CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY III

There is an argument for the existence of “God” that states that since we want “him” to exist, “he” must. Why else would we have been created thus? This reasoning is too specious and question-begging to require serious consideration. It presupposes what it “proves”. I mention it here only because it parallels the belief that, since we yearn for an ultimate purpose for ourselves and (consequentially) the cosmos, there must be such a purpose.


Zhuangzi’s admonition that we not “take our minds as our teacher” establishes what he sees as the frontline of the battle between authenticity and inauthenticity. Because we want to “understand” ourselves and the world does not mean that we can. We can certainly understand much about these, but we can never draw the sack closed; we can never reach the end that alone can justify the beginnings. What is the alternative? Living. Because we do in fact have minds that are intrinsically dualistic, as evinced in our belief that we have a life (rather than that we are a life), the movement back to more spontaneous living requires a mystical leap (where mystical simply means moving beyond the reasoning mind). I call this surrender in trust. Zhuangzi, more objectively, calls it “adding nothing to the process of life”. Thankfulness and unmediated joy arise from being the life that we are.


The yearning for an ultimate purpose, I would suggest, is a function of the reasoning mind and should likewise not be taken as our teacher. Life is its own “purpose”, and that has no obvious connection to a logically required ultimate purpose.


In many respects, Zhuangzi resembles a cold-blooded empiricist. Just the facts, ma’am. He is no airy-fairy romanticist or religionist. He arrives at his “free and carefree wandering” through yi ming, “making use of the light”. Ziporyn (self-admittedly “controversially”) translates “the Illumination of the Obvious”. His approach is phenomenological. He asks, How is life experienced, not, How can life be made to make sense?


This “battle” between authentic and inauthentic living needs, of course, to be understood in the light of a broader perspective that appreciates that sense in which they are both affirmable. The “petty-minded” dove and the vast-minded Peng are both simply living out their natures. Somewhere in here is the power to choose, but we are in no position to draw the lines too firmly. Our yearning for purpose is how we typically manifest, and although there is a better (happier) alternative, the more authentic view does not completely negate the lesser.  Living the lesser in the light of the higher is, in any case, perhaps the best we can do.

CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY II

Translating ming as “circumstance” rather than as the more common “fate”, or even “destiny”, has the advantage of avoiding two misunderstandings which are decidedly not part of the Daoist worldview—purpose and fatalism. From the point of view of Daoism, nothing happens (exists) for a reason. Nor did anything that has happened have to happen.


Neither of these negations is intended as a definitive assertion of the contrary, but simply returns us to the real experience of our existential not-knowing. Perhaps there is a divine plan, and maybe everything is pre-determined. Who knows? The point is to authentically live in harmony with our actual experience.


The hunger for things to have a purpose is one of our strongest yearnings. Why are we here? Or vastly more importantly, why am I here? For this reason, religiously-minded formulae typically promise to reveal our “true purpose”. This serves to reify us as a forever someone completely integrated into a cosmic Plan. What a relief. What could be better? Since we clearly need comforting, why would we want to disabuse those of what comfort they find here? Would we snatch a teddy bear from a child because it is not “real”?


Let me be honest and admit that this present project is in many respects my own teddy bear. For this reason I call my blabberings a philosophy of cope. In my defense, I would point out that it is awareness of the fact that makes all the difference. The trajectory toward authenticity (sagacity) is in any case, as I repeatedly aver, an open-ended and messy business.


Since our yearning for purpose is so strong we might ask if it is not therefore “innate”. By Daoist reckoning, if it’s innate, it is to be affirmed and nurtured. I make the case for self-flourishing (which is inseparable from universal-flourishing) as the highest good, because it is innate to life. Life is the élan of self-flourishing. It needs no justification; nor can any be found. Can we say the same for the yearning for purpose? Should we encourage it rather than question it? This is an important question because it helps illuminate the frontlines of Zhuangzi’s fight for greater authenticity against those inclinations that contribute to the contrary. I will leave this issue for the next post.

CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY I

[Though I continue to work on As the Cookie Crumbles, the shared installments on this blog often seemed a bit too truncated and tedious for this format. I may, however, share selected portions in the future.]


I’m re-reading Steve Coutinho’s An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies, which I highly recommend. So many “introductions” start off with wrong-footed presuppositions that one that does not is refreshingly helpful even if necessarily cursory.


The word ming is typically translated as “fate” or “destiny”, both of which can be taken to imply something quite different from Zhuangzi’s meaning. Coutinho suggests “circumstance”, a more neutral term that avoids the ill-fitting connotations of the former.


“Circumstance” is a concept of critical importance to Zhuangzian “Daoism”. It speaks to the “unavoidable” that surrounds and permeates our every existential moment. This constitutes our interface with the world as we experience it, and is thus relational. Circumstance is more than simply the objective conditions of life; it is also the manner in which we interact with them. This being the case, every circumstance is an opportunity to nurture our experience of life—to further realize its potential flourishing.


Coutinho quotes Zhuangzi in this regard: “To tend to your heart-mind so that sadness and joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to rest content in it as Circumstance, this is the height of potency” (Watson, p 60, with amendment).


In this series I hope to explore this pivotal activity in some depth. We might start by seeing that it is in fact an activity. It is work. Ideally, it would be no such thing in having been already fully accomplished, but we are not sages and thus have work to do. This is self-cultivation.


Though it can seem tediously repetitive, always it seems necessary to also suggest that we step back off the narrow road of human self-involvement and onto the road of a more cosmic perspective. Self-cultivation is best accomplished in the light of its being ultimately unnecessary. This is likely a condition for wuwei, doing not-doing. We are perfect by virtue of our being perfectly who we are, just as we are—an absolutely unavoidable cosmic circumstance. There are no conditions we are required to meet. All is well. Now that we have realized that we are perfect, we can get to work on getting “better”.