Thursday, June 13, 2013

How to Nourish Life II: "So Low?"

Scott Bradley


The story of the cook who through his skillful embodiment of Dao exemplifies how best to nourish life is perhaps the best known of the many skill-stories found in the Zhuangzi. Some have suggested that it provides the pivot upon which the entire Inner Chapters turn, being as it were a down-to-earth, concrete expression of Daoist living. And this is perhaps its first and most profound teaching, namely that Daoism is about how best to concretely live in the world. It is in no way 'escapist', but quite to the contrary, seeks to enable the fullest possible emersion into our apparent existence.

Before looking at some of the specifics of how "Dao" enables this cook to live well, it might be helpful to consider some of the more general implications of this story. To begin, we have a cook. In our more egalitarian context we might think of a cook as 'one of us', but in fourth century BCE China, he was very low indeed in the hierarchy of worthiness. Most translators have given him a name, Ding, but this word most likely simply meant "cook". He is a nameless cook. And yet he teaches a king how best to live. This is not incidental; Zhuangzi purposely chose the lowest to express the highest possible attainment. The implication of this is in itself far-reaching. It is not intended to teach us to be more egalitarian, but rather to shatter a ruling mentality about what constitutes value and worth. Most of us are still stuck here, though we remain unaware of it.

Elsewhere, outside the Inner Chapters, someone questions Zhuangzi about where Dao is. Zhuangzi takes him through a 'descending' order of things in which Dao abides until his interlocutor exclaims, "So low!?" Zhuangzi finally scandalizes him into silence by identifying Dao with "shit and piss", but even this, he tells him misses the point entirely. It is not that Dao is "in the lowest" but that in Dao there is no lowest, or highest, or any other comparative value. In Dao, there is an equality beyond the ability of words to express, since words themselves require comparative distinctions.

The very fact that Zhuangzi chooses a nobody cook to illustrate a life lived in Dao is thus itself intended to break our preconceived value-bound interpretations of reality.

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

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