THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS IV

Zhuangzi:  People worry that an experience of oneness undermines our sense right and wrong—and we can’t be trusted to do the “right” thing without that sense dictating to us how to behave.

Scott:  There’s an infamous murderous and insane cult leader, Charles Manson, who is reported to have declared, “If all is One, what is evil?” But wouldn’t it be foolish to believe he did evil because he believed that dictum or had had an experience of oneness? Every cognitive justification for an act deemed good or evil is after the fact; it is not the cause of our behavior. Our actions arise from something much deeper than what we say we “believe”.

Zz:  But he was right; “if all is One”, there is nothing evil. The view from Dao transcends such discriminating concerns, which is why I say that the sage does not allow the natural human inclination of distinguishing between right and wrong to rule her; that’s what keeps right and wrong from entering her Numinous Reservoir and destroying her inner harmony. And that’s what allows her to affirm the “rightness” of all things.

Scott:  But that doesn’t mean that within the human sphere there isn’t good an evil. It’s just that we understand that it only exists within that sphere. We are informed by a higher view that relativizes our concern for such things and frees us from being ruled by them.

Zz:  There’s a great passage in “Autumn Floods” that addresses this: The person who says, “Why don’t we make only rightness our master and eliminate wrongness, make only order our master and eliminate chaos?”—that person has yet to understand how right and wrong are inextricably all mixed up and cannot be so clearly divided. The author tells us that that would be like taking yin as our master and eliminating yang—an obvious impossibility.

Scott:  And the irony is that in trying to make only right our master, we in fact make wrong our master. We know what is right by knowing what is wrong. Doing the right becomes an avoidance of the wrong. “Embrace the right, and the wrong shall rule.”

Zz:  Exactly. And that is where spontaneity comes in. Isn’t true goodness that which we do without the mediation of right and wrong? The sage does what is “right”, not because she thinks it right, but because that’s who she is.

Scott:  In the final analysis, morality is for the immoral, which is why within the human sphere we must make use of it. Xunzi is right: Humans are by Nature warped. And that fundamental warpedness—our ability to act outside of instinct—leads to all manner of chosen warpedness.

Zz: Yet even that is to be human and is thus affirmable—from the point of view of Dao, the view from Oneness.

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS III

Scott:  So we can recommend an experience of oneness because it makes for greater happiness. We are hedonists.

Zhuangzi:  We are! Why do people find that so . . . “wrong”!?

Scott:  Because they do not trust themselves. Or more likely, they do not trust others. They can pursue their own happiness without falling into a pernicious antinomian oneness, but others cannot be trusted to do so. Right and wrong must therefore trump the pursuit of happiness, lest the others run amok in licentiousness.

Zz:  “Pernicious antinomian oneness”—that’s a new one!

Scott:  A certain Zen “master” was explaining oneness and felt it necessary to assure us that it wasn’t a “pernicious oneness”. Somehow that struck me as so not-a-good-word that it was a sort of epiphany for me. I now ironically fantasize on starting the Church of Pernicious Oneness. Our motto is “By nature warped!” Thank you Xunzi!

Zz:  “Not-a-good-word”—can you explain that?

Scott:  In Zen a “good word” is a word or action that signifies understanding of the un-understandable. In one Zen story a master threatens to kill the cat the possession of which is the object of a dispute between his disciples—if someone cannot say a good word. They all remain silent, and the cat dies. Another disciple who was not present, upon hearing the story from the master, puts his sandals on his head and walks away. “You would have saved the cat!” the master shouts after him. Or do you know the story of Two Words Too Many?

Zz:  I’ve probably heard it, but let’s hear it again.

Scott:  A bunch of Zen masters meet in an inn for a blabber session. But the master thought to be the most enlightened—whatever that means—does not come out of his room to join the word-fest. One master complains, “At least he could give us one word.” Upon hearing this, the most-realized master says, “That would be one word too many.” But the cook, overhearing this, says, “Now there are two rat turds in the rice!” Who said a good word here? Who “got” it?

Zz:  Seems to me there are three turds in the rice. No word is a good word; but words are necessary. That’s my good word. So, you felt that qualifying oneness by reference to right and wrong the master betrayed the experience of oneness. I agree.

Scott: Similarly, to worry about right and wrong when we declare happiness as the greatest good and as the fruit of an experience of oneness is to betray a lack of understanding of oneness.

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS II

Zhuangzi:  Yes, there are many ways into an experience of oneness. Even Huizi in his deconstruction of language had his moment, though he didn’t wish to pursue it further. But when it’s all said and done, it’s not that big of a deal, in any case. He lived, he died. His enjoyment of life was pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Nothing was gained. Nothing was lost.

Scott:  That’s the view from the top of the mountain. Somehow the so-called ultimate experience always self-effaces and returns you to the most mundane. I always think of the supposed words of Gautama in this regard: “I gained absolutely nothing from supreme, unsurpassable enlightenment; that’s why it is called supreme, unsurpassable enlightenment.” There is no gap between what we are and the realization of what we are. There’s nothing to become, because we are already unavoidably it in our becoming.

Zz:  That touches on your mantra: “I’m perfect by virtue of my being perfectly who I am, as I am.”

Scott:  Nothing to do; nothing to become; no conditions to meet. It’s already true of me and everyone and everything else. It’s the Great Happening. We feel like we have to “go” somewhere; become something different; realize oneness. But not-realizing oneness is the same as realizing it. It’s always the case. It’s all completely embraced. It’s all good. All is well in the Great Mess.

Zz: Is it? Or do we only imagine it as so?

Scott:  We only imagine it as so. There’s no other choice but to imagine some interpretation of reality or another. But the experience is real enough—whether “true” or not. Every experience lies outside of truth or untruth.

Zz:  And the fantastic experience of a madman is as affirmable as any other experience?

Scott:  It is. Nothing is not the Great Happening. But madmen don’t seem to enjoy life as much as “sane” people. They have settled on an imagined reality that is usually terribly painful. Neither their own flourishing nor that of others is enhanced by their interpretation of the world. And that, from the human point of view, is the highest value—being happy and enhancing the happiness of others. Madness is thus not a particularly appealing imagined reality.

Zz:  And realizing a sense of oneness is an experience conducive to our self- and collective-flourishing. That’s its only value. It’s not realizing the Truth. The great riddle is not solved. Reality is not made whole once again. God doesn’t awaken from his dream.  No hocus-pocus metaphysics are implied. It’s just choosing to experience the world in a certain way.

THE CHURCH OF PERNICIOUS ONENESS I

Scott:  Hi again! No friend this time?

Zhuangzi:  Hi. No. You’ll be in fundamental disagreement with most anyone I bring, and I thought you might be in need of a break from your lessons in “following along with the present this”.

Scott: I am; it’s true. But Xunzi was a pretty big challenge, you’ll have to admit. Huizi was easier.

Zz: Yes, he was. But then we and he are on the same page when it comes to skepticism regarding our ability to know the truth. Still, the greater the challenge, the better the lesson.

Scott:  I suppose so. But, yes, I could use a breather. And anyway there’s something I want to share with you—something that came up during our discussion with Xunzi. It’s an experience, really.

Zz:  Great! I could use a break from pure blabber—though I suppose you’ll have to blabber to share it.

Scott: I will. But I don’t think the blabber can really say it. It was an experience of oneness. It comes from realizing human nature as Nature, not just in an abstract, cognitive sense, but experientially. It’s simple really.

Zz: Of course it is. I really enjoy all this philosophizing and word-play, but the truth is that it must always miss the mark. It can never be what it is intended to covey—experience. And though you can’t talk your way into experience, you can set the stage for a leap. So, tell me more.

Scott:  Everything I am and do is the happening of Nature. That’s what my “the Great Happening” is intended to convey. Every happening, including all my happenings—whatever and however they are—imagined or real, freely chosen or determined, “good” or “bad”—all of them are the happening of the Great Happening. It’s just another way of describing your “the same as the Transforming Openness”.

Zz: “There are many paths to the mountain top, but the view is always the same.”

Scott:  Where’d that come from?

Zz:  The crime novel you’re reading at the moment.

Scott:  Oh. Well, it still says a lot. I get that sense in your writing; there’s lots of ways to imaginatively enter a sense of oneness.

THE HAPPINESS OF FISH XI

Huizi:  Okay. Time for my nap beside my stink tree in our homeland of not even anything. Ha, ha.

Scott:  Thanks for coming. I hope you’ll come back.

Zhuangzi:  He will, if you wish. Ha, ha.

Scott:  Then he shall. And we will discuss the value of the valueless.

Huizi:  More of Zhuang’s blabber—but I guess I’m outnumbered. Still, I’d like to discuss my paradoxes sometime.

Scott:  Maybe you can throw them in somewhere. Fact is we’re already convinced by your arguments. You helped created this monster, remember.

Huizi:  Yeah. And I do get some satisfaction is seeing what monsters Zhuang has himself created. Ha, ha. There’s no end to the powers of human creation.

Zz:  You got that right. Nothing remains static. Nothing stays as it was. Even were some great sage to reveal the greatest Truth to the world, it would change at its first hearing. And that hearer’s revealing would be changed ye again.

Scott:  So let’s have fun in the revealing and changing!

Huizi:  We shall! Bye for now.

THE HAPPINESS OF FISH X

Scott:  Well, that’s about all I can dig out this story. And you?

Huizi:  I think that pretty well covers it. Zhuang?

Zhuangzi:  Well, I’d like to consider the whole thing from the point of view of its ambiguity, quite apart from whatever meanings we might think it conveys. We don’t know who wrote it. We don’t know for sure what his intended purpose or meanings were. Since two of us are the principals of the story and thanks to Huizi it’s known that we never had this conversation; thus it’s clearly fictitious. We’re a couple of dead guys conversing with Scott who is as good as dead when it comes down to it. So, everything we’ve said about this story is unfixed—none of it can be taken as “true”.

Scott:  So, whatever we “know” from reading it is a bit like your knowing the happiness of fish. It’s intuitive and completely unprovable.

Huizi:  And that was “my” point in debating with Zhuang. I was right—he can’t know the happiness of fish—logically speaking.

Scott:  But do you accept that he could know it intuitively?

Huizi:  Of course! Everything we think we know is ultimately only intuitively so. We intuitively believe in the validity of reason. The difference between Zhuang and me is that he goes off into aery-fairy mysticism, while I stick strictly to my skepticism.

Zz:  But you’ve admitted that you gave the mysticism a try.

Scott:  And you did have a good buzz that led you to exclaim, “Love all things without exception!”

Huizi:  Yeah. But it didn’t work for me in the end. I mean, I can see how it suggests itself, and I get how you too remain firmly skeptical, but the project still strikes me as religious in that there’s some experience I’m meant to have and have to work to realize.

Scott:  Hmm. That bugs me too.

Zz:  It certainly can become a religious project—but does it have to be? Let’s face it; life itself is unavoidably a project. We are a becoming and, being human, we make that a directed becoming. Life is growth and thus we wish to grow. Life is a flourishing, so we work toward its greatest flourishing. Even our call for spontaneity is itself directing the project of our becoming. The difference between a religious project and a non-religious one consists in whether we take it overly seriously, or whether we take it as simply the particular game we have chosen to play.

Huizi:  So, I have chosen to play the game of living in the absurdity of life. Is that as valid a game as yours?

Zz:  It is. If it is indeed chosen. Only that doesn’t mean that I can’t try to convince you that there’s more fun to be had in my game.

Huizi:  And we have had a lot of fun trying to convince and to remain unconvinced!

Scott:  A good time was had by all.

THE HAPPINESS OF FISH IX

Zhuangzi:  Anything else?

Scott:  Well, there seems to be a play on words when Huizi literally asks, “From whence do you know the happiness of fish.” And you make use of that and say, “From here on the bridge over the Hao River.” I have to admit, however, that I’m wary of making too much of the possibly incidental use of grammar—I mean for all I know this was simply how someone asked “how”. I guess you would know?

Zz:  Let’s forget ancient Chinese grammar. Let’s forget what the author was trying to say. Let’s forget context.

Huizi:  Let’s forget being scholarly! Ha, ha.

Zz:  Let’s just make it say what we want it to say! It isn’t scripture. Let’s create anew!

Scott:  Okay. In any case, your answer seems to play on the fact that all our knowing is situational. It depends on our perspective, and that depends on “where” we are. Different perspectives lead to “knowing” different things or things in different ways. But I’m not sure what this means here.

Huizi:  It means that he doesn’t really, really know the happiness of fish! He only knows what he thinks he knows—someone else might call it the unhappiness of fish.

Zz:  True. So where does that leave us? Empty. As always.

Scott:  Still, emptiness isn’t nothingness; you enjoy watching the minnows enjoying themselves and so your saying isn’t just “blowing air”—it says something even if it is ultimately empty.

Zz:  And I’ve every right to express my experience however relative it might be. Don’t you think, Huizi?

Huizi: Indubitably. And if I have to agree with you to enjoy myself watching the fish enjoy themselves, well then, I agree with you.

THE HAPPINESS OF FISH VIII

Zhuangzi:  So what else can you tell us about this story?

Scott:  Well, I’d say another reason you know the happiness of fish is because you know happiness. You and Huizi are enjoying yourselves doing what philosophers enjoy doing—debating. That’s a kind of happiness. And that is precisely what the minnows are doing—doing what minnows do.

Huizi:  So happiness is simply doing what we are? If I am prone to misery, then being miserable is my happiness?

Zz:  It is, if we want to so define happiness. I agree with Scott; only I think we need to understand that there are different kinds and levels of happiness. The happiness of minnows is living—however they live. The happiness of a rock is existing—however it exists. The happiness of philosophers is debating and trying to make sense of things. But being human they also are aware—whether consciously or unconsciously—of the emptiness of their reasoning and the emptiness of their core experience. And that, given our desire to be “full and real”, is a kind of core unhappiness.

Scott:  So the happiest happiness is had in transcending our core unhappiness.

Zz:  Yes. And “transcending” means stepping off the treadmill of pursuing a conditional kind of happiness. A happiness that depends on circumstances is a happiness that always has unhappiness at its core and unhappiness lurking in its near future. The greatest happiness depends on no circumstances.

Scott:  The pursuit of conditional happiness is an attempt to fill our core emptiness—something that can’t be done. This is our most fundamental circumstance. So an unconditional happiness does not depend on our being “full and real”—on having a fixed-identity—on being someone.

Zz:  Exactly. The project of becoming a someone can never succeed since there seems to be no one there to become it. Transcendent happiness becomes possible when we release our grip on a fixed-self and release ourselves into vastness—depending on no circumstance because we are identified with the Great Transforming that embraces every circumstance. That’s the happiness that is as happy in unhappiness as it is in happiness.

Huizi:  Yeah, yeah. In the Tianxia I’m criticized for only pursuing my self-becoming project—“How sad!”— as if the guy who wrote it wasn’t doing just the same. And isn’t that what you two are doing right now—blabbing about “transcendent happiness” and no-fixed-self as part of your own self-becoming projects?

Zz:  I’m not—being dead, as you might recall. But Scott is only honorarily dead, so he probably is.

Scott:  Yeah, I guess I am. And I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that that was probably what Zhuangzi was also doing when he was writing this stuff.

Zz:  Now you’re talking! But whether that’s the sum of it or not you will never know. The more important question is whether I was aware of what I was doing and was wandering in—transcending—that.

Huizi:  Well, I admit that I wasn’t. But fortunately, it didn’t matter all that much in the end. A bit of happiness here, a bit of unhappiness there—just another life like all the others.

Scott:  No one lives longer than a dead child, and no one is happier than a man in misery.

Huizi:  Ha, ha. That works! But I have to agree with Zhuang that understanding that “heavenly” dimension is only useful when we allow it to inform our human dimension. There is more happiness or less to be had in life, and life prefers more over less.

THE HAPPINESS OF FISH VII

Scott:  So I can wander in a dao like yours or I can wander in a dao like Huizi’s—and it doesn’t matter which one?

Zz:  On the level of wandering it doesn’t matter. Wandering, as you so astutely observed, is dependence on nothing. So it doesn’t matter what one wanders in.

Scott:  But how does one learn to wander if not through a specific dao? Can one wander if one has a fixed-self? Doesn’t one have to follow a dao that moves one beyond a fixed-self?

Zz:  If you can’t wander in the having a fixed-self then you can’t wander in having no-fixed-self. Wandering is not arriving at some state of being but transcending every state of being by making use of whatever state you find yourself in.

Scott:  It’s like the well-frog—liberated just where and as he is.

Zz:  Exactly. The well-frog might be able to fully realize his oneness with all things and thus be released from his need for comparative valuation—his need to be “better” than the tiny crabs and tadpoles of his tiny world, but he can still wander in his failure to do so.

Huizi:  It’s the seriousness that’s the problem. I began to wander in my own dao when I stopped taking it and myself so seriously.

Zz:  When one laughs at oneself one gets an inkling of what it is to wander.

Scott:  So the project of self-cultivation can actually hinder our ability to wander.

Zz:  Of course it can! But it doesn’t have to. Everything can hinder our wandering—and yet everything can also provide the opportunity to wander. We’re back on walking two roads—you can pursue the experience of the oneness of things while wandering in your failure to do so.

Scott: Release yourself to play—nothing more. That’s what I hear you saying.

Zz:  Yep. And when you do that you discover that there are a myriad of games to play—all of them fun.

THE HAPPINESS OF FISH VI

Scott:  There are some that say Zhuangzi was (is?) a logician. He just made a different use of what the deconstruction of language uncovered.

Huizi:  He is (was? ha, ha)—but he abandoned reason in the end.

Zhuangzi:  I am/was a logician who understood that the reasoning mind is only one small part of the human experience. We are organically connected to a vastness that the mind cannot begin to fathom. But we have so completely objectified ourselves, committed ourselves to being a “me”, that we have allowed reason, the great objectifier, to usurp the entirety of our interface with the world.

Scott:  That’s a curious twist—because we have objectified ourselves, taken ourselves as “full and real”, we take reason and language, which only work by way of the objectification of things, as the only way of knowing the world.

Huizi:  Yet reason and language can be shown to have no sure grounding. And thus we discover that that which we thought could establish our objectified selves instead leaves us groundless—adangle, as you say.

Zz:  To experientially get a sense of the oneness of things something of our own sense of being a fixed-self has to dissolve. That was the experience of Ziqi when he lost his “me” and experienced the oneness of the forest.

Huizi:  But you made that up! So you can’t offer it as proof of your assertion.

Zz:  If I told you I had experienced it, would that suffice as proof of my assertion?

Huizi:  I am not you, so how could I know the validity of your experience? And besides, the world is full of people making all manner of such weird and contradictory claims.

Scott:  Zhuangzi, are you saying that you did experience the loss of your “me”?

Zz: Absolutely not! But neither am I saying that I did not. To say that I did experience it is to offer it to you as an objectified fact—something to believe in. And that, I seem to remember, is your great stumbling block. You still need something to believe in.

Scott:  I see it, but I just can’t see any way out of the box. I mean, you’re suggesting a certain dao which is outside my experience, and the only way that I can try to experience it is to believe that it’s possible.

Zz:  Believing that it is possible and believing that it may be possible are two very different things. Can you pursue it for the sake of pursuit and not for the sake of an outcome?

Huizi:  Look. As an honorary dead guy you should be able to see how all these life-projects—mine, Zhuang’s and yours—are all the same. They all amount to the same thing—entertaining ourselves as we stumble our way through life. In the end, we all end up in the same place in any case.

Scott:  So, choosing to pursue the experience of no-fixed-self and the subsequent experience of the oneness of things is a bit like deciding to eat Chinese rather than Mexican.

Zz:  Exactly! You don’t have to believe that Chinese food is superior to Mexican food to choose the one over the other. Today Chinese, tomorrow Mexican. Now an ox, now a horse. Set yourself to wandering.