Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Intraworldly Mysticism VI

Scott Bradley


Yearley's comparison of Stoicism and the "radical Chuang-tzu", between a Hellenistic philosophy of the early 'Christian era' and one of fourth century B.C.E. China, has special relevance despite their radically different milieus because the former in many ways reflects the transformation of the latter into the "conventional Chuang-tzu" of the 17th Chapter of the Zhuangzi. Like the author of that chapter, the Stoics advocated the use of the reasoning mind to respond to life's vicissitudes, accepting with equanimity what cannot be avoided. This is "conventional" in that it is essentially the default method of humanity generally; we take our minds as our teacher.

If we take our mind as our teacher, asks Zhuangzi, who can be said to be without a teacher? Some (though in diminishing numbers, I suspect) have understood this in a positive light — you will find your right path if you follow your heart-mind. At the core of Zhuangzi's philosophy, however, is the belief that this reliance on "the understanding consciousness" is the root cause of so much of our alienation from life itself. It is amazing how much Zhuangzi had a sense of that alienation which we tend to equate with 'modern' humanity beginning with the Enlightenment and ending in so-called "existential despair". But it had its precursors among the Greeks as well, of course; "Man is the measure of all things" is a formulaic response to the loss of our fixed and sure grounding in the gods.

What then can be our teacher? Zhuangzi suggests the life experience itself. But life has no reason, no identifiable ground. It is self-so; it just is as it is; it just happens. What life teaches us, therefore, is not a set of principles to follow, but rather not a teaching at all, but an invitation to return to the pre-cognitive and spontaneous flow of life's unfolding. This is an organic affirmation of life. And this movement from the primacy of the mediating mind to the re-integration with the life experience is the heart of Zhuangzi's mysticism. (It has nothing to do with reconnecting with the gods or Dao or the Source or Universal Mind.)

How? I don't know. Only I know it is a dangerous thing to prescribe some one method. Life does not.

It is important to understand that Zhuangzi does not abandon reason, but rather simply suggests its limits, and identifies how that in allowing it to become the dominant force in our interface with the life experience, we have severely limited our ability to experience life more fully.

Finally, it may be helpful to understand our human condition in an evolutionary context. Our “fall” might easily be described as “up”; self-consciousness has happened and is wonderful. But it has come at a price; being a self is a great privilege and in no way need be disparaged, but just as walking upright brings with it a downside (bad backs), so too does being a self-conscious being. That we dwell in our rationalizing mind is accidental; just like everything else.

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

1 comment:

  1. Love the "How? I don't know" bit...reminds me of the modern Korean Zen master Seung Sahn's admonition to "only keep this don't-know mind. That is true Zen practice."

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