The term “heavenly reservoir” (tianfu) and its apparent synonym “numinous reservoir” (lingfu) appear once each in the Inner Chapters. We will henceforth refer to them in the singular. There is also mention of a “numinous platform” in the Zhuangzian-ly sympathetic 19th chapter, which we will not consider here. This series will consider just what this term might mean.

In this post we will look at the broader meaning of the term and in subsequent posts we will parse out its various implications. So as to provide context, we offer one passage here:

“Hence, when the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know, it has reached its utmost. The demonstration that uses no words, the Dao that is not a dao—who ‘understands’ these things? If there is someone who is able to understand them [in this sense], it can be called the Heavenly Reservoir—poured into without ever getting full, ladled out without ever running out, ever not-knowing its own source. This is called the Shadowy Splendor” (2:36-7; Ziporyn).

Ziporyn takes this term to denote “the ideal state of mind of the Zhuangzian person”, a “Daoist subjectivity” (p.37), and his translation attempts to establish this. I have taken it as referring to something a bit more organic, namely that “place” of the upwelling of life within us—that place where we experience ourselves as self-so—the “unthinking part of ourselves”. I may be wrong, and it may be that it comes to the same thing in any case, since this too is about our psychological interface with this inexplicable self-so happening—ourselves.

What Ziporyn dismisses is the common belief that this Heavenly Reservoir refers to “the Dao that is no dao”. There is a similar metaphor in the Laozi that speaks of Dao as just such a limitless reservoir (4). But, unlike Laozi (apparently), Zhuangzi does not believe in “the Dao” and does not entertain ideas of communing with Dao. It thus refers to the mind of the sage, a mind that is open to Happening where no specific happening is required. It is a mind open to the totality of experience, for it does not deem some circumstances acceptable and others unacceptable.

This is the Shadowy Splendor—really great stuff that is no stuff at all—a wonderful self-so experience without apparent cause or reason. It’s like a fireworks display—bang, wow, gone. Why does that bother us?

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