ON BEING SELF-SO (ZIRAN) VIII

In Guo Xiang, the cosmological concept of self-so—that Dao is literally nothing and not the Source, and that things are therefore self-arising, uncaused and non-dependent happenings—seems a bit absolutist in tone. For Zhuangzi, it is merely a phenomenological description of how things appear to be. Dao is only experienced as an absence—and this says nothing about its existence or non-existence. The psychological impact of both statements is nevertheless the same. We are “ever not-knowing its [life’s] source”. Zhuangzi’s suggested response is that we release ourselves into this absence in openness and trust. And this amounts to simply releasing ourselves into the inexplicable upwelling that is Life as the life that we are. Ziran (self-so) realized is spontaneity in living.


Thus the cosmological, it turns out, is really no different than the existential—how we experience life. And thus Zhuangzi identifies a parallel phenomenon in ourselves—we are present to ourselves only as an absence. We search for a fixed-self, an immutable someone, but we cannot find it. We experience ourselves as a lack. And again, his suggested response is that we harmonize with our experience; that we release into our unfixed-ness. This is his no-self; not no self, but no-fixed-self.


Zhuangzi thinks that harmonizing with our experience leads to a happier life. That’s the practicality of the concept of self-so.


We speak of “releasing” ourselves because there is an activity involved here, and it goes against our default response to our existential dangle, our sense of being ungrounded. We “take our mind as our teacher”. We choose to pursue a Ground of Being—a purpose providing God (in a variety of forms—even atheistic ones)—rather than exploring the implications of our actual experience of ungroundedness. Or we speak of despair and the absurdity of existence upon our failure to find that Ground—because we never left the rationalistic pursuit at all.


Self-so-ness in us implies freedom to choose. Zhuangzi suggests we choose the “obvious”. And this means harmonizing with life as it manifests, not as we wish it to be. But this in itself is not his chief value; his value is the enjoyment of life.


Though this philosophy is in some sense universally applicable, it is also the case that its value is contingent on perceived need. Those that find their solace in belief—or despair—are best left to enjoy the same. No need for salvation was ever implied. All is well in the Great Mess.

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