Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Conversion Experience III

Scott Bradley

Liezi's conversion experience is in part described as a "return to an unhewn blockishness". This "unhewn block" is a central metaphor in Daoism for the human experience before its manipulation by the "understanding consciousness". It was achieved by Liezi in this case by "remaining remote from all endeavors and letting [go] all the chiseled carvings of his character".

Were the "understanding consciousness" able to actually understand and explain itself, it might not be a problem at all. But it cannot; and it's continued attempts to do so create just that self-alienation that Zhuangzi's advocacy of a return to the unhewn block is intended to cure. It has other praise-worthy uses to be sure, but when it becomes so dominating of our existential engagement in the world that it excludes our more primal experience of connectedness, it sunders us from that experience. If this was a problem in Zhuangzi's day, how much more so might it be in ours.

Remaining remote from all endeavors and letting go our self-story is in effect simply an acknowledgement of our being okay just as we are. There is nothing we need do or become. Instead, we typically believe that we have a great deal to do. In fact, we have to do the impossible: we have to become somebody. Liezi thought the spiritual power of the shaman would make him someone and sought it for himself.

This is where philosophical Daoism says no thanks to just about every 'spiritual' path on offer; they invite the pursuit of something; our natural inclinations are simply re-channeled; we can become a spiritual somebody instead of the mess we are. Needless to say, the same pursuit can just as easily be the object of this advocacy of philosophical Daoism even when that philosophy tells us it should not. This is our default response, after all. Where philosophical Daoism may be said to differ is in that it ever self-negates in the face of our abuse. In this it is similar to Zen. There is no Zen until Zen is realized and what is realized is really nothing at all. At least that's my take after a good scrubbing.

Another metaphor for the realization of the Daoist ideal is to become, as did Liezi, "like a clump of soil". Shendao tells us that "even a clod of earth cannot stray from the Dao". But we can; at least psychologically; and our return to clod-like-ness is a psychological return to a sense of absolute connectedness and affirmation — just as we are. It is true of us now; all this endeavoring and carving is both unnecessary and counter-indicated.

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

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