Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Conversion Experience I

Scott Bradley

I return to the second to last story in the 7th chapter of the Zhuangzi outside of the context of the previous series on that chapter. This is the story of how Liezi realized that his fascination with the spiritual powers of a shaman was indicative of his failure to grasp the core message of his master, Huzi. It is also perhaps the closest thing we have to an actual conversion experience in the Inner Chapters.

Liezi's response to his realization that "he had not yet learned anything" was to return to his home from which he did not emerge for three years and where he cooked for his wife and fed his pigs as if they were honored guests. Those of us with wives and pigs need not follow his example to the letter (though in the case of the wives it might be appreciated); the point is that his normal way of understanding what it means to be a person in the world was turned on its head. We might ask whether it even matters what caused this experience; the point is to be shaken loose from the box in which we have put ourselves. Or we might ask whether it matters what was the outward expression of this shaking loose. It is the shaking loose that matters.

From a Daoist perspective, there is one important aspect of this experience that is of paramount importance, however; and this is that we are not shaken from one box into another, from one narrowly grasped ideology to another, or from one belief to another. We might as well stay in the one we are already in if that's all this conversion experience amounts too. What Liezi realized was that he was able to convert from the teachings of his master to those of a shaman with relative ease because it was a belief system that he was after all along. And why was that? We wish to moor ourselves to some idea firm and sure, anything that relieves our fear of drift and doubt. But it is just this to which Zhuangzi points as a source of possible freedom, release from the need for fixed answers and into the experience of primal trust while in a world of flux.

Hopefully, you have already asked how this is not just another belief system. It most certainly can be. But then, if experienced, might it not also be somehow transcended as such? It’s not really a question as to whether it is a belief system, but of how we hold it, of whether it is grasped as a self-contained box.

Perhaps Zhuangzi never really envisioned complete freedom from a system of belief. The important thing is to always be aware that that box in which one presently dwells is just one box among infinite others. There is freedom in this, too. This is what the term "critical zero" means for me; zeroing out the ideas to which one is attached so as to realize their relative nature. This not only helps to liberate us, but also to allow us to allow others to have their own.

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

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