A NEW PHILOSOPHICAL DAOISM XIII

It seems logical enough to assume there can be no identity without existence, but can there be existence without identity? Is there existence without identity when there is no mind to think it? Probably; but it’s hard, if not impossible, for the mind to think it. Even so-called Non-Being and non-existence seem to have existence. Where there is thought, everything thought has an assigned identity. The “problem” of identity seems to be a creation of the discriminating mind.

This is a rock; and more than that, it is this specific rock, my pet rock. Previously, it was part of a boulder, and had no such identity. What does this tell me of its present identity? In the future, it will likely become many smaller rocks, sand, dust, atoms, and . . . ? What will have become of its present identity? Shall I mourn the future loss of this rock? Or can I instead imagine identity as a non-essential attribute somewhat more aligned with hardness or density so that its loss does not affect its continuity? I can’t; but I can learn something in the attempt.

Might I just as well mourn that it previously had no identity? What’s the difference between its previously not having been this rock and its future ceasing to be this rock? Why do I mourn my own likely loss of identity and not that I once had none? Who says I have an identity in any case? I do.

Are we really any different than this rock? Cosmically speaking, we are not. But wait! I most certainly am! The loss of my own identity is something I do not wish to entertain, cosmic perspectives notwithstanding. I must be an exception. Perhaps I am an eternal soul (at least going forward, going backward seems a bit more problematical). Or maybe there’s just One Identity, I AM, and that’s me (and you, too, if you wish). Whew! I feel better already.

Whatever “solution” we might devise to deal with the probable loss of our identity in death, it’s clear that we want one. “I haven’t a clue” is probably the most honest response. This leads Zhuangzi to suggest we “just hand it all over to the unavoidable”—in thankfulness and trust. No theory is going to change reality, in any case. But he also dabbles a bit is his own imaginative solution.

Since Transformation seems the universal way of things, why not simply identify with that? One with Change, what change could harm you? But this requires breaking our addiction to fixed-identity—identity as the essential, rather than as accidental. It requires imagining a kind of continuity completely innocent of identity. This is his no-fixed-identity—an experience that can only occur beyond the deliberating mind that cannot dispense with identity.

This “solution” led Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) to accuse Zhuangzi of “cooking up his own pot of Buddha-flesh” (Ziporyn, p 170)—dodging his own existential dangle. There could be some truth in this, but if we grant Zhuangzi the possibility of consistency, then his imaginative solution can be understood as but another self-aware coping strategy, and not a representation of the truth of things.

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