Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to Nourish Life I: Living to the Limits

Scott Bradley

"The flow of my life is bound by its limits; the mind bent on knowledge, however, never is. If forced to follow something limited by no bounds, the bounded [current of life] is put in danger." (Zhuangzi, 3:1; Ziporyn) Thus begins the third and shortest chapter of the Inner Chapters. It is essentially about "how to nourish life" or how best to live, and its pivotal story is that of a cook whose description of how to butcher an ox leads King Hui to exclaim, "I have learned how to nourish life!"

It might be best to begin by considering the question of how this supposed 'radical moral relativist' can presume to tell us how best to live. The most obvious answer, it seems to me, is that since he does do so, we would do better to question why we ourselves have reached the conclusion that he should not. Put simply, Zhuangzi tells us that each thing is essentially "self-so" and "right" not as a judgment of the character of its actual behavior in the world, but by virtue of its being in the world. To affirm all things is not to endorse their every behavior. This possible disjunction between self-so rightness and actual behavior would seem to apply only to human beings who are alone capable of willful, self-destructive behavior. Zhuangzi suggests as a normative value that we do best when we nourish what we are given so as to fully realize that given. This will be realized uniquely in each being in as much as each being has a different set of givens. Our failure to live best according to our givens does not, however, obviate our essential "rightness". Our failures are ever much an expression of that "rightness" as are our 'successes'.

Zhuangzi's opening statement is a cornerstone of his philosophy of life, yet would seem to be the obverse, necessarily corrective side of that philosophy. Elsewhere we are exhorted to "go beyond the bounds" (if it is within the range of our givens); here we are told that it is dangerous to do so. But the focus is completely different. The going-beyond that he recommends is that which opens itself to the inexplicable after allowing "the understanding consciousness to rest in what it does not know." This limitlessness nourishes. The going-beyond excoriated here is the endless and futile pursuit of a knowledge that cannot be found. This limitlessness saps the strength and sunders the heart from its rootedness in the inexplicable.

Similarly, Zhuangzi typically exhorts us to “far and unfettered wandering” “beyond the dust and grime” in the “vast wilds of open nowhere”. Yet here he offers a much more prosaic vision of the consequences of nurturing life as “what enables us to maintain our bodies, to keep the life intact, to nourish those near and dear to us, and to fully live out our years.” I have called this the obverse side of his philosophy only because we are prone to assume that mysticism somehow pulls us out from the everyday concerns of life, and yet Zhuangzi sees no such disconnect. The mystical is not an escape from life, but the condition for its most practical fulfillment.

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

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