Saturday, May 25, 2013

At Play With Self II

Scott Bradley


The relatively lengthy story in the seventh chapter of the Zhuangzi in which Liezi is enamored by the clairvoyant powers of the shaman Jixian and thus comes to doubt the way of his master, Huzi, is typically both compelling and perplexing. It is choke full of insights into the psychological pitfalls of the spiritual quest, on the one hand, but somewhat overwhelming in Huzi's explanation of the positive outcomes of that quest, on the other. A brief overview of the story seems necessary.

Jixian is so adept at foretelling people's future by looking at their faces, to the point of telling them exactly when and how they will die, that people immediately flee when they see him. Not Liezi, however; he thinks this power greater than that of his master who then suggests Liezi bring the shaman to read his face. Three times the shaman comes and, because Huzi shows him something different each time, gets three different readings. On the fourth visit, he himself flees in terror.

What I would like to focus on here is not so much what Huzi was able to show of his self on each visit, but rather that he could show so many aspects of his self. One gets the impression that Huzi had a lot of self experience from which to choose and that he could move about within that experience at will. Figuring out what these were is where the difficulty arises, but we can get an idea through the responses of the shaman. At his first visit, he declared the impending demise of Huzi. At his second visit, he declares there are signs of renewed life (for which he takes credit). On the third visit, he declares Huzi much too confused to figure out. On the fourth visit, he sees something that sets him to flight. This last, Huzi tells us, was because he showed himself as he was before he was.

What seems clear from this story is that Huzi did not dwell in some fixed state of awareness but was rather able to move within a range of various self experiences. He could play with the experience of being a self. He could show himself as if near dead, because he was in some sense already dead. He could show life, because he was alive. He could show chaos because life, too, is chaos. And finally, he could show his non-existence because to have come to be is also not to be.

It's just a story, of course; we would be foolish to take any of it too literally. But in addition to teaching us the folly of seeking 'spiritual' power, it does seem to suggest that the awakened self-experience is one which if capable of self-play. If we bring this to stories of the playful back-and-forth of Zen masters, we might get a better understanding of where exactly it was that they were coming from.

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

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