THE LIBERATION OF THE WELL FROG V

Scott:  We sure are meandering all over the place in this conversation.

Zhuangzi:  Yes we are—let’s call it wandering! But wandering and changing the subject are two different things. We were talking about the religious aspect of your engagement with me and all this “Classical Chinese Philosophy” bullshit.

Scott:  I invited you here so you could support me in my project, and instead you seem to be tearing it down!

Zz:  You’re most welcome. And I do appreciate the sense of irony in your statement—“neither of the two”!—I haven’t said anything that you’re not trying to say to yourself—only you need a more neutral sounding board to say it.

Scott:  Yes, I see that. But I also worry that all this meandering—wandering—will put off the reader. This is for publication, you know.

Zz:  Ah, yes. Have you ever asked yourself why you need this objectifying project at all? Why you can’t just shut up and enjoy growing in your own solitude? I mean, here we are having a great conversation and you’re worrying about how it will be seen by third parties. But this also has to do with the religious aspect of your philosophizing—and so I’m not letting you off that hook.

Scott:  Okay. But it also feels like I’m hanging out my dirty laundry—complete with the stains on my underwear.

Zz:  What you really fear is the loss of the rationale for your project and your blabbering about it. If getting it isn’t better than not getting it, then what’s the point? You’ve found something to believe in!

Scott:  God! No! Stop! Go away!

Zz:  Go away?  Just when things are getting interesting? I don’t think so! So look, right now you’re standing at “the threshold of the great furnace”, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking you’re ready or able to jump in. You’re looking at true emptiness, and that’s scary. Mostly the best we can do is just see the fire of yin and that somehow incrementally transforms our yanging. So let’s get on with your project—because even if you were to actually jump into the furnace you could still emerge and continue your ceaseless blabbering. “Neither of the two!”

Scott:  Yes, that last is so important to realize. But give me a moment; I just need to catch my breath . . . I got dizzy there for a moment . . . Okay, so now I’d like to meander back to the unfinished threads of this conversation—and close the sack sort of speak. And then we can move on to the liberation of the well-frog.

THE LIBERATION OF THE WELL FROG IV

Scott:  So, does getting it or not getting it really make any practical difference in our individual- and collective-flourishing?

Zz:  Well, let’s first go back to your previous question: Does any of this blabber make a difference? And the answer to that is clearly Yes. We’re having fun are we not?

Scott:  In that case, most all blabbering is practically beneficial. Even your buddy Huizi’s five carts full of blabber was contributing to his happiness.

Zz:  Of course it was. So, why do you say even?

Scott:  Well, because in the Tianxia he is dismissed as an egoist who wrote just to further his self-aggrandizement, for one thing. And you too criticized him for never going beyond words, for another.

Zz:  Surely you know better than to take the Tianxia’s assessment seriously? And I was criticizing his philosophy—not him—and on a different level. But the point is, on a certain level—before we answer the question of the efficacy of our philosophy—which, by the way, was the core issue between Huizi and myself—we can at least see that it has an efficacy just in the doing of it.

Scott:  Okay, I see that. So, on that level it doesn’t matter whether we get it or don’t get it. But there remains the question of whether getting that Dao is valueless actually makes any practical difference in one’s life. And the answer is . . . ?

Zz:  If I tell you it made for more a difference in my own enjoyment of life than Huizi’s did for him, would that have any bearing on whether it does or might in yours?

Scott:  Why is this area of inquiry making me so uncomfortable?

Zz:  Because you want to believe in some true and effective remedy—one that is better than the others. And if we say getting it or not getting it are effectively the same, then you don’t have one. None of it really matters! In the end, your need for this perspective to be more effective than others is a . . . religious desire.

Scott:  No! Not my bête noire!

Zz:  Yes! Why do you think it is your bête noire—if not because you have discovered it living in your own mind?

THE LIBERATION OF THE WELL FROG III

Zhuangzi:  I’d like to hear more of your take on the liberation of the well-frog, but first there’s one other indication of the author’s divergence from a dao of not-knowing that I’d like to point out. It’s one of my pet peeves. . . .

Scott:  And I want to hear it; but first I’ve found another passage that I think suggests that the author “got” it. “Advancing and retreating, shrinking and expanding according to the time, he [the sage] always returns to the most constrained but can thereby be described as reaching the expanse of the ultimate.” The well-frog is thus liberated just where and as he is—in the most constrained—he is not lifted out of his well and made to swim in the ocean.

Zz:  Now that’s ironic! That’s the author’s conclusion given his knowing what is the Heavenly and what is the human—and that’s what I want to address. Your phrase, as translated, seems to me to completely contradict its premises—if “de resides in the Heavenly” and not in the human as he avers, then we don’t really “return to the most constrained” but rather find some positive value in the Heavenly. I think Ziporyn might have once again been overly creative here.

Scott:  You think Ziporyn got it wrong?

Zz: I think the “problem” with Ziporyn’s translation here is that he gets it and thus translates so as to help the author get it. But the author is actually full of contradictions and didn’t get it.

Scott:  Remind again what we think it means to “get” it?

Zz:  To get it is to understand that Dao is itself empty and valueless and that that’s its value. It doesn’t guide us with positive knowing—as the author suggests—but rather invites us into an experience of One Big Open-endedness in which everything is valued equally—including the Heavenly and the human.

Scott:  And remind me again why it matters whether we get it or don’t get it.

Zz:  It’s when you ask things like that that I begin to think there’s hope for you. Ultimately, it matters not at all. But you know that. I think what you’re really asking is whether it makes any practical difference. Am I right?

Scott: Yeah. At the end of the day, does any of this blabber lead to a happier life?

Zz:  It rejoices my heart to hear you ask that—because you’re right—for me our individual- and collective-flourishing is the only true value—and that because it is what life itself embodies.

THE LIBERATION OF THE WELL FROG II

Scott:  So what is the “value of the Dao” given that Dao relativizes all values?

Zhuangzi:  That’s my favorite question of all the River God’s questions! He’s a great foil, don’t you think? He has his mind blown by the vastness of the ocean, and the Ocean God explains how that experience is comparable with the experience of Dao.

Scott:  Yes! That for me is the point of the entire passage. The Ocean God speaks of the ascending order of relative limitedness and vastness from the extremely circumscribed world of the well-turtle and well-frog, to the river, to the ocean, to the cosmos, and finally to the limitlessness of Dao—but somehow they are all the equitable. The experience of Dao is possible in every circumstance, no matter how constrained and limited.

Zz:  Exactly! And getting that is the value of the Dao!

Scott:  So the value of the Dao is its valuelessness in that it has no inherent value in itself. It’s not the ultimate value, but that which, being empty of value, enables the entirely positive valuation of everything just as it is—just where it is.

Zz:  Exactly! I was wondering where you were going to go with your “liberation of the well frog”. I admit I was worried you were going to have him swimming in the ocean—poor thing! But do you think the author got this?

Scott:  No! Yes! I don’t know! But I don’t think so. He more or less says it, but then he seems to revert to Dao having positive value. He falls back into “knowing”, as you said.

Zz:  And he never liberates the well-frog, but just leaves him bound to his parochial perspective. “You cannot discuss the sea with a well turtle, for he is limited in space.”

Scott:  But if the well-frog and well-turtle can’t be liberated, then no one can!

Zz:  But they can! And thus, so can we! But where do you think he seems to get it?

Scott:  “Waxing and waning, filling and emptying, this is the way of describing the method by which they are in the greatest sense just right for their position, the way all things fit together.”

Zz:  Hmm. Ziporyn might have been overly creative there, but I get your point. In any case, isn’t it great that we can perhaps get more from a text than the author himself intended?

Scott:  Yeah. Sometimes I think I do that with your stuff!

Zz:  What! You think you can improve on the sayings of a Great Sage!? Ha, ha, ha. I truly hope so.

THE LIBERATION OF THE WELL-FROG I

Zhuangzi:  Hey.

Scott:  Hey. I’m reading the “Autumn Floods” chapter of the Zhuangzi. Great stuff.

Zz:  “You cannot discuss the sea with a well turtle, for he is limited in space. . . . And you cannot discuss the Dao with a nook-and-corner scholar, for he is bound by his doctrines.”

Scott:  I’ve heard it called the pinnacle of Daoism.

Zz:  Really? I wouldn’t know . . . not being a Daoist myself.

Scott:  Yet the author is thought to have been your best interpreter—and maybe even one of your disciples. Is that true?

Zz:  It’s not my business to clarify matters of fact—what isn’t known about the past is best left that way. But when it comes to ideas—especially ideas about my ideas—well, on that I’ll comment. He does take my relativizing of all our discriminating in an interesting direction. There’s some good meat for meditation in it. But he also falls back into knowingly discriminating—even when by his own reasoning he should have known better.

Scott:  How so?

Zz:  Well, look at his closing statements. Let’s see . . . “When you understand the Dao, you’ll be able to see through to the way things fit together [that’s li by the way], and then you’ll certainly understand what is appropriate to each changing situation.” That’s his answer to the question about the value of the Dao—given the relativization and equalization of all “value”.

Scott:  Ah, yes. Li—principle—a guideline. If you “know the Dao” you’ll understand the Heavenly guidance. Follow the evolution of the use of li and you’ll discover just how addicted to knowing we are.

Zz:  My fault. I was among the first to speak of tianli—Heavenly li—but I only used it once and then only to describe the natural interstices in the anatomy of an ox! But clearly you don’t have to follow the evolution of the meaning of li very far for it to already be a way of knowing. Indeed, knowing always seems to be the very next step even when we discover the value of not-knowing.

Scott:  It’s so ironic. Line one of the Laozi—that everyone takes as the foundation of Daoism—says that a dao that provides guidance isn’t really Dao. The value of Dao is no-definite-value.

Zz:  Yep. Not-knowing is a tough road to follow.

Scott:  But it’s the great watershed that determines whether we follow a dao of yin or a dao of yang.

MAY THE TAO OF HAPPINESS FLY UP YOUR NOSE

[This is my Amazon review of Derek Lin’s The Tao of Happiness: Stories from Chuang-Tzu for Your Spiritual Journey. It’s very critical, but to my thinking the book rides roughshod over Zhuangzi’s work and makes no attempt to really understand or present his point of view.]

“If you have not yet encountered Chuang Tzu, you are in for a treat.” So opens the back cover of this book. I couldn’t agree more—only you won’t encounter him here. Lin’s dao and that of Zhuangzi are polar opposites. Though we all necessarily begin in yang (our belief in self and our desire to fulfil its wants) our first step makes all the difference. Lin steps from yang into more yang; Zhuangzi steps into yin (emptiness, not-knowing, not-doing, not-achieving, purposelessness). “Just be empty, nothing more.” Yet all the self-flourishing outcomes for which Lin advocates are likewise the fruit of the way of yin. Only they now grow by way of their having been de-coupled from their opposites so that they depend on no particular outcome. The dao of happiness is a happiness in every circumstance and is as happy in unhappiness as in happiness, and in failure as well as in success. It requires no “true self”, no meaning, no purpose, no after-life. It is non-conditional.

The spirit of Zhuangzi would have me affirm Lin’s dao as it would every other. Thus, let me say that this dao might be just the dao for you—perhaps simple self-help “wisdom” is what you’re looking for. And let us not forget that none of this matters all that much. It’s all equivalent to the “chirpings of baby birds”. No one needs to be saved, in any case.

Nevertheless, such an affirmation is especially difficult in the matter of the philosophy of Zhuangzi. Lin has so manipulated and (frankly) distorted many (if not most) of the stories he has lifted from the Zhuangzi that though they fit his own purposes, they no longer convey their intended meanings. Yet even this is acceptable, though one would wish for at least an acknowledgement of the fact.

There’s a lot of the negative in this review, but sometimes we get a better idea of what something is through exposure to what it is not. Thank you, Derek Lin. Still, I pause over the “send” button wondering especially if the title of this review won’t appear to be some kind of curse. I mean it, however, not as a curse, but as a prelude to a happy outcome. Thus, if you read this book and don’t find it meets your needs, perhaps you will be lucky enough to have the tao of this happiness fly up your nose, have a good sneeze, and be inspired to discover Zhuangzi for yourself.

ZHUANGZI DISSES THIS BLOG XII

Zhuangzi:  “That’s an order!”?  Ha, ha. Who’s the dependent one now—me who comes or you who needs me to come?

Scott:  Well, I guess we both are—but maybe me more than you. Which is pretty ironic.

Zz:  Yes, ironic indeed. The shadow of your shadow is less dependent than you are. My dependence is by way of causation—which nothing can escape—and yours is psychological.

Scott:  But if my dependence or non-dependence is a purely psychological experience, then it figures that I would likely be more dependent. I mean—no offense—but well, you just “are”—like a rock—and I’m always trying to figure out what I am and trying to be it.

Zz:  No offense taken—like Shen Dao says, “A clump of earth never strays from the Dao.” But then, of course, straying from the Dao is as much the Dao as anything else—and I rather enjoyed it.

Scott:  You enjoyed straying from the Dao?

Zz:  Of course! That’s just being human! And I liked being human. It was fun! Does a rock have fun being a rock?

Scott:  So Shen Dao’s critics were right that his dao was a perfect dao for the dead, but not for the living.

Zz:  In one sense, yes. But they didn’t get that part of the fun can be living as if dead. Indeed, that makes for the most fun of all!

Scott:  Wait. Living as if dead is fun? Wait! I think I get it—living as if dead means taking life and death as a single string; incorporating death into one’s life is the equivalence of uniting existence and non-existence to form a oneness. And living that frees you to enjoy life all the more.

Zz:  That’s it. Death is not just taken as an inevitable—begrudgingly—but actually informs our living in such a way as to unite us with the One Big Open-endedness. That’s how and where we wander!

Scott:  I feel like we’ve hit the bedrock of your philosophy.

Zz:  Yep. Bye!

Scott:  Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi? Okay—see you when I see you.

ZHUANGZI DISSES THIS BLOG XI

Zhuangzi: Well, I’m off. Thanks for the libations.

Scott:  One last thing . . . .

Zz:  Good grief! You’re insatiable. Okay, what is it?

Scott: I need you to diss the blog.

Zz:  What!?

Scott:  You haven’t dissed it yet, and that’s the title of the series. Besides, I said you would.

Zz:  Okay, here’s my mouth; make me.

Scott:  No, you need to do it. Pretend you’re Penumbra—the shadow of my shadow who is as real and self-so as I think I am.

Zz:  Hmm. Okay. Your blog is an endless stream of blabber that never makes any difference.

Scott:  “Big but useless!”

Zz:  Touché! But that’s not fair. You can’t defend yourself, if you insist on me criticizing you.

Scott:  I retract that. It’s useful to me who enjoys the blabbering, but likely useless to the world at large. How’s that?

Zz:  That seems like a fair enough compromise. And, of course, neither usefulness nor uselessness is of ultimate import in any case.

Scott: All is well!

Zz:  If you wish. Keep the non-faith. Ciao.

Scott:  Wait! Come back! That’s an order! Damn, he’s taken this self-so non-dependence thing too far.

ZHUANGZI DISSES THIS BLOG X

Scott:  So, if non-existence and existence . . .

Zhuangzi: Me and you! Ha, ha.

Scott:  . . . can be united to form a oneness, then whatever one “is” can be imagined as equivalent to whatever the One Big Open-endedness is.

Zz:  That’s hiding the world in the world where nothing can be lost.

Scott:  So the paradox, “No one lives longer than a dead child, and (the Methuselah-ian) Pengzu died young”, expresses this equivalence.

Zz:  Yes, but I was having a moment of . . . rapture when I said it. It’s a lot more than a conclusion to a logical argument.

Scott:  That’s why it’s more than just a paradox. Both the dead child and the long lived Pengzu equally participate in the Great Happening where existence and non-existence have no ultimate meaning.

Zz:  That’s right. And more broadly, it also demonstrates that all our distinctions evaporate in the formation of a oneness. The paradox before this one is: “Nothing is larger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mt. Tai is small.” The tip of the hair is as “big” as anything can get, being united with Everything.

Scott:  I just focus on the existence/non-existence part because it especially matters to me who thinks he exists. I’ve taken the liberty of also saying that a dead child has had as rich and full a life as Pengzu. Do you agree?

Zz: Absolutely. I like that because it kicks our bias for existence square in the butt.

Scott:  It also relativizes all our hunger for achievement and longevity.

Zz: And when those are put into perspective, we can pursue them both without them ruling our lives. Our happiness in life is no longer contingent on success, “making our mark”, or thinking we’ll be “remembered”.

Scott:  You’re remembered!

Zz:  Yeah, but there’s no “me” in it. Have you ever googled “me”? There are lots of pictures of “me”—all different! That’s how much of “me” there’s in all this so-called remembrance.

Scott:  Remembrance and forgotten-ness are the same.

Zz:  Yep.

ZHUANGZI DISSES THIS BLOG IX

Zhuangzi:  Well, I suppose that’s enough profundity for now . . .

Scott:  Okay, I’ll let you go . . . but there’s one other thing that’s come to mind with regards to this non-existence of our existence—the paradox: “No one lives longer than a dead child, and Pengzu died young.”

Zz: Ha! We could go at it all day and not get to the bottom of that one. But alright, open another bottle and let’s get on with it.

Scott:  You’re going to have to help me here—I’m not sure where to start.

Zz:  Context is usually a good place for starting; and in this case it hits the target spot on. Do you remember it?

Scott:  You’ve said that your saying might say something different than what others have said, but it’s hard to know if it has for sure because being different and being similar are so similar.

Zz:  When we put things into different categories—like correct and incorrect—it’s still always possible to put them together in yet another category. So, everything is both different and similar. A cow and an ox are different, but also similar. A human and a snake are different and the same. A pebble and the universe are dissimilar, but also very much the same. Your interpretation of my stuff and that of all those with whom you so vehemently disagree, are the same. You and I are very different, but also very much the same.

Scott:  I, who “exist”, and you who “do not exist”, are different, but can also somehow be . . . united to form a oneness.

Zz:  That’s exactly where I take it with that infinite regress, as you call it. If there is existence and non-existence, then the transformation from one to the other does not resolve to logic. There’s always a not-yet-beginning-to-be-existence or non-existence—yet another category.

Scott:  So you’re not sure which is which—there seems to be non-existence and not be existence.

Zz:  Yeah. Maybe I made it more complicated than necessary—it’s just as you said: existence and non-existence can be united to form a oneness. And what’s that? Who knows? But if someone knows, then that would be another category which would require yet another category—what it is not—and those two could also be united to form a oneness ad infinitum.

Scott: So it’s all just one big open-endedness.

Zz:  Go ahead and capitalize that one: One Big Open-Endedness.

Scott:  Just like us.