Wednesday, February 11, 2015

This Bird Has Flown

Monday, January 12, typically would have been a good day for my dad. That night the Oregon Ducks played The Ohio State Buckeyes for the NCAA Football National Championship. But my dad didn't see the game and we didn't get a chance to discuss it the next day.

At about 9:30 am -- after a brief illness -- my dad died. He was 81. He had been battling several health issues, but his death was still a bit of a shock.

To date, I haven't had a good cry. Sure, I've gotten a bit misty-eyed a time or two, but I haven't broken down. The main reason why is that it was a good death. He didn't suffer long and he died in his sleep. For my money, that's the best way to go.

I haven't gone as far as banging a drum like Zhuangzi (at the death of his wife), but I have taken some solace from that story.

Life and death. 

It's the ebb and flow of the existence we know.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cock-A-Doodle Doo

The main reason I haven't posted to this blog in quite a while is illustrated below. Here is a clip of the morning radio show on KOSW-LP 91.3 FM.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Graham on Confucius VI: Doing-One's-Best-For-Others

Scott Bradley

The Master said, 'Tseng-tzu, I have one thread running through my Way.' When the Master went out the disciples asked, 'What did he mean?' 'The Master's Way', said Tseng-tzu, 'is nothing but doing-one's-best-for-others (chung) and likening-to-oneself (shu)'.
(Analects 4/15)
In the previous post we considered some of the implications of "likening-to-oneself". This passage introduces the complementary idea of "doing-one's-best-for-others". Chung, Graham tells us, is formed by the graphs for "center" and "heart". It implies, then, a wholehearted concern for the welfare of others at the center of one's being.

If we were to take Confucianism to the laundry-mat and wash away its fixation with the restoration of an idealized past and its obsession with ritual and an immutable hierarchical social arrangement, all that would remain would be an amazing goodness and humanity. What is there here not to like?

Daoism found something; but its objection was not with the content of Confucian benevolence, but with its imposition as an ideal, and with the means to its realization. Daoism essentially replies, If benevolence is natural to and a fulfillment of humanity, then it will arise in being natural. We need not pursue it, and especially need not impose it on ourselves or others, for to do so would be to kill it in the womb. Only when benevolence is 'forgotten' does it have space to grow and to flourish; for this, and every other virtue, is only a virtue when spontaneously expressed. This is the essential Daoist formula: the sage does this, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is her nature to do so. The mediation of mind kills true virtue.

Graham distinguishes between these two, explaining that chung is a Confucian virtue, while shu is "a form of analogical thinking". I think we can understand this difference in saying that "doing-one's-best-for-others" is the actual behavioral outcome, the goal, while "likening-to-oneself" is the method for understanding how to do so. The Zhuangzi says the sage has no use for methods, however, and this brings us back to the idea of spontaneity.

We might ask ourselves, however, if the ideal Daoist sage and his spontaneity are not similarly ideals which, though desirable, are not our present reality and are thus an imposition. Does one then purposely try to be spontaneous? That would be other than spontaneous. Alas, I feel compelled to abandon my self-imposed orthodoxy and admit that, while ideal formulas may be helpful, the road we actually walk is a rutted and sometimes overgrown one.

Accommodation, living life in its inherent messiness, always seems to emerge for me as the most authentic way to proceed. There is ample room in my heart, therefore, for the Confucian vision as well as the Zhuangzian.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Smile (For Crying Out Loud)

Trey Smith

Yesterday, our apartment complex was assaulted -- yes, assaulted! -- by something far worse than locusts or the plague. We were assaulted by people carrying bibles!

I don't think they saw me as I was in my car getting ready to drive to the grocery store. I heard them talking strategy before marching themselves into the courtyard. One woman said to another woman and a fellow, "Remember, we are here to spread the Good News." All three nodded and, I think, said little prayers under their breaths.

What I find hysterically ironic is that not one of them wore a smile on their face. Each one looked as if she/he was off to get a proctological exam. How in the heck did any one of these three believe they could convince anyone of the so-called "Good News" when each one of them looked so dour?

Graham on Confucius V: Likening-To-Oneself

Scott Bradley

There are several instances in the Analects when Confucius or one of his disciples tells us what is "the single thread" that runs throughout his teaching. It is not often that we are given such a clear summary of a philosophy and thus it behooves us to consider the implications of this one: "Tzu-Kung asked, 'Is there a single word which one could act on all one's life?' The Master said, 'Wouldn't it be likening-to-oneself (shu)? What you do not yourself desire do not do to others.'" (15/24)

This so-called negative statement of the Golden Rule (Jesus's "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") is as equally powerful as the 'positive' rendering and, from the point of view of Daoism, perhaps even more so. Rather than "doing" anything to anyone, which for Daoism is likely to be an imposition whatever the motivation, how much better to just leave them alone. Both, in any case, are easily manipulated by the justifying mind — we might just as easily tell ourselves that we would want the criticism that we so anxiously wish to dump on someone else. For this to be truly effective it would seem to require, therefore, that we first have a deep and honest understanding of ourselves.

The difference between the rule of Confucius and Jesus is that for the former it essential and for the latter incidental. Jesus might have wanted to be a moral teacher, but having been declared a savior, his moral teachings were rendered secondary. (Which is probably why most his followers seem immune to the implications of that moral teaching.) For Confucius, on the other hand, living in social harmony was the greatest value that humanity could pursue — Heaven could take care of itself. When asked about life after death, he replied that since his interlocutor had yet to learn how best to live, what business had he worrying about death? This presupposes that death and its consequences are universally and inevitably the same. I know I harp on the issue, but the absence of a belief in the need for 'salvation' (whether of the Christian-Islamic variety or of the Buddhist/Hindu variety) completely transforms our perspective on how to go about making the most of this life. At the very least, 'spiritual' pursuit becomes optional, and no "Truth" need be imposed upon others (for their own good, of course).

This "likening-to-oneself" implies an understanding that everyone else is to his- or herself as each one of us is to our own selves. I am the center of the Universe; but then there are approximately seven billion similar centers, as well. We might be One, but we are also necessarily many. This is the working-paradigm and 'larger view' of Zhuangzi — since each is a self-contained microcosm of right/wrong, and there being no known absolute Truth of the matter, then we can enjoy ours (walking one road) while allowing others to have theirs (walking a second road). The larger view, then, is an acknowledgement of the diversity of human expression, rather than an attempt to unify all expressions under the single banner of Truth.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Here, Gone, Back

Trey Smith

For 3 months, KOSW-LP was my second home. Then I was gone for about 2 1/2 weeks. I thought this experiment was over and finished. But then a funny thing happened. The two managers (volunteers just like everyone else up there) -- who had seemed to make it their sole purpose in life to hassle me and one other volunteer -- suddenly quit. Together they had precipitated a financial crisis and, rather than deal with the fallout they had created, both walked away to leave the mess for others to have to resolve.

With these two blokes out of the way, I was welcomed back into the fold. I picked up right where I left off. In fact, I am somewhat producing the new morning show. The only drawback is that I have to arrive at the station around 6 am each morning. It is not as bad as it sounds since I no longer seem to be a night owl anymore -- having two dogs that need to be walked early will do that to a fellow!

Graham on Confucius IV: Humanism

Scott Bradley

Man is able to enlarge the Way, it is not that the Way enlarges man.
(Analects 15/29)
This celebrated quote from Confucius, taken as a starting point, has profound implications. Understanding Confucius as the 'father' of classical Chinese philosophy, as the one who got the ball rolling as it were, we begin to see many threads of his thought are perpetuated in the weave of even those philosophies which were conscious attempts to break from him. What we see here, despite his arch-conservatism and appeals to a feudal, hierarchical past, is Confucius' profound humanism. The point is the betterment of humanity, and there is no better way to achieve that end than to look to what humanity as manifest requires.

Graham offers this quote as an example of Confucius' apparent disinterest in Heaven as a meddling power. This is clearly implied, but it needs to be said that "Way" (Dao), for Confucius, had little, if any, metaphysical significance; the Way is simply the means by which humanity is able to achieve its natural fulfillment.

What is significant is that 'Heaven' does not give us commandments to obey — tell us how we ought to behave; rather, we discover what works best for humanity through a study of humanity. This is essential humanism, and the antithesis of religion. Such an orientation is hard to sustain, however, given our hunger for absolutes. Neo-Confucianism was (I think) an attempt to provide those absolute guiding principles (li) and thus a departure from the empirical and existential.

My recent critique of Jed McKenna's emphatic declaration of the Truth was largely inspired by his similar departure from the "Drift and Doubt" of an existential Dao. The central question is whether we are to engage with life as it is manifest, a process that will yield a rather messy assortment of 'truths', or are we to impose Truth upon humanity from above. (McKenna, admittedly, arrived at the Truth through existential struggle, but so too might we say of every other religious prophet; except for 'true believers', his is but another "contending voice" which has no more weight than any other.) Philosophical Daoism, for all its criticism of Confucian moralism, perhaps remains the most faithful to his most fundamental humanist point of departure.

On the personal front, this quote exhorts us to "enlarge" our own ways. Finding what works best for us individually, and honestly engaging in the process it suggests, will ultimately "enlarge" us. This is the life "examined", which, though it need not be done, makes for the exciting adventure that life can be — for those so inclined.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Graham on Confucius III: Wu Wei

Scott Bradley

In his discussion of de in Confucius, Graham points out that he "even" uses the term wu wei, "not-doing": "One who put in order by doing nothing, would that not be Shun? What is there that he did? Just assumed a respectful posture and faced south." (Analects 15:5)

Here we begin to see how these two terms complement each other. De, according to Graham, meant for Confucius "the power . . . to move others without exerting physical force." "Doing through not-doing" is thus the exercise of de.

Here, as elsewhere generally, we see that these things are thought to be important because of their political effectiveness. The point was made earlier, but it bears repeating: Classical Chinese philosophy always had the central political aim of the improvement of society. This is because humanity is always understood as social and communal. Even with the 'corrective' introduction of the individualism of Zhuangzi, this orientation is never lost. Indeed, if, as Confucius believed, de and wu wei are necessary requirements for good governance, then their further development by 'Laozi' and Zhuangzi are a re-iteration and deepening of that understanding.

Only for Zhuangzi, it is taken to a new level; if it is true of our communal experience that things change for the better when given the space to do so, so also in our own personal pilgrimages. Once again, we are reminded of his exhortation to "just be empty". Emptiness is never understood outside the context of fullness, however, but as the pre-condition of fullness. The point of wu wei, not-doing, is to get things done. Space is given for things to happen.

Put in the context of current political thought, de/wu wei equate to: "Be change." What is assumed in such an exhortation is that being different makes a difference. This making a difference implies much more than just 'doing one's part', but also implies bringing change to others. How? Through de.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Graham on Confucius II: De

Scott Bradley

The little word de (te), best known as part of the title of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), has presented translators with many a headache. The main problem is not so much with finding the right equivalent word, though that poses one, but with understanding what it means in the first place. Graham offers a definition for its use by Confucius which might profitably be taken as the foundation for every other subsequent usage: "the power . . . to move others without exerting physical force." Here is a concept, an orientation, through which the entirety of the classical Chinese philosophic enterprise can be brought into focus.

A curious thing about classical Chinese philosophy is that it is always political. Yes, even philosophical Daoism, the supposedly "quietist" philosophy of hermits and drop-outs, is profoundly political. The most celebrated 'Daoist' work, the Daodejing, is a manual for rulers on how best to rule. And even Zhuangzi, who is said to have refused political office so he could, like a free turtle, drag his tail in the mud, does so, in part, that he might more effectively "move others without exerting physical force."

On the face of it, it seems so obvious that philosophy would always be a political enterprise. That it has often attempted to be otherwise in the West (though, in the end, nothing is not political) is in itself telling. We are, after all, communal beings. Confucius understood everything in this context. Personal ethics could not be abstracted from the network of human relationships. The point was to be a better human being so as to make for a better society. Were he to run for office today, it would be under the banner of "family values".

Zhuangzi is noteworthy for his individualism; he introduced the value of one's own self-realization outside the context of societal conventions, a personal freedom from dependence upon esteem and merit. But never is this forgetful (even when forgotten) of the benefits that accrue to society generally. The freak of "discombobulated de" is identified as praiseworthy precisely because that de extends to the material benefit of many others.

A species of fish spit on each other when the pond goes dry, Zhuangzi tells us, but how much better when there is enough water for them to forget each other in the rivers and the lakes. The best thing one person can do for another, except in situations of distress, is to leave them to find their own unique expression. De tells us, however, that this apparent gap of disinterest and forgetting is in fact spanned by what Graham calls a "charisma" that assists without assisting. It is, in part, respect for personal context, the affirming gift of allowing others to be themselves.

For Zhuangzi, as for Laozi, it is the empty space that gives value to the whole, as a window makes for the usefulness of a room, or as the realization of inner emptiness (qi) allows for light to enter the heart-mind. De is a quality that, like emptiness, gives things space to be and grow.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Graham on Confucius I: Graham First

Scott Bradley

This series will be responses to A. C. Graham's Disputer's of the Tao: Philosophic Argument in Ancient China, a standard treatment of the subject often quoted by sinologists. Ancient China, in this case, refers to the "classical period" (roughly 500-200 BCE), and includes Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, 'Sophism', Yin-Yang, and others.

First, a purely subjective take on Graham himself. Even though many scholars are in strong disagreement with many of his conclusions, all express their differences with respect and deference to his position as a pillar of Western sinology. He was considered a 'good' human being, as well as a great scholar. Both these assessments are beyond my ability to determine one way or the other, though I take them at face value.

Based on my own reading, however, I do have two criticisms to offer. The first is that he tends to take his conclusions beyond the limits of scholarship, formulating opinions that are subsequently expressed as facts upon which to form still other opinions, all under the guise of 'scholarship'. The classic example is his re-editing of the Zhuangzi, moving passages from one chapter to another, while expunging others. The exercise itself is not without merit, but the tentative and speculative character of his opinions is often forgotten in favor of later definitive statements. Throughout the work now under consideration, similar questionable interpretive overlays are frequent. One must therefore be careful to sort out the fact from opinion.

Secondly, and more quibblingly, I frequently find his sentences unnecessarily opaque. Sometimes just a comma helps, but often I am at a loss to decipher his intended meaning, no matter how simple. I find myself asking, a bit like Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, "The English language, do you write it?" Perhaps it just comes down to syntactical differences between British (his) and American English; or perhaps I am just dull-witted.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi XV: The Wild Card Mind

Scott Bradley

Seeing that my self is your other, and your self is my other, Zhuangzi asks if there is really any self or other at all. If not, then there is a kind oneness that emerges from the merging of the one into the other. "It is only someone who really gets through them that can see how the two sides open into each other to form a oneness." (2:23; Ziporyn) It is easy enough to understand this in theory, but to really "get through them" is another thing altogether; it must be a transformative experience like that of Ziqi who consequentially loses his "me". Since self/other leads to "this/that", the fundamental distinction of thought, to transcend it is already to go where words cannot go; the transcendence of self/other cannot be imagined. (Though trying to imagine it might be a way of approximating it.)

To experience this — or at least to begin to approximate it however imperfectly — leads to a unique psychological paradigm shift which, though Zhuangzi seems much more interested in one's inner experience, also works itself out in behavioral changes in the world. "It is just a matter of going along with the present 'this'. To do this without knowing it, and not because you have defined it as right, is called 'the Course' [Dao]". (2:23) It is having an open, untethered mind.

This is the heart of the reasoned side of Zhuangzi's project of showing a way to freedom from the "separating pen" of one's own narrow subjectivity. Ziporyn calls it the "wild card mind" and, I think I can safely say, sees it as the defining concept of Zhuangzi's way. His elucidation of having such a mind is quite elaborate, and I won't attempt to reproduce it here, but will sketch the broad parameters.

Imagine you are playing a card game (the basics of which is to pick up and discard cards) in which you do not know the rules (as in life) though you keep picking up cards that provide you with contradictory rules. One card tells you to keep high cards; another says keep low cards, etc. For the wild card mind this poses no problem, for it has no commitment to any one kind of card or set of rules, but is by its nature able to transform along with whatever the current situation requires. Now an ace, now a deuce; "now a horse, now an ox".

The wild card mind is thus typified by infinite flexibility by virtue of being unfixed from any one point of view. It is like taking a walk in the woods, appreciating the full gamut of sounds and sights as all equally expressions of the Great Happening. Or, as I like to say, it is the ability to appreciate humanity and its expressions as we might the competing interests of various species of ants, appreciating them all, committing to none.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi XIV: We Are the Same

Scott Bradley

So far we have been looking at the self/other pairing as seen in the individual self as I/me. But though Ziqi's loss of "me" begins there, it does not stop there. This gives him a sense of the fact that everyone else is just like him; he realizes that his internal self/other pairing is projected onto the world so that his self is paired with everyone else as other. Thus, he identifies himself as one among the myriad of sounds of the forest stirred by the wind.

"Without self there is no other, without other there is no self", Zhuangzi tells us. Could the I/me exist without some other? Perhaps not, but since there 'are' others, how are we to relate to them? Since everyone experiences his internal self/other as an external projection of one's self in contrast to others, we come to recognize that we are the same. You have your self and other; I have my self and other. But since your self is my other and my self is your other, is there any self or other? Are they not really just the same? These are Zhuangzi's questions, and he assumes we will reach the same conclusion as he, that, if we can transcend our own subjectivity, we will realize that they are the same, and this enables a paradigm shift of enormous implications. Suddenly, everything "basks in the full daylight of heaven". Suddenly, all distinctions and boundaries fall away.

This is really not all that unlike Confucius' "single thread" that runs through his entire philosophy, namely the ability to "liken-[others]-unto-oneself" (shu) that led to his version of the "golden rule": "Do not do to others what you would not want done to you". For Confucius this is an ethical consideration, the foundation for which is unclear, despite its undeniable appeal. Zhuangzi's use is quite different, however, though I am having difficulty finding an appropriate label. Perhaps it is ontological, the way things manifest as self-other. Or perhaps it is epistemological, the way our knowing is perspectivally derived and thus undermined by the equally valid perspectives of others. In any event, he, too, suggests we come to realize that others are like ourselves and thereby realize a wider view that transcends our own subjectivity (even if experienced within that subjectivity).

The point is, if we can realize how that we are all the same, we can free ourselves from the narrow "separating pens" of our own subjectivity so as to freely wander among all subjectivities which, in this context, Zhuangzi calls "following along with the present 'this' (subjectivity)".

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Trey Smith

In a little less than 2 weeks, I will make a trip to Seattle to see a Rheumatologist. A recent blood test showed that I have a sky high sed rate and my RH factor also is very high. Add to this the shape of my hands and I will be absolutely shocked if I am not diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis or Rheumatoid Arthritis.

So, what is it about my hands? Over the past year I have developed a number of nodes on the knuckles of both hands. I also have 2 or 3 nodes in areas just above my wrists. Both of my index fingers are turning inward toward the other fingers -- my right index finger has almost turned 90 degrees. Needless to say, both of my hands hurt a lot, particularly the left one. I have taken to wearing my arthritic gloves 24/7.

And it's not just a hand problem either. I'm having the same sorts of problems with both of my feet: nodes in my knuckles and big toes that are becoming misshapen.

Ah, just another way my body seems to have betrayed me!

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi XIII: The Equalization That Liberates

Scott Bradley

"[T]he primary idea of a whole is of a correlative pair, which Zhuangzi pares down to its purest and most abstract form: This and That, or Self and Not-self." This, as Ziporyn points out (Ironies of Oneness and Difference), is the central theme of the Qiwulun chapter of the Zhuangzi (the second of the Inner Chapters) which he renders: "Equalizing Assessments of Things", and I take to mean "Equalizing our Opinions about What This Mess Is All About". His goal is to demonstrate that our opinions are a consequence of our individual perspectives, and thus perspectivally relative, on the one hand, and to thereby give us a cognitive tool by which to free ourselves from clinging to our own opinions as if to 'truth', on the other. When thoroughly realized, he believes, this awareness frees us from every dependence. Everything is in effect equalized, and this is the experience of psychological Dao.

Zhuangzi is by no means unique in his use of reason to demonstrate the limits of reason; his friend Huizi did the same, and Zhuangzi probably learned it from him. What is unique in Zhuangzi is that he sees it as an opportunity to reconnect with the life-process itself, rather than as merely an occasion for intellectual skepticism.

We previously saw in Ziqi's declaration, "I have lost me", that the self is precisely this, a self-other pairing wherein one objectifies oneself. To lose the objectified "me", however momentarily or partially, is to suddenly lose the boundary which separates one from everything else; one experiences "oneness"; all things are "equalized". The experience is a psychological one, and not intended to declare that "all is One", however 'true' that may be.

Thus, Ziqi is suddenly able to recognize all the noises that humans make, all their opinions, as metaphorically equivalent to the sounds created by the wind blowing through the forest. Recognizing the subjectivity of each, including himself, he is able to realize a more objective view, the view from Dao.

So, yes, all our blabbering is "no different from the twittering of baby birds". Far from being simply dismissive of the human expression, however, this realization can be incredibly liberating. But before it can be so, something has to give within us, something has to break, something has to be "lost"; and that, of course, is "me".

With the loss of “me” comes the freedom to wander; for “I” remain, though now without the need to fixedly cling to anything: to be ‘right’ or to establish myself in contrast to others.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi XII: The Essential Duality

Scott Bradley

For philosophical Daoism generally, and Zhuangzi particularly, Ziporyn tells us, "the primary idea of a whole is of a correlative pair." (Ironies of Oneness and Difference) One, for all practical purposes, is always two. A psychological experience of oneness is, by virtue of its being experienced, two. This does not negate the possibility of One, something suggested by the experience, but only of the possibility of being One — and knowing it. Or, should we wish to insist on Oneness, then it seems necessary to call it an ironic oneness, where our "not-one is also One". To be human, to be self-conscious, is to be essentially dualistic. Indeed, there seems to be no other foundation for dualism in all the Universe except through life generally, and self-consciousness especially. (Unless one posits a God that creates and especially one who says, "Let us create man in our own image", the Hebrew (elohim) for God in this instance being plural.)

This idea of the whole as a correlative pair is a "single thread" running throughout the Daoist view of pretty much everything. We saw it in the Laozi where the manifest and (somewhat) intelligible world cannot be understood in wholeness without reference to the unintelligible Dao, a coherence (whole) that is necessarily incoherent. Yin/Yang, in Daoism which prioritizes Yin, unintelligibility, is similarly a correlative pair which, if we want to remain true to the human experience, must remain two. Philosophical Daoism is phenomenological in that it does not go where human experience cannot go. There is no doctrinal declaration of Oneness in Daoism.

Ziporyn calls these pairings "asymmetrical" in that they are not co-equals, a common misunderstanding of Yin/Yang; in Daoism, there is a prioritization of the unknowable and mysterious, Yin. (In Confucianism, Yang, the known, is prioritized.)

For Zhuangzi, the essential human experience of self-consciousness in similarly understood as a correlative pair: self and other. "I have lost me" is thus both a recognition of this necessary pairing and the prioritization of one over the other, if we regard the loss of "me" ("I" as object to oneself) as a positive value. But, as we saw in the previous post, this is all very ironic in the sense that the loss of "me" is clearly not the loss of "I", and for Ziqi to observe this phenomenon and explain it would seem to betray it. Thus, we cannot speak of this experience in any absolutist terms; to "have no self" is not to be no-self. It is to be informed by the experience of having no self (just as to be informed by Mystery (incomprehensible metaphysical Dao, Yin) is not to lay claim to having known, realized or merged with Mystery).

Zhuangzi tells us that the hypothetical sages of old realized that their "not-one is also One", and that, as long as we remain human, is about the best we can do.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi XI: Beyond Self/Other and Back Again

Scott Bradley

If, through the mythical imagery of Peng, we have yet to learn to fly without wings, to depend on nothing and thereby follow along with whatever happens, well then, Zhuangzi offers us another point of entry, a reasoned demonstration of how the actual mechanics of our hewing a self from out of the unintelligible whole invites us to loosen our grip on that self and its objectified other so as to become unfixed.

Zhuangzi begins with the sage Ziqi who declares, "I have lost me." Much conjecture abounds as to how this happened, but Zhuangzi seems more interested in describing the mechanics of the self that makes it possible, and judging from the explanation provided by the sage himself, insight into this is in itself a means to that end, the loss of "me". For Zhuangzi, as for Zen, cracking the nut of our conventional interface with our experienced reality opens us up to an experience beyond the dualism of thought.

The simple statement, "I have lost me", suggests the profound paradoxical subtleties of a self that both is and is not. It finds its parallel in metaphysical Dao, apparently necessarily, everywhere manifest, yet nowhere to be found. Indeed, in Ziqi's explanatory metaphor of the sounds of the wind in the forest, and his unanswered question as to "who is the rouser?", it is not always clear of which he speaks, Dao or self; perhaps it is both.

"I have lost me" (wu sang wo), Ziporyn tells us, uses two words for "self": "unlike wu, wo can be paired as a dyad with bi, signifying the contrastive self, the self as opposed to others . . ." What has been lost is not self per se, but that aspect of self that posits an other. This is reflected in Zhuangzi's introductory description of Ziqi as found by his disciple, "as if loosened from a partner", or as if he had "lost his opposite". The first and primary "other" is oneself, "me". If Ziqi is no longer an object to himself, presumably neither is the world. He has experienced the (psychological) oneness later expressed as "the ten thousand things and I are one" (2:32).

This, Ziporyn says, reflects the "monistic" interpretation of the wind in the trees — every sound is the expression of Dao. But though in some sense 'true', nothing is ever so straight-forward with Zhuangzi, and he goes on to have Ziqi say that "each one selects out his own [identity]". One may experience oneness, yet there remains the not-one, and this Ziporyn calls the ironic identity, and I describe as that which both is and is not. The Zhuangzian vision of the transcendence of self is thus profoundly paradoxical in that one is, remains, and exercises being a self, while realizing that there is no self at all. Is this not an invitation to wander and to play?

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When Turning Left, Use Your Blinker

Trey Smith

One complaint I have often received on this blog is my fusion of leftist ideology with philosophical Taoism. I make no apologies for it because we each travel down different paths and I tend to travel down those to the left of center. Therefore, it is understandable that my tao would tend to be a left-leaning one.

That said, I sort of understand how this criticism arises and, with this blog in its winding down stage, I have created a new one: The [Left] Left Coast. I will endeavor to use the new blog as a platform for my radical, left-leaning commentary.

Once I finish posting another 4 - 6 weeks of Scott's insightful contemplations and a few entries of my own here and there, this blog will go on a prolonged hiatus. I'm not saying definitively that it will end -- though it certainly may -- but I'm guessing I will only post to it periodically going forward. I've told Scott that the door here will forever be open to him and the same is true for Ta-Wan, but we've each written about this same overall topic for years and it feels like a good time to turn over a new leaf.

I don't know how often I will post on The [Left] Left Coast, but knowing myself, I'm sure it will be off and on. When it's on, there probably will be a flurry of posts and, when it's off, I may go days without posting anything. But I do plan to move two features from here over to there: Morning News and the Afternoon Matinee (though, maybe, I should jettison the use of the word Afternoon in combination with Matinee). ;-)

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi X: Two Points of Entry

Scott Bradley

Having suggested that we ride atop whatever 'is' or happens, Zhuangzi asks "You would then be depending on — what?" Assuming that we are quick studies and have answered, "We don't know, and it doesn't matter", he adds his own sweeping conclusion: "Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the sage has no name." This, I would suggest, is the culminating expression of his vision, not simply as an idea, but as a realized (albeit ideal) way of being in the world.

With reference to this, Ziporyn introduces his treatment of the next chapter: "The Zhuangzian person does not possess any particular value or merit or identity, but is able to produce endless values and merits and identities. But how is this possible?" My immediate answer is, "He just told us." Ziporyn, for his part, is introducing Zhuangzi's arguments for this position that allow for another point of entry into his vision, but that he, Ziporyn, takes as the "core" of his philosophy.

I do not wish to quibble unnecessarily, but only wish to point out that Zhuangzi's vision rests on no arguments at all — which is also a major outcome of his demonstration of the limits of reason in the second chapter. The whole point is that life admits to no explanation and thus arguments for a particular way to live are, in effect, "adding to the process of life." The last thing Zhuangzi has in mind is the application of principles. Ziporyn, of course, knows this better than I.

The power of analogy and myth is that they invite us to experience, or rather require us to experience them so as to understand them. My point is that, though Zhuangzi's demonstration of the reasoned mechanics of the sage's way of being in the world is both valid and helpful, that way is already expressed in Peng in a manner more exemplary of the way itself.

This distinction might be further illustrated by the Christian "proofs" for the existence of God (however specious). The Christian theologian offers these "proofs" with a view to bringing us to the point of an intellectual belief so as to help facilitate an experiential belief. The point is to experience God; belief in God does not suffice. (My guess is that the experience is real, though the God is not.)

Of course all Zhuangzi’s words, like Laozi’s, are a self-negating compromise, as they would readily admit. Understood as such, both the myth of Peng and the reasoned demonstration of “The Illumination of the Obvious” (Zhuangzi’s reasoned look at our experience) are only ideas and thus equally fall short of the actual experience of the sage; they can only serve as invitations to go beyond them in experience. We might also say that the myth is a way of entry for the more dim-witted (like myself) and the reasoned demonstration for the brighter among us.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi IX: What's True?

Scott Bradley

Before moving on to Ziporyn's treatment of the Qiwulun (2nd) chapter of the Zhuangzi, I'd like to take one last look at how the more difficult philosophical arguments of that chapter are more simply reflected in the myth of Peng.

In an apparently irrelevant aside in his description of Peng's ascent to ninety thousand miles above the earth, Zhuangzi asks: "And the blue on blue of the sky — is that the sky's true color?" (1:4; Ziporyn) As is so frequently the case, he leaves the question unanswered. But then the word translated as "true" [zheng] reappears in his summation of the mind set free of psychological dependence: "But suppose you were to chariot upon what is true both to Heaven and earth, riding atop the six atmospheric breaths, so that your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on — what?" (1:8) Ziporyn makes note of this apparent reference back to the question of the sky's "true" color.

So, what is "true", that we might know to chariot upon it? If we had to know, wouldn't this be to depend on something? The point, then, is that whatever is true of things is irrelevant to our wandering. It is enough that we chariot upon whatever seems to be true, without needing to know what is in fact "true".

Coming back to earth, we can see how this applies to our more mundane social experience. Let's suppose that we feel imposed upon, that our 'rights', our needs, are not properly taken into account. We might be inclined to speculate upon what faults in those who slight us possess; they are selfish, full of resentments (which, of course, is precisely what we are ourselves nourishing in our speculation). Yet, since we find it so incredibly difficult to discover our own motivations, how can we presume to be able to know the "true" motivations of others? Dwelling on what is "true" of others, moreover, disallows our riding atop their behaviors so as to freely wander.

In the end, all that really matters is our own response to what we encounter; we don't need to know what is “true” of it. Only when we allow things to be whatever they are without our knowing what they are will our "wandering nowhere be brought to a halt".

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ziporyn on Zhuangzi VIII: What? Means Who?

Scott Bradley

I always say that Zhuangzi suggests that we depend on nothing, but this is not, in fact, what he says. He actually says that if we simply ride atop whatever happens, we will depend on — what? I answer: Nothing. But Ziporyn (Ironies of Oneness and Difference, p.164) draws attention to the fact that Zhuangzi restrains himself from saying anything so definitive; for him, the question is the limit. We have already seen how Zhuangzi's non-dependence is in effect dependence on everything; for, since the psychological non-dependence of which he speaks is the consequence of not depending on any one thing, not selecting out any particular thing or event upon which to depend, not hewing out something from the unhewn upon which to fix, one is involved with and “charioting upon” everything. So, there is dependence — but upon what? Upon whatever this life-experience is all about, that is, the unknowable. And this is why I suggest his is essentially a call to surrender into Mystery.

We have also seen that the apparent ceaselessness of transformation, if allowed to truly inform our orientation to the world and our experience, calls forth our non-dependent dependence, and this in turn calls forth no-fixed-identity. If all is transformation, and we unite with that so as to not fix in dependence on any one thing, then neither are we able to remain ourselves a fixed identity. These 'three' (all is transformation, non-dependent dependence, no-fixed-identity) must certainly be spontaneously and mutually arising; it is not that one leads to the other, but that each one is the other.

Thus, Ziporyn points out that the 'what?' of our dependence ineluctably leads to the 'who?' of our identity. "This dependence on 'what?' — not as an answer but as a perpetual question — is the ironic independence of the ironic Daoist identity, the perpetual 'who?'" "The true self, in short, is 'Who?'. Or, to put it otherwise, the true self is, 'Is there really a true self or not?'" "The true self is, in a word, unintelligible, or, more to the point, unintelligibility itself." Zhuangzi advocated neither "no-self" nor 'true-self', but rather 'no-known-self'. We are as much Mystery as everything else; we needn’t look to the cosmos to discover the perpetual ‘what?’. Surrender into one’s self is no different than surrender into the ultimate Mystery.

This is an "ironic identity" in that it both is and is not; like metaphysical Dao, it is conspicuous in its absence, present as an absence. 'Someone' seems to be here, and thus we get on with the stuff of living, but now transformed by an awareness of the apparent emptiness of that 'someone', we do that living as unfixed: "The Zhuangzian person does not possess any particular value or merit or identity, but is able to produce endless values and merits and identities." We are able to live and engage in the realities of the moment, yet are also able to follow along with the ever-changing nature of the moment, without loss. ‘No-self’ and ‘true self’ are equally in some sense fixed. Where the question ends, the fantasy begins.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.