Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi II: Harmonizing with Transformation

Scott Bradley


There is no better place to begin an inquiry into the philosophy of Zhuangzi than at the beginning — his opening fable about the flight of the mighty bird Peng. I have previously called this flight The Flight of Existence since it arises from Oblivion and returns to Oblivion, as do we all. Who then is Peng? Peng, we are told, began as a vast fish named Kun that transformed into a vast bird. Who is Kun? Kun means "fish roe", a tiny speak of potential fish. Thus, being required to start with something, Zhuangzi starts with a fish that is identified as not quite yet a fish. This lack of a fixed identity for anything consequent to the ceaseless transformation of everything is at the core of Zhuangzi's philosophy.

Transformation, ceaseless change, for Zhuangzi, is the most obvious aspect of our apparent reality upon which he cares to opine. Typically, this does not suffice to satisfy the minds of religious, or for that matter, secular philosophers. We wish to preserve, at the minimum, our own identity, and thus posit a guarantor of that fixed identity. Thus, even those religious philosophies that make the most of the supposedly illusory nature of our perceived reality, do so with a view to suggesting some absolutist alternative.

Zhuangzi would have none of it. There may be an Absolute, but it is suggested only by its absence, and thus honesty requires of us to dwell in that absence. This, to my thinking, is the great watershed that distinguishes this philosophy of liberation from most others. I call it phenomenological because it concerns itself not with speculative explanations of our actual experience, but with the experience itself.

So, Zhuangzi says get onboard the transformation train. Harmonize your sense of being in the world with this overwhelmingly obvious experience of the transience of all things, oneself especially. Make this flight of existence in full cognizance of its end and beginning in Oblivion. To do so, is to undergo yet another transformation, the transformation to being transformation, of releasing one's grip on being a fixed-identity to having-no-fixed-identity. This requires nothing more than acknowledging our most fundamental experience. No Universal Anything is required.

There is, of course, a contradiction here. Why is it that we have a sense of being a fixed entity, or at least, hunger to have one? Isn't this as valid an experience as that which tells us this is folly? I would answer that it is in fact that we hunger for, rather than have that experience, that demonstrates that folly. But this does not answer the question of why we have that hunger. If we view the world and the emergence of human consciousness as somehow purposive, then we might have occasion to believe our hungers have their fulfillment. But to posit a purposive Universe is to once again introduce an Absolute where none is immediately obvious.

Zhuangzi’s proto-Daoism offers the prospect of inner freedom without recourse to religion.

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

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