Monday, January 21, 2013

The Outlook of Man

Scott Bradley


Led by Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) I've been taking a fresh look at the third chapter of the Zhuangzi. This is a short chapter with a central theme (how to nourish life) and thus each of its stories would seem to have a special significance. Still, though I have touched on every other story, I have been skirting that of the Commander of the Right (a high official) who is "singularly one-footed". This is because its intended meaning is not entirely clear to me, nor have I found Wu's take particularly helpful. Such ambiguity can work to our advantage, however, as long as we take it as an opportunity for meditative exploration and are careful not to codify our speculations.

Someone sees the Commander of the Right in his one-footed-ness and is amazed. Why? For two reasons; first, because it is more likely than not a consequence of punishment for a 'crime' and this should disqualify him from the high office he nevertheless holds. (It is almost a matter of course in Zhuangzi that such a disability is a purposed mutilation.) Secondly, to Confucian thinking any disability, however received, is a curse, and curses do not befall us without being earned. His one-footed-ness is a sign of his moral failure; his present is defined by his past.

Nevertheless, this someone seeks clarification; is this disability "from Heaven" (a birth-defect, a consequence of disease, a tree falling) or is it "from man" (a punishment, a war wound)? Who it is that answers is unclear, but the answer is definitive: It is "of Heaven", but not in contrast to "of man", for the distinction is a false one. "Heaven's giving-birth-to-this was to let him alone become unique, while in the outlook of man there-exists a pairing." (Wu)

The typical human point of view requires a "pairing"; we require that there be a cause and a reason for things (a ‘past’) and on that basis we determine the right or the wrong of them (now). The answer is intended to take us beyond "the outlook of man" so as to see it from the vantage of Dao. Was it his fault? Even if it were, it would still be of no consequence, for in Dao all things are both unique in the extreme and united in the extreme. It does not matter why he has one foot; that he has one foot is reality and this "singularity" is an affirmable uniqueness (‘rightness’). What does the past and guilt have to do with it? It is out of his uniqueness that the Commander expresses Dao; he is where and as he is, and this alone is the basis for this expression, not 'causes' and 'reasons'. He begins precisely where he is, without guilt, and without prejudice. Every moment is a "spring-time", a fresh beginning. The Commander thankfully glories in his disability for it the occasion for his unique expression of Dao.

All this is possible because from the vantage of Dao there is no real distinction between Heaven and man. Whatever happens is Dao, whether it be 'fate' or purposed activity. Whether the Commander is one-footed because he was born that way or because he offended some lord or stole a horse, is of no consequence from the view point of Dao. All that matters is what he makes of his present circumstance, and that matters for only that moment. "Continuing every rightness, it is always the life-giving time in your mind." (Zhuangzi, 5:16; Ziporyn)

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

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