Original publication date: May 10, 2010
To know what is Heaven’s doing and what is man’s is the utmost in knowledge. Whoever knows what Heaven does lives the life generated by Heaven. Whoever knows what man does uses what his wits know about to nurture what they do not know about. To last out the years assigned you by Heaven and not be cut off in mid-course, this is the perfection of knowledge.
~ from Zhuangzi, Chapter 6, A. C. Graham translation ~
This opening statement is understood by Dr. Ziporyn to be ‘a tentative position, perhaps a traditional stance, which is then considered, analyzed, and deconstructed.” Graham similarly sees it as a ‘preliminary formulation’ with which Zhuangzi finds difficulties and then ‘reformulates’ in the form of a paradox to resolve those difficulties. Zhuangzi’s difficulties, however, have to do with the ability of one to know and articulate the truthfulness of the statement, not its content. In other words, he might very well have agreed with the statement in principle, but saw no way that one could know its validity — unless, of course, one had actually achieved the knowledge of which it speaks. Such a one would be a True Man and a True Man has True Knowledge.
Such a one could formulate that knowledge in the words of this statement but they would still suffer from the difficulties that Zhuangzi finds in them. This is because words cannot recreate the experience which gives them birth and only that experience can know their validity. It is for this reason that it is said, “Those who know do not speak; those who speak, do not know.”
But Zhuangzi speaks; does he therefore not know? I suspect he did not, for though he had made many excursions into the vast wilds of open nowhere, that very wandering actually precludes any claims to True Knowledge. Always, it is The Radiance of Drift and Doubt that is the substance of his experience. Therefore these True Men of old are purely hypothetical sages and their True Knowledge is likewise hypothetical. It bears saying also, in Zhuangzi’s defense, that though he spoke, he did so for the purpose of demonstrating that his speaking was also a mis-speaking. These are spill-over-goblet words and let us not be so silly as to try and hold them firmly to our breasts as ‘truth’. Let us rather learn from their intimations of ‘truth’ as they pour forth as an offering to the Mystery beyond all knowing.
What are spillover-goblet words? It is thought that such a vessel was used in the performance of rituals; when full the vessel tipped out its contents and was thus able to be re-filled, only to be automatically emptied again. We are told in Chapter 33 that Zhuangzi used spillover-goblet words for unbroken extension of his meanings. This is apparently a reference to the use of the term in Chapter 27 where we read: "These spillover-goblet words give forth (new meanings) constantly, so that all are harmonized through their Heavenly Transitions."
Zhuangzi understood that language, by its very nature, is beholden to the definition of words and the perspectives of those that use them, and for this reason, could never convey True Knowledge. Not only are the meanings of words subject to the unique perspective of each individual, they are constantly changing with the evolutions of time. The moment something definitive is said about Reality, therefore, it must be deconstructed lest it be thought to be the final word on the subject. Thus we are told that Zhuangzi remained uncommitted to any one position, never looking at things exclusively from any one corner.
As we consider this passage in the context of others considering the relationship between Heaven and the Human we will see that they are often contradictory, for Zhuangzi was careful to never let any one perspective become the definitive ‘truth’. Like Tian Pian and his teacher Peng Meng, he taught the eschewal of all positive teachings. Thus, Zhuangzi here offers us a goblet full of content, telling us what is the utmost knowledge, and then tips it over lest we think we can achieve any such thing. Is this not a ‘teaching’ far greater than anything ‘positive’? Despite all the words, is this not a teaching without words?
It might also be profitably noted that this approach is contrasted with that of Confucius who, though he changed his mind numerous times and professed to draw his sustenance from the Great Root, allowed his likes and dislikes and his desire to win out over others, to reify his teachings: "Each of his crowings became a measure, each of his words became a model..."
Graham presents the entire statement with which we begin as a quote and suggests that it may be one formulated by Zhuangzi himself or borrowed from some other source. Ziporyn likewise offers it as a quote, but only the first sentence; the following three sentences are offered as the musings of Zhuangzi himself. No other translation consulted offers it as a quote at all. Does this matter in terms of our understanding of it? Since, as stated below, Zhuangzi was probably in agreement with the content of the statement, probably not. Though I do not know.
Given Graham’s inclination toward speculation regarding Zhuangzi’s intellectual pilgrimage and his assertion that he might have, at one time, been, first a Confucian, and then a Yangist teacher of the ‘nurture of life’ school, I am surprised that he did not suggest that this statement has Yangist origins. The final sentence of the quote seems clearly to echo the Yangist precept that the preservation of one’s life is the truest prompting of the one’s heart (to use a term ascribed to Zhuangzi and thought by Graham to be an indication of his Yangist roots) and should be followed at all times.
How then are we to deal with this statement which Zhuangzi himself tells us has serious deficiencies? I would suggest that we are intended to treat it as ‘true’ and thereby to attempt to learn what it means, and therein, what our limitations are in trying to do so. It is always in finding and affirming our limitations that that which is beyond all limits becomes accessible to us.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.