UNDER HEAVEN LVII

“Above he wandered with the Creator of Things, below he befriended whoever could put life and death outside themselves, free of any end or beginning. He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths.” (p 124)

Clearly the author of the Tianxia had actually read Zhuangzi. Though we take this for granted, it does speak to the provenance of his writings. Someone likely at the Jixia Academy in the 3rd Century BCE had the writings of Zhuangzi in hand, and before their inclusion in a book of which the Tianxia is itself a part.

So we can believe in their authenticity. Or so, in our caring about such things, we can be reminded that their authenticity doesn’t really matter one iota. There’s power in just this realization alone. It opens into wordlessness; contentlessness; non-dependence; emptiness.

This parallels Zhuangzi’s use of “ridiculous and far-flung descriptions, absurd and preposterous sayings, senseless and shapeless phrases . . .” Their “truthfulness” also doesn’t matter; it’s their truthlessness that matters.

We might stumble at mention of the Creator of Things (6:46,48) but we must remember that Zhuangzi had no true culture of theism around which he needed to consciously steer clear. Things would seem to arise from “somewhere”; that’s all that’s implied.

If he only befriended those who “could put life and death outside themselves” (6:40), then he was likely friendless. Once again the author mistakes aspiration for actualization. Still, he has clearly given Zhuangzi’s proposed uniting of life and death to form a single body some serious thought.  But does this entail putting life and death outside oneself? I think we can say that it does—as long as we can appreciate that it also does not.

Doing so allows a sense of vastness, unfixedness, timelessness—of “being free of any end or beginning”. This is what enables our wandering; but in what do we wander? In life—in awareness of our eventual death.

UNDER HEAVEN LVI

“He came and went along with the quintessential spirit of heaven and earth but still never arrogantly separated himself off from the creatures of the world, for he rejected none of their views of right and wrong and thus was able to get along with worldly conventions.” (pp 123-4)

This is a mouthful, and some of it we might not want to swallow—specifically the implied suggestion that Zhuangzi actually embodied his own dao. The view that he only aspired to it, as I often say, avoids religious-mindedness and actually liberates us in the ability to harmoniously live with our own contradictions.

The “quintessential spirit of heaven and earth”, from the Zhuangzian point of view, is the absence of the same, something the author does not seem to appreciate. Nevertheless, we can say that Zhuangzi believed he had a “higher”, “better” view which simultaneously allowed him to affirm all other views as essentially equal to his own. There is an unavoidable contradiction here which can only be “resolved” by the application of wu—emptiness. The best view is that there is no best view—go figure.

“The creatures of the world” likely covers all things, though the reference to “worldly conventions” narrows it down to the human. Still, according to Ziporyn, Zhuangzi understands all things as having a point of view. At minimum, every thing, in being a thing, is an assertion of its own being. Everything yangs. Every thing says, “Here I am in my rightness”.

This imagined semi-animation of all things can profoundly affect our relationship with the world. All thing-lives matter. Shamanism, with the animism that so often accompanies it, has this to contribute to our present alienation from the things of the world and our consequent abuse of them. We are, of course, obliged to use things—only that use needs to be informed of their own sanctity if we are to flourish together. Such usage is accompanied by thankfulness.

Getting along with “worldly conventions” is a practical outcome of Zhuangzi’s equalization of things and our theories about them. Consummate iconoclasm, because it self-“clasts”, affirms all things rather than rejects them.

Going along with the conventions of others does not necessarily mean that we also practice them, or even that we agree with them. It means that we can at least see them in the context of their value to those that do affirm and practice them. It’s an enlightened cultural relativism that is still also able to judge conventions with respect to their positive and negative contributions to our collective flourishing.

UNDER HEAVEN LV

“Since all the ten thousand things are inexplicably netted together around us, nothing is worthy of exclusive allegiance.” (p 123)

Our sense of being embedded in primal Chaos—of being ourselves that Chaos—changes our relationship with things. We get a sense of our universal sameness, our oneness. Things are “inexplicably netted around us” not simply in a mutually causative way, a relationship of dependence—that would be explicable—but rather in their universal participation in Mystery by way of their own mystery.

This being the case, we can imagine and appreciate not only the individual uniqueness of all things, but also their oneness—a oneness that transcends all individual identity. And this, according to the author, creates an equalized appreciation of all things in their individuation. “Nothing is worthy of exclusive allegiance” does not mean that nothing is worthy of allegiance, but that all things are equally worthy of allegiance.

This is what the Tiantai correctly finds in Zhuangzi. And this, as we have previously seen, was yet one more step in a direction taken by many otherwise divergent philosophies. Confucius taught that we must begin with exclusive allegiances—family. Many of the responses that followed were attempts to break free of this ego-centric, hierarchical arrangement.

Mozi taught that we should begin by transcending such exclusivity and rather act out of universal love/concern. Song Xing said we should transcend our “separating pens”, our individual pig-sties, so as to get a broader point of view. Peng Meng and friends “began by equalizing all things”. Even Huizi got there by way of his linguistic analysis: “Love all things without exception, for heaven and earth are one body.” (p 124)

What we see here are two distinct points of departure. Which is “best”? Zhuangzi answers that both, taken together, are best. Walking one road amounts to the contradiction of whatever is our intended destination. If we fail to affirm the common-sense and realistic position of Confucius—that self and family come first—then we fail to embody all our experience. If we only take exclusivity as our point of departure, we fail to appreciate the equal worthiness of all things, and the perpetuation of exclusivity is guaranteed.

Walking two roads at once does not reduce to neat formulaic guidance. If it did, it would just revert to one road once again. How then does it work? How does anything “work”? Who knows? It just does.

UNDER HEAVEN LIV

We can begin with some of the “aspects of the Ancient Art of the Dao” that the Tianxia believes Zhuangzi’s writing style exhibits: “Blank and barren, without form! Changing and transforming, never constant! . . . So confused—where is it all going? So oblivious—where has it all gone? Since all the ten thousand things are inexplicably netted together around us, nothing is worthy of exclusive allegiance.” (p 123)

This speaks of Chaos. True Chaos cannot be imagined since imagining is the subversion of Chaos. Thus we are invited to imagine it in a way explicitly aware of its purely imaginative character.

How do we say what something is when it is not for one instant the same thing? We cannot; yet our cognitive facility requires it.

What is identity when there is nothing constant, but everything is ceaselessly transforming? Identity is an artificially imagined freezing of the unstoppable. Can we somehow identify with that which is beyond identity? That’s the imaginative exercise that Zhuangzi recommends we undertake. That would be “hiding the world in the world”, “the vastest arrangement” in which no presently putative identity could be lost.

“Confused” and “oblivious”—this is how everything essentially presents itself, though we must also try and make some sense of it. Necessary and essential ambiguity lies at the heart of Zhuangzi’s response to life. What are we to do with this unavoidable and omnipresent experience? His dao is simply a suggested response to life as it presents. There are others, but are they authentic? Do they stay true to what it is to be human? Most, he would likely say, do not; but then that too is being human.

Authenticity is not staying true to what is factually true, but to what is experienced. Is it true that life is experienced as the utterly ambiguous? We can imagine that it is, but ultimately we can only speak of our own experience. In the end, the condition cannot be universalized and its suggested remedy cannot be prescribed. And in the context of the ever-transforming there is no imperative to do so.

UNDER HEAVEN LIII

All in all, the Tianxia has little to say of Zhuangzi’s actual philosophy; the author is mostly taken by his style of writing rather than with its content. But this in itself is, in fact, a very important expression of his philosophy and the author has done well to recognize it. I have elaborated a lot on this elsewhere, so I will not do so again here.

Basically, Zhuangzi wants us to discover the spirit of his philosophy for ourselves, without being spoon fed, and without that equating to a list of ideas and maxims to follow. It is, in this sense, a form of “wordless instruction” even while being full of words.

This is accomplished through an over-arching sense of irony in which nothing said can be taken as literally the case. We are rather required to engage with his words in such a way as to discover what cannot be said with words.

The consequence is ambiguity, and ambiguity is, for Zhuangzi, the very nature of everything. When we resurface and attempt to articulate what we have found, therefore, it should not be surprising that we also discover that we have discovered different things. Being comfortable with that—that is having discovered something of what Zhuangzi was about.

UNDER HEAVEN LII

We have now arrived at the Tianxia’s treatment of Zhuangzi. For one so wrapped up in the philosophy of Zhuangzi—this critique of the Tianxia itself being only in the light of that philosophy—this more objective assessment of Zhuangzi provides an important lesson irrespective of what that assessment might be. Specifically, it reminds me that Zhuangzi was just another philosopher. For though the author has basically only good things to say of him, still his philosophy is seen as representing but one sliver among the many partial representations of the Ancient Art of the Dao.

He was, of course, just another philosopher. And we can say that his view represents but one view among a multitude of possible views, all valid. But that the philosophy itself is able to see itself as such is essentially that view, and this renders it qualitatively different. It co-opts all the others, but can only do so when it simultaneously sees itself as the same as all the others. Somewhere in here is Laozi’s “the subtle”.

Where the author diverges in his understanding of Zhuangzi is in his representation of him as providing but one sliver of a knowable, “sustainable” Dao. He, like the rest, got part of it, but missed the rest. But though Zhuangzi would agree that he only got part of it, he would also argue that “the rest” is missed whenever we say anything, and that that “missing” best represents Dao—a Dao by nature unknowable and unsustainable.

Here again the Tianxia reveals its more Confucian sympathies in its belief in an articulable Ancient Dao, rather than its supposed prioritization of Daoist philosophy. The way of wu (emptiness), though cognitively embraced—given lip-service—, is essentially negated in its most fundamental premise that there is a knowable Dao.

UNDER HEAVEN LI

“He was broad-minded and tolerant of all creatures, never slicing his way into the domain of others. This can be called reaching the zenith.” (p 123)

Contemplation of the concept of broad-mindedness can really be quite challenging. I just finished Ziporyn’s latest book, Emptiness and Omnipresence, which explores the nature and possible outcomes of Tiantai Buddhism’s proposed thought-experiment as a means to attaining enlightenment (the end of suffering). And that—being a thought-experiment—is really what all this is about.

The Tiantai vision is both profoundly difficult to grasp and equally simple in its essential thesis: everything explains everything else—all things are all things—everything is on the way to buddhahood, are  thus already buddhahood, and can thus be affirmed and embraced as buddhahood. Tiantai suggests that thinking about this can transform us.

Broad-mindedness, though much less intellectually challenging, points us in the same direction.

What would it be like to really be broad-minded? Once we get beyond a superficial concept of what that entails we discover it is a difficult place to go. And that’s the helpful part.

Broad-mindedness is equivalent to open-mindedness, which is utter, limitless openness. That’s the boundary we are invited to cross—into boundlessness. Crossing into that would indeed be transformative.

Being as I am, close-minded, I am well-situated to speak of open-mindedness since we can only do so by saying what it is not. It is not all these self-imposed boundaries I discover in myself.

UNDER HEAVEN L

The Tianxia’s concluding assessment of Laozi and Guan Yin is all praise. Of Laozi the author writes: “He was broad-minded and tolerant of all creatures, never slicing his way into the domain of others. This can be called reaching the zenith.” (p 123)

What is most valuable in describing the attributes of a sage, to my thinking, is simply in providing us with an opportunity to explore their implications and to perhaps experientially try them on so as to see how they fit. There really needn’t be any sages at all.

This particular description seems too curiously simply and prosaic to be called “reaching the zenith”. Yes, it’s a worthy attribute, but what about supreme unsurpassable enlightenment? Well, philosophical Daoism doesn’t entertain this goal—its vision is much more down to earth.

There is, nevertheless, something quite profound in the very un-profundity of this attribute when you think about it. To be able to actually embody this implies so much more. But that is the way of such things, I think—to embody one such attribute is to embody them all. There is one quality that does seem to encompass them all, however: “It’s just being empty, nothing more.” (7:13)

The author concludes: “Indeed! Guan Yin and Laozi, these were truly the vast and broad Genuine Human Beings of olden times.”

Well, I was wondering who those often referenced “ancients” were, and now I know. But if they are in fact essentially legendary figures, this doesn’t really tell us all that much. (There may have been a Lao Dan, but the legends that form his identity cannot be taken as telling us anything about him.)

This is for the best, is it not? The ancients, like all sages, serve us better as hypothetical archetypes then as actual historical personages. If no one has ever “attained” something specific we are left to have fun in wandering in that general direction.

UNDER HEAVEN XLIX

“Everyone else chooses to be full, but I choose to be empty, for it is because I store up nothing that I have more than enough—like a range of rolling hills stretching on before me, more than enough!” (p 123)

So Laozi is reported to have said, and this seems an accurate representation of his vision. “Storing up” metaphorically speaks to the normal activity of everyone who sees themselves as someone—which is pretty much everyone. In order to “have” something we must be someone.

We “have” a life. Sometimes we are told we need to “get a life”. Imagining ourselves as not having a life, but being life—this is an exercise that can help us leach an insular self-identity out of our experience. Again, Merton saw this in his adaptation: the sage “will be like life itself, with no name and no home.”

The alternative to storing up is living in the fluidity of life. Things come; things go. We enjoy what comes; we let go what goes. Thus did Zhuangzi’s hypothetical ancients regard life and death: “Receiving it, they delighted in it. Forgetting about it, they gave it back.” (6:10)

This also can be seen in the light of non-dependence. To store up is to depend on something; to let things and events flow as they must, without attachment, that is to not depend on them, even as one enjoys them.

The metaphor of hills stretching out before us suggests the adventure that lies before us—the possibility of our wandering. Without a “home” the entire world becomes our home. “Where can I go that would not be all right?” (6:44) “Seeing all possible dwelling places as one, let yourself be lodged in whichever one cannot be avoided.” (4:10)

This passage also helps to clarify what is intended in recommendations that we be mirror-like: “The Consummate Person uses his mind like a mirror, rejecting nothing, welcoming nothing; responding but not storing. Thus he can handle all things without harm.” (7:14; cf. p 123)

The “harm” avoided is both to ourselves and the things we let be.

UNDER HEAVEN XLVIII

“Lao Dan said, ‘Know the male, but hold to the female; be the ravine of the world. Know the unstained, but hold to the disgraced; be the valley of the world.’” (p 123)

Lao Dan (“Big Ears”—likely a sign of old age and wisdom; cf. images of the Buddha) is Laozi, and this essentially quotes Laozi 28.

Can we make use of this distinction between male and female without getting enmeshed in questions of sexism? We can if we go beyond the metaphor to the intended principle, but we best get there through the metaphor. The distinction is real in many respects, though like everything else it is “hopelessly tangled” up. And a metaphor is useful only when not taken too literally.

The point is that the male represents yang—assertiveness, knowing—“know” it. But the female represents yin—receptiveness, yielding, nurturing—“hold” to this rather than to the male. Embody these female qualities—rather than the other.

Yet these two seemingly contrary attributes are meant to complement each other. Daoism only prioritizes yin, the female, because it is what we have forgotten or disvalued.

Is this simultaneous “knowing” and “holding” the embodiment of the Confucian sage-king (“outwardly a king, inwardly a sage”) that the Tianxia also embraces? Perhaps; but it has never, nor likely ever will, come to pass. It also suffers from its own glaring self-contradiction. Can we really speak of a sage-emperor while ignoring that his armies secure the borders of his conquest and his police ensure the populace do as he wishes?

We are often told that if more women held the reins of power, the world would be a better place. History does not seem to bear this out. Power corrupts and the path to power is itself corrupting. Indeed, more often than not the presumption of yin-ish-ness seems to inspire an out yanging of yang-ish-ness. I offer America’s likely next president as a case in point.

“Be the ravine of the world.” Be diminutive, receptive and all-embracing. Yes, but we can go still lower: “Who can free himself from achievement and fame, descend and be lost amid the masses of men.” (Thomas Merton). Who can be nobody and thus “do” none of these things?

Only when these ideas start to rankle do their intended meanings begin their work.