Friday, August 2, 2013

Beyond the Human Inclinations V: Beyond Internal Harm

Scott Bradley


Though he speaks in the plural, Zhuangzi here identifies only one behavioral mechanism that concerns him: "Affirming some things as right and negating others as wrong is what I call the characteristic inclinations." We need not immediately concern ourselves with the moral issues that this advocacy of the abandonment of the discrimination between right and wrong raises; we can rather let them be and only consider our relationship to them. "What I call being free of them means not allowing likes and dislikes to damage you internally . . ." Might it not be possible to acknowledge the wrongness of some activities while not translating that into an emotional response which does us internal harm? What harm might that be? Let's begin with our guts — ulcers and the physical stress caused by an excess of adrenaline. Does that suffice to suggest the value of some form of disconnect between the perception of evil in the world and our emotional response to it? Zhuangzi has something more subtle in mind, our inner harmony and peace, but because we are already in bondage to right and wrong, we judge this as itself immoral. God forbid that we should know peace in a peaceless world.

Zhuangzi actually never directly addresses the right and wrong of behavior; it is I that takes this final step. Instead of allowing likes and dislikes to damage us internally, he says, "make it your constant practice to follow along with the way each thing is of itself, going by whatever it affirms as right . . ." This is easy enough to imagine doing when applied to nature; we can affirm the rightness of a scorpion as well as that of the kitten even while preferring to cuddle the latter rather than the former. But "each thing" includes human beings, and this is where we run into difficulties. Zhuangzi first introduces this idea in his discussion of the "contending voices", the various theories on things which necessitate the affirming of one theory and the negating of others. His answer is to simply affirm them all; they are all expressions of the human experience, and where "Truth" is not king all subjects are affirmed as equal. This is admittedly hard enough for us to swallow without including their behavior.

Nevertheless, if we are to affirm the rightness of each human being then we must somehow see beyond what might be the immoral behavior of some. What trumps all is the realization that every expression is Dao. "Each thing" is perfect in being perfectly what it is, however it behaves. Transcending the tyranny of right and wrong does not negate the fact of right and wrong within the human sphere, it only allows a healthier response to them.

All this blabber would be unnecessary, of course, were we to simply experience the view from Dao. We make nuanced arguments because we have not. Finally, it is worth returning to Zhuangzi's vision of inner peace; this is his implied value. If we find that unacceptable in a peaceless world, failing to see it as a prerequisite to effecting change in that world, well then, this too is the rightness of itself.

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

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