Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finding the Empty Room I: Embedded Emptiness

Scott Bradley


The fourth chapter contains what is perhaps the closest approximation of a method for the realization of transcendence to be found anywhere in the Zhuangzi. Yet this is simultaneously embedded in a most practical discussion of how best to transform a tyrant with a view to easing the suffering of his people. The title given to the chapter, though likely an addition of a later editor, bespeaks this unity of spiritual and practical living: "In The Human World".

Yan Hui, Confucius' favorite disciple, asks leave to attempt the transformation of a tyrant, but his master will have none of it. Yan is not yet ready for such an undertaking and is likely to get himself killed. The sages of yore, he is told, had it in themselves before they tried to put it in others. Those who do not have it, yet preach it, merely "plague" others and end up being plagued themselves. But Yan's most essential problem is stated thus: "You are still taking your mind as your instructor." (4:8; Ziporyn)

Yan still believes he can think himself through life. He can, of course, but this is far from the most effective or harmonious way to live. What follows is an appeal to an openness to one's inner reality which allows unmediated connectedness to the experience of human existence. What one discovers at one's core is not, ironically, a something, but a nothing. One discovers emptiness.

That which we try so hard to deny and constantly flee, our fundamental emptiness, is precisely that in which we find our greatest freedom. This is not because emptiness is some special spiritual dimension, but simply because it is the most essential way of things. We might build elaborate sand castles which explain our existence in an attempt to ground ourselves in some hypothetical Being, but the tide of time and existence itself washes them all away. We might build castles in the air, find meaning in our projects and achievements, but in our heart of hearts we remain empty, and they dissipate with the wind.

The great thing about emptiness is that it is never far away; our freedom is ever-present. We need not manufacture it. No guru needs to give it to us. No deep and hidden esoteric knowledge is required. Nothing is added to life. If it is not already in us, then it is nothing we need.

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

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