My spin on Zhuangzi

After years of ruminating on the philosophy of Zhuangzi I have finally published my spin. I say “spin” because it is, of course, but one possible interpretive take–the one that arises from my own personal experience and needs. Perhaps it might inspire you in the pursuit of your own.

The link to the left is to Booklocker.com, but it is also available on Amazon:

ALL IS WELL IN THE GREAT MESS

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Guest articles are also invited.

Scott

YIN/YANG III

Dao is ultimate Yin. Everything else both yins and yangs. Dao does nothing—it is Emptiness. We can say nothing more about “it”. It has no content. It is, as I have said, the big Question Mark, not the big Answer.

In Daoism water is symbolic of yin. It follows the path of least resistance. It yields. Yet in the process it wears down the hardest rock. It occupies the lowest places. But then in wearing and occupying it also yangs. Everything both yins and yangs.

This is of utmost importance in the context of Daoism’s psychological prioritization of yin. The goal is a realization of balance, not the eradication of yang. The implication is that typically we are not in balance. We have become excessive yangers.

The root cause of this is that we have taken our selves as “full and real”. We wish to be ultimate Yang. Immortal. The alternative renders us a passing phenomenon. The core Zhuangzian experience of realizing that we “have not-yet-begun-to-exist”, of “just being empty”, is thus the yinning of our yang. We are exhorted to identify with Transformation instead of a concrete, static self.

But then no-self is not no self; that would be the eradication of yang. No-self is the self free from belief in a reified self. It is yang recontextualized in yin. It is the realization of balance.

The ultimate value here is simply to enjoy being the self that we are—to get the most out of the fleeting experience of our “temporary lodging”.

YIN AND YANG II

At the heart of the Daoist revolution is the embrace of yin. Yin is what lies beyond the ever-receding horizon of our understanding, our yanging. It is that which unavoidably contextualizes all we think and experience in Mystery. It is that which is always left out, no matter how grand our pronouncements about Reality. It is the not-God beyond God.

What is left out, Zhuangzi tells us, is the most important thing of all. This is the discovery of Daoism. It is only the most important thing because it is left out. It has no other value. Were it to have some other value, it would be yang. It is not something yet to be discovered—Dao, God, I AM, Brahman, true self, true purpose—but the emptiness of Mystery.

Yin is Mystery. And Mystery has no content.

The Laozi is often represented as the first extant locus of this radical philosophical pivot toward yin. This may or may not be the case, but Zhuangzi’s understanding may have been more radical still. This is a matter of interpretation; but the glorious first chapter of the Laozi seems to invite taking Non-Being as ultimate Yin in contrast to the Yang of Being. If this is the case, then this yin has been properly yanged. Yin (at this level) is the opposite of nothing—not even yang.

The embrace and prioritization of yin is not motivated by a belief that it is “higher”, “better”, or “more real”. It is because we are by nature all about yang. We tend to forget our embedding in yin. And this makes for psychological dissonance. And this diminishes our enjoyment of life.

And that, to my thinking, is Zhuangzian Daoism’s highest value, however parochial and prosaic that may seem.

YIN/YANG I

It took me a long time to warm up to yin and yang. The stench of religious belief and metaphysical hocus-pocus was just too strong. But I have clearly had a change of heart; though I have only really just taken them for my own purposes. And still I have not studied their uses in Chinese philosophy in any significant depth. I cannot, therefore, pretend to represent them in their traditional meanings or contexts. But that, of course, has never hindered my blabbering in other instances.

It might be good to begin by saying that there are no doubt lots of very helpful and insightful aspects to yin/yang philosophy even when embedded in the stinkiest of beliefs. And I have obviously profited from them.

Zhuangzi only explicitly speaks of yin and yang three times, and each time through the mouth of another and only in a reference to “internal yin and yang”, a principle in Chinese medical theory.

Some commentators have suggested that they are together one of the “six atmospheric breaths” (qi) upon which the sage chariots in her wandering. (1:8) For the purpose of establishing my point of departure, let’s assume that they are.

The sage wanders in non-dependence, and this renders all things and circumstances equal and interchangeable. If there were things or cosmic principles called yin and yang, the sage would have no need of them except as something upon which to “ride atop”. But she can do that with any- and everything. They are interchangeable. This is her freedom.

The existence or non-existence of a metaphysical yin and yang is therefore absolutely moot. Just as the existence of metaphysical Dao or qi (ch’i) is moot.

In my usage, therefore, yin and yang are terms descriptive of psychological orientations. They are no more “real” than any other dialectic—they “exist” only as descriptive of a relationship between things.

There is value, however, in making reference to a hypothetical yin and yang as cosmic principles, just as there is in referencing metaphysical Dao. Dao is the big Question Mark—not the big Answer. This is its value. So too with yin and yang—they are useful concepts by which to interpret the world, but only as long as we do not render them substantively “real”.

Now, after all this yanging I’m ready for some yinning.

HAVING A GOOD LAUGH IV

Tiny birds laugh derisively at the flight of the mighty Peng. Their laughter evinces their egoic closed-mindedness. Their narrow experience is the measure of all things. Song Xing laughs at those who, like the birds, commit to their petty accomplishments as sufficient to make them “someone”. He is “better” than they. (1:7)

The sage laughs joyously in the freedom of play. Her laughter is celebratory. She “takes part everywhere as the springtime of each being”. (5:16) Her laughter is an affirming appreciation of every expression.

A Zennist who has just experienced satori declares: All that’s left is to have a good laugh. How so? Previously, all was so serious; there was a self to be saved. Now, all is well and is seen to have always been so.

But why laugh? Laughter turns on incongruity; all these messes, this Great Mess, are recontextualized in an experience of unconditional Wellness. This laughter evinces transcendence.

But transcendence is not negation. The messes remain. Indeed, without them there would be no transcendence, nor occasion for laughter.

We have before us a picture of a bloodied child, irredeemably traumatized by war. Shall we laugh? Can we laugh still? We cannot laugh at this, but we still laugh, do we not? Or do we descend into an abyss of anguished despair? What is it then that allows us to live on—to laugh with our own children, to enjoy the bitter-sweet of life?

Some may be scandalized by a declaration of universal Wellness—but they live it just the same. Life itself is hopefulness and trust. Hope dawns eternal because life itself is irredeemably celebratory.

HAVING A GOOD LAUGH III

As already suggested, an ironic statement requires thoughtful engagement in order to be understood. Yet, when understood, there is no sure form that that understanding will take. It is a subjective truth.

This, of course, is an example of wu-wei, non-being the change. It is pedagogical midwifery. The midwife does her part to be sure, but the real work is done by she who delivers, and that which she delivers is uniquely her own.

This reflects the Daoist position on the exercise of power generally. The ruler rules in such a way that when there are positive outcomes the people declare, “We did it ourselves.” (Laozi 17) She yins. Yet most rulers and teachers want to be in full control so as to be sure of the results and to be able to take credit for them. They yang.

Taken ironically, the Inner Chapters do not guarantee a single interpretation. “The guidelines within them are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones. Vague! Ambiguous! We have not got to the end of them yet.” (33; p 124)

The real parting of ways when interpreting Zhuangzi is found here. Are we to take it all literally, or do we understand it as only a vague pointing? Is it yang, or is it yin? Does it tell us the truth of things, or does it help us to find our own truth?

The ability to rest in this ambiguity and its consequently diverse “truths” is in itself part of the purpose of this Zhuangzian joke. It is Dao as the confluence of all daos and the ability to “go by the rightness of the present ‘this’.” (2:16)

“For him [the sage], each thing is just so, each thing is right, and so he enfolds them all within himself by affirming the rightness of each.” (2:41)

HAVING A GOOD LAUGH II

Zhuangzi’s humor is basically ironic. Ironic humor typically turns on the incongruity of a statement with perceived “facts”. It states the opposite of what we likely believe to be the case so as to make us actively reconsider and (probably) recommit to that belief, though now some ambiguity has entered the equation. We are required to engage in a process. This is often good for a chuckle.

Irony can take different forms.

On a sweltering day I can say, It’s hot. Or I can ask, Is it hot enough for you? This latter requires you to think about it and come to your own conclusion that yes, it’s hot as hell. When Zhuangzi poses the possibility of depending on nothing we are similarly required to engage in an imaginative exercise.

A classic example of an ironic situation is seen when an Athenian general consults the Oracle on the eve of battle, and asks about the outcome. “There will be a great victory,” is the reply. He thus confidently engages in battle only to discover that that victory belongs to the opposing general. He failed of a sense of irony—the ability to see the ambiguity inherent in all things and to avoid literalism.

Then there is the case of Socrates who was told that the Oracle had declared him the wisest man in the world. Since he knew he knew so little, he made it his mission to prove the Oracle wrong by questioning those who “knew” what he did not. The mission itself was ironic, of course, since he knew that not-knowing was the source of his wisdom. But his ironic questioning served to awaken others to their own not-knowing and to perhaps become a bit wiser thereby.

Zhuangzi brazenly declares the fantastic, the obviously fictional, and historical truth bent to his purposes to make us consider and engage with possibilities that lie beyond what can be said.

HAVING A GOOD LAUGH I

Though laughter might seem a rather superficial human activity, both psychology and (some) philosophies make much of it. The types of humor that give rise to laughter are many and we needn’t consider them all here, except by way of a fundamental contrast. Sardonic, sarcastic and other species of humor that deprecate others or oneself are not germane to the topic here.

Since our point of departure is the philosophy of Zhuangzi, it is his humor that inspires this treatment. Zhuangzi does not tell explicit jokes, and yet the entirety of his writing can be taken as just that—a kind of joke. This is not incidental, but intentional and integral to his message.

After sharing the fantastic story of an incredibly vast fish that transforms into a huge bird that ascends to forty thousand feet in order to fly to some distant Oblivion, he tells us that it can be found in a certain book that Ziporyn translates as “The Equalizing Jokebook”. (1:3) He tells us in a note (3) that it could also be “The Equalizing Harmony”. I prefer the former; but in either case it is probably itself a joke in that he likely made the name up. The fictional and fantastic is proved by referencing an authoritative source which is itself fictional. What are we to believe?

I take the entirety of the Inner Chapters as just that, an Equalizing Jokebook; and he may very well have wished us to make that connection.

So, what’s the joke? The joke is that something we might have taken very seriously is conveyed so unseriously that we are led to question whether it was ever all that serious after all. It all seems so tongue-in-cheek. Rather than coming away with definitive answers, we are cast into further doubt.

Still, there seems to be something serious being said here. But it is something that can best be seen only if we look peripherally—very much like objects in the dark are better seen when not looked at directly. The use of humor is thus a kind of “indirect method”—an indefinite, but suggestive pointing. It is a kind of “wordless instruction”.

HAVING A GOOD LAUGH I

Though laughter might seem a rather superficial human activity, both psychology and (some) philosophies make much of it. The types of humor that give rise to laughter are many and we needn’t consider them all here, except by way of a fundamental contrast. Sardonic, sarcastic and other species of humor that deprecate others or oneself are not germane to the topic here.

Since our point of departure is the philosophy of Zhuangzi, it is his humor that inspires this treatment. Zhuangzi does not tell explicit jokes, and yet the entirety of his writing can be taken as just that—a kind of joke. This is not incidental, but intentional and integral to his message.

After sharing the fantastic story of an incredibly vast fish that transforms into a huge bird that ascends to forty thousand feet in order to fly to some distant Oblivion, he tells us that it can be found in a certain book that Ziporyn translates as “The Equalizing Jokebook”. (1:3) He tells us in a note (3) that it could also be “The Equalizing Harmony”. I prefer the former; but in either case it is probably itself a joke in that he likely made the name up. The fictional and fantastic is proved by referencing an authoritative source which is itself fictional. What are we to believe?

I take the entirety of the Inner Chapters as just that, an Equalizing Jokebook; and he may very well have wished us to make that connection.

So, what’s the joke? The joke is that something we might have taken very seriously is conveyed so unseriously that we are led to question whether it was ever all that serious after all. It all seems so tongue-in-cheek. Rather than coming away with definitive answers, we are cast into further doubt.

Still, there seems to be something serious being said here. But it is something that can best be seen only if we look peripherally—very much like objects in the dark are better seen when not looked at directly. The use of humor is thus a kind of “indirect method”—an indefinite, but suggestive pointing. It is a kind of “wordless instruction”.

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN VI

I have suggested that the realization of one’s “victimhood” vis-à-vis the ability to realize Zhuangzian soaring can itself be an occasion for soaring. It could not be otherwise where soaring implies depending on nothing in particular—not even soaring.

This also implies the value of soaring. And that implies a perceived need. And that is a kind of dependence. We are caught in a conundrum of our own making. What are we to do? Live the mess and its contradictions, is the best I can figure.

As presented here, this soaring is an optional activity—it is something that we choose to do. There is also a sense in which we can do nothing but. Guo Xiang made much of this. Commenting on the contrast between the vastness of the mighty bird Peng and the tiny birds that scoff at him (1:6), he writes:

“Though some are larger and some are smaller, every being without exception is released into the range of its own spontaneous attainments, so that each being relies on its own innate character, each deed exactly matching its own capabilities. Since each fits perfectly into precisely the position it occupies, all are equally far-reaching and unfettered [descriptive adjectives of Zhuangzi’s soaring].” (p 129)

This likely inspired my mantra: I am perfect by virtue of my being perfectly who I am. It is the “all is well” that pertains to every individual thing just as it is. Soaring, in this case, is simply being who we are—victimized or not. We all soar.

Self-awareness is the condition for both our enjoyment and our angst. Though most all “spiritual” projects are ultimately an attempt to eradicate the latter so as to enhance the former, it is unclear (to me, at least) whether this is even possible. And yet, this very existential turmoil is the occasion for our soaring. To be human is to soar.

“Its name is the Tranquility of Turmoil. This Tranquil Turmoil! It is what reaches completion only through its turmoil.” (6:38) Thus does a fictional sage describe Dao—how could we be any different?

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN V

We are often told by advocates of New Age philosophies that it’s our “birthright” to realize whatever “spiritual” enlightenment they imagine. This usually comes with promises of discovering our “true nature” and “true purpose”. Even were we to believe in such essentially religious concepts, the idea of being a “victim of Nature” puts the nix on the assertion of any “birthright”. It tells us that this is equivalent to declaring that we can all be virtuoso violinists—even though some of us might have been born armless.

Does any of this really matter? From the point of view of Zhuangzian Daoism it ultimately does not. No purposive trajectory is believed to be written in the heavens. No salvation is required for individual things or for the Cosmos. All resolves to wellness—where wellness is whatever it resolves to. No change is necessary where change is all there is. Whatever we do or believe is of no eternal consequence.

Is this position also essentially religious? It can be; but it need not be if we can remember that it is only an imaginative interpretation of the world where some such interpretation is unavoidable.

Still, does any of this at least matter practically? I usually make the case that it does—an armless aspirant to violin virtuosity is less likely to be at peace with the givens of her or his existence. In the end, however, this can only be an individual and subjective determination. Where it’s all messy in any case, there’s little room for judging between messes.

In terms of universal applicability, the bottom seems to have dropped out of this present project. Indeed, its only relevance is to my own mess.