Saturday, June 1, 2013

Equalizing Things V: The Trees Debate

Scott Bradley


Though Ziqi has spoken of three pipings, those of man, earth and Heaven, they are all one Event; the pipings of man and earth are the piping of Heaven. This being so, we are able to see how the cacophony of the forest stirred by an unidentifiable "rouser", metaphorically represented by the wind [qi] belched forth by the Great Clump, is also commensurate with the cacophony of human expression. Things emerge and each one gives expression to its own "self-rightness". We are invited to see all our own "contending voices", like those of trees, as equal. Surely we would not say that the "wuu" of this tree is better than the "woo" of that tree; they are both Heaven-so, the result of each one's distinct architecture.

Isn't this just how it is with the Confucians and Mohists (and we might now just as well throw in the Daoists)? Zhuangzi asks. Aren't their pronouncements just like the sound of wind passing through the trees; like the chirping of baby birds? This is absolute and universal affirmation. This is an acknowledgement that they are all Heaven-so. But they would have it otherwise; they would have themselves right and the others wrong. And in this way they obscure Dao, the great openness that embraces all things, every expression.

Might it not be possible, Zhuangzi asks, to give forth our own unique "wuuing" while at the same time acknowledging the rightness of the "wooing" of others? But this flies in the face of two of our most cherished and powerfully obstinate inclinations, the need for 'truth' (and its negation of 'untruth') and the need that there to be right and wrong. This is what he calls being bound by the "understanding consciousness". If your "wooing" disagrees with this assessment of things, then you need travel no further down this road. May you find peace on your own road, though it is unlikely that you can similarly affirm those on any other.

Actually, Zhuangzi never says that our "theories of things" are only the chirping of baby birds; he only suggests that we understand how they might be. Our saying is not just hot air, "the blowing of breath", he says, but does have meaning. Our ideas about things do have their consequences. Some theories work better than others in bringing harmony to our individual and collective existence. But each individual must be left to sort it out for him- or herself, because each one is unique: the wind "gusts through the ten thousand differences allowing each to go its own way." If Zhuangzi, like Jesus, were prone to imperatives he would say: "Go and do thou likewise." In this, Dao is normative; to acknowledge none as ‘best’ is best.

Finally, though I have called the howling of the forest a cacophony, Zhuangzi actually calls it a harmony. From the human point of view it seems like the former; but from the viewpoint of Dao it is the latter. And when the wind ceases, when “the wood is consumed and the fire moves on”, all things “return to their silent emptiness.”

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

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