Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Great Mystery As Teacher IV: Learning from Death

Scott Bradley


One scholar has suggested that death is the great teacher referred to in the title to the sixth chapter, but he seems to have confused the lesson with the teacher. In any case, it is indeed death that quickly becomes Zhuangzi's focus here and to which he points as the most central reality of our fate. Life is certainly full of fated vicissitudes and these also teach us much, but who can deny to death the honor of first place among them? It may seem morbid to some to focus so much on death, but the negative spin of the adjective itself demonstrates the need. Ernst Becker's pivotal The Denial of Death demonstrated just how so much of our cultural reality and subconscious impulses are a response to death. As his title suggests, a great deal of our energy is spent in its denial. Zhuangzi, however, suggests we face it squarely and learn from it as from a great teacher.

What do we know about death? Nothing. However, I confess that it is a challenge for me to remain unknowing with respect to death, for it seems so obviously the extinction not only of an individual life but also of every vestige of identity that comes with it. But though this is perhaps 'knowing' too much, it is the letting go of that identity in life that is, practical speaking, Zhuangzi's answer to the fear of its loss in death.

"Life and death are fated, and that they come with the regularity of day and night is of Heaven — that which humans can do nothing about, simply the way this are." (6:24; Ziporyn) "Fate" can have connotations of 'destiny', something that outside forces have chosen for us, but this is entirely foreign to Zhuangzi's meaning. "Heaven" is Nature, the givens of life, all of which are completely irreducible, opaque surds.

But here in this chapter Zhuangzi suggests something still "higher" than Heaven and earth, and this is metaphysical Dao, about which we can say nothing that can even approximate meaningful assertion. " The Great Mystery" works for me. The importance of this reference to the ineffable "higher" is that it is the undefined and formless emptiness into which we are invited to release ourselves in trust. Were it not emptiness it would be an Other, but it is not an Other. Were it an Other, we could only be a self in relation to it, and thus unable to be it. It is nothing and everything.

And it is here that Zhuangzi introduces his powerful vision of complete surrender into Mystery: "But if you hide the world in the world, so there is nowhere for anything to escape to, this is an arrangement, the vastest arrangement, that can sustain all things." (6:28) This is the psychological transformation facilitated through release into the "higher" that is always higher than a mere Other, so high, in fact, that high and higher become utter nonsense. Have I lost the thread? I was speaking of death, after all. Not at all; it is death itself that invites us to hide ourselves in the vastness where nothing can be lost. Yet because it is also empty, that hiding is equivalent to the realization that there was never anything to lose in the first place.

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

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