CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY IV

We are considering how philosophical Daoism takes ming (unavoidable circumstance) as a ubiquitous opportunity for self-cultivation. We can only choose how to respond to it; we can never escape it. It is in every way the essential condition of our existence. Have we chosen to be born? No? Then everything that follows thereafter is ming.


If “people take to Dao as fish take to water”, then Dao is not the conditional medium through which we move, but how we move through it. It is not the medium—something distinct from our psychological involvement—but our interface with it. [The author of this quote probably thought otherwise.] We create dao. Every dao—and there are as many as there are pairs of feet to walk them—is the creative interface of our actively being in a world.


Zhuangzi’s dao is Dao as the confluence of all daos. Just another dao, albeit an all-inclusive dao. A most paradoxical dao. Metaphysical Dao there might be, but its only presence is by way of its absence. This is the most fundamental ontological ming—the circumstance of our inescapable adriftedness.


Circumstance (ming) is not a thing. If we translate “fate”, we might envision some purposive force external to circumstance, but circumstance is, just as its etymology suggests, “all-around standing” alone. The concluding vignette of the “The Great Source as Teacher” chapter (6) of the Zhuangzi has a man lamenting that he can find no ultimate cause for the physical extremity in which he finds himself. There is none discernible. He calls this ming. Mencius, Zhuangzi’s contemporary, recognizes the same: Ming is “what arrives although nothing makes it arrive” (Mencius 5A7). [“Dao does nothing, though nothing is left undone.”] The inexplicability of ming is also ming.


Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) comments on this passage: “This is a man standing right at the mouth of the great furnace” (Ziporyn, p 205). This is where we are transformed—not just through our awareness of ming, but also in the disquiet an anguish it causes in us. “Would you say that ‘a white horse crying in pain under the glow of the clouds’ is anything other than the Great Source as Teacher? If so, however much you spin your abstruse theories, you are still separated by an ever so thin layer from the real heaven and the real earth. You have not yet perceived that in the Dao there is only this one moon; there is no second moon.” This existence is our Teacher.

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