UNDER HEAVEN LXII

“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

The Confucian Xunzi (314-239 BCE) said of Zhuangzi that he knew a great deal about heaven but very little about humanity. He clearly did not understand him as well as the author of the Tianxia with whom he likely shared residence at the Jixia Academy. (Nor is it likely that he wished to understand him.)

Zhuangzi did indeed imaginatively travel “up beyond” things, but this also facilitated a better understanding of human circumstances and how to authentically address them. His sage, as I have said, is deeply engaged in the world—only her engagement is “dark”. “Blunt the point. Loosen the tangles. Soften the gaze. Unite with the dust.  This is called the dark uniting.” (Laozi 56)

Yanging manipulators such as Xunzi neither understand nor appreciate the remedial power within the darkness of yin. It works unseen. “Vanishing into things” (Guo Xiang), becoming “one with the Transforming Openness” (6:54), renders one’s activity (wei) a non-activity (wu-wei).

The ability to “respond to every transformation” is a common theme in classical Chinese visions of sagacity. Indeed, this is often taken as the most overt attribute of a sage. Before the arrival of Buddhism, Chinese spirituality was very much about how to practically be in this world. (Zen, something of a synthesis of Buddhism and Daoism, retained this sensibility.)

There are, however, different qualities of response, and the Daoist one is informed and transformed by a mystical uniting with the “heavenly”—which is to say, with openness and vastness.

And quite to the contrary of Xunzi’s myopic reading of Zhuangzi, he is always careful to make clear that neither the heavenly nor the human should have priority over the other. (6:23) We are obliged to walk two roads at once.

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