UNDER HEAVEN LXVII

If you’re still with me after the extremes of the last post, let’s further explore how we can take the rejection of Huizi by the Tianxia as an occasion for enfolding him into a broader acceptance.

The point of the last post was that he is a human being just like us, and if we can take a somewhat more transcendent view of humanity generally, we can see a sense in which we are all the same and equal. This does not eliminate our differences, but only gives us a different perspective on their significance.

Practically speaking, this provides a new tool in our kit by which we might improve the human condition generally and that of some individuals in particular, including ourselves. Informed of our equal participation in one humanity, we understand that ultimately it is humanity itself that needs transforming, and that the individuals within it are representative of humanity as it is. This might influence how we approach the behaviors of individuals we deem harmful to our larger good. In sum, we would not demonize anyone, since to do so would be to demonize us all.

Consider taking a further step: Regard humanity for a moment as you would an ant hill—that’s an even more transcendent perspective. That can give you a sense of being more-than-just-human—part of something larger, something inexplicable. Now do your human thing informed of that experience—that’s an enlightened engagement.

Thus far we have considered how to achieve a oneness of behaviors, but the Tianxia’s rejection of Huizi is based more on doctrinal grounds—his dao was utterly false. It is curious how the author’s True Dao is represented as “all-embracing and non-partisan” and yet it fails to embrace Huizi. This is to be expected, of course; when there is Truth there must also be Falsehood. Truth cannot avoid partisanship.

Zhuangzi’s Dao is the confluence of all daos, and thus no dao can be excluded from it. Psychological Dao is thus this very act of uniting to form a oneness. The perpetual transformation of all things requires that the realization of this Dao itself be a continual process. Thus did Zhuangzi “respond to every transformation”.

“Thus, the Sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonize with others and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter’s Wheel. This is called ‘Walking Two Roads’.” (2:24) The rights and wrongs, the various daos, though they are all wrong in their negation of each other can all be affirmed from within the perspective of Dao as confluence.

The larger context of this passage is Zhuangzi’s criticism of other daos that do negate each other. Is he thus also caught in a contradiction just as was the author of the Tianxia? Is he also partisan? Not if he understands his dao as just another dao, albeit one that advocates a perpetual process of enfolding into a oneness. This dao also flows into the confluence that is Dao.

UNDER HEAVEN LXVI

The Tianxia saves Huizi and the other Logicians for last. It has absolutely nothing positive to say of them. For this reason, we are inspired from the Zhuangzian point of view to see how we can completely affirm and enfold them so as to realize a oneness. This has absolutely nothing to do with what they taught or how they behaved; that’s another issue altogether; though our very opposition to those things is precisely the catalyst that occasions this movement of uniting. Nor does such a uniting eliminate that original opposition.

Can we similarly affirm and enfold that putative devil amongst us, Adolf Hitler? If we cannot, then we cannot truly do it with anything or anyone else. This oneness is either universal or it is a sham.

“Seen from the point of view of their sameness, all things are one.” How was Adolf the same as us? He was a human being. You and I belong to the same class as Adolf. This is humanity. Humanity is not an ideal; humanity is what humans are and do. We do not have the privilege of excising Adolf or anyone else from the category of human.

You and I thus participate in Hitler-ness. He is in us all. There’s benefit in realizing this painful reality—this oneness.

Never again! Really? There is something to be learned from the fact that this understandable cry, when taken as a “sworn oath”, can lead to a willingness to inflict tremendous suffering on others in the pursuit of that end.

Adolf was right—in his own mind. He didn’t do evil because he wanted to do evil—he wanted to do the right thing—for his tribe.

Go ask the chickens, pigs, and cows if we humans are not Hitlerian. Go to the slaughter houses and industrial “food” factories. Ah, but they are not human, not of our tribe. And anyway, I’m a vegan. Can that absolve you?

But let’s get some relief and unite Adolf and ourselves in still broader onenesses. We, the chickens, pigs and cows are all beings. We are part of the same Mess. We are one. I might therefore want for all beings what I want for myself.

And then there is the Oneness that opens us out into . . .  Openness. We cannot contain it, cannot think it; we can only be affected by it. And here, the self-affirmation that I feel as a matter of course extends out into this Totality and I sense that all is well in this Great Mess.

And now let’s return and tackle the wrongness in all these rightnesses.

UNDER HEAVEN LXV

“Although his writings are a string of strange and rare gems, their intertwining twistings will do one no harm. Even though his words are uneven, their very strangeness and monstrosity is worthy of contemplation.” (p 123)

A. C. Graham (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters; p 283) sees these observations as an attempt to bring Zhuangzi into the fold of Huang-Lao religious-philosophy. Yes, he is a bit of an eccentric uncle, but still he is family. There’s some good stuff in his writings, only we needn’t take him too seriously. Adopting this attitude, he can “do no harm”.

The importance of the School of Huang-Lao has only come to be understood relatively recently, with the discovery in 1973 of texts in a tomb sealed in the 2nd Century BCE. The school itself seems to have roots deep into the Warring States Period. The Tianxia is seen as expressing Huang-Lao sentiments, which accounts for its syncretic agenda. Huang-Lao was an attempt to bring the best of the five main schools of thought (Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism, Daoism, Naturalism) together in a grand synthesis. Needless to say, and as we clearly see here, this required negating much of importance to each of those philosophies (with the possible exception of Confucianism).

What was thereby lost in this co-option of Zhuangzi? The most important thing of all—that there is no single articulable Dao—no definitive guidance from Above. The author’s “Ancient Art of the Dao” is a religious fantasy.

Huang-Lao is also seen as the beginning of religious Daoism. There may be some truth in this, but it is also clear that philosophies of Daoist sentiment that predated Zhuangzi already evince a thorough religious-mindedness. The Neiye (Inner Training) chapter of the Guanzi is such a document.

The reader will know that I make much of the difference between not-knowing and religious-mindedness. This is because Zhuangzi’s dao begins in and never departs from our fundamental cluelessness. The alternative, belief, is a flight from our actual experience. He suggests trust as a more authentic response. The difference between them is that belief has an objective focus (truth, fully realized [immortalized] sages, the existence and spiritual efficacy of qi, an explicable Dao), while trust is an affirming release into the givens of our experience.

Nothing is “added to the process of life”.

UNDER HEAVEN LXIV

“Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

Because he was able to harmonize with every happening, Zhuangzi’s writings are able to liberate all creatures. Really? Rather, let’s get real. Isn’t that the healthiest way to proceed?

It is unlikely that Zhuangzi was himself liberated. He was just like you and I. He was his own disciple. But a disciple learns and grows, and thus we can assume that Zhuangzi at least realized something of his own philosophy of life.

If we accept that his writings might have changed (or are today changing) one person, we might also imagine that one change, however small, has a ripple effect throughout the universe—“liberating all creatures”. That, however, is not a concept which I, at least, am able to entertain, no matter its profoundly “spiritual” credentials.

The real question then is whether it can liberate me. And, of course, whether it can do the same for your “me”. I can only speak for myself; if you have been so liberated, I beg to be your disciple, which is to say, my liberation—should there be any such thing—is far from complete.

That’s the truth of it. I wish to drive a stake through the heart of religious-mindedness—of the bull shit. But that, I believe, is the very threshold through which any liberation must pass. And this brings us back around to Zhuangzi’s point of departure: It is the lack of anything upon which we can depend that calls forth our non-dependence on anything at all—even so-called liberation. Even so-called non-dependence.

There is liberation right now in being free of the need for liberation. What needs to be “realized” is that nothing needs to be realized. This the rabbit “knows”. The rabbit, however, is not as “blessed” with the complications of a heightened self-awareness as are we. Being authentically human—good in our skin—is, alas, a complicated affair. Thus, this present blabber.

UNDER HEAVEN LXIII

Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

I mentioned that this ability to respond to every circumstance as it arises is an attribute of the sage in much of classical Chinese philosophy. This is worth a bit more attention in that the differences in how this is expressed clearly demonstrate the differences between Zhuangzian sensibilities and more “practical” takes, chiefly in Confucianism, but also in some Daoist positions.

The Confucian (and more religious) Daoist ideal is that the sage knows how best to respond to every situation. She or he has deep insight into the nature and working of things and can therefore always make the right choices when encountering them.

The Zhuangzian ideal has the sage “attuning”, harmonizing, with every circumstance. The Confucian take has to do with a practical kind of wisdom; the Zhuangzian with a psychological kind of wisdom. The former immediately rolls up its sleeves so as to change things; the latter first acknowledges the “rightness” (because it exists) of the circumstance and helps it be its own change where necessary.

The Daoist view that advocates for such a practical kind of wisdom is rooted in a heavenly knowledge. United with Dao one understands the human, the here below. The Confucian view sees heaven as only mandating what it takes as the optimum understanding of human nature and culture. This Daoism knows heaven, while Confucianism knows humanity.

Zhuangzi (and philosophical Daoism generally) knows neither. He prioritizes neither. His sage is therefore able to “follow along with the ‘rightness’ of the present ‘This’”.

The difference is, of course, between wei and wuwei. And this is rooted in whether one believes one can know what is best or not. Does one take one’s mind as one’s teacher, or does one release into not-knowing?

It seems clear enough that those who know best what is beneficial often do the greatest harm.

UNDER HEAVEN LXII

“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

The Confucian Xunzi (314-239 BCE) said of Zhuangzi that he knew a great deal about heaven but very little about humanity. He clearly did not understand him as well as the author of the Tianxia with whom he likely shared residence at the Jixia Academy. (Nor is it likely that he wished to understand him.)

Zhuangzi did indeed imaginatively travel “up beyond” things, but this also facilitated a better understanding of human circumstances and how to authentically address them. His sage, as I have said, is deeply engaged in the world—only her engagement is “dark”. “Blunt the point. Loosen the tangles. Soften the gaze. Unite with the dust.  This is called the dark uniting.” (Laozi 56)

Yanging manipulators such as Xunzi neither understand nor appreciate the remedial power within the darkness of yin. It works unseen. “Vanishing into things” (Guo Xiang), becoming “one with the Transforming Openness” (6:54), renders one’s activity (wei) a non-activity (wu-wei).

The ability to “respond to every transformation” is a common theme in classical Chinese visions of sagacity. Indeed, this is often taken as the most overt attribute of a sage. Before the arrival of Buddhism, Chinese spirituality was very much about how to practically be in this world. (Zen, something of a synthesis of Buddhism and Daoism, retained this sensibility.)

There are, however, different qualities of response, and the Daoist one is informed and transformed by a mystical uniting with the “heavenly”—which is to say, with openness and vastness.

And quite to the contrary of Xunzi’s myopic reading of Zhuangzi, he is always careful to make clear that neither the heavenly nor the human should have priority over the other. (6:23) We are obliged to walk two roads at once.

UNDER HEAVEN LXI

“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

I have suggested that attuning oneself to what we encounter is creating a harmony. It is a response. It is not to remain oblivious to the ceaselessly arising circumstances of our experience, but to respond to them in a certain way. To be unaffected by circumstances—whether considered beneficial or harmful—requires engagement with them.

For the moment, I’d like to focus on just this. There is the question of what it means to harmonize with circumstances, but it is significant in itself that this is an activity. We are in a world; we are a being-in-a-world. Absent the “world” of our own imaginative making and there would be no “us”, no “me”. Take away the context and there is no text. “I” am a relationship, not only with my “me”, but also with everything else. Without an “other” there is no self-experience.

So what? So being sagacious is a relational activity, just as being human is such an activity. The hypothetical sage is as involved with the world as anyone else.

The difference is that she is not as entangled in the Great Tangle as everyone else. Zhuangzi takes a look at right and wrong and determines that they are hopelessly tangled up (2:39); living one’s life in subservience to them is to be entangled in them.

Entanglement is a psychological condition. Our “world” is largely of our own making. There is benefit in taking the world as objectively real—out there as we see and interpret it—but it is also beneficial to  remember that this is a chosen perspective—every point of view is a chosen point of view. And we cannot exist without one.

It would be convenient if there were a fixed and sure point of view—that there is a “real” objective world, for instance—which is why we tend to uncritically default to one. But there is none that we can know for sure.

Our entanglement is thus a chosen condition. The Daoist vision can be seen as an invitation to become disentangled. “Loosen the tangles.” (Laozi 56)

To be disentangled is to remain engaged with the “world” while not taking it so seriously as to take our point of view as if it were a “sworn oath”. (2:7) Then we can engage with an anger that is not-anger; a happiness that is not-happiness (not dependent on circumstances which inseparably links it to its opposite); a hope that is not-hope; a seriousness that is not serious.

Again, it’s like playing a game—taking it seriously is what makes it fun; taking it too seriously is what destroys the fun. Or, it’s like watching a movie—we enjoy getting caught up in the drama, but also must remember that it’s just a movie.

UNDER HEAVEN LX

“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things.” (p 124)

When right and wrong are taken as absolutes, we and the world are cast into constant and irrevocable disharmony. But the world is disharmonious, we might reply. Indeed, it is. But is there also a perspective from which we can say it is not? There is. It is, after all, just a question of perspective, is it not?

This simple step—imagining that all is ultimately well—is a step—a leap—that can set us a-wandering in Zhuangzi’s “vast wilds of open nowhere”—which is to say, in the here and now. It sends us into the “up beyond”. We are cosmically recontextualized.

Can we live harmoniously in a disharmonious world? Can we live harmoniously with our disharmonious selves? If we can, can we still escape a- or immorality and indifference? Or are we meant to be disharmonious—obliged to be angry and confrontational?

Zhuangzi answers that we can be both harmonious and disharmonious—which, because they are opposites, amounts to “neither of the two” (Penumbra), but are rather, “united to form a oneness”. This is the “up beyond”.

We can be harmonious even in the midst of pan-disharmony. We can be moral even in our amorality. We can be at rest even in our activity. We can be angry without being angry; hopeful without hope; sad without being sad; happy without being happy; achieve much, while achieving nothing; be consumed by fire, without being burned. It’s just a matter of perspective.

This is our peace. But it is also the peace of the world. It is being something other than the usual. It’s helping to resolve the problem without being part of the problem; resolving conflict without conflict. It is non-being the change.

Nature is a great harmony—everything metaphorically kills and eats everything else. Everything displaces everything else. Everything participates in an endless process of creation and destruction. Or is this a great disharmony? It’s a matter of perspective.

UNDER HEAVEN LIX

“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things.” (p 124)

This observation touches on an essential aspect of Zhuangzi’s practical vision. The way “up” is by way of our responses to the immediate and the mundane. Circumstance is opportunity. Always, and in every case. This is where the rubber meets the road.

And this is where the real work takes place (and I have heaps to do). It’s not about trying to get “up beyond”, but about harmonizing with the here and now.

What does it mean that he “attuned himself with whatever he encountered”? Broadly speaking, it implies harmonization and acceptance. It means “following along with the rightness of their present ‘this’”. (2:33) “For to him each thing is just so, each thing is right, and so he enfolds them all within himself by affirming the rightness of each.” (2:41)

This is where we typically run into difficulties vis-à-vis our moral sense. Bad things are happening—do we just say they’re okay for the sake of our own peace? The answer to this is complex.

First, we must realize that asking the question evinces our bondage to right and wrong. That it is for us a problem is the problem. This has nothing whatsoever to do with whether there is right and wrong. To be free of that bondage does not eliminate right and wrong; it simply transforms our relation to them.

In “the vastest arrangement” there is no right and wrong, and thus our contextualizing of ourselves in that recontextualizes our genuine human experience of recognizing and experiencing right and wrong. How so?

We understand that they do not represent constant, fixed, and ultimate outcomes. All is (ultimately) well in this Great Mess. We understand that ultimately nothing can harm us. (Just as nothing can ultimately benefit us.) Nothing can ultimately benefit or harm others.

But things can and do benefit or harm us and others in a temporal and immediate way. An thus we are desirous to change things, while also not allowing them to “enter our Numinous Reservoir” so as to disturb our peace.

And we are thereby better able to do this. More on this in the next post.

UNDER HEAVEN LVIII

“He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths.” (p 124)

This is it. The whole enchilada.

This observation can be taken as summing up the entirety of Zhuangzi’s mysticism. It describes a movement both incredibly profound and amazingly simple. There is nothing here to know, believe or achieve; it is all always right here, in every direction, everywhere we turn—vast Mystery. It is our very own self-experience.

I have called this movement “surrender in trust”. It is surrender—or perhaps more positively, “release”—into our most fundamental human experience. The mystery of ourselves is no different than the Mystery that is this vastness. Live this; live your humanity. Say “Yes”. Thankfulness arises.

“He opened himself.” There is an exercise of choice here. We are aware of our existential dangle—our suspension over a void. How do we respond? However we like. Zhuangzi suggests this way as the most authentic and the most life- and world-affirming.

There are a multitude of responses possible, but we can suggest four broad kinds. There is ignore-ance; a lack of the awareness that would lead us to seriously consider our human condition. There is belief; an artificial filling of the void. There is rebellion; saying, “No, goddamnit, I will stand against the Universe.” And there is release in trust; saying, “Yes, thank you.”

Whatever our response, it doesn’t matter all that much. No ultimate outcomes lie in the balance. Nothing can be gained or lost. This, at least, is the view from Dao—Zhuangzi’s pan-affirmation—his fundamental trust in the “goodness” of the unavoidable.

Thus the only real value resides in temporal outcomes: what works best—what makes for the most enjoyment of life; and this can only be determined from within whatever response one has chosen.

But does one truly choose? One must be free to choose; and volitional freedom is an elusive creature. It is also one most of us assiduously attempt to avoid since it means “standing right at the mouth of the great furnace”. (Fang Yizhi, commenting on 6:57—“This must be what is called Fate, eh?”; p 205) Such freedom mostly only befalls us by way of history, culture, personality and circumstance.

Freedom to choose is likely not chosen, but when present leaves little choice but to choose.