Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Flight of Existence VI: Returning to the Pool of Heaven

Scott Bradley


 There is a curious repetition of the story of Peng’s flight from Oblivion to Oblivion in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi which, to my thinking, lends weight to the idea that the Inner Chapters were cobbled together by an unknown editor or editors from an assortment of unbound bamboo strips. This does not necessarily bring into question the authenticity of the various sections, but does recommend caution in making too much of their arrangement except as a vehicle for the expression of the intent of the editor(s). However, unless we require some sort of sanctity of authorship for the words, it all comes down to the same thing in terms of responding to their meaning. This point may seem pedantic to some, but our (my) propensity to want to render someone (Zhuangzi) especially authoritative and thus to preserve the ‘sanctity’ of the text, reveals an attachment to authority and sacredness that Zhuangzi himself would have eschewed. Zhuangzi’s intention was to rouse us to think and explore, not to cling to his words. Ultimately, the Zhuangzi has no meaning or message, except that which we create in response to it.

Whatever the reason for this repetition of the story, however, the second iteration does add to the first. In the first, a name, “The Pool of Heaven”, is given to the Northern Oblivion from which Peng emerges, but not to the Southern Oblivion that is his destination. In the second, this is reversed and we are told that the name of his destination is again “The Pool of Heaven”. Thus, existence (if this metaphor holds true) begins and ends in the same ‘place’.

The Daodejing tells us that “Return is the movement of the Dao”, and this same sentiment is expressed here. In Daoism, birth is not the beginning or continuation of an eternal trajectory for an entity (an immortal soul — a very thorny metaphysical proposition), but simply a momentary phenomenon which folds back into the whole. This seems obvious enough from even a casual observation of nature, but it is not something with which we, the possessors of a sense of a precious self, are entirely comfortable.

We do not know any of this, of course, and are thus encouraged to keep the question open. Personally, I find this hard to do. For one thing, I question the question; for it seems to rest on the premise that there is someone who might be preserved; it begs the question. (Buddhism, it seems to me, is guilty of this when it proposes a single identity of numerous incarnations, with a transcendental and purposeful trajectory. To then ostensibly suspend judgment as to what becomes of this identity seems disingenuous — to me, at least.)

Thus, I tend toward a heterodox (definitive) view; it seems psychologically important to me to assume the extinction of self-identity. To put it on the back-burner is to avoid the greatest of all issues confronting our human experience, and thus to lose an opportunity to fully embrace the unavoidable. But perhaps this is simply avoiding the unavoidability of not-knowing.

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

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