteric wisdom has to be revealed. All the raw materials are as close to hand as our own inner experience.

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

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