The Confucian goal of complete seriousness, wherein the performance of one’s societal roles perfectly matches one’s actual character, does indeed closely resemble the goal of authenticity as found in our modern era. Zhuangzi’s zhen (genuineness), on the other hand, recognizes no fixed and sure definition of what societal norms are right and which are wrong (there being a multitude of different norms) and thus the sage—the one in the not-know—is able to play the many roles in which she finds herself without taking them too seriously. This is genuine pretending. Consider also how this might lead us all to greater tolerance and even harmony—though we wouldn’t want to take these too seriously either.

There is another, more fundamental, distinction between authenticity and genuineness, however. The Heideggerian idea of being authentic presupposes a fixed-self upon which to work. We are somebody and wish to be a better somebody. Zhuangzi’s zhen, on the other hand, is a response to the discovery that “‘myself’ has never begun to exist” and thus one’s sense of self becomes unfixed and flexible: “Sometimes he thinks he’s a horse, sometimes he thinks he is an ox. Such understanding is truly reliable, such Virtuosity [de] deeply genuine [zhen]. (Ziporyn 7:1)

The authors of Genuine Pretending make this point succinctly: “[T]he genuine pretender represents not a quest for self-creation but a quest for self-dissolution.” (33) There is, of course, an implicit contradiction here as there is in all such “quests”. One does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha. We are immersed in the waters of our egocentrism and every attempt to pull ourselves out is necessarily egocentric. The Zhuangzian solution, at least in part, is to wander in our egocentrism, which is to say, not to take the quest too seriously. Have fun walking your dao.

This awareness of “having” no-fixed-self spreads out and encompasses every aspect of our world perspective. The de-reification (de-being-ification) of the self leads to a refusal to reify anything: Truth, God, sages, immortals, daos, dao, life-purpose, right and wrong. When I speak of the religious, this is what I mean—the reification of anything—taking anything as fixed and true and getting all non-contingently serious about it.

Seriousness is necessary and commendable—caring deeply about our collective well-being is a genuine expression of our humanity—only to not also walk the meta-road wherein all is seen as well in any event is to torment oneself and, most likely, others.

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