Saturday, October 19, 2013

Beyond Power, Beyond Qi I

Scott Bradley

The final essay in Hiding the World in the World about which I will comment is entitled "'Nothing Can Overcome Heaven': The Notion of Spirit in the Zhuangzi" by Michael Puett. Here he addresses Zhuangzi's negative critique of 'spiritual power' and the idea of transcending one's humanity through attainment of qi. "Zhuangzi, while borrowing a great deal of vocabulary from these other texts [for the most part unnamed, but including the "Nei ye" chapter of the Guanzi], also opposed many of the claims at the time concerning such access to spiritual power." This is something I have addressed many times especially in the contexts of Liezi’s "riding the wind" and his becoming enamored of the prognosticating powers of a shaman. Spiritual manipulation of the material world may be fine in itself, but it is not what Zhuangzi sees as true freedom from things. Thus, if he "opposed" these claims to power, it was only when they became a substitute for his vision of a non-dependence that flows and follows along with things, harmonizes with things, "fits comfortably" in the world.

What Puett adds to this mix is referencing self-cultivation through the realization of purified qi as a means to transcending one's humanity which is advocated in the "Nei ye" chapter of the Guanzi, that he also suggests may have predated Zhuangzi's work. "In the 'Nei ye', the goal of the superior man is to unify and control things, and, indeed, to gain the power to rule over the myriad things." This pursuit of spiritual power and Zhuangzi's "following along" could not be more different.

And here we have another one of those great parting of ways among commentators (and practitioners). There are those who read Zhuangzi as a practitioner and advocate of these kinds of exercises and the goals that obtain to them, and those who see him, quite to the contrary, as suggesting a radically different model. The reader will know that I subscribe to the latter view.

Apart from our natural inclination to seek power and 'get' and ‘be’ something, there are obvious reasons for this misunderstanding of Zhuangzi (as I see it). As Puett says, Zhuangzi uses the vocabulary of those with whom he disagrees. But perhaps more to the point is that he is unassertive, purposely ambiguous and subtle. He reads like a novel, a story from which one must "select out his own" meaning. He has no problem speaking of the Creator of Things even though he believes in no such thing; he is not bound by ideology; words are playthings; he leaves the pedantic parsing to the scholars. He speaks of qi and yang and yin because these are the parlance of his contemporaries, not because he subscribes to their metaphysics.

As I read the scholars, I am constantly struck by how literalistic they can be; an anecdote is frequently parsed well beyond its intended meaning. We need always remember that Zhuangzi is ever directing us, by way of his medium, to what is essentially messy and inscrutable, that is, life itself.

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

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