Friday, February 1, 2013

Viewed from Dao: Neither Long Nor Short

Scott Bradley

Embosom all the myriad things, / Taking each one under your protective wings. / This may be referred to as universality. / The myriad things will be equally regarded, / There being no long or short among them.
(Wandering on the Way; [Zhuangzi, 17]; Mair)
We are exhorted to embrace all things because of our oneness; and this is only accomplished when "each" thing is individually protected. Because of their participation in one reality, their individual uniqueness is affirmed. Because of their equally affirmed uniqueness, we understand how they are all equal. This view from Dao is not the view from humanity which, together with all things, sees itself as more important than everything else: "From the point of view of the Course [Dao], no thing is more valuable than any other. But from the point of view of itself, each thing is worth more and all the others are worth less." (Chap. 17; Ziporyn) We are encouraged to allow the vantage point of Dao to inform our vantage point of humanity. The one is not the negation of the other, though the mind finds it difficult not to make it so.

In terms of the environmentalism in which this passage is being considered, this difficulty in understanding the paradox of our special worth and the equal worth of all things is mooted in the realization that our single-minded grasping of our sense of being special is bringing us to the brink of our own extinction. We need not appeal to the spiritual sensibility of Dao, therefore, to practically demonstrate the need for an appreciation of the equal worth of all things; we have neglected it to our own impending ruin. Self-preservation requires the preservation of all.

The author of this acclaimed chapter of the Zhuangzi has already demonstrated, like Zhuangzi himself, how our comparisons between things are merely an arbitrary convention of the mind (which is not to say that they do not have their necessary uses). If we say something is short, this makes sense only with reference to something longer, and the longer makes sense only with reference to something shorter. But there is always something longer or shorter still, and thus everything is equally long and short. Personally, I've never quite understood what this says about things as they actually are, but this is not really about how things are at all; it is about how the human mind works. It is an attempt to drive a wedge between how we think about the world and how it actually is. It shows us that the mind imposes its methods, its grids, upon the world. This may be unavoidable, but Daoism suggests that it can still be informed, and thereby relativized, by the view from Dao. The problem is not so much that we have our necessarily limited and inaccurate theories about the world, which we cannot avoid, but that we think they are 'true' of reality.

This very day some species will cease to exist. Can we see how this is equivalent to the loss of our own species? The view from Dao would enable us. And it would also enable us to do so without despair, for it also tells us that ends are also always beginnings. Nothing is lost. We are shown how to care with all our heart and yet not to despair.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.