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.