Saturday, February 16, 2013

Finding the Greater Constant I

Scott Bradley


Working my way through the Outer Chapters of the Zhuangzi I am struck with how they differ in tone from the Inner Chapters. Those which are intended as elaborations on Zhuangzi and are representative of an emerging Daoist school (and religion) often seem derivative and stale. If the study of Zhuangzi is to study his "dregs", then the study of these later responses is of the dregs of the dregs. It follows that what I write here is the dreggiest of all.

How does one avoid dregginess? To recognize dregs as such is to open up the possibility of a renewal of freshness. Freshness happens when the teachings of others stimulate a unique response in ourselves. It has to become true for us. But this does not happen when we start with "truths". Truth only happens when our own unique chemistry meets with the chemistry of others. In this sense truth is not transferable because the truth that was is not the same as the truth that is. The study of Zhuangzi and his later fellows provides an occasion for us to experience an experience similar to theirs, the experience of birthing our own unique response to life.

One commentator (Graham) has noted that Zhuangzi appears to be the first philosopher to have spontaneously written 'on his feet'. Rather than starting with a grand theme and carefully explicating it (something we see in the Outer and Miscellaneous chapters where there are definite points to be made), he seems to write as thoughts occur. His work just flows. He pursues a thought, finds it inadequate, back tracks, tries another, contradicts himself, leaves it all up in the air. And laughs. This is a great part of his message — there is power in ambiguity. Go, find and explore your own, he seems to say.

Kuang-Ming Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) questions Graham's assertion because he finds a purposed arrangement of interrelated stories and themes which bespeaks of a more self-conscious work. For my part, I agree that such a broader development of themes is present, but think it might have simply more naturally arisen. It is an organic work, and like all things organic, it has its consistencies, and yet these cannot be reduced to linear explanation. There is, too, the probability that the arrangement of the Inner Chapters is the result of somewhat haphazard serial editing. Most likely, there was a point at which an editor found himself with a box of dis-attached bamboo strips and cobbled them together as best he could. This is Graham's view.

Thankfully, we don't need to find "the historical Zhuangzi", establish the true and holy canon, discover a creed of essential principles, or uncover 'secret' meanings. It's all dregs. All we need do, should we wish to do so, is to let the engagement of others stimulate us to engage on our own. If there is a "way of Zhuangzi" it is a call to do just this, and that way would expect and accept many disparate responses. If there are definitive responses and interpretations stated here, it is simply because this is my response; fresh for me, but dregs for you.

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

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