Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Flight of Existence III: Size Doesn't Matter

Scott Bradley


The enormous fish that swims in the Northern Oblivion is named Kun, "fish roe". Its vastness is incalculable for the human mind, and yet it is also a mere speck of potentiality. Size does not matter; size means nothing; does it even exist? Kun transforms into the mighty bird Peng whose vast back likewise extends beyond the limits of reason. "Peng" combines the word for "phoenix" with "peer" or "companion". Peng is the mightiest of living things, yet he is not really any different than you or I, or the tiny fledgling dove.

Yet the fledgling dove looks up at Peng in his incredible flight and scoffs. What a lot of wasted effort, she thinks; I accomplish all that's necessary with a hop, leap and glide to the next bush; this is the ultimate. This, Zhuangzi tells us, is the working of a "small consciousness", one that thinks it understands and has grasped the correct way of things.

But what of Peng; what does he think of the dove? Zhuangzi does not tell us. It is possible that he scoffs at the dove; but if he does, then his consciousness too is small. For size does not matter; it is only a "small" consciousness that imagines it does. And herein is the great irony; for the dove a hop, leap and glide is the ultimate. And her ultimate is in every way equal to the ultimate of Peng. Yet truly understanding how this is so is what enables every particular ultimate to be so. One can only fully realize one's own ultimate when one also recognizes the ultimacy of every other being, no matter what the 'size' of the space that that being must occupy. "This [not the size of the space to be occupied] is the difference between a large consciousness and a small consciousness", Zhuangzi tells us. Guo Xiang puts it so well:
Though some are larger and some are smaller, every being without exception is released into the range of its own spontaneous attainments . . . each deed exactly matching its own capabilities. Since each fits perfectly into precisely the position it occupies, all are equally far-reaching and unfettered. (Ziporyn)
Guo thus takes it to the next level: ultimately, there is really no difference between a "small" and a "large" consciousness, between the sage and the silly dove, for each only does that of which it is capable. Each is affirmed as it is. Still, the question remains, of what are we capable?

In making the tiny dove the possessor of the small consciousness and Peng’s unspecified, Zhuangzi makes us work a little harder; we are tempted to think of Peng’s as large, and as an exemplar of the sage. Yet, this would be to fall into the very trap he is exposing. Still, he may be. Relative to his buddy Huizi, ‘Zhuangzi’ elsewhere suggests his phoenix to Huizi’s ridiculous owl fearfully clinging to a smelly rodent. Ah, sweet ambiguity!

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

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