I WANT TO BE A SAGE IX

Having suggested three increasingly subtle levels of dependence, Zhuangzi next asks how it would be to depend on nothing. Why, wouldn’t we be able to soar upon every possible circumstance? An insult would mean nothing; “failure” wouldn’t affect our inner peace any more than would “success”; the exercise of spiritual power might happen, but would have nothing to do with our sense of worth, “spiritual” or otherwise.


He poses this as a hypothetical. He only invites us to imagine such a possibility. If we were to take it as a fixed goal to be attained, wouldn’t that just set the stage for more dependence? If I wanted to be a sage, I’d want to be other than I am; I’d be dependent on certain outcomes; I’d judge myself according to predetermined expectations. I’d still be on the treadmill.


Here I must (again) repeat myself. There is a dialectic here that is very difficult to describe. It’s a perpetual self-effacement that effaces nothing. We aspire to sagacity while not-aspiring to sagacity, while aspiring to sagacity . . . This is an infinite regress of willing and not-willing, wanting and not wanting—affirming and negating. Isn’t this really just a reflection of the life-experience itself? Hope dawns eternal—life is a ceaseless series of disappointments and renewals of hope, because life is a perpetual élan. Life is becoming. Being is becoming. Becoming what? Nothing in particular; just becoming. Pure becoming has no fixed point of departure and no known end. “True-self” has no home here, except as its own self-effacement.


Why then do Zhuangzi’s most immediate interpreters begin speaking of a “true-self” and an “innate nature”? Because we want to be someone, to be substantive, and realizing ourselves as nobody is the last thing we want to do.


Zhuangzian non-dependence, it needs to be said, has nothing to do with independence. Quite to the contrary; it is because we are utterly dependent in every way that we can realize a psychological non-dependence through identification with the Great Becoming. All is transformation; in identifying with Transformation, what transformations can affect us? In identifying with Change, what changes can disturb us? No-one has nothing to lose.

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