Friday, February 15, 2013

Heaven Joins Heaven II

Scott Bradley

We are considering Woodworker Ch'ing's reply to the question of how he was able to create a bellstand of such beauty. He takes no credit for having any special gifts, but rather states that he does but one small thing: He lets Nature give it to him. After fasting and clearing his heart of all personal investment, all concern about how others see him and his work, whether in praise or censure, he goes into the forest to let it show him the bellstand. "Only after the completed bellstand manifests itself to me," he says, "do I set my hand to work. Otherwise, I give up. Thus is heaven joined to heaven." (Zhuangzi 19; Wandering on the Way; Mair) The troubled relationship between Heaven (Nature; the given) and the human (the apparently transcendent doer) is resolved in the human stepping aside so as to allow heaven to join heaven through him.

That this is a highly idealized presentation of a dynamic event beyond description I will address shortly. But first let's acknowledge that such an event is an essential element in the creation of art. David Abram, philosopher and ecologist, writes, "Genuine artistry, in this sense, does not impose wholly external form upon some ostensibly 'inert' matter, but rather allows the form to emerge from the participation and reciprocity between the artist and his materials, whether these materials be stones, or pigments, or spoken words." (The Sense of the Sensuous; note 22, p.278) Yet art is but the apogee of this process of reciprocal participation between us and our world; we are immersed, and all that we think, say or do is mutually participatory. We are parts of a whole. But to the extent that we see ourselves as other than that whole, the human takes over, suffers a sense of alienation, and seeks to impose itself on Nature. This, I think is the message of this story. It is a call to re-integration with Nature, a call to surrender this illusion of autonomy and return to our organic participation in the Whole.

Where I might fault this story from the perspective of Zhuangzi is that it follows the later “clarified” resolution of the heaven/human relationship which enjoins us to abolish the human so as to realize the heavenly. Zhuangzi would have nothing to do with such a dualistic approach. Rather, he suggests we live our humanity informed by and expressed as the heavenly. But such an experience is not reducible to formulas and is best left in the wonderful ambiguity of life.

This is a story. There was no Woodworker Ch'ing. This event never took place. The author never experienced such a thing. It is an idealized story meant to show us a path toward greater wholeness and contentment. "A path is made by walking it." The point is to walk, not arrive. Were we to arrive, the path would cease to be. Were we to fix our hearts on arriving, we would stifle the moment in a hypothetical future, and our path would go astray. Descriptions of so-called "sages" are idealized examples intended to set our feet to walking in a particular direction. It would be a contradiction of the spirit of philosophical Daoism to attach ourselves to the ideal as if it were real.

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

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