I WANT TO BE A SAGE VIII

This series is supposed to be overtly about me, yet in having fallen into the familiar groove of Zhuangzi’s analysis of dependence, it has sometimes become only covertly so. I somewhat ashamedly suggested early on, however, that this must of necessity be about me whether acknowledged or not. Such is the nature of being human. Even the astrophysicist in the spin of her theories is speaking about herself. Pure objectivity is a myth. This, in any case, is what Zhuangzi suggests when he says that every point of view is indeed from a specific point, and that there are as many points as there are people viewing from them.


Kierkegaard suggested that “truth is subjectivity” which I take to mean that, despite the admittedly objective side of a statement of the truth of things, it necessarily requires a subjective commitment to it. It is not truth until someone says it is. (“Things are ‘so’ because someone says they are ‘so’”, as Zhuangzi puts it.) One must cast one’s lot into the truthfulness of a truth. But this “leap” is not entirely logically justifiable—in the end, nothing is entirely “provable”. Kierkegaard was most concerned with Christianity, of course. In his native Denmark (part of “Christendom”) everyone was a “Christian”; when everyone is a Christian, he averred, no one is a Christian. Being a Christian involves a personal existential leap of faith into the absurdity of taking something as absolutely True—not being part of a herd. It’s not God becoming a man (an idea) that is so absurd as to require a leap, but that that guy over there shitting behind a bush is that man (a fact).


Zhuangzi, I would suggest, also understands that truth is subjectivity, but directs his leap in an altogether different and, I think, more authentic direction. He leaps into the human life-experience itself which, from the point of view of reason, is an absurdity. Ziporyn’s rendering of Zhuangzi puts it succinctly: “Thus, the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map”. The sage leaps into the “illuminated obvious” of the human experience and lives and wanders in unknowing and uncertainty. She embraces her natural adriftedness and playfully drifts without leaping into any particular absurdity at all.


Life is only absurd to the rationalist, of course—it doesn’t make sense. This is ironic in that it is often the supposedly non-rationalist existentialists who call life absurd—it doesn’t meet their rational expectations. Life is not an absurdity, but a surd—it does not resolve to logic. Zhuangzi suggests that we live life as it is, not as we would prefer it to be.

I WANT TO BE A SAGE VII

Zhuangzi suggests three increasingly subtle expressions of our ceaseless project of trying to be someone. This project is a consequence of the core emptiness that pulls the rug out from under our desire to be substantive and eternal. Since this is an entirely futile exercise and one that creates a pall of disharmony with ourselves, others, and the cosmos, he recommends that we rather harmonize with our actual experience. Everything is ceaselessly transforming; identify with that, and we need no longer cling to something we fear we can lose. Or don’t; it’s just a life-strategy, a dao, not “the Dao”.


What typically motivates this project of realizing one’s inherent emptiness? Taking ourselves as someone, we seek to be no one as a means to being someone. The so-called “spiritual” project becomes just another expression of the self-reifying project. This, I think, is what Zhuangzi intends to convey when he offers Liezi’s spiritual accomplishments as his final example of dependence. Liezi could fly on the wind. That’s quite an accomplishment; but, Zhuangzi tells us, this is still an expression of dependence.


Some Daoist roots likely extend deep into shamanism, and Liezi (if he existed) might very well have been more shamanist than “Daoist”. Shamanism offers an excellent example of a self-reifying form of “spirituality”. I do not mean to imply that it is more so than other forms—there are no spiritual pursuits that do not also have their self-reifying expressions—, but rather that some of its overt peculiarities make it easily identifiable as such. (What do I know of shamanism? I have only opinions.) Shamanism is very much about “spiritual” power. Castaneda’s Don Juan is a shaman. We are invited to be amazed at how much spiritual power he has—he can astral-project. Wow. Ask an aspiring shamanist about her shaman guru and she will tell you of his powers. You too can have such powers. You too can be someone special. None of this is meant to disparage shamanism, but simply to illustrate how Zhuangzi saw his project as something altogether different.


But Zhuangzian pursuit of non-dependent wandering can just as easily be a self-reifying project. The real question is whether it could possibly be anything else. It might be helpful to fall back on the Zennist conundrum: you can’t become a buddha by trying to be a buddha, yet you are obliged to keep trying until you somehow need try no more. We stand on the bank of our essential mess, and look across the uncrossable river in the belief that we can vaguely discern the other shore. This has remedial benefit to be sure. But we also need to remember that process is the most authentic goal, and that process is of necessity a messy business. If we can embrace the non-logical infinite regress of wandering in our inability to wander, or to wander in our inability to do even that . . . then we can perhaps make approximal “progress” and wander in the doing. Wandering depends on nothing, not even successfully wandering.

I WANT TO BE A SAGE VI

Dependence on the esteem of others and dependence on one’s self-esteem are expressions of the same desire to be someone, though moving from the former to the latter would be a commendable accomplishment. It’s likely, however, that where there is the one, there is the other. For the purposes of his argument, Zhuangzi assumes that, because Song Xing advocated for a self-esteem freed from a dependence on the esteem of others, he had actually realized it. We think it unlikely, just as we think it unlikely that any of these so-called masters actually realized the visions to which they aspired. This is more than just consistent with Zhuangzi’s philosophy; it is pivotal to it. Nothing is complete and final; nothing is fixed and sure. When something is taken as complete, something is left out; and that something necessarily becomes the most important thing of all. A belief in fully-realized sages and “masters” is the provenance of the religious-mind, a mind that requires (depends on) the fixed and sure.


When I say I want to be a sage it is largely a matter of wanting to see myself as such. I want to be a sage so I can feel good about myself. Though this also entails wishing to be seen as a sage by others, the chief motivation is self-esteem. Real self-esteem is likely more easily achieved by some than by others. Who of the two would more likely wish to depend on no esteem at all? Remedial projects are motivated by perceived need; though probably universally applicable, they need not be universally prescribed.


Zhuangzi makes his case for the virtues of realizing freedom from dependence on absolutely everything, and he does so through a phenomenological investigation of his own experience. Free of dependence, we would be free to wander in every circumstance. “Just release the mind to play . . .” He believes that this investigation of his own experience also illuminates the human condition generally. In this sense it is prescriptive. Yet, since he understands his dao to be just another dao, and because his dao sees Dao as the confluence of all daos, he is not dogmatically prescriptive. The contented self-esteemer (should there be such a one), or anyone else, for that matter, is fully affirmed as they are, and left to choose any dao they wish. People typically choose a measure of misery given the cost of freedom (no-self—being a nobody), and, frankly, the difficulties of actually realizing it. Who are we to fault them?

I WANT TO BE A SAGE V

After exposing the folly of pursuing the esteem of others, Zhuangzi considers the alternative of self-esteem. We are told that even the proto-Daoist Song Xing would laugh at someone who attempts to be someone through social-esteem. There’s lots of laughing going on here. The tiny dove laughs at the flight of the vast bird Peng—derisively. Song Xing laughs at the one who, like the dove, sees himself in comparison to others. One ancient commentator points out that Zhuangzi says “even Song Xing” because, though he had some insight into the folly of self-reifying at that level, he had yet to learn to laugh at himself for his need for even self-esteem. Ostensibly, Zhuangzi’s sage has realized the freedom to do just that.


Song Xing, we are told (by Zhuangzi and the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi), clearly recognized the difference between the inner and the outer. He understood focus on the latter, dependence on the esteem of others, as conducive of mediated and inauthentic living. Instead, he suggested we nurture the inner, our self-esteem. Song proclaimed that “to be insulted is not a disgrace”—it need not bother us. What a wonderful concept! What a powerful invitation to explore the root causes for our typical responses to insult. Why does it upset us? Shouldn’t we be so independently  self-esteeming that the opinions of others have no affect? This is about as far as self-help psychology can take us and is likely a helpful, remedial project, though Zhuangzi suggests we can take it yet further.


Ziporyn sees Zhuangzi as offering this as “a salutary first step”. It is a significant insight and worthy of consideration and practice. For this, I would suggest, is the kind of “practice” that Zhuangzi suggests—the hard work of understanding ourselves. Meditation might have a role to play, but it can easily simply feed the same egoic motivations that Zhuangzi suggests we uncover and illuminate so as to transcend them—laugh at them.


Know thyself. Let yourself be illuminated by the “obvious”. Yet, when the Emperor of China asked the first patriarch of Chan (Zen), Bodhidharma, who the hell did he think he was, he replied, I don’t know. Now that’s knowing oneself. Upon what exactly can we pin our esteem?

I WANT TO BE A SAGE IV

The desire to be seen as a sage is the desire to be esteemed by others. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves back on the track of Zhuangzi’s brief but potent examination of forms of dependence from the coarsest to the most subtle. He concludes by telling us that the sage has no-self, which we take to mean that she has experientially understood the emptiness of the self-experience and is thus free from the need to “be someone”. This uncovering of levels of motivational dependence (of which he provides three) invites us to discover them in ourselves so as to realize some degree of freedom from them.


He begins with a critique of someone who takes political (social) status as somehow capable of bringing fulfillment to one’s life. This is likely an allusion to his sparring buddy Huizi who did in fact manage to become a political someone in one of the warring states. This political person is also likened to the tiny dove who scoffs at the incredible flight of the vast bird Peng, which is again likely an allusion to Huizi who criticized Zhuangzi’s philosophy as big, but useless. All this is about Zhuangzi, lest we forget. I take him to be an existentialist very much like Kierkegaard—take away the personal, and nothing much remains; not when “truth is subjectivity”.


Have we then sufficiently uncovered this form of motivational dependence? Not quite. The desire to be a rock star guru is easily dismissed as ridiculously egoic. There are, however, more subtle and insidious expressions of this desire for the esteem of others. A recent experience of one of these gave birth to this series. I have a friend who calls me “my Master”—entirely ironically it needs to be said. He had occasion to chide me for my anger and impatience at difficulties encountered while doing a boat project. I became angry at his criticism. This ruined my day. And I wanted to know why.


The reason pertinent to this topic of dependence on the esteem of others is simply that, though I knew he knew I was a mess, I did not want that he should have more evidence of the fact. I was unhappy because I felt diminished in the eyes of another. This amply demonstrates the value of not depending on the esteem of others. If one’s happiness depends on anything, then one will never be happy. Zhuangzian wandering is just this: being happy in every circumstance, even unhappy ones.


Even though impatience is itself an expression of dependence on something, it needs to be said that growing in patience, though a worthy project, has no first order to relevance to growing in non-dependence. If we require ourselves to become “better”, we are dependent on that and the same bondage obtains. This is a moral stumbling-block for many who see it as a shirking of responsibility, but it need be no such thing where one walks two roads at once.

I WANT TO BE A SAGE III

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.

I WANT TO BE A SAGE II

I have offered my personal failing of desiring to be a sage as a point of entry into the necessary self-inquiry that Zhuangzi’s philosophy challenges us to practice. That philosophy begins and ends in our self-experience. It’s about the transformation of our world-view, our interface with our personal experience in the world, and nothing else. It is not a belief system, but a self-aware existential response to the life-experience as it arises. It makes no appeal to extra-mundane metaphysical “realities”.


I have said I’d rather be a rock star than an adored guru. The implication is that to aspire to either manifests more or less the same motivation. Understanding how they are the same is vital to understanding the Zhuangzian project of realizing non-dependence and the freedom to play and wander. The essence of non-dependence is the loss of the need to “be someone”. When he says, Just be empty, this is what he means. Being who we are is, ironically, being no one. We are, of course, “someone”; we are a someone who is also a no one. Our core experience, Zhuangzi suggests, is a sense of emptiness. We are not a thing, a concrete, static entity, but a happening, an expression of a ceaseless, open-ended transformation.


This disturbs us. We want to be someone fixed. We want to be gods, concrete and immortal. For this reason, we engage in all manner of self-reifying fantasies and projects in an attempt to fill the unfillable core emptiness that is our essential experience.


This desire to be a rock star (or an adored guru) is motivated by a desire to be esteemed by others in the extreme, though it is of the same genus as every similar motivation. It is, as we have said, the coarsest of such motivations and one easily identified and condemned. But condemnation is not abandonment, and for that, there’s nothing so effective as laughter. Laughter, however, neither condemns nor abandons; it simply joyously transcends and leaves things to transform as they will.


Self-laughter is an active self-awareness that is already free of that of which it is aware. While self-inquiry is a project of self-cultivation, self-laughter is the freedom that simultaneously obviates any requirement for change. It is the realization of complete unconditional self-affirmation in each moment and in every condition. It is the caged bird that sings—even as it works on the bars.

I WANT TO BE A SAGE I

There are innumerable personal failings that I could share with the reader, but none as illuminating or seminal as this: I want to be a sage.


For the most part I try to avoid being overly personal in these posts; they are not meant to be about me, but about the applicability of the philosophy of Zhuangzi to life today. That applicability, however, does not and cannot come disembodied from a life experience, and the only one I know is my own. Alas, this entire project is about me. On the one hand, it grieves me to have to say so; on the other, I realize that there is no other option and that any pretense of dis-interested objectivity in anything amounts to an act of bad faith—to lie to oneself and to others. Zhuangzi’s project was no different. We have this in common—we are both human. He too was simply trying to cope with his experience and, I believe, knew this to be the case. That critical self-awareness is the hinge upon which his philosophy can be said to turn.


For us, Daoism is an entirely psychological project. It has nothing to do with a supposed extra-mundane Reality except as a Lack. We feel that it is necessary, yet can only feel it as a lack. And so too do we experience ourselves as a lack; something is missing, and it’s the most important thing of all. Let the coping begin.


This being a psychological project, there is much to discover in self-inquiry. There is no other place to begin—or to end. I have mentioned my desire to be a sage as one point of entry into such an inquiry. Exploring this will take more than one post, so, in the interest of suggesting at least a modicum of supposed sagacity (because I want to be a sage), let me begin by saying that this does not mean that I want to be a guru surrounded by adoring disciples. This inquiry will be an exploration of ever-deeper and more subtle motivations, and the desire to be such a guru is on the peripheral first ring, and the coarsest of possible motivations. It is not one I generally entertain. I’d rather be a rock star. This has the advantage of indulging in a self-reifying fantasy without the hypocrisy.

ZHUANGZI ON THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS X

Blog:  Well, I guess you’ve pretty much answered our questions about how to be politically involved without being politically involved—to care while not-caring—though there’s always more that can be said.

Zhuangzi:  Indeed there is. That’s why we must learn when to say, Enough! Words are an expression of our living, but they are not living. Speaking isn’t living. Nor is not-speaking living. But how can we speak of what is neither speaking nor not-speaking? All I can say is “experience understanding”—but that’s still just more speaking.

B:  Well, we have to admit that we’re loath to let you go, but I suppose we must. But before we do, can we ask you what you think of this blog and whether you think we got your philosophy right?

Z:  My dear Blog! What difference could that possibly make? If it works for you, that’s all that matters. That’s my philosophy. And yes, you got that part right—only you keep forgetting it.

B:  Well then, it seems we need to say goodbye—as hard as that is.

Z:  That’s the great thing about “not-being-together while being-together”—it’s reversible! Now we can be-together while not-being-together.

B:  Can you elucidate on that a bit more?

Z:  Ha! You’re like a child put to bed who keeps asking his mommy another question because he’s afraid of the dark. But okay, I’ll answer this one before I turn out the light—and I’ll leave it as a little night-light for you.

It’s about non-dependence. Everything I say is about non-dependence. But then, everything I say is about everything else I say. The experience is one, but its manifestations are many. Just like “Laozi’s” Dao—what a coincidence! Just like omnicentrism—amazing! Self-conscious existence is a very lonely affair, wouldn’t you agree? This is what it is to be self-so—apparently self-arising without cause or purpose, to be the infinite universe in a finite space. To be everything is to be alone. And because that loneliness scares us, we seek out others to alleviate our fear. This is dependence and a mutual co-dependence. It can only be a partial being-together. Co-dependent being-together aborts both the freedom of truly being-together with oneself and with others. Dependent friendship is as much a relationship of hate as it is of love. Love that depends is the incubator of hate. What the three friends in that story in which I have them say this realized was the joy of non-dependence on either their own self-esteem or the esteem of others, and for this reason they could truly be friends. They were omnicentric—they were utterly themselves and thus able to be everyone else.

Sorry, for the brevity on such a weighty subject, but I need to be on my way. I’m having tea with Confucius and Mozi, and they get impatient, even in eternity.

B:  Okay. And thanks. Now we’ll let you go so we can be-together-with you there.

ZHUANGZI ON THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IX

Blog:  Can we ask you about an apparent discrepancy between what you just said about there being no such thing as “perfected human beings” and your description of just such persons in your writings?

Zhuangzi:  Yes you can. Can you answer your own question?

B:  You’re giving us a vision of an ideal that is not realizable but that can serve as an inspiration for approximating what can be realized?

Z:  Exactly! But people want things to be black and white—shades of grey remind us that we are clueless, and cluelessness reminds us that we are irremediably adrift without any hope of a secure mooring. So we default to religious-mindedness. We take things literally so there’s something “to believe in”.

B:  Have you ever thought that maybe you shouldn’t have left things so ambiguous in that case?

Z:  Not at all! What I just said can also provide fodder for religious-mindedness. Nothing we say is immune to religious-mindedness. Don’t you catch yourself turning your understanding of my philosophy into a similar literalism?

B:  We do. It’s like there’s a need for continual self-effacement, of negating what we think we know. That’s what’s meant by “spill-over goblet words”—words that self-empty when they’ve made their point, right?

Z:  You got it. It’s a perpetual dialectic or rising above and beyond what we take as “true”. Soaring! Wandering! It’s a dialectic that’s going nowhere. The dialecticism of Hegel and Marx are both teleological processes—they’re going somewhere. They’re religiously minded.

B:  So, back to Bernie’s slogan, “A Future to Believe In”,—it’s a bit like your Sage, an ideal to inspire us, but not to take literally, as if an ideal will be accomplished.

Z:  Right. We’re not religiously attached to any single possible future so we can work for a better future without dependence on a particular idea of “success”.