Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Sage of Crippled Virtue I

Scott Bradley


The Cripple Shu (Zhuangzi; 4) was so physically challenged that when the authorities rounded up conscripts for the army they didn't give him a second thought. When they rounded up his fellows for forced labor, he simply waved them goodbye. Yet still he was able to take care of his needs; indeed, he was able to take care of the needs of many. More importantly, he was able to live out his days peacefully. If being physically crippled can issue in such advantages, asks Zhuangzi, how much more might being crippled in virtue!

This is one of Zhuangzi's most provocative stories; it stops us short, makes us think and reconsider, which is most always his intention (rather than feeding us some pre-chewed 'truth'). Crippled virtue? What does this mean? "Virtue" is de, that elusive term we find throughout Daoist (and Confucian) literature. I have called it the expression of Dao, Dao realized in the concrete. Though every expression is Dao, not every expression expresses itself as best it might; to do so is to realize de. But for the purposes of understanding Zhuangzi's meaning here, it is perhaps not so important that we come up with a sure definition of de as it is to understand what it is not. It is not 'goodness'; crippled virtue is not 'badness'. What is it then?

There are two ways in which we might imagine crippled virtue expressing itself, both of which falling under the rubric of "outside the lines", that is, outside the dictates of conventional wisdom. First, I think we should not dismiss its parallel with the grotesqueness of Shu's appearance. Society has its expectations and crippled virtue does not meet them. The sage of crippled virtue might be called "eccentric", "a character", or perhaps just plain "weird". Consider, if you will, your vision of a sage (or enlightened guru, if you prefer). If you have aspirations to being 'spiritual', consider how you envision yourself among others. Are they awestruck by your peaceful aura? Do they immediately sense how special you are? Or do they look at you askance, elbow their buddy, and snigger? Crippled virtue may very well elicit the latter. A sage, of course, neither imagines how she might appear to others, nor does she care. But we, as non-sages, do. A sage does not cultivate an image, whether grotesque or beatific, but most people do.

I knew a woman who testified to the holiness and truthfulness of her guru by relating to me a story of how his very presence immediately brought angry, would-be detractors to worshipful tears. Zhuangzi's story speaks here, not to the guru, who may have been everything she thought him to be, but to her expectation that spirituality must be expressed in a certain way, that we must therefore look for certain 'proofs', and perhaps most significantly how she depended on them. As usual, I can't really say that of which I have only a vague sense. But consider her conventional idea of spirituality, then think of how it would be to break it in half and throw it aside. This is the freedom to which Zhuangzi would direct us. It’s not about being a certain way; and certainly not about satisfying conventional expectations.

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

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