The desire to “be someone” motivates pretty much everything we do in terms of our interface with ourselves and the world. This is what makes the concept of emptiness so incredibly difficult to envision and to realize. Yet emptiness is not intended as a negation—what’s there to negate? If there were a real “fixed-self” (or a “true self”, for that matter) then we would do better to affirm and be it. Our actual experience, however, indicates otherwise. We are perpetually trying to be someone because at our deepest core we experience ourselves as a no one. Emptiness then is an affirmation of who we “are”, not its negation. There is no evil self to eradicate.

None of this futile, self-reifying project would matter all that much except in that it tends to diminish our own enjoyment of life and to impinge upon that of others. No cosmic consequences obtain. Neither we nor the cosmos require saving. Humpty Dumpty (hundun, primordial chaos) does not yearn to be put back together again, however messy we think it to be. The pursuit of our individual and collective flourishing need not be a religious project.

Because we are nearly always motivated by a desire to be someone in our interface with ourselves and others does not mean that what we do is to be negated. Our motivations can cast a shadow on our actions, but the actions themselves can remain affirmable. Saving Mencius’ child about to fall into a well remains commendable whether it is accomplished so as to be seen as “good”, or as a natural expression of empathy, as Mencius would have it. It is likely to be both.

Wanting to be a sage is likely to be overshadowed by motivations that are themselves a negation of sagacity, but the pursuit of sagacity remains a worthy project nonetheless. Yet, here we have the paradox common to all such endeavors: one cannot become a sage while wanting to be a sage; one does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha; one cannot be happy through the pursuit of happiness. What then are we to do? The best we can do is to be human—to live and work within the contingencies of our inherently messy experience. In this is the possibility of proximally realizing what is likely only an unobtainable ideal. Living that is sagacious freedom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *