My Spin on Zhuangzi

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You are invited to read the ruminations on the philosophy of Zhuangzi posted here and to offer your own observations on them and that philosophy generally.

I have published a second book (THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi) which is a compilation of posts which have appeared here. It can be found at:

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THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS

My adaptation of Zhuangzi can be found at Booklocker.com by tapping the image to the left or at Amazon:

ALL IS WELL IN THE GREAT MESS

 

Scott

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS V

Scott:  So our so-called hedonism does not lead us to evil-doing, but quite the contrary, it leads us to a greater fulfilment of the concerns of morality than does morality itself.

Zhuangzi:  Correct. And why are we “hedonists’?

Scott:  We are hedonists because we take the enjoyment of life as the greatest good. And we follow that because that is what life itself is. Life is self-flourishing. And so we harmonize with how life manifests in us. We pursue our own self-flourishing.

Zz:  Right. And we “pursue” it, and are not simply spontaneously it, because we are by Nature warped. Self-consciousness and the dualism it creates is an apparent anomaly in the world, and this requires us to make conscious choices.

Scott:  So the sage is merely a hypothetical?  And complete spontaneity is likewise hypothetical?

Zz:  They are for you, are they not?

Scott:  They are.

Zz:  Well then; that’s what they are.

Scott:  Then oneness is also only a hypothetical? But I know that. It’s only a chosen interpretation of the world where some interpretation is necessary even if it must remain hypothetical. And we choose this one because we discover it enhances our enjoyment of life.

Zz:  Yes. And what’s interesting is that we can experience it—at least in approximation. But if it is only a hypothetical, then experiencing it is not confirming it as factually true, but simply tweaking our own self-experience.

Scott:  It’s cool that we can do that. But then I guess that’s what we must always do. What we take as a “normal” self-experience is really only the one that we have decided on as a species. Taking ourselves as “full and real” is our default tweak. Believing that we are absolutely different than all other things and not in oneness with them is nothing but a similar tweaking of our self-experience.

Zz: And since that leads to fear and alienation, why not try a different tweak? It’s all made-up; so why not make up the most enjoyable interpretive tweak?

Scott:  The self-experience is really essentially malleable. We only experience it as fixed and rigid because there are millennia of our having done so as a species. So a revolution in consciousness—something that many see as the only hope for our future flourishing as a species—is actually feasible, though given the extent of our present rigidity, unlikely.

Zz:  Yes. I share your pessimism. I hope for the best, and my work was an attempt to further it, but in the end it might be hoping too much. That’s what’s so great about being free of all conditional hope. The experience of oneness gives us an unconditional hope. All is well!

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS IV

Zhuangzi:  People worry that an experience of oneness undermines our sense right and wrong—and we can’t be trusted to do the “right” thing without that sense dictating to us how to behave.

Scott:  There’s an infamous murderous and insane cult leader, Charles Manson, who is reported to have declared, “If all is One, what is evil?” But wouldn’t it be foolish to believe he did evil because he believed that dictum or had had an experience of oneness? Every cognitive justification for an act deemed good or evil is after the fact; it is not the cause of our behavior. Our actions arise from something much deeper than what we say we “believe”.

Zz:  But he was right; “if all is One”, there is nothing evil. The view from Dao transcends such discriminating concerns, which is why I say that the sage does not allow the natural human inclination of distinguishing between right and wrong to rule her; that’s what keeps right and wrong from entering her Numinous Reservoir and destroying her inner harmony. And that’s what allows her to affirm the “rightness” of all things.

Scott:  But that doesn’t mean that within the human sphere there isn’t good an evil. It’s just that we understand that it only exists within that sphere. We are informed by a higher view that relativizes our concern for such things and frees us from being ruled by them.

Zz:  There’s a great passage in “Autumn Floods” that addresses this: The person who says, “Why don’t we make only rightness our master and eliminate wrongness, make only order our master and eliminate chaos?”—that person has yet to understand how right and wrong are inextricably all mixed up and cannot be so clearly divided. The author tells us that that would be like taking yin as our master and eliminating yang—an obvious impossibility.

Scott:  And the irony is that in trying to make only right our master, we in fact make wrong our master. We know what is right by knowing what is wrong. Doing the right becomes an avoidance of the wrong. “Embrace the right, and the wrong shall rule.”

Zz:  Exactly. And that is where spontaneity comes in. Isn’t true goodness that which we do without the mediation of right and wrong? The sage does what is “right”, not because she thinks it right, but because that’s who she is.

Scott:  In the final analysis, morality is for the immoral, which is why within the human sphere we must make use of it. Xunzi is right: Humans are by Nature warped. And that fundamental warpedness—our ability to act outside of instinct—leads to all manner of chosen warpedness.

Zz: Yet even that is to be human and is thus affirmable—from the point of view of Dao, the view from Oneness.

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS III

Scott:  So we can recommend an experience of oneness because it makes for greater happiness. We are hedonists.

Zhuangzi:  We are! Why do people find that so . . . “wrong”!?

Scott:  Because they do not trust themselves. Or more likely, they do not trust others. They can pursue their own happiness without falling into a pernicious antinomian oneness, but others cannot be trusted to do so. Right and wrong must therefore trump the pursuit of happiness, lest the others run amok in licentiousness.

Zz:  “Pernicious antinomian oneness”—that’s a new one!

Scott:  A certain Zen “master” was explaining oneness and felt it necessary to assure us that it wasn’t a “pernicious oneness”. Somehow that struck me as so not-a-good-word that it was a sort of epiphany for me. I now ironically fantasize on starting the Church of Pernicious Oneness. Our motto is “By nature warped!” Thank you Xunzi!

Zz:  “Not-a-good-word”—can you explain that?

Scott:  In Zen a “good word” is a word or action that signifies understanding of the un-understandable. In one Zen story a master threatens to kill the cat the possession of which is the object of a dispute between his disciples—if someone cannot say a good word. They all remain silent, and the cat dies. Another disciple who was not present, upon hearing the story from the master, puts his sandals on his head and walks away. “You would have saved the cat!” the master shouts after him. Or do you know the story of Two Words Too Many?

Zz:  I’ve probably heard it, but let’s hear it again.

Scott:  A bunch of Zen masters meet in an inn for a blabber session. But the master thought to be the most enlightened—whatever that means—does not come out of his room to join the word-fest. One master complains, “At least he could give us one word.” Upon hearing this, the most-realized master says, “That would be one word too many.” But the cook, overhearing this, says, “Now there are two rat turds in the rice!” Who said a good word here? Who “got” it?

Zz:  Seems to me there are three turds in the rice. No word is a good word; but words are necessary. That’s my good word. So, you felt that qualifying oneness by reference to right and wrong the master betrayed the experience of oneness. I agree.

Scott: Similarly, to worry about right and wrong when we declare happiness as the greatest good and as the fruit of an experience of oneness is to betray a lack of understanding of oneness.

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS II

Zhuangzi:  Yes, there are many ways into an experience of oneness. Even Huizi in his deconstruction of language had his moment, though he didn’t wish to pursue it further. But when it’s all said and done, it’s not that big of a deal, in any case. He lived, he died. His enjoyment of life was pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Nothing was gained. Nothing was lost.

Scott:  That’s the view from the top of the mountain. Somehow the so-called ultimate experience always self-effaces and returns you to the most mundane. I always think of the supposed words of Gautama in this regard: “I gained absolutely nothing from supreme, unsurpassable enlightenment; that’s why it is called supreme, unsurpassable enlightenment.” There is no gap between what we are and the realization of what we are. There’s nothing to become, because we are already unavoidably it in our becoming.

Zz:  That touches on your mantra: “I’m perfect by virtue of my being perfectly who I am, as I am.”

Scott:  Nothing to do; nothing to become; no conditions to meet. It’s already true of me and everyone and everything else. It’s the Great Happening. We feel like we have to “go” somewhere; become something different; realize oneness. But not-realizing oneness is the same as realizing it. It’s always the case. It’s all completely embraced. It’s all good. All is well in the Great Mess.

Zz: Is it? Or do we only imagine it as so?

Scott:  We only imagine it as so. There’s no other choice but to imagine some interpretation of reality or another. But the experience is real enough—whether “true” or not. Every experience lies outside of truth or untruth.

Zz:  And the fantastic experience of a madman is as affirmable as any other experience?

Scott:  It is. Nothing is not the Great Happening. But madmen don’t seem to enjoy life as much as “sane” people. They have settled on an imagined reality that is usually terribly painful. Neither their own flourishing nor that of others is enhanced by their interpretation of the world. And that, from the human point of view, is the highest value—being happy and enhancing the happiness of others. Madness is thus not a particularly appealing imagined reality.

Zz:  And realizing a sense of oneness is an experience conducive to our self- and collective-flourishing. That’s its only value. It’s not realizing the Truth. The great riddle is not solved. Reality is not made whole once again. God doesn’t awaken from his dream.  No hocus-pocus metaphysics are implied. It’s just choosing to experience the world in a certain way.

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS I

Scott:  Hi again! No friend this time?

Zhuangzi:  Hi. No. You’ll be in fundamental disagreement with most anyone I bring, and I thought you might be in need of a break from your lessons in “following along with the present this”.

Scott: I am; it’s true. But Xunzi was a pretty big challenge, you’ll have to admit. Huizi was easier.

Zz: Yes, he was. But then we and he are on the same page when it comes to skepticism regarding our ability to know the truth. Still, the greater the challenge, the better the lesson.

Scott:  I suppose so. But, yes, I could use a breather. And anyway there’s something I want to share with you—something that came up during our discussion with Xunzi. It’s an experience, really.

Zz:  Great! I could use a break from pure blabber—though I suppose you’ll have to blabber to share it.

Scott: I will. But I don’t think the blabber can really say it. It was an experience of oneness. It comes from realizing human nature as Nature, not just in an abstract, cognitive sense, but experientially. It’s simple really.

Zz: Of course it is. I really enjoy all this philosophizing and word-play, but the truth is that it must always miss the mark. It can never be what it is intended to covey—experience. And though you can’t talk your way into experience, you can set the stage for a leap. So, tell me more.

Scott:  Everything I am and do is the happening of Nature. That’s what my “the Great Happening” is intended to convey. Every happening, including all my happenings—whatever and however they are—imagined or real, freely chosen or determined, “good” or “bad”—all of them are the happening of the Great Happening. It’s just another way of describing your “the same as the Transforming Openness”.

Zz: “There are many paths to the mountain top, but the view is always the same.”

Scott:  Where’d that come from?

Zz:  The crime novel you’re reading at the moment.

Scott:  Oh. Well, it still says a lot. I get that sense in your writing; there’s lots of ways to imaginatively enter a sense of oneness.

BY NATURE WARPED VII

Scott:  So, when we understand human nature as morally neutral, neither good nor evil, but just like Nature itself, affirmable just as it is without moral discrimination, then we don’t have to come up with some ethical principle by which to justify a move toward pan-inclusiveness. It’s only a practical consideration—it’s harmonious with our natural élan, our desire for self-flourishing.

Zhuangzi:  Correct. And that, quite simply, is the view from Dao—taking human nature as Nature.

Scott:  Taking human nature as Nature moves us beyond our addiction to right and wrong, beyond our propensity to see ourselves as transcendent of Nature, and that enables a sense of release into oneness with all things.

Zz:  We are able to see ourselves as both somehow transcendent of Nature and as one with Nature. The view from Dao is really just acknowledging what it is to be human. We typically only see ourselves as transcendent of Nature because we fear to participate in an apparently ceaseless transformation that has no respect for the preservation of identity. Truly realizing one’s unity with Nature requires releasing one’s grip on an imagined fixed-identity taken as transcendent of Nature.

Scott:  And that propensity to take ourselves as “fixed, full and real” is part of our warpedness.

Zz:  True. Human self-consciousness and its consequences would seem to be an anomaly. But then that’s also the warpedness of Nature. If humanity is by Nature warped, then Nature is also warped. But Nature is only warped from the human point of view. From the point of view of Dao, there is no warpedness.

Scott:  I call it the Great Mess because from the human point of view Nature seems warped—it’s not as we would like it to be. To say that All is Well, on the other hand, is to thankfully release into Nature just as it seems to be.

Zz:  And that’s the pan-inclusiveness, the cosmo-centrism, that we have been suggesting is a natural possibility for human consciousness. It doesn’t have to happen, but it can happen; and we discover that—even in its merely incremental happening—it makes life more fun.

Scott:  What could be better than that!? And that’s a great place to stop—my mind needs a rest.

Zz:  Ah, yes; sometimes I forget that you still apparently exist. Bye!

BY NATURE WARPED VI

Xunzi:  There seems to be little reason to continue this discussion; we must simply agree to disagree, as Scott has said. So I think I’ll excuse myself and leave you two to your mutual agreement. Thank you, Scott, for your hospitality. I will now bid you both goodbye.

Scott:  Goodbye! Now I feel bad; I didn’t even offer him something to drink. At least that might have made the roast a bit more jovial.

Zhuangzi:  No need to feel bad; he’s a teetotaler in any case. But it always ends this way with Xun and those like him who know the truth. I, on the other hand, am no teetotaler!

Scott:  Coming right up! But I’m also feeling bad because it feels a bit like we also acted as though we knew the truth.

Zz:  I understand what you mean—we know the truth that there is no truth. And there’s no way around that except by way of the self-effacement of that truth. We don’t know. That’s how we can affirm Xun in his opinions even while holding to own contrary opinions—we must hold them lightly, open-handedly.

Scott:  That’s not easy to do.

Zz:  It’s not something we can do—it’s something we can only be.

Scott:  And how do we become that? But I don’t want to go there now! What a can of worms all this thinking creates! What I do want to address is what this conversation with Xunzi was intended to accomplish—a better understanding of how we get from self-centrism to collective-centrism without appealing to some heavenly principle. We haven’t made much progress in that direction, have we?

Zz:  No. But we have laid some groundwork. First, having taken human nature as morally neutral, we understand that moving from self-centrism to collective-centrism is not a moral issue. It’s not the “right” thing to do. That robs it of it’s being a moral imperative—something that has to be justified—and then imposed on humanity. Secondly, we observe that this is something than humans naturally do—part of the tangle of good and evil. We coalesce into ever more inclusive groupings. Why?

Scott:  Because it’s our nature to do so. And we also discover that that collective-centrism nourishes our self-centrism. They are not in opposition but are mutually supporting. But since this is the case, why are we discussing this movement as if it needed to be made into a project?

Zz:  Because they are also taken as in opposition. Self-centrism expands into a collective-centrism, but it also always stops at some exclusionary level. The I-other simply becomes a we-them. We unite as a family, clan, tribe, nation, race, species, animate beings—but there always remains some other. Something to exclude, something that threatens, something to disvalue and exploit.

Scott:  And the Daoist vision is to not stop, but to become pan-inclusive. And that ultimately opens into an openness where there is no longer any other at all.

Zz:  And that brings a great panoply of positive benefits, psychological and practical.

Scott:  Less fear. More pleasure and awe—“participating everywhere in the springtime of each being”. What fun! More tolerance. And a care and respect for all things, including the environment, which, in our species-centrism, we have threatened to the extent that our own flourishing is now at risk.

BY NATURE WARPED V

Zhuangzi: I’m glad I mentioned Mencius; he might help us out of this argument—or at least shift it to a less contentious level. Xun says that human nature is evil; Mencius says it’s inherently good; and Scott, I think, is going to disagree with you both, even though you have said he agrees with Mencius. Scott?

Scott:  I am. Human nature is neither good nor evil, but simply what Nature has wrought. As such, it is Nature; and Nature is beyond good and evil. Once again, we do not call the lion evil because it kills and eats the gazelle. We might be tempted to do so, because we empathize with the gazelle, but we suspend our normal moral discrimination in this regard.

Zz:  There is good and evil in humanity—lots of both, but that judgment is a purely human judgment, and all “Daoism” wishes to do is to let that be informed by the view from Dao—or Nature, if you prefer. It’s simply letting everything “bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”.

Xunzi:  As I have said, you know a great deal about Heaven, but very little about humanity. What good is all this “basking in Heaven” when it comes to actually governing humanity in its waywardness?

Zz:  Well, for one thing, it might make you less eager to apply the five punishments and to . . .

Scott:  Remind me what the five punishments are?

Zz:  Tattooing, cutting off noses, feet and balls, and death. If we understand that our opinions on what is good and what is evil are not cast in stone, and that good and evil are always all tangled up with each other, so that every act, whether good or evil, has a myriad of causes and reasons that we cannot fathom, then we will be less inclined to punish others as if we had some kind of divine wisdom. And, as I was about to say, we would be less inclined to punish and suppress those who disagree with our dao, but rather, would see value in a diversity of daos.

Xunzi:  A diversity of daos just leads to chaos. There is only one road, one true Dao of the ancients, and only a fool tries to walk two roads at once.

Scott: We have once again reached an impasse—but Zhuangzi and I are obliged to “foolishly” walk both the road of allowing the “rightness” of your opinion and the road of our own opinions. But I would like to also make the point that all that Daoism “knows” of Heaven is that it knows nothing of Heaven. And it is that that informs our dealings with others. You, on the other hand, know the one true Dao, and that, being an absolute, is equivalent to saying you know Heaven.

Zz: Knowing beyond all doubt what is good and what is evil is one of the greatest sources of evil to be found in the world.

BY NATURE WARPED IV

Zhuangzi:  We’re ganging up on Xun, which hardly seems fair. Why don’t we rather consider how we are the same and leave our differences behind us?

Xunzi:  Given the radical differences between our positions, that may not be easy, but I’m willing to give it a try.

Zz:  Apart from the practical education of Scott—opening him up into “greater openness and unfixedness”—I invited you along because your take on human nature might help us to answer the problem we encountered in trying to move naturally from our self-centrism to collective- and cosmo-centrism.

Xunzi:  It is because I take our self-centeredness as an intrinsic part of human nature that I say it is evil. Humans are by nature self-seeking and avaricious.

Scott:  If we assume that human nature is natural, then there is no disjunction between that nature and Nature. Do you agree?

Xunzi:  No, I do not. Human beings are evil precisely because they have turned against Nature. Only by the guidance of the enlightened gentleman are they able to once again be brought into harmony with Nature.

Scott:  By what power are humans able to act outside of Nature? And by what power is the gentleman able to transcend the evil of his own nature?

Xunzi:  By the power of choice.

Scott:  And did not Nature endow us with that power?

Zz:  From the human point of view, the power of moral choice is humanity as transcendent of Nature. But from the point of view of Dao—let’s call it Nature to avoid debate on what is Dao—from the point of view of Nature, absolutely nothing escapes its power. When we say Nature, we mean absolutely everything conceivable. We are required, then, to hold these two apparently contradictory points of view simultaneously.

Scott:  Agreed. Xunzi?

Xunzi:  Disagreed. Nature is good; humanity has taken the straight and true and warped it, and is thus evil and outside of Nature.

Scott:  Okay. I think we need to agree to disagree on this point. But can you tell me more about the enlightened gentleman—presumably an intrinsically warped human being like you and I—by what power then does he transcend his evil?

Xunzi:  By the power of his instruction in the Dao of the Sage-Kings.

Scott:  But why did he pursue it if naturally warped? And how did the sage-kings acquire their goodness if that Dao had yet to be formulated? Were they not mere mortals like you and I?

Xunzi:  We cannot understand every mystery until we too are enlightened gentlemen.

Scott: You are not an enlightened gentleman? Then you too are presumably warped. How can a warped individual know what is good and what is evil and know which Dao can rectify our evil condition?

Zz:  To think I also considered bringing Mencius along! If words are like wind on water, we’d be swamped and sinking by now!

Xunzi:  What need for Mencius!?  Scott has thoroughly adopted his position! “Human nature is good.”

BY NATURE WARPED III

Xunzi:  By “our pitiful moral addiction” I assume you mean my own desire to see human society well-ordered and harmonious?

Zhuangzi:  Not at all. As I said, the desire for self- and collective-flourishing is entirely natural. It’s not your desire for that, but your equation of chaos and disharmony with evil that’s problematical. That leads you to extremes of exclusion and excessively coercive solutions to human failings.

Scott:  And what is the “good” that opposes your designated evil, and where does it come from?

Xunzi:  The perfected sage-kings of old created the paths of ritual, music and righteousness, and the empire was in complete harmony. That’s the good that we must teach the people if we want that harmony to rule once again. And those who do not follow it, but bring disharmony and chaos to the empire, must be dealt with severely and without mercy.

Zz:  I rest my case.

Scott:  Forgive me, but as someone completely foreign to your culture and time, this appeal to mythological sage-kings and their golden age strikes me as pure fantasy. You have no historical proof of their existence or of the nature of their rule. It’s a castle built of sand—below the tideline. It’s really no different than the various fundamentalist moralities that seek to dominate us all in my own times.

Xunzi:  It is not fantasy; it has been faithfully recorded in the Odes, Documents and the Spring and Autumn Annuls. By them we can learn the ways of the sage-kings.

Scott:  Just as in my own times the Torah, New Testament, and Quran are each one taken as the embodiments of unquestionable truth, though each one contradicts the others, and are themselves interpreted in numerous mutually contradictory ways.

Xunzi:  I cannot speak for your culture and times, but only for my own; and this Dao of the Sage-Kings was the right and proper one for the Chinese people of my time.

Zz:  Then your good and evil are not universal, but culturally relative. That’s a great improvement! But unless we understand that, even as we apply it, it still leads to narrow-mindedness and totalitarianism.

Xunzi:  It is harmony and order that is the good, and disharmony and chaos that is evil—that is the universal good. Different times and cultures call for different means for the realization of the good.

Scott:  There is both harmony and disharmony and order and chaos in absolutely everything. Without the one there cannot be the other. Understanding this breaks the fetters of our addiction to a fixed morality and enables us to open into openness and unfixedness. We can then embrace and affirm all things as they are even as we work to further the self-flourishing of them all.