Thursday, June 6, 2013

Equalizing Things XI: The Emptiness of Achievement

Scott Bradley

"Zhao Wen's zither playing, Master Kuang's baton waving, Huizi's desk slumping — the understanding that these three had of their arts flourished richly." (Zhuangzi 2; Ziporyn) Zhuangzi is kind enough to include his old friend the 'logician' Huizi in this list of men of great accomplishment, though not without tongue-in-cheek, and finally not without pulling the rug of accomplishment out from under him, as well as the others.

These three are offered as paragons of those who are thought to have 'succeeded' in life. Yet, they are used to illustrate a negative outcome: "What set the Course [Dao] to waning, was exactly what brought the cherishing of one thing over another to its fullness [cheng]." We have previously seen how cheng, (perfection, completion) is a false fulfillment in that it closes itself off from the larger, open-ended nature of reality. It is not the accomplishment which is the problem, of course, but the attitude that attaches to it.

All three, Zhuangzi tells us, were completely enamored with their own accomplishments, thinking them to have given true 'meaning' to their lives. But this alone could not in fact accomplish that purpose, so they thought to convince others of this importance and thereby to further validate it. But others had their own accomplishments to validate and thus failed to endorse those of these three. In the end, Zhao Wen's own son died still "grappling with the strings his father's zither", having failed to master it and thereby demonstrating the ultimate emptiness of his father's mastery; it died with him. And Huizi, for his part, ended up debating "the obscurities of 'hardness and whiteness'", in a vain attempt to convince others of a brilliance that rendered him worthy and special.

But if these are true meaning endowing accomplishments, Zhuangzi concludes, then even he is successful. Yet, since they did not actually accomplish this purpose, "neither I nor anything else can be considered fully accomplished."

This realization is good news; for it is the cherishing of these so-called accomplishments which, as was stated above, closes us off from the open vastness of Dao. Is this not another spin on the usefulness of being useless? Successes and accomplishments are things worthy of pursuit, but if they are grasped as what can give ‘meaning’ to life, they do just the opposite.

Alternatively, Zhuangzi suggests an unfixed openness that frees one from such an absorption, on the one hand, and allows one to let others pursue theirs, on the other: “Thus the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map. He makes no definition of what is right but instead entrusts it to the everyday function of each thing. This is what I call the Illumination of the Obvious.” (2:29; Ziporyn)

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

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