Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Sage of Crippled Virtue II

Scott Bradley


We were exploring the implications of Zhuangzi's praise of "crippled virtue." The grotesquely deformed Cripple Shu was able to fruitfully and peaceably live out his years; how much more might be the advantages of crippled virtue! exclaims Zhuangzi. I suggested two aspects of what this might mean, both being examples of "living outside the lines". The first drew upon the theme of grotesqueness and how that brings to our attention that spirituality should not be thought as meeting the conventional expectations of society; it is as likely to be spurned as praised. Our own preconceptions of how we should be are similarly wide of the mark and are, in fact, detrimental to the "spontaneous attainment" (natural, organic) of what we seek.

The second aspect of the meaning of crippled virtue touches on the recurrent theme of the usefulness of the useless. Shu was considered useless because of his physical deformities and this, paradoxically, is what enabled him to be useful for not only himself, but also for many others. He was neither drafted into the army nor recruited for forced labor, and could thus pursue his sewing and other skills in peace. Similarly, the sage of crippled virtue, because he is not recognized as especially spiritual, is able to pursue his inner cultivation in peace.

Confucian ethics frequently looms in the background of Zhuangzi's stories. Here "crippled virtue" is a highly ironic jab at the Confucian ideal of the sage-king. Virtue is no virtue, by Confucian standards, when it is not expressed in the exercise of political power. Admittedly, Confucius himself failed of this, but that was because he lived in an age that refused to recognize the greatness of his wisdom; his intention, however, was to transform society through that wisdom, and that suffices to evince virtue. Confucius himself probably did not give much emphasis to how his way contrasted with others more reclusive, but later Confucians, most likely as a response to Daoism, did so. That they largely erected straw men, misrepresentations of Daoism which served their own prejudices, need not concern us here. The important thing is to understand that Zhuangzi's presentation of the efficacy of crippled virtue is probably intended to demonstrate how not being politically involved might be more conducive to self-cultivation.

But I would like to look at it from a different angle. Since the heart of the Zhuangzian vision is inner freedom realized through being emptied of egoic-self-involvement, it is easy to see how the accumulation of disciples and their praise might be a very real hindrance to that realization. Looked at from the perspective of the ideal sage, this would not be a problem. But looked at from the perspective of one still hard at work in the realization of this ideal (which is to say everyone of Daoist persuasion), it might most certainly be. Fame punishes virtue. How many 'gurus', one might wonder, have been short-circuited in their inner cultivation precisely because they attained enough to attract followers? It is easy to see how one might settle into the comfort of being thought someone-spiritual. This is why so many 'sages' in the Zhuangzi chasten themselves for being 'found out' and then run for the hills.

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

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