Mencius, like Confucius, wanted to transform society and believed the best way to begin was through the education of individuals. The chief content of this teaching was how to live humanely, which is to say humanly. But this means that we can trust our humanity, our nature, to naturally harmonize with the world, ourselves, and others given the opportunity to do so. Human nature is essentially good. We must re-connect with our inner-most selves.
Given his unexplained reference to his experience of “flood-like qi”, some have said that Mencius was more a mystic than Zhuangzi. By some definitions of mysticism, this may be true. We needn’t, however, let such judgements obscure how they are very similar in their appreciation of the value of reconnecting with our precognitive selves. They differ in that, for Zhuangzi, this movement is not mediated by a belief in the “goodness” of human nature, but by its “isness”. Nature, for Zhuangzi, does not make moral discriminations, a purely human activity. This does not mean that Mencius was mistaken or that the result of such a mystical reconnection with one’s pre-cognitive self and through it with Nature itself does not lead to greater humaneness; it is simply that for Zhuangzi this outcome is incidental—a happy circumstance.
They may also differ in that Mencius may have thought of qi as a something. Typically, mysticism is defined as identification with something Other; and this would lend itself to thinking Mencius more a mystic than Zhuangzi whose mysticism turns on the emptiness of any concept of an Other. However, qi can also simply refer to Life and the life-experience, which is to say, an experienced mystery.
Zhuangzian mysticism does differ significantly from Mencius’ (I believe) in that his rests entirely on an emptiness of content. To depend on nothing means to depend on no one interpretation of reality, and no morally-inspired program. Be like experienced Nature itself. Be yourself. Look into the night sky (like Camus’ Stranger) and be like that. Vast and limitless. Morally indifferent. Now come back and live the particular, moral you.
If the traditional paragons of virtuosity were great successes, says Zhuangzi, then so is he and everyone else. They were, and so is he and so are we. They were not, and neither is he and neither are we. Whenever we take something as “fully formed” (cheng), as complete and finished, then we have left something out, and that is missing the most important thing of all. What is it? The sage holds it in her embrace and does not say, answers Zhuangzi. But let us be poor disciples and say: What is left out is success if we think anything a failure, and failure if we think anything a success. This understanding is what the sage embraces and what cannot be said. For to say it, is to “fully form” it and leave out the most important something once again.
No one has lived a fuller life than a dead infant, and the long-lived Pengzu died too young. Everything is complete and perfect. Everything is a total mess. Everything is empty. Everything is full.
Zhuangzi was a great Master. Zhuangzi was a bull-shit artist just like me.
We often hear and read of great Zen or Daoist masters, but seldom of great Zen and Daoist bull-shit artists. Why? Because we hunger for the “fully formed”; we are chronically inclined to the comfort of the religious mind. We want the great Answer, the True Way, the Sure Anchor. We want to be other than human, and if someone else has managed it, then perhaps so can we. Indeed, they have already managed it for us.
Words must choose a side; they must make a statement. When all the world chooses the “fully formed”, we would do best to speak of adriftedness and doubt. When the human mind defaults to the belief that any of these bull-shit artists were great “masters”, we would do best to affirm the former. Zhuangzi was no different than you or I. He had a vision of a happier way to live his existential dangle and he found some joy in attempting to realize it and in sharing it. Because he knew this, because he embraced this in his heart, he was a great master. He was a great master because he knew there is no such thing, or rather, that there is no one who is not. Or both. Or neither.
Scholars like to point out that none of the so-called Daoist masters were Daoists. I would similarly assert that neither were they “masters”, but that’s a topic for another post. It was not until the Western Han historian Sima Tan (c. 165–110 BCE) organized the various strains of philosophy that emerged during the Warring States era (480-222 BCE) into “schools”. The daojia designates the School of Daoism. Zhuangzi wrote two hundred years prior to this ex facto classification.
I have never had any real problem with this designation, and have seen the issue as yet another occasion for scholarship to get lost in minutiae rather than actually engaging with the philosophies themselves. There is, however, a serious problem that arises from this classification when the philosophies themselves are interpreted in the context of a larger understanding of “Daoism”. The philosophies lose their distinctiveness in being made to conform to what supposedly describes them all. This is glaringly the case in Livia Kohn’s Zhuangzi: Text and Context, yet another interpretation of Zhuangzi that ignores his radical departure from other so-called Daoists in making him part of a larger imagined and fabricated whole.
One supposed solution to this problem is to understand daojia as a lineage, an evolving philosophy rather than a fixed school. This suggests that Daoism was improved over time. Fung Yu-lan (A Taoist Classic: Chuang-Tzu, p 117) makes this assertion. But this is again a means of dismissing the unique character of each philosophy in favor of a now fuller Daoism. This very need for a “perfected” view is itself indicative of a human inclination that Zhuangzi sought to overturn. Religious Daoism especially feels the need to “prove” itself through its lineage. Yet none of this has even a remote place in Zhuangzi’s philosophy though he is nonetheless subsumed into that lineage.
Fung Yu-lan sometimes seems to discern the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy, especially as it pertains to the ability to walk two roads at once, but then he undermines it by making him a “Daoist” and telling us that Daoism (and therefore Zhuangzi) “opposed” all human institutions as artificial and “despised” all knowledge (p 19). This is not the position of Zhuangzi.
For this reason it seems necessary to declare that Zhuangzi was not a Daoist. His message is a radical departure from the already religiously inclined projects of his proto-Daoist contemporaries and cannot be subsumed in those that followed. He is not part of a Daoist lineage. He stands alone—not as a “great master”, but as a great non-master. And that means that worrying about any of this is to have missed the point of his philosophy.
As I attempt to write this next book I am constantly challenged by my sense of inadequacy, just as I have been with every previous similar endeavor. I am, quite frankly, not really up to the task. I lack the scholarship, the intellectual capacity, and the will to do the very hard work that attempting to at least partially overcome these deficiencies would require. I am an amateur. Yet I continue nevertheless. For the most part, this is because this is how I teach myself. The idea that any of what I write will be of genuine use to you the reader is secondary, if for no other reason than that even the best of writing would probably fail of that goal in any case. Perhaps I’ve set the bar too high, but I really don’t see much point in writing, except as pertains to one’s own edification, if it makes no real difference in the world.
Still, I believe I have something to contribute. Though I lack the courage to even peruse my own copy of ALL IS WELL IN THE GREAT MESS, I believe there are significant insights within it that might at least suggest new lines of inquiry among scholars and inspire my peers to pursue their own philosophy of life along similar, though necessarily divergent, lines.
I do find some encouragement in the madman Jieyu’s contributions to classical Chinese philosophy. He is twice mentioned in the Inner Chapters, first as one who relates a fantastic vision of a sage, and then as singing a derisive song to Confucius. In the first, his credulity becomes an occasion for a critique of its twin sister, incredulity—belief and disbelief being of the same genus and their transcendence being a matter of the spirit. The second is a parody of the story as it appears in the Analects (18:5) and criticizes Confucius for his political ambitions and the inflexibility of his path. We might profitably ask why his ridicule was included in the Analects, a book devoted to the exaltation of Confucius. We are told that it has to do with Confucius’ virtue of timeliness (which Zhuangzi disputes) and as a means to answering the criticisms of an emerging Daoist challenge. But whatever the specific reasons we find Jieyu here or in the Zhuangzi I would suggest that it is because even in his madness he had a contribution to make.
In a world where nothing can ever be fully and comprehensively understood–which amounts to not really being understood at all, even the stammerings of an amateur might have something helpful to say.
[I’m inserting this post into the stream because it has been on my mind and someone has recently asked me to clarify this above phrase.]
I cannot think of a single article or book that mentions mysticism in Daoism generally or Zhuangzi specifically that considers the possibility of a species of mysticism that lies outside one particular traditional definition. This definition holds that mysticism entails an intuitive insight into the Ultimate with which one is thereby in some way united, usually through a realization that that union has always already obtained. This, in my view, is an essentially religious definition since it presumes some form of positive understanding of reality. In the case of Daoism, a category into which Zhuangzi is always lumped, this means one realizes “the Dao”. Is there really no other possible form of mysticism?
I call mysticism “scary” for two reasons. It is scary to me. I am not interested in doing religion. I do not want to do it. I cannot consciously do it (though I likely frequently fall into it by default). Those that are, do and can are affirmed in their pursuits. It is scary to scholars; one must be careful not to taint one’s scholarship with a betrayal of actual subjective experience. Advocacy for anything other than “facts” is anathema. It is, however, acceptable to assign religious mysticism to Zhuangzi as a matter of fact. How one can speak of the subjective experience of others without any experience of that experience oneself remains a mystery to me.
There are exceptions. Among these is Chad Hansen who argues for Zhuangzi as a skeptical philosopher who doubted our ability to know anything of the Ultimate, intuitively or otherwise. I agree. But he also therefore rejects any mysticism in Zhuangzi, since his definition of mysticism remains within the traditional box. Ziporyn, to my thinking, does appreciate the mysticism in Zhuangzi as an expression of and response to his not-knowing, though he is careful not to advocate. His treatment of yiming (“making use of the light”), as “the Illumination of the Obvious” (our obvious not-knowing), instead of its typical association with “spiritual insight” (prajna) is indicative of this.
So, what other form of mysticism might Zhuangzi have suggested? A mysticism utterly innocent of all religious presumption of knowing anything about the Ultimate. One surrenders into utter Mystery as an act of trust. And though one is changed thereby, one emerges as clueless as ever. All is and must necessarily remain Mystery. What is Mystery? Everything is Mystery and Mystery is everything. Release into the most intimate of all mysteries, the mysterious experience of you. Or take a walk in the woods. Or contemplate a rock.
Surrender, release, acceptance—these are one, and they cannot help but issue into deep trust, affirmation and thankfulness. Amen. (Oops!)
Was Zhuangzi a great sage? To my thinking, this is a question of great significance, not for the answer we might choose to give, but for the fact that we would ask it at all. Why would we believe that there have ever been any sages? Why would we need to believe that there have ever been any sages?
On my reading, it is just such a default assumption that there is some final remedy to the “existential dangle” of the human condition as evinced in the hypothetical sage that Zhuangzi wished to overturn. If Zhuangzi was a sage, then it was only because he eschewed the belief that sagacity was some kind of final cure-all, or that it was fully realizable at all. The Zhuangzian sage dwells in “drift and doubt” and wanders free because she has abandoned pursuit of every fixed and sure mooring. As such, sagacity itself could only be an unfixed, never-arriving, but ever-approximating experience.
Yes, but did he not make continual reference to sages? He did. One subsists on only wind and dew, flies on the backs of dragons, and never ages. Another survives world conflagration unscathed. How do these fantastic stories differ from incredibly huge fish that become vast birds, trees that talk, and shadows who converse with their own shadows? Literalism has no place in the understanding of Zhuangzi. Only the religious mind would have it otherwise.
We assume that because ancient teachers speak of sagacity they must have realized it. I, too, speak of sagacity; does that make me a sage? Laozi wrote that those who speak do not know while those who know do not speak. For this, some have mocked him—for he then went on to speak. They foolishly believed that Laozi thought he knew. Needing someone to believe in, they were disappointed that he did not. Needing “the answer”, they missed his message.
Zhuangzi tells us that we would be far better off forgetting about sages and getting on with “evolving along our own daos”. And evolution, as we know, is a messy affair. Like life itself.
I lift this phrase “transformative recontextualization” from Brook Ziporyn’s Being and Ambiguity. I say “lifted” because, though it may indeed apply as I will use it here, he uses it in a much broader and more complicated sense—one that I will not attempt to elucidate here. To my thinking, the phrase perfectly describes Zhuangzi’s suggested method for personal transformation. Consider looking at things in a different way, and see if that doesn’t enable you to more happily interface with the world. It’s that simple.
Much is made of Zhuangzi’s perspectival relativism. Eels like it cold and clammy; humans like it warm and cozy. Every preference or theory about how best to live (or be) derives from a perspective, and since everything (Zhuangzi seems to see things as “having” a perspective) must have a perspective we would do best to allow them the space to express it (where they don’t seriously negatively impact the ability of others to do so). This is his relativism. Scholars debate the species of this relativism, whether it is strong or weak, but this largely misses the point. The point is the transformation of one’s interface with oneself and the world. Zhuangzi is not so much interested in questions of epistemology as he is in realizing freedom from dogmatism. This is the point of eels versus humans analogy.
Throughout the Inner Chapters we are presented with similar suggestions that we recontextualize vis-à-vis ourselves and the world. Perhaps the broadest possible recontextualization can be found in his suggestion that we “hide the world in the world”. Rather than seeing ourselves as discreet monads—something that can be lost—why not instead identify with the Totality. Where in Everything can anything be lost? This is intended to address the fear of death without recourse to belief in the perpetuation of one’s present identity, one’s “temporary lodging”.
Viewing “life and death as a single string” is another way of addressing the fear of death. Recontextualization in this case requires taking life and death as a single unit; one does not come without the other. This is the nature of things. Unlike belief in the immortality of a soul, this perspective “adds nothing to the process of life”. It is how life is experienced.
These perspectival recontextualizations, and many others, all have transformative freedom as their goal. They do not advocate for the “truth” about the world. Instead, they merely suggest what might lead to a happier and more flourishing life. To Zhuangzi’s thinking, most of us live cramped and stiff lives—we have chosen to sleep where it’s cold and clammy. He suggests we might want to try someplace warm and cozy. In the end, nothing can be lost in any case.
How is a change in perspective transformative? At the extreme, isn’t this what so-called enlightenment is all about? Nirvana is a “turning”. However, at my reading, Zhuangzi suggests a much more prosaic outcome, an approximation of what might be beyond complete realization through a kind of imaginative meditation. Why, in any case, would we want to burden ourselves with yet another absolutist goal?
You are invited to read the ruminations on the philosophy of Zhuangzi posted here and to offer your own observations on them and that philosophy generally.
I have published a second book (THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi) which is a compilation of posts which have appeared here. It can be found at:
or at Amazon:
THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS
My adaptation of Zhuangzi can be found at Booklocker.com by tapping the image to the left or at Amazon:
ALL IS WELL IN THE GREAT MESS