ON BEING SELF-SO (ZIRAN) II

Being self-so means that everything spontaneously self-arises. This is equivalent to saying that everything has one foot in existence and the other in nothingness. Together they represent the experience of emptiness, the experience of being a something that is also a nothing.


“Self-arising” means that nothing causes anything to happen—nothing is caused—things simply happen of themselves. This seems so counter-intuitive that we might be inclined to dismiss it out-of-hand. Perhaps the best way to consider such a possibility, therefore, is to simply take it as a thought experiment—an imaginative journey into the world of unlogic. But be careful, you might just get dizzy and take an existential tumble.


It is common to think of metaphysical Dao as “the Source”—the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover. It’s all a great Mystery, but it’s There; the Mystery is Something. Not so, says Guo Xiang (252-312). Dao is quite literally nothing. (I would suggest that rather than such an absolutist statement we might instead say, Dao is for all practical purposes nothing.) Part of his argument for this position, as inspired by his reading of Zhuangzi, is that, if we follow the idea of causation back through time, we end up in an infinite regress. It’s turtles all the way down. Unless, of course, we decide to stop at an Uncaused Cause, the Source, God . . . But what is this, he asks, if not Self-so and Self-arising? Why not rather accept that all things are themselves self-so and self-arising? All happenings are not consequential parts of the Great Happening—they are the Great Happening. There is no space here for causation.


So what? If this has no practical impact for our being-in-the-world, it’s not worth the blabber. But it does make a difference, and we shall attempt to demonstrate how in the course of this series.


Guo Xiang was part of a movement that called itself xuanxue (“abstruse learning”), or as it has come to be known, “Neo-Daoism”. The other famous exponent of this renewed interest in Daoism as philosophy was Wang Bi (226-249) whose commentary on the Laozi made much of the distinction between Being and Non-Being. Oh boy! Metaphysics! This very much appeals to reasoning mind, and thus to philosophy, because, for all its non-being-ness, Non-Being is still something. Dao is Non-Being and we can rest assured that there is something there for us to think about and cling to. Guo Xiang saw through this sleight-of-mind.


We mention this difference to illustrate how our “natural human inclination” is to posit the “reasonable” so as to make the world make “sense”. Breaking these fetters was very much a part of Zhuangzi’s vision of realizing freedom to wander. “Just release the mind to play . . .”

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