I WANT TO BE A SAGE XI

Zhuangzi concludes his case for non-dependence with his most definitive statement on the nature of a sage: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).


This is apparently what I want to be when I grow up; but I gave up on that project long ago. But wait, maybe there’s a distant similarity between the two. Admittedly, most “giving up” remains squarely in the realm of “failure” (though little more so than “not giving up”). But isn’t there a Zen guy who was “enlightened” at just such a moment? Indeed, isn’t some kind of “giving up” a necessary precursor to satori?


Let’s move on to some de-mythologizing of this sentence. None of these three subjects require capitalization. Such non-grammatically required capitalization typically suggests the unique weightiness of something. A dao is just another dao; Dao is “the” Dao—the big one. (There is neither capitalization nor a definite article “the” in the original.) So let’s return them to the lower case, and let the sage be what the sentence says she is: no one special.


But Ziporyn has a real sense of the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy that often makes for some very subtle (and sometimes creative) renderings. Capitalization here can also so exalt the sage as to render her a hypothetical. Hyperbolic descriptions of the sage as remaining untouched by world conflagration similarly seem to beg an act of ridiculous credulity, but can also be an occasion to break the fetters of credulity altogether. (There’s method in this madness.) Zhuangzi’s Dao is also a hypothetical; it seems necessary, but cannot be found; it is the ever-receding incoherence that frames every attempt at coherence. It is always present as an absence, a lack. Yet without it, nothing has presence—nothing is “seen” without a background—nothing is anything without its not being something else. So, we can leave the sage a Sage, a big idea that functions as an insubstantial metaphorical lure—not a fixed, attainable reality—not something to believe in.


Let’s also recognize that these three titles identify only one “person”. Only the hyper-literal pedanticist would want to parse it otherwise. But he does us the favor of alerting us to more subtle expressions of literalism. Perfect (Consummate) person? Spirit Man? Like the one on Mt Guye who subsists on only wind and dew and flies on the backs of dragons? The Sage is the same as these, which is to say she is both a hypothetical no one in her experience, and really no one is reality. We will not find her; nor should we think we can be her, any more than we should think we can find “the Dao”.

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