YANG ZHU IV

[A personal note: I’m on my boat in Mexico, have been “on the hard”, but “splash” today. This means I’ll be off the grid and thus my posting will be less frequent.]

An interesting thing about Yang Zhu is that his philosophical response to the human experience is entirely practical and secular. He makes no appeal to “Heaven” or to an idealistic “true self”. Just the facts, ma’am.

What are the “facts”? Well, they are however we actually experience life. They are the human condition as it manifests, not as we would have it be, and not as informed by idealist notions of “higher” purpose or of a “true nature”. They are what Zhuangzi’s “illumination of the obvious” tells us about ourselves.

If this is the case, then if we are growing our own response, we need look no further than to our own experience and draw our own conclusions. There is no other guiding authority. “Know thyself”—there’s no better point of departure from a Zhuangzian or Yangist point of view.

Graham suggests three tenets Yangists derive from this inquiry. He arrives at these by way of references to or apparent expressions of this philosophy in various classical documents, especially the Zhuangzi, Lu Spring and Autumn, and Huainanzi. These tenets are: “Keeping one’s nature (xing) intact”, “protecting one’s genuineness (chen)”, and “not letting one’s body be tied to other things”. (Disputers, pp 56-9) I would add a fourth: Our ultimate destiny is completely outside our control.

Our “nature” (xing) is nothing other than how we find ourselves to be. This again is ground-zero for a philosophical Daoist’s response to life—what is our actual experience? A primary aspect of this is our desire to live. The will-to-live is our inherent nature. Its practical outworking is a care for ourselves such that we live for as long and as well as possible. Living out one’s “allotted years” is a fundamental value for Yangists and one which was fully adopted by Daoism.

There’s some fatalism here (my fourth tenet)—we have an allotted life-span and no amount of wishful thinking can change that—no redemption is imagined. Still, there is the freedom to choose to live in a manner that avoids premature death and makes the most of the time. And that is at the heart of Yang’s philosophy—and Zhuangzi’s as well, I believe.

It is said of Yang that “he discovered the body”. It’s hard to imagine the need for such a discovery given our physicality, but the point is that Yang put staying alive first. One should not “sacrifice” one’s physical self for anything external to it. Not for one’s country, not for money, not for power, not for prestige. This is what it means for one’s body not to be tied to other things—not to be “thinged by things”.

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