MY DEATH IS GOOD II

My death is good—at least in theory. The realization of such an agreement with this unavoidable reality of life would be the accomplishment of a sage. At best, I can only attempt to approximate it.

Meditation on this simple statement “my death is good” can be a powerful imaginative exercise. It opens us to the heart of Zhuangzi’s vision of total affirmation of the life experience. There is a real sense in which his philosophy could be summed up in one word—Yes! (And this is always followed in my experience with—Thank you!—though I am not sure why.)

In the previous post I spoke of the importance of death for an appreciation of life to the point that it could have been taken as morbidity. Since it is an unavoidable fact of life, however, to ignore it amounts to denial; and denial can only be a phantom escape. It simply lurks deeper and more insidiously. Had we the choice, we’d likely choose not to die, but since we do not, death presents as a wonderful opportunity to get real about our human experience.

“The Great Clump burdens me with a physical form, labors me with life, rests me with death. So, it is precisely because I consider my life good that I consider my death good.” (Ziporyn; 6:26) Taken as a single unit, life and death are both affirmable, should we wish to affirm either. And we do affirm life, if we are in harmony with life itself which is by its nature a spontaneous affirmation.

The affirmation of death is an affirmation of the Totality, and there can be no such affirmation without it. I call it The Great Mess in recognition of the difficulty we have in doing so, and declare that All Is Well, in recognition of the possibility of affirmingly “basking it all in the broad daylight of Heaven”. These represent the Two Roads we must walk simultaneously.

MY DEATH IS GOOD I

Whatever our attitude regarding death, it is clearly an event of momentous significance for all of us who live. There may be some who are inclined to glibly dismiss its importance to our every waking moment; they are likely either sages or in denial. For the rest of us, it is a reality that begs our attention. What does it mean that we shall die? How does our impeding death impact our living?

The totality of Zhuangzi’s philosophy can be seen as a response to death. If this makes it seem limited or parochial, so be it. His philosophy is all about the human experience, and the awareness of our death—indeed, the apparent death of all things, including those we love—stands out as the most immediately pressing.

Zhuangzi’s understanding of the human condition and his remedial response turn on our awareness of death. Our existential dangle—our suspension in utter not-knowing—matters only because of death.

“If you regard what you have received as fully formed once and for all, unable to forget it, all the time it survives is just a vigil spent waiting for its end” (Ziporyn; 2:11). If we take ourselves as a fixed-identity, something we can lose, then our actual living is adversely affected.

“In the process, you grind and lacerate yourself against all the things around you.” Fearful of loss, we become fearful of everything that might threaten us, even what seems to diminish our sense of self. Loss of face is taken as an incremental death. We die a death of a thousand cuts.

If this seems excessively gloomy, we can only reply that it also seems honest. It is, in any case, a necessary prelude to whatever remedial response we might imagine.

THE DEATH OF CHAOS VI

Good intentions do not justify precipitous action. This is yang, self-assertiveness. Yin, on the other hand, is a passiveness that fulfills those intentions non-actively. It is a kind of midwifery—an encouraging presence that lets the other give birth to her own. It is the way of water—yielding, taking the lower ground, yet transforming all things. It is an essential quality of Dao.

So important is this to Zhuangzi’s vision that he makes it an occasion for the birth of true friendship. Three friends “came together in friendship, saying, ‘Who can be together in their not being together, do things for one another by not doing things for one another? Who can climb up upon the Heavens, roaming on the mists, twisting and turning round and round without limit, living their lives in mutual forgetfulness, never coming to an end’” (Ziporyn; 6:45)?

This is a third way, somewhere beyond intrusive self-assertion and indifference. These friends are together while they are not; help one another by not helping one another. Somehow this makes one think of love. True love holds so lightly that it hardly holds at all. It lets the other be. This too is the nature of Dao. “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.” All things flourish because Dao leaves them alone to do so. All things are self-so—self-arising, self-flourishing. Love allows just this.

It is not incidental that this “mutual forgetfulness” is made synonymous with carefree wandering. One climbs upon the Heavens and roams on the mists through an affirming acceptance of things as they are. Without them there would be nothing upon which to soar. Mutual forgetfulness is only possible because there is friendship. Non-dependence is only possible because of our total dependence.

THE DEATH OF CHAOS V

The Emperors of the North and South both have names, Hu and Shu, and we would like that their meaning might add to our understanding of the passage. Despite Girardot’s predictable attempts to make the connection, however, any possible allusion to mythological figures connected to a creation myth is tenuous at best. Both names suggest something like “hasty” or “sudden” and this is more suggestive of Zhuangzi’s more immediate purpose than to illustrate the birth of the many.

Zhuangzi’s attitude relative to the emergence of things is clearly seen in his ironic utilization of infinite regress to demonstrate that our speculations about the ultimate origins of the Universe are a waste of time. “There is a beginning. There is a not-yet-beginning-to-be-a-beginning. There is a not-yet-beginning-to-not-yet-beginning-to-be-a-beginning. . . . Now I have said something. But I do not-yet know; has what I have said really said anything? Or has it not really said anything” (Ziporyn; 2:31)? The Big Bang is a possible beginning; but what is the not-yet-beginning-to-be-a-beginning?

His more immediate meaning in using names that imply hastiness is seen in the consequences of their precipitous actions. Seeking to repay Chaos for his virtue (de), they believed that helping him would be an exercise of their virtue. They killed him with kindness. They felt more “virtuous”, but he was dead.

This speaks to that most important Daoist concept of wu-wei, non-doing. It is not that the desire to help others is mistaken, but that the means goes amiss. Taking coercive action—drilling him seven holes—is yang-ing, and does more harm than good. Being the empty space that occasions the movement toward change in another, on the other hand, is yin-ing. Yin-ing is non-being the change.

We see this in the Socratic Method in which Socrates does not contradict the opinions of others, but simply questions them so as to assist them to come to their own conclusions. We see it in Rogerian psychology wherein the client is assisted in discovering his or her own solutions. And, of course, we see this throughout the Inner Chapters in the irony of theses posed and deconstructed so as to leave us in ambiguity and doubt.

The Inner Chapters can, in fact, be taken as single koan designed to help us go where its yang-ing words cannot.

THE DEATH OF CHAOS IV

We can only take an imaginary excursion into Chaos. What? There’s a thing called Chaos? No, Chaos is a psychological experience. And that is only had imaginatively.

We typically find this troublesome. If an “imaginary solution” is the best we can do, that hardly seems like a solution at all. Well, it isn’t. It’s a coping strategy. Only religious belief can provide a solution.

Or death. Death likely cures all ills. Who can say? No one—which tends to suggest the point. But this is the “nuclear option”, and can hardly be described as an authentic response to the élan of life which is to live. Best to “hand it all over to the inevitable” and to enjoy life as it is while it is.

But if taking an excursion into Chaos is only an exercise of the imagination, then many other strategies are also likely possible. Yes, I must admit that even my bête noire, religion, is such an imaginary strategy, though it does not know it.

But knowing it makes all the difference when it comes to living authentically. Living authentically entails being real about our actual existential experience. And that is to live in “drift and doubt”, to live our existential dangle.

I imagine there are other authentically self-aware imaginary excursions possible, but I can’t say I can think of any. The thing about Chaos is that it is at the heart of our human experience. It is none other than our own empty center. Whatever other authentic strategies there might be must therefore be in response to this. Or so it seems to me.

THE DEATH OF CHAOS III

The “seven holes” of the human face are the principle means by which we perceive the world. But to perceive the world is to become dual. When Chaos, which is non-dual, receives these holes, it dies; it too becomes dual.

Similarly, when we attempt to understand or perceive Chaos, we kill it. This is why these posts so militantly attempt to defend the inviolable impenetrableness of Mystery. Its only usefulness is its continued uselessness.

This understanding is by no means unique to Zhuangzi; many religions and philosophies of “Eastern” stripe declare the same. Yet every one of them, including “Daoism”, tends to gravitate toward some essentialist reification of Mystery. It exists and can be encountered and “attained”. Dedicated non-dualists hold symposiums intended to demonstrate how modern science “proves” the validity of their claims. So great is our desire to escape drift and doubt. This too is the death of Chaos. Now it exists within the circle of human understanding.

The preservation of Chaos as impenetrable Mystery is by no means the negation of the dual.  To be human is to be dualistic. So let’s hear it for dualism. It’s all equal and affirmable. But dualism is not without its problems. And though these cannot be eradicated, they can be ameliorated through open-minded and imaginative excursions into “the vast wilds of open nowhere”, “our homeland of not even anything”, which is to say Chaos left to be Chaos.

There is no escape from the human condition in philosophical Daoism. There is no cure; there are only palliatives to ease the time before our passing. To presume a cure would be to murder Chaos of which we too are a “part”.

THE DEATH OF CHAOS II

Girardot would make Zhuangzi’s story of the death of Chaos a direct representation of the creation myth from which Zhuangzi borrows. This fails for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Zhuangzi sees this death as a negative event, not a positive one. The outcome is not the creation of the many, as in the creation myth, but simply the death of that which possibly precedes this event. It is, in any case, only a hypothetical within a myth; it does not represent any actual event, but seeks to make a statement about the nature of Chaos and our human propensity to deny or attempt to eliminate it.

We need not fear for Chaos in any event. Chaos lives! Or more accurately, that which has never lived or existed can never die.

What then is Chaos? It likely does have some cosmological meaning as that which precedes the creation of the many. But like Dao, Zhuangzi is not really that interested in pursuing its metaphysical reality. It is only suggested by its seeming necessity, but in the end is present only as an absence. This is the essential attribute of Chaos; to know it is to kill it.

Zhuangzi is more interested in the epistemological presence of Chaos. Whenever we know something we draw a circle around it. But what lies outside this circle? Whatever it is—and there will always be something no matter how supposedly vast our circle—and it matters not at all what it is—it is more important to our understanding than that which we think we know. And this is because it tells us that we do not in fact know at all.

Chaos, the unknown and undifferentiated, or as I like to call it, Mystery, is the ever-present background that surrounds our personal little circles. It is an unavoidable fact of our experience. As such, to deny it or to vainly attempt to eliminate it by knowing it—to kill it—is to sever ourselves from what amounts to the most important aspect of our experience. And this is the death of our own Chaos; for we are indeed also Chaos. Where in Chaos can Chaos be lost?

Again, Chaos, the thing left out, is the “most important thing of all” only because it is left out. Non-existence is only more important than existence when it is forgotten. Death is only more important than life when it is denied. But it is only because life is so precious that death becomes so important. Life and death form a single string; they are equally “good” and affirmable. The point is to live in the context of both, which is to say, to live authentically.

THE DEATH OF CHAOS I

This series is inspired in part by my recent reading of N. J. Girardot’s Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism in terms of both agreement and disagreement.

The death of Chaos (hun-dun) is related in the closing story of the Inner Chapters:

The Emperors of the North and South would often meet in the Kingdom of the Emperor of the Middle whose name was Chaos. Chaos showed them such hospitality that these two decided to repay him for his virtue (de). “‘All men have seven holes in them, by which they see, hear, eat, and breathe,’ they said. ‘But this one has none. Let’s drill him some.’ So each day they drilled him another hole. After seven days Chaos was dead” (Ziporyn 7:15).

Though Zhuangzi is here making use of ancient folk lore, we have to be careful not to interpret him strictly on the basis of past meanings. He frequently takes the conventional and turns it to his own purposes, whether it be cosmology (qi, yin-yang) or personages (Confucius, Laozi, the madman Jieyu).

Chaos is hun-dun, a well-known mythological figure, found in many guises, usually faceless and sometimes anus-less. It represents the cosmos before there was differentiation and things. For Confucians the term was largely negative, representing the disorder present before the advent of (Chinese) civilization. The barbarian tribes represent chaos. For the Daoists it has a decidedly positive connotation in that it represents the ever-present “something left out that is the most important thing of all.” In this contrast alone we see the radical departure of Daoism from the conventional anthropocentric preoccupation with human yang-ing. Daoism suggests that our yang-ing, though necessary and affirmable, also does us (and the environment) harm when not placed in the context of yin, chaos.

Daoism emphasizes yin, not because it is “better” than yang, but because in our single-minded pursuit of knowledge and progress we have forgotten the equalizing valuation of yin wherein all things are affirmable just as they are. Yang informed by yin is yang off the debilitating treadmill of wanting to be other than we are.

This, in any case, is one slice of it.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION

A Review of N. J. Girardot’s MYTH AND MEANING IN EARLY TAOISM

Doubtless this book is a must read for sinologists, if only to have done one’s necessary homework. For the unobliged layperson, on the other hand, it could easily be given a pass. Its principal focus is the mythological antecedents of hun-dun—primordial chaos. One succinct paragraph could have easily covered this topic for most purposes; instead we are treated to 400+ pages.

Girardot analyses a vast network of mythical stories and symbols, weaves them into a single narrative, and then interprets hun-dun as it appears in specific early Daoist texts accordingly. This assumes that an allusion is an equation; that when Zhuangzi speaks of the death of hun-dun, for example, he is endorsing the cosmogony and metaphysics of the myth to which he alludes. We are led to believe that no rupture with past thought or significantly new ideas are possible. Somehow Zhuangzi’s actual intended meaning remains unexamined.

Then, of course, Girardot treats all Daoist writings as in essential agreement with each other. This is about “Daoism” and must therefore have a single message. The Zhuangzi is understood as it can be taken to agree with the Laozi; the Inner Chapters are understood in the light of the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters. No voice is truly unique.

All this having been said, Girardot obviously has a broad knowledge of his topic and the intellectual skills to organize it. Someone interested in the exhaustive complexity of the hun-dun myth complex, though often tenuously related, will find it here.

THE EMPTY CENTER V

Self-consciousness requires a gap, and that gap means we are never quite “full and real”. This is our empty center, the price we pay for self-awareness.

This is how we evolved. There’s no need to get all metaphysical about it. We needn’t posit a great “fall” from some previously pristine state to which we must now struggle to return. This is how we are. There is no reason to project emptiness onto Reality just because it happens to be our experience. We needn’t declare Reality “Mind” just because we happen to have one. Our anthropocentric hubris knows no bounds. Even God exists because we need “him” to do so.

Zhuangzi utterly de-mythologizes humanity. He suggests we take a sober look at how we are not “special”, but are rather completely equalized together with all things in this Great Happening. Though we might prefer to be “gods” (a little above the angels, as the Bible has it), still there remains a path to comfort in the realization of our total participation in ceaseless Transformation (our identity included). Indeed, where being “special” can only be a tentative hope at best, one beset by doubt and the fear of loss, release into the whatever of reality is freedom from all loss.

It is very much a part of modern thinking that we are one with Nature, though residual essentialist yearnings still remain. The “scientific” mind holds this view. But Zhuangzi suggests something more—a mystical movement, a release into this Mystery. This is a mysticism without specific belief, without a metaphysics, but is rather simply the exercise of inherent trust.