Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Building on Zhuangzi IV

Scott Bradley

Though I promised I would discuss Lusthaus's ("Aporetics Ethics in the Zhuangzi") use of graphic "models" (tables) in demonstrating the complexity of argument in the 17th Chapter of the Zhuangzi, they are in fact too detailed to do justice to here. Suffice it to say that they demonstrate how well composed that chapter actually is. This is interesting as a contrast to Zhuangzi's Inner Chapters which, as A. C. Graham has pointed out, seem to evince a man thinking on his feet. And this touches on the profound difference in terms of philosophical tone — spirit — between them. Zhuangzi is messy; his writing is full of dead-ends, U-turns, unanswered questions, and vague suggestions. This is most likely intentional. His whole point is to shake us loose from our belief that life can be explained so that we might rather respond to it on its own terms. His message is very much to be found in the medium. The author of the 17th Chapter by contrast lays out a well-planned, systematic and logical (and beautiful) argument for the relative nature of all our discriminating judgments. He essentially takes off where Zhuangzi left off, and apart from a bit too much 'knowing' (He knows, for example, "what is of Heaven and what is of man".), faithfully builds on Zhuangzi's thought. However, the danger here, from a Zhuangzian perspective, is that we might use these 'proofs' as the foundation for our mystical excursions. This would be to "take one's mind as one's teacher."

Though there are numerous facets to Zhuangzi's 'method', my feeling is that his vision of radical non-dependence is his most central theme. Here is where his understanding of freedom, unrestrained and carefree heart-wandering, is best illustrated. It is not that we become independent, but that in realizing our total dependence we are able to let go into that dependence. We "hand it all over to the inevitable", and in this act of trustful affirmation of the way things are, are released from all worry, fear, futile ambition, and even our very identity. All that's left to do is to play. Play in the pursuit of happiness, or world peace, or justice, or whatever takes your fancy — the point is that whatever you do will be done more effectively both in the world and in preservation of your inner joy.

To take one's mind as one's teacher is to depend on what that mind conjures up by way of explaining reality. The whole point of the "Qiwulun" chapter (2) about which all these books and articles have been written, and over which so much profound debate about skepticism and perspectival relativism has been exercised, is to demonstrate the fallacy of this dependence. It is a continuation of Zhuangzi's plea for the use of the unintelligibility of reality as an occasion for release into Mystery.

But this is not what scholars want to do. This is not what the mind wants to do. And this was possibly not what the author of the 17th Chapter wanted to do. In the end, what we have is very much like what Zhuangzi scathingly described Huizi as doing — instead of planting his "useless tree" (his useless self with its addiction to ‘reason’) in the "homeland of not-even-anything" where he could play and wander at ease, he vexed himself and others while "desk slumping" and arguing about "hardness and whiteness" (1:15; 2:28; 5:28).

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

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