ON BEING SELF-SO (ZIRAN) V

Ziporyn entitled his book on Guo Xiang’s philosophy “The Penumbra Unbound”, an allusion to a story in Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi and repeated in 27 with some interpretative emending. It is in his commentating here that Guo makes his strongest argument for all things being self-so, uncaused and self-arising. This is the story of a shadow’s conversation with its own shadow. The topic is why Shadow does what it does. Penumbra (the shadow of Shadow) wants to know. A third party, the ostensible concrete cause of Shadow, is only vaguely implied and seemingly irrelevant. Penumbra seems to assume its own non-dependence on Shadow; it only questions the reasons for Shadow’s behavior but not its own, just we typically assume our own volitional independence. Everything has a sense of its own non-dependence.


This story is about the possibility of a psychological release from the bonds of dependence as represented in the concept of causation. Utter psychological non-dependence, in our view, is the primary experiential expression of Zhuangzi’s vision for free and carefree wandering. Causation is but another word for dependence. Thus, just as we can realize non-dependence despite our being utterly dependent in every way, so too can we realize ourselves as non-caused (self-so) despite our being in every way caused. We hope that the word “transcendence” can help to make sense of this apparent nonsense.


The story preceding this one has a character allude to Ziqi’s analogy of the response to the wind by the trees: “Even though the transforming voices may depend on one another, this is tantamount to not depending on anything at all” (2:45; Ziporyn). They are all one in their transforming, being identified with Transformation. Non-dependence is not independence, but a psychological transcendence of all dependence facilitated by our trustful release into the whatever-may-happen of Mystery.


Similarly, realizing oneself as self-so, spontaneously arising, is not a denial of causation, but its transcending.


Our scientific-mindedness stumbles at this transcendence of causation, but it is curious that if we were discussing free-will—the ability to make choices that are not absolutely determined—we would not be quite so reticent. Even Zhuangzi and Guo could be seen as ultimately asserting determinism—we do what we are. Yet, even in this, is a vast freedom—the freedom to be what we cannot help but be:


“[E]very being without exception is released into the range of its own spontaneous attainments, so that each being relies on its own innate character, each deed exactly matching its own capabilities. Since each fits perfectly into precisely the position it occupies, all are equally far-reaching and unfettered” (Guo Xiang; Ziporyn, p 129).

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