Original post date: May 12, 2010
Continuing with the discussion from Zhuangzi, Chapter 6...
How then does the person who truly understands the human in himself relate to the Reality in himself? Whoever knows what man does uses what his wits know about to nurture what they do not know about. Or, as Ziporyn has it: that would be to use what your understanding understands to nurture what your understanding does not understand.
What does this mean? To truly understand what it is to be human is to understand the limits of human understanding. To understand that you do not understand is to be able to use your lack of understanding to open yourself to what lies beyond all understanding. This assumes a surrender of deliberate control over one’s life, a cessation of the desire to add to the process of life. It is a complete affirmation of the givens of one’s existence, a wonderful unfolding of the heart in openness into the Great Openness where all things are equally affirmed.
This is why Zhuangzi might rightly be described as having opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it, even unto the very depths. I would only add that we can say he attempted to so open himself; whether he was successful in the endeavor we cannot say.
All this enables you to last out the years assigned you by Heaven and not be cut off in mid-course, this is the perfection of knowledge. We meet this statement with some ambivalence. This common valuation of a life lived full-coursed, happy and long, seems out of step with Zhuangzi’s usual eschewal of all valuation. There is ultimately no difference between an incredibly long life and one cut off in childhood. Yet one has the responsibility as a recipient of the gift of life to nurture and preserve it. The sage does not foolishly involve himself in the politics of the time, for instance, if that would put his life in jeopardy. His first responsibility is to himself.
Moreover, the fulfillment of his own existence is the only way by which he might positively effect the world. Yet it may happen that he is still cut off mid-course either by those in power, or by a bandit, or by disease. But this is the workings of fate and to be accepted with the equanimity in which all things fated are affirmed.
On the other hand, we are pleased with the limited and transient scope of this proposed outcome of the possession of the perfection of knowledge. Where is the promise of immortality? What about eternal life and the preservation of the soul beyond the grave? Where is cosmic consciousness? None of these vain speculative hopes are on offer with Zhuangzi. His is a philosophy of life, not a religious belief.
As mentioned above, Graham suggested that Zhuangzi had Yangist roots, and this summation of the perfection of knowledge would seem to point in that direction if it were an indication of his actual teaching, but since Graham translates it as a quote either from another source or as a tentative formula, it cannot strictly be understood as such. There is no other equivalent statement in the Inner Chapters, though the sentiment is widespread throughout the Zhuangzi as a whole.
Similar statements are common in the Inner Chapters, however. But the emphasis is quite different. Whereas the Yangist school saw the preservation and nurture of the physical body as the single-most overriding concern of the sage, Zhuangzi saw the preservation and nurture of the inner self as most important.
In Chapter Three, The Primacy of Nourishing Life, as Dr. Ziporyn translates the title, King Hui exclaims that his cook has shown him how to nourish life, but this has nothing to do with the physical self. It is about how best to nourish the inner man so as to live in freedom despite the difficulties encountered in life: My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow. These are promptings quite different from the promptings toward personal preservation mentioned above.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.