Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Equalizing Things IX: Non-Perfection

Scott Bradley


As is typical with most philosophers, Zhuangzi takes and uses certain words in a technical and thematic sense. Among those which have a negative spin are dai (dependence), zhi (knowledge, understanding), and cheng ("fully-formed", completion, perfection). This series is an attempt to better understand the second of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi, but it can only be a flawed exercise for several reasons among which are: the fact that it might not yield itself to any final interpretation, I am in any case unable to fully grasp his intended meanings, and these meanings are so tightly packed as to make it extremely difficult to lift one idea out from the rest without in some way misrepresenting it.

This post looks at a passage where Zhuangzi uses the word cheng to show what his and every philosophy is not: perfect. Thus, we might best begin by saying that, paraphrasing Zhuangzi, "If we take what is written here as 'fully-formed', we have mistaken a part for the whole.”

"If you regard what you have received as fully-formed [cheng] once and for all, unable to forget it, all the time it survives is just a vigil waiting for its end." I understand this to refer to our belief that we are "full and real" as did Yan before he realized that he had not yet begun to exist. Taking ourselves as things with a fixed-identity is the cause of our fear of losing that identity. Zhuangzi suggests that we rather understand ourselves as a momentary expression of a larger universal transformation.

"If we follow what has so far taken shape, fully-formed [cheng] in our minds, making that our teacher, who could ever be without a teacher?" (Ziporyn) Some take this as an invitation to follow one's own path, to find one's own 'inner guru' (something that I advocate), but here it means quite the opposite. One can only follow that inner voice when that voice is itself going somewhere, ever-transforming. When it believes it has arrived it has ceased to reflect the nature of things. ("Courses [daos] are obscured by the small accomplishments already formed and completed [cheng] by them.")

"But to claim that there are any such things as 'right' and 'wrong' before they come to be fully formed [cheng] in someone's mind in this way — that is like saying you left for Yue today and arrived there yesterday. This is to regard the non-existent as existent." Zhuangzi uses one of Huizi's paradoxes to illustrate that though it is perfectly natural to judge things as right or wrong, it is mistaken to hold these judgments as "fully formed", that is, as rooted in the ultimate nature of things. They are so only because we call them so. Yet our calling them so helps us to order our being in the world; negating their rootedness in ultimate reality does not negate their usefulness in our flourishing as a species.

Releasing into the ever-transforming, we remain open, clinging to nothing fixed and sure.

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

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