Friday, April 19, 2013

Riding the Wind

Scott Bradley

Zhuangzi tells us that Liezi, the legendary proto-Daoist, could "ride the wind". I recently mentioned this to someone following a path that we might conveniently call shamanist and she enthusiastically confirmed that yes, shamans can do this. Perhaps they can. For the purposes of argument, let us assume they can not only do this, but many other incredible feats demonstrable of 'spiritual' power. Still, Zhuangzi asks, So what?

Having told us of Liezi's prowess, Zhuangzi suggests that there was still something he had to depend on, namely the wind. And this is where he asks us that pivotal question, What if we depended on nothing?

Though there is perhaps an edge of censure in Zhuangzi's response to feats of 'magic', his concern overall is not with the feats themselves, but with the importance we place upon them. He does not dispute the possibility, or even the spirituality that makes them possible; what concerns him is that they so easily become something to which we attach, and this, he would suggest, is just more of the same dependence exemplified in more mundane ways such as our attachment to becoming ‘somebody’ through name.

The problem with spiritual dependence, from Zhuangzi's point of view, is that, in the end, there is in reality nothing upon which we can depend. The essence of religion is typically some kind of dependence. In the revealed religions (those in which God has spoken) it is primarily upon Truth that we depend. When certain things have to be true, when 'faith' is required, we are on very shaky ground indeed. In the more intuitive religions (those based more on mystical experience), certain experiences become mandatory. Since the vast majority of adherents fail of these experiences for one reason or another, Truth once again becomes that upon which they depend. Thus, 'enlightenment' as a possibility, or buddha-nature as a reality, become objects of faith.

As for 'an edge of censure' in Zhuangzi's response to overtly displayed feats of spiritual power, he shares this with most all traditions. Though they recognize them as legitimate expressions of the spiritual quest, they also see them as distractions; they recognize them as possible dependencies that hinder further progress toward spiritual realization.

The mighty bird Peng "rides the wind". So does the tiny dove. These are physical dependencies, but they need not be spiritual ones. Spiritual non-dependence, Zhuangzi tells us, would be like riding atop every physical dependency so that it would not matter what eventuality arose. Peng (existence) could crash and burn (he is, after all, a phoenix), the dove could fail of making it to the next tree (an eventuality to which she freely admits) only to be taken by a fox, and it would not matter. This spiritual non-dependence is a release into the inevitable such that no eventuality could disturb one's peace.

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

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