HAVING A GOOD LAUGH I

Though laughter might seem a rather superficial human activity, both psychology and (some) philosophies make much of it. The types of humor that give rise to laughter are many and we needn’t consider them all here, except by way of a fundamental contrast. Sardonic, sarcastic and other species of humor that deprecate others or oneself are not germane to the topic here.

Since our point of departure is the philosophy of Zhuangzi, it is his humor that inspires this treatment. Zhuangzi does not tell explicit jokes, and yet the entirety of his writing can be taken as just that—a kind of joke. This is not incidental, but intentional and integral to his message.

After sharing the fantastic story of an incredibly vast fish that transforms into a huge bird that ascends to forty thousand feet in order to fly to some distant Oblivion, he tells us that it can be found in a certain book that Ziporyn translates as “The Equalizing Jokebook”. (1:3) He tells us in a note (3) that it could also be “The Equalizing Harmony”. I prefer the former; but in either case it is probably itself a joke in that he likely made the name up. The fictional and fantastic is proved by referencing an authoritative source which is itself fictional. What are we to believe?

I take the entirety of the Inner Chapters as just that, an Equalizing Jokebook; and he may very well have wished us to make that connection.

So, what’s the joke? The joke is that something we might have taken very seriously is conveyed so unseriously that we are led to question whether it was ever all that serious after all. It all seems so tongue-in-cheek. Rather than coming away with definitive answers, we are cast into further doubt.

Still, there seems to be something serious being said here. But it is something that can best be seen only if we look peripherally—very much like objects in the dark are better seen when not looked at directly. The use of humor is thus a kind of “indirect method”—an indefinite, but suggestive pointing. It is a kind of “wordless instruction”.

HAVING A GOOD LAUGH I

Though laughter might seem a rather superficial human activity, both psychology and (some) philosophies make much of it. The types of humor that give rise to laughter are many and we needn’t consider them all here, except by way of a fundamental contrast. Sardonic, sarcastic and other species of humor that deprecate others or oneself are not germane to the topic here.

Since our point of departure is the philosophy of Zhuangzi, it is his humor that inspires this treatment. Zhuangzi does not tell explicit jokes, and yet the entirety of his writing can be taken as just that—a kind of joke. This is not incidental, but intentional and integral to his message.

After sharing the fantastic story of an incredibly vast fish that transforms into a huge bird that ascends to forty thousand feet in order to fly to some distant Oblivion, he tells us that it can be found in a certain book that Ziporyn translates as “The Equalizing Jokebook”. (1:3) He tells us in a note (3) that it could also be “The Equalizing Harmony”. I prefer the former; but in either case it is probably itself a joke in that he likely made the name up. The fictional and fantastic is proved by referencing an authoritative source which is itself fictional. What are we to believe?

I take the entirety of the Inner Chapters as just that, an Equalizing Jokebook; and he may very well have wished us to make that connection.

So, what’s the joke? The joke is that something we might have taken very seriously is conveyed so unseriously that we are led to question whether it was ever all that serious after all. It all seems so tongue-in-cheek. Rather than coming away with definitive answers, we are cast into further doubt.

Still, there seems to be something serious being said here. But it is something that can best be seen only if we look peripherally—very much like objects in the dark are better seen when not looked at directly. The use of humor is thus a kind of “indirect method”—an indefinite, but suggestive pointing. It is a kind of “wordless instruction”.

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN VI

I have suggested that the realization of one’s “victimhood” vis-à-vis the ability to realize Zhuangzian soaring can itself be an occasion for soaring. It could not be otherwise where soaring implies depending on nothing in particular—not even soaring.

This also implies the value of soaring. And that implies a perceived need. And that is a kind of dependence. We are caught in a conundrum of our own making. What are we to do? Live the mess and its contradictions, is the best I can figure.

As presented here, this soaring is an optional activity—it is something that we choose to do. There is also a sense in which we can do nothing but. Guo Xiang made much of this. Commenting on the contrast between the vastness of the mighty bird Peng and the tiny birds that scoff at him (1:6), he writes:

“Though some are larger and some are smaller, every 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 [descriptive adjectives of Zhuangzi’s soaring].” (p 129)

This likely inspired my mantra: I am perfect by virtue of my being perfectly who I am. It is the “all is well” that pertains to every individual thing just as it is. Soaring, in this case, is simply being who we are—victimized or not. We all soar.

Self-awareness is the condition for both our enjoyment and our angst. Though most all “spiritual” projects are ultimately an attempt to eradicate the latter so as to enhance the former, it is unclear (to me, at least) whether this is even possible. And yet, this very existential turmoil is the occasion for our soaring. To be human is to soar.

“Its name is the Tranquility of Turmoil. This Tranquil Turmoil! It is what reaches completion only through its turmoil.” (6:38) Thus does a fictional sage describe Dao—how could we be any different?

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN V

We are often told by advocates of New Age philosophies that it’s our “birthright” to realize whatever “spiritual” enlightenment they imagine. This usually comes with promises of discovering our “true nature” and “true purpose”. Even were we to believe in such essentially religious concepts, the idea of being a “victim of Nature” puts the nix on the assertion of any “birthright”. It tells us that this is equivalent to declaring that we can all be virtuoso violinists—even though some of us might have been born armless.

Does any of this really matter? From the point of view of Zhuangzian Daoism it ultimately does not. No purposive trajectory is believed to be written in the heavens. No salvation is required for individual things or for the Cosmos. All resolves to wellness—where wellness is whatever it resolves to. No change is necessary where change is all there is. Whatever we do or believe is of no eternal consequence.

Is this position also essentially religious? It can be; but it need not be if we can remember that it is only an imaginative interpretation of the world where some such interpretation is unavoidable.

Still, does any of this at least matter practically? I usually make the case that it does—an armless aspirant to violin virtuosity is less likely to be at peace with the givens of her or his existence. In the end, however, this can only be an individual and subjective determination. Where it’s all messy in any case, there’s little room for judging between messes.

In terms of universal applicability, the bottom seems to have dropped out of this present project. Indeed, its only relevance is to my own mess.

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN IV

Confucius’ declaration of his own inability to be free of his bondage to conventional values is especially enlightening. Having been sent to represent him at a (presumably) Daoist wake, a disciple returns scandalized that the mourning friends were singing silly songs and generally making merry. (6:45-7) But Confucius explains that these are those “who roam outside the lines” of convention. He, on the other hand, must “roam inside the lines”. He then goes on to extol the virtues and benefits of what he admittedly does not practice.

Since he apparently would rather be free to roam outside the lines, the disciple asks why he does not do so. “As for myself,” Confucius replies, “I am a victim of Heaven. But that is something that you and I might share.” It is something we all likely share.

We might first take this to imply the “superiority” of the Zhuangzian dao to the Confucian dao, and this is certainly part of the equation. Zhuangzi thinks his dao makes for a happier life. But if we actually apply that dao, that is, adopt its perspective, then there can be no such thing as inferior or superior. They are equalized “under the broad daylight of Heaven”.

The ability to hold these two apparently contradictory views simultaneously is walking two roads.

This paradoxical relationship also obtains between the ideal and the actual and permeates the entirety of any project of self-cultivation we might pursue. We are running a race already won. Why do we not then just kickback and “do lots of nothing in our homeland of not even anything”? Because we too are victims of Heaven, and as such have a race we cannot help but run.

“Self-cultivation” implies a perceived need. And even when we understand that ideally there is no need for self-cultivation, it is only self-cultivation that can make that proximally actual. This dialectic does not reduce to logic—no more than life does.

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN III

Toeless Shushan, whose foot had been amputated for some crime, went to Confucius for spiritual instruction. But Confucius rejected him because of his past failing. Yet Toeless turned the tables and rebuked Confucius for his failure to realize the equalization in non-discrimination that is Dao: “Heaven covers all things. Earth supports all things. I used to think, Sir, that you were just like Heaven and earth—”. (5:13)

This is not unlike the purported words of Jesus: God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) The implication? Be God-like in your tolerance and equanimity. Most Christians also appear to be punished by Heaven in this regard—not unlike the rest of us.

Daoism, needless to say, believes in no God, but the principle is the same. Nor does being punished by Heaven imply volition or karmic consequence—if we take Heaven to be Nature, then it is just the facts of life. If I want to flap my arms and fly, I will discover I am punished by Heaven in this regard. It’s not in my nature.

Toeless understood that it was not in Confucius’s nature to be able “to fly without wings”, to experience Zhuangzian soaring. When he consulted with Laozi, however, this sage suggested an imaginative remedy: “Why don’t you simply let him see life and death as a single string, acceptable and unacceptable as a single thread, thus releasing him from his fetters?”

But Toeless replied: “Heaven itself has inflicted this punishment on him—how can he be released?”

Confucius was stung and confessed his own failing in this regard. Would he then be able to make use of this and soaringly equalize acceptable and unacceptable? Probably not. He likely carried on with the burden of his own sense of failing and self-judgment which, of course, only gave further impetus to his projection of judgment upon others.

But hey, let’s see if we can’t let our sun rise on him as well.

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN II

Two passages in the Inner Chapters speak to this theme of being “punished by Heaven”. The one in which the term is used explicitly has it assigned to Confucius by another. (5:13) The other has Confucius himself admitting to his inability to follow the Zhuangzian dao though he deems it best—he declares himself “a victim of Heaven”. (6:47)

What these two passages have in common is an understanding that the transformative experience that the Zhuangzian dao advocates is not possible for everyone. Indeed, we might also wonder if it’s possible for anyone—given that only fictional characters are represented as having achieved it. This is profoundly significant, needless to say. There are ramifications aplenty.

Ironically, there is something truly liberating here. We’re off the hook! We can step off the treadmill! Nature itself has disallowed our so-called spiritual attainment! Now we can just get on with enjoying being who and what we are! We can shout Yes! to “me”!

But wait—if awareness of our not being able to attain liberation is liberating, then aren’t we being liberated just the same? We are. Or at least we can be. We can be even when we can’t be. Indeed, we can be because we can’t be. “Every enslavement is also an ennobling.” (2:41)

Still, there’s still some conditionality implied here. An awareness of our victimhood is necessary. And how do we discover that? By trying to attain liberation. We must try in order to fail. And when we’ve failed, we can continue trying just the same, albeit now as informed by a lack of a realizable goal.

But if this is how it is, then it is really not the goal that counts at all but only the process. What counts is living. Now. Just as we are. With nothing to become in order to be deemed “acceptable”.

Now that’s liberating!

PUNISHED BY HEAVEN I

Though he makes fast and free with Confucius as a character, one still senses that Zhuangzi respects the historical figure. This is not the case with many of his representations in other, later chapters of the Zhuangzi, where he is held up to ridicule and diminished. This comes with the rise of a more sectarian form of Daoism and the competition for political influence. This needn’t surprise us given the near universal abandonment of the spirit of original insight in favor of the default human inclination for yang-ing. It is the co-option of transcendent experience by religious-mindedness.

Mostly, Zhuangzi uses Confucius as a spokesman for his own philosophy, though that is clearly quite contrary to Confucianism. This creates a sense of irony, a logical disconnect between “fact” and words that casts the entire project—and every such project—into ambiguity and doubt. And that’s good.

There is playfulness here; and playfulness requires an underlying lack of seriousness. Yes, Zhuangzi believes his point of view works best, but since that point of view affirms all points of view, heaven and earth will not topple if his does not win out over others. The real point is to be able to play and then to play. Zhuangzi is at play.

There are times, however, when Confucius is used as the fall-guy—the guy who just can’t do it. There is irony here too because he does actually get it; he can appreciatively articulate Zhuangzi’s philosophy as well as Zhuangzi himself—he just can’t live it. He is “punished by Heaven”.

And that’s okay. It’s great to be runner-up, also ran, or even scratched. It’s all good. All that we would hope for is that we made the best use of our natural abilities. And even failing of that can be wandered in. If all things cannot be wandered in, then nothing can; for wandering is depending on nothing. We can even wander in our inability to wander.

We can only wander when there’s something to wander in. Being punished by Heaven works as well as anything else.

IMAGINATIVE MEDITATION V

Imagine psychologically depending on absolutely nothing. All that happens or could happen would then be acceptable. The totality of experience would be affirmable. All would be well in the imagined Cosmos.

Imagine so identifying with change that no change could threaten you.

Imagine taking life and death as a single string, one body. Your death would then be as affirmable as your life.

Imagine the oneness of all things in their sameness. All things would then be as precious as you are.

These are all imaginative exercises. None of them are demonstrably true. But then no interpretive point of view is. They are simply choices about how to respond to the life experience. Other responses are possible; other responses are equally justifiable; which one best enables you to live as happily as you can manage?

IMAGINATIVE MEDITATION IV

A disgraced man named Wang Tai whose foot has been amputated as punishment for some crime has more disciples than Confucius, and a disciple of Confucius wants to know how this could be. (5:2ff) Unlike Confucius, he teaches nothing, yet people come to him empty and leave full. He practices “a wordless instruction, a formless way of bringing the mind to completion”. Confucius admits that he too should be his disciple, but something has held him back.

Confucius’ disciple further inquires: “How exactly does he make use of his mind?” This is a remarkably different line of inquiry in Zhuangzi’s exploration of sagacity. Making use of one’s mind to bring the mind to completion—isn’t this precisely what we are supposed to eschew?

The relevance of this use of the mind to the method of imaginative meditation should be clear; for that is exactly what it is.

Confucius answers with a powerful imaginative exercise of his own: Looked at from the point of view of their differences, all things are unique. “But looked at from the point of view of their sameness, all things are one. . . . You just release the mind to play in the harmony of all de. Seeing what is one and the same to all things, nothing is ever felt to be lost.”

The mind is thus used playfully—imaginatively. And this is its “completion”. “Hence when the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know, it has reached its utmost.” (2:36) But that’s not the end of it; the mind does not disappear, but goes on to have fun. Released from the need to know, it can now wander among all possibilities.

Confucius’ disciple summarizes: “He uses his mind to discover [the capacities of] his mind and then makes use of that mind of his to develop a mind for the constant.”

“Constant” translates chang. What is this constant? That is a matter of interpretive bias. Curiously, chang can be translated “eternal”, and this mind can become the Eternal Mind. This works well for those of essentialist leanings. But Ziporyn suggests that it rather refers to a mind made “sustainable” in its identification with the imagined oneness of all things wherein “nothing is ever felt to be lost. (p 33; note 6)

The consequence of this for Wang Tai is that the loss of his foot is of no more importance than a clump of soil tossed away. “He takes all that his consciousness knows and unifies it into a singularity, so that his mind has never once died.” He is fearless because he has nothing to lose when identified with that in which nothing can be lost.