A second position of the authors of Genuine Pretending is that the Zhuangzi can be legitimately interpreted in any number of ways. They simply choose to interpret it as I do. This squeezes my mind between a sense that Zhuangzi actually had one clear message and the sense that that message affirms the legitimacy of interpreting him in any way one chooses. Thus, in interpreting Zhuangzi as I do, I am obliged to concede the point which seems to negate the legitimacy of that interpretation. Or does it? If it does, that can only be helpful inasmuch as every idea is best when self-negating.


This is great stuff because it gets at the heart of Zhuangzi’s dao. The sage “lets them all bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”. (2:15; Ziporyn) She affirms all de. “Once upon a time, ten suns rose in the sky at once, and the ten thousand things were all simultaneously illuminated.  And how much better are many Virtuosities [de] than many suns?” (2:38)


It is great stuff because it taxes and befuddles the mind. And that was very much what Zhuangzi wanted to do. As I have said elsewhere, his work is intended to act very much like a koan—“understanding” it might be a good first step, but not until that and all discriminating understanding is shattered has it done its intended work. And that work is to move us from narrow- and close-mindedness to a vast openness. I say “vast” because it is meant to be a transformation of radical proportions—a quantum leap beyond the merely incremental on a scale of openness.


Also, as in Zen, there is an inherent paradox. One must pass through the gate of the gateless barrier. One must try not to try, understand how not to understand, know how not-to-know.


I wrote above that Zhuangzi had one clear message. That message, however, is that there is no such thing as a clear message, if by that we mean a cognitively sustainable dao, and this was communicated through the media of ironic humor, the hyperbolic and the bizarre. No wonder his work is open to so many different interpretations.


There are essentially two ways to interpret Zhuangzi: religiously or non-religiously. (The reader is reminded that I understand religiousness as any view that believes anything is absolutely true. Science and rationalism are typically very religious.) The authors make frequent mention of the views of those who pursue a religious form of Daoism, and many scholars are among them. And though they affirm the validity of such an interpretation, they also make clear that these two approaches are mutually exclusive. The difference is as between Something and Nothing.


What difference does this make in practice? Probably very little. My guess is that practitioners of a religious dao have the satisfaction of believing they are becoming more “spiritual” (though I remain skeptical), while we few practitioners of a radically empty dao have the satisfaction of  thinking we are “right”. But that puts us in the same pot of egoistic soup. Let’s let that “bask in the broad daylight of Heaven” and wander there.

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