Both Laozi and Zhuangzi tell us that Heaven is inhumane. This, too, is the View from Dao. We are not the center of the Universe; God doesn’t have his eye on us; the Earth convulses without regard to what ‘harm’ it might do; we are not special. But we are, of course, special—to ourselves; just as all other things are special to themselves within the range of their instincts and awareness. This too is affirmable. We have every right and reason to care about and for ourselves, for this is what it is for us to be. For humanity, human needs come first, just as a lion’s comes before those of a wildebeest and the wildebeest’s before those of the lion.
So, let us then despair. For these natural impulses have merged with our collective dysfunctionality and threaten to drive us to extinction well before our time. And if not that, they threaten to condemn us to a world without birdsong and clear open skies. Like mold on an orange, we cannot stop until we’ve covered the earth and eaten it all. Or can we?
Nothing that humanity has thus far done to slow its destruction of the environment has even begun to stem that tide. Our use of fossil fuels is warming the planet, so we erect some solar panels and clamor for the oil and gas beneath the melting ice. Against great odds we spare the spotted owl, while as many as 200 species pass into eternal extinction each and every day. Today we top 5.5 billion and will likely reach 8 billion by 2020. That’s 100 million more mouths to feed, bodies to house and keep warm, and consumer expectations to meet—every single year. Ah, growth!—the great engine that keeps the economic wheels a-turning. Though an estimated 1 billion people depend on seafood for their everyday protein intake, the total world fishery is expected to completely collapse into unsustainability by 2048. One in five people does not have safe potable water. And it’s getting scarcer. We genetically modify our foods, test them in the environment and declare them safe decades before we could possibly know. The oceans are filled with our plastics, the sky, rivers and earth with our toxins. Yet hope dawns eternal; or is it just apathy?
Contrary to recent reports, Planet Earth is doing just fine. True, her incredible fecundity has created a species so successful in its own right that it threatens to destroy both itself and the entire biosphere that she has wrought. But this too shall pass. Ages come. Ages go. Species arise, then disappear. Life has arisen and may again be no more. Many shout that we must save the Planet. But Mother Earth cannot be saved; she has never needed saving. She will shrug off whatever comes her way, whether asteroids or the misbegotten antics of a pesky lifeform. But she will of course die as will the star in which she basks and the Universe in which she resides. This is the way of things, the great inevitability, the endless transformation that pervades apparent reality.
This is something of the View from Dao, a broader perspective that moves beyond a parochial, human-centered view to one that opens itself to a more realistic perspective on the nature of things. It is also an openness to Openness, for it does not and cannot provide us with answers to our existential hunger for surety. At best we can only surrender in thankfulness and trust.
I’ve started a new writing project in which I hope to show how philosophical Daoism can help provide some philosophical underpinnings for the environmental movement, especially as seen in Deep Ecology. The working title is: AS THE COOKIE CRUMBLES: Sustaining Hope in a Hopeless World.
I expect to post portions of my progress here.
This “poem” from my fictional sage Chen Jen might be a good front piece:
Fix what is broken
though it will surely break again.
Heal what is sick though it will die in the end.
Do all that you must yet remain always at rest.
Whenever I discuss one of Ziporyn’s books I must begin by admitting that I haven’t understood the half of it. This is especially sad in this instance since this particular work seems to have only one idea to expound upon, albeit in many different ways. This is omnicentrism as found in Tiantai Buddhism.
What is omnicentrism? It is the understanding that every “coherence”, every idea about anything—“right or wrong”—, implies, contains and depends upon every other possible coherence of which it must remain incoherent. Every single thing is the center of Everything. But this means that everything is a Non-Exclusive Center—there are infinite centers. It also means that every coherence is “constitutively impossible” in that as a Local Coherence it must assume of itself that it is coherent, which it cannot possible be given its subsumption within Global Incoherence. This is the best I can do, or at least all I will attempt to speak of Ziporyn’s thesis. Instead, I’d like to make some more general observations about his project.
Ziporyn attributes his interest in omnicentrism to Zhuangzi, which makes it of special interest to me. Indeed, there is much here that helps to understand Zhuangzi’s “equalizing of things and our theories about them” and how he can justifiably advocate for his point of view that holds that all points of view are equally affirmable.
Though generally careful to avoid his own advocacy, Ziporyn does, I believe, think that this understanding can have a very real and practical transformative effect in our interface with ourselves and the world. The “transformative recontextualization” that an understanding of omnicentrism implies can change our being in the world for the better. This is also at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project as I understand it.
I would compare Ziporyn’s thought projects to those of the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers (whom I have admittedly not read in depth—they also being beyond my limited powers of concentration and intellect, and their having admittedly religious agendas). There are two ways of coming to understand them—one can be very, very smart or one can experience that of which they speak. They take reason to the very frontiers where Zhuangzi suggests the mind rest and accept that it can go no further. And this is where that scary thing called mysticism must step in.
What is especially noteworthy about this particular thought project is that it bravely constructs a new “thought experiment”, what Ziporyn calls Neo-Tiantai. By his own admission, it’s not Buddhism (thankfully), and it’s not strictly scholarship (also thankfully), and it’s not strictly speaking philosophy (at least, I assume, in the estimation of professional philosophers). This is what I try to do with Zhuangzi, though admittedly not really up to the task. Zhuangzi, however, at my reading, already does most of the work himself—there’s really nothing religiously contentful to pare away.
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