Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Beyond the Human Inclinations I: Beyond the Physical Form

Scott Bradley

Thus, where Virtuosity [de] excels, the physical form is forgotten. But people are unable to forget the forgettable, and instead forget the unforgettable — true forgetfulness!
(Zhuangzi 5:20; Ziporyn)
The fifth of the Inner Chapters is populated by a cast of characters intended to shock us out of our cultural prejudices. Here we meet "Humpback Limpleg the lipless cripple", several "one-footed ex-convicts", "Toeless Shushan", and "Horsehead Humpback". That these men are all sages makes it all the more mind-bending.

It may be difficult for us in our time to appreciate how counter-intuitive such a presentation of spirituality was in Zhuangzi's time. We, at least, have a sense of the political correctness of looking beyond physical disabilities to the inner person. We even speak of there being no shame in mental illness. And if we twist the screw tight enough, we might even force ourselves to look past someone's having served 'time'. But no such niceties ruled in Zhuangzi's time. A significant part of the Confucian ethic was the responsibility to preserve one's physical form and societal standing 'whole'; to fail to do so was to disgrace one's family and ancestors.

When the ex-con "Toeless", mutilated as punishment for a crime, came to 'Confucius' hoping to receive instruction, the latter at first turned him away, declaring it to be too late; the deed had been done and was beyond redemption. Toeless, apparently further along toward the view from Dao, reprimands him for his bondage to cultural prejudice, and leaves despite Confucius' apologies. Later, when relating this to Laozi who suggests helping Confucius toward a more Daoist view, Toeless declares that since it is "Heaven itself that has inflicted this punishment upon him", it is Confucius who is beyond redemption.

What are we to make of this? Though Toeless has forgotten the forgettable, Confucius has forgotten the unforgettable, namely the equality and sanctity of all things, the view from Dao. Confucius' prejudices are a punishment inflicted by his own character upon himself. (For 'Heaven' is what is.) But is he beyond redemption?

Are there incurable illnesses? Is there incurable insanity? Are there those who, like Zhuangzi has Confucius declare of himself elsewhere, cursed to “stay within the lines” of cultural norms and the typical human inclinations? Of course; life is not a fairy tale; but the view from Dao sees a happy ending for every character, prince, princess and ogre alike whatever their bondage.

Another word from Laozi would have been nice, but Zhuangzi leaves the last word with Toeless. But if I were to have Laozi speak, I’d have him say, “Well, let’s give him another chance; let’s see.”

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

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