Saturday, November 16, 2013

Zhuangzi Prepares To Die III

Scott Bradley


Zhuangzi is on his death bed and his disciples speak of giving him an elaborate send-off. Zhuangzi tells them that his coffin will be the vastness and all it contains his companions — what more could he need? But his disciples have other worries.
"'But we fear the vultures and crows will eat you, Master,” said they.
Zhuangzi said, “Above ground I'll be eaten by crows and vultures, below ground by ants and crickets. Now you want to rob the one to feed the other. Why such favoritism?"
(Zhuangzi 32; Ziporyn)
Zhuangzi jokes and teases even as he awaits death. This alone might inspire us to ask what disposition in life makes this possible.

But there is much more here, of course. There is in the hearts of his disciples still a fear and denial of death. We might do well in our own times to consider why we engage in such absurdities as the grotesque embalming and interring of dead bodies in hermetically sealed coffins, as if it could make any difference beyond taking up and rendering useless still more space. Is this not a subconscious fear of the complete disappearance and absorption into vastness that is death?

There is also here a lesson on prejudicial bias. The favoritism of his disciples is mostly a matter of denial; they would prefer that the decomposition of Zhuangzi's body be something unseen and thus subconsciously deniable. But it also reflects a larger bias, that of life over death. This is a central point of instruction for Zhuangzi. He observes that we diminish our enjoyment of life when we allow our preference for life to render us fearful of death. There is nothing morbid in this; it is in no way a denial of life or the desire of life to live. Life brings with it an impetus to its self-preservation and continuation, and this is affirmed. Yet life must end in its individuated forms, and this is ever much an aspect of life as is its desire for continuation. For this reason, Zhuangzi suggests we learn to see life and death as a "single thread"; it is not just that you can't have one without the other, as true as this may be, but that they are ultimately one and the same. What? "Seen from the point of view of their sameness, all things are one."

In what sense are they the same? In that sense in which the vastness is even now the coffin of Zhuangzi.

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

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