Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Finding the Empty Room II: Fasting of the Mind

Scott Bradley

‘Confucius’s’ solution to the practical problem of how to transform a tyrant without getting oneself killed is personal inner transformation. One might also very well begin here with a view to not killing tyrants, or others less deserving. This is absolutely fundamental to every truly effective movement for peace. "Fight fire with fire, and surely you shall burn," observes Chen Jen. It's true the American revolution was won through violence, but then Dr. King's observation that America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world still holds true.

Thus Confucius tells Yan he needs first to practice "fasting of the mind". This is a method, not an end. Its end is to go beyond the calculating mind, that mind, the taking of which as his instructor, we have already been told is Yan's principle problem. He has told Confucius of his elaborate plans and strategies, some of them quite 'spiritual', for accomplishing his praiseworthy goals, but all of them are self-assertive and impose themselves upon the world. The world will strike back in kind.

Instead, Confucius proposes listening to one's inner-most promptings, the welling up of the "vital force" (qi) within. Much has been made of qi (chi) throughout the history of Chinese philosophy, it being largely understood as a kind of metaphysical 'substance', but for Zhuangzi it is no such thing: "But the vital force is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings." (5:9; Ziporyn) Putting aside for a while our preoccupation with the fruits and flowers of our existence and returning to our existential root, we discover we are rooted in emptiness. We are grounded, not in Being, but in emptiness, in oblivion. Returning here, we are able, like qi, to allow things to arise as they do and to respond to them in spontaneity, and through our affirming openness, transform them.

Fasting of the mind is a return to our existential interface with non-existence.

(Though I am hardly qualified to discuss the subtleties of these distinctions, I find it helpful for my own purposes to do so. Laozi is said to have emphasized Non-Being in contrast to Being, but I think this puts us in the familiar trap of mutually arising opposites and suggests a being that is non-being, in agreement, I believe, with Zhuangzi. "Nothingness", on the other hand, says too much and is 'something' of which nothing could possibly be said. Emptiness, however, suggests a something that is nothing; it is neither a denial nor an assertion; it is a potentiality.)

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

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