Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Meditations on a Skull I

Scott Bradley


There are two stories in the 18th chapter of the Zhuangzi that might be called meditations on a human skull, the first by Zhuangzi and the other by Liezi. The curious facticity of the human skull has long fascinated human beings for obvious reasons. Hamlet offered a soliloquy to one. Painters used to slip one into the background as a way of reminder. It represents a human that was but is no more. It represents our own mortality. We all carry one about with us, though we give it little thought until we see another bereft of flesh and brain.

In the first story, Zhuangzi finds one beside the road and ponders how its previous owner came to this end. He suggests several possibilities, all but one negative, for it is one thing to die and quite another to have your skull unceremoniously cast beside the road; his end must have been a cruel one. Given the chance, we honor the remains of our dead thinking it somehow makes them less so.

He takes the skull up and uses it for a pillow that night and unsurprisingly enough it appears to him in a dream, chastises him for his distress over the vicissitudes that have brought it to this condition, and asks if Zhuangzi would like to hear about death from one now dead. He would, of course, and the skull tells him that the joys of the dead far surpass any joys had on earth. Disbelieving, Zhuangzi asks if he would not take life back were it possible to grant it, but the skull scornfully dismisses Zhuangzi's unrelenting grasping at life.

What are we to make of this story? Did its author really believe the message, or was he simply trying to illustrate Zhuangzi's own statement that for all we know what we fear is a great good, and that we might be like children who have forgotten their way home? I think probably the latter, and certainly from a Zhuangzian point of view it could only be a hypothetical "what if?" We don't know. Nor does it matter, if we are willing to surrender ourselves into the inevitable with thankfulness and trust. All of Zhuangzi can be summarized in a simple and thankful "Yes".

The only other possibility is “No”, but that sets us at odds with things as they are. And this, above all else, is what philosophical Daoism identifies as the source of our suffering. We fear death because we fear the loss of ourselves and thus a “yes” to death is not without its hurdles; it would be glib to suggest it is easy. And clearly, to be truly free of the fear of death requires we in some way be free in life of that identity which we fear to lose. “It’s just being empty, nothing more.” But let us not fall into the trap of abstract idealism; let us not force ourselves into the false rational category of either/or; let us remember that incremental approximation is much truer to the way of life than abstract, essentially ‘religious’ absolutes. We grow.

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

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