The mysticism of Zhuangzi When I begin to discuss Zhuangzi, the first thing I am compelled to say is that I can’t be certain

that there will be any value or accuracy in what I will present here. This estimate of mine follows the position taken by Zhuangzi in chapter two: “How can I know that what I speak of as knowing is not actually not knowing? How can I know that what I speak of as not knowing is actually knowing?” 庸詎知吾所謂知之非 不知邪? 庸詎知吾所謂不知之非知邪? Here is something quite unusual, nearly unheard of in the rest of the history of the world’s wisdom literature: Zhuangzi’s (or at least that of the author of the second chapter of the book that bears this name1) tentative assumption of fundamental ignorance forms the basic foundation of his way (dao 道) of interacting with his world. It is the root of his openness to the possible truth of almost anything imaginable. It is the genesis of his mystical ability to embrace all beings and all of Being. And what does this author intend to accomplish with his radical openness? His aim is the psychological/existential disposition he calls “le” (樂). I interpret this disposition as “a profound sense of wellbeing.” I would not generally follow the example of most translators who translate it as “happiness” or “contentment.” I believe that when Zhuangzi speaks of 樂 he is talking about a disposition that persists during both euphoria and dysphoria. Besides 樂, there is another significant related term in Zhuangzi; that is “jie” (解). 解 means “liberation.” Or if you like: “deliverance.” It indicates the continuously ongoing sense of well-being is largely (but not completely) non-contingent on the occurrence of material events. This means that the daoist adept is relatively free from the experience of resentment no matter what material gains or losses she experiences. “Concerns with the issue of life and death do not cause any alterations within him, much less the matters of benefit and harm.” 死生無 變於己而況利害之端乎! (chapter 2) Liberation 解 indicates that the adept’s sense of well-being is no longer dependent on what turn of events occurs: “Failing miserably he was well; successful he was well.” 窮亦樂,通亦樂. (chapter 28)

Part of Zhuangzi’s unshakable equanimity is based on his philosophy of life. He has discovered that beneficial material events often result in subsequent events which are materially harmful, and vise versa: “Disaster and fortune give birth to each other.” 禍福相生. (chapter 25) But more importantly, there is another, a non-philosophical dynamic operating at the root of his irrepressible sense of well-being, and that dynamic power will remain a mystery. There are no words to explain this “dark power:” xuan de 玄德 (chapter 12). “It is as though you were stupid and confused: this is called the mysterious power, it integrates you within the cosmic flow.” 若愚若昏,是謂玄 德,同乎大順. (chapter 12) The adept’s integration within this flow is auspicious. The way that this cosmic flow is patterned is called the “dao” 道: “The dao is compelling and it evidences its actuality, but it produces no observable actions and is without an observable form. It can be transmitted but it cannot be substantially received. You can realize it, but you can’t see it. It is its own root, its own origin.” 夫道,有情有 信,無為無形; 可傳而不可受,可得 而不可見; 自本自根. (chapter 6) The mysterious functioning of Zhuangzi’s dao might lead some to interpret it as being undoubtedly a religious phenomenon. But this conclusion would be inconsistent with the Zhuangzi’s insistence on his comprehensive ignorance regarding the true essence of the phenomena in the world of his experience. For example, by his account, one day he had had a dream of being a butterfly and when he woke up he was not sure whether he actually had been, and continued to be that butterfly. Was he still the butterfly, now dreaming that he was human? Or was he a human being who had just had a dream of being a butterfly. With this level of skepticism toward his own ability to know if there were any phenomenon which he would be able to truthfully characterize, we can safely assume Zhuangzi would be neither a theist nor an atheist. Not knowing anything for certain, Zhuangzi is forced to rely on his state of ignorance: in order to realize a practical (not metaphysical) transcendence of the everyday world’s material effects on him, he has

to “depend on what he does not know.” 恃其所不知. (chapter 24) It is through this carefully maintained ignorance that he arrives at his ultimate aim— an optimal sense of well being. “The person of de (德) lives within a mind free of rumination, moves without anxiety, accumulates no ideas of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness.” 德人 者,居無思, 行無慮, 不藏是非美惡. (chapter 12) Such an adept finally realizes the experience of a psychological/existential transcendence and in this condition “rests in the well-being of heaven and earth as all the worries of the world’s affairs vanish.” 天地樂而 萬 事銷亡. (chapter 12) At this level of equanimity the adept spontaneously becomes one with the nature of the dao: “So vast that there is nothing which it does not embrace.” 廣廣乎其無不容也. (chapter 13) 1. Chinese scholars point to the probability of a multiple authorship in the writing of the book “Zhuangzi.” There do appear to be a number of inconsistencies in the text. And so that complicates any interpretation of the text. However, I am only interested in the book’s usefulness in the cultivation of my mystical practice, and so I am providing a personal interpretation, not a scholarly one. I am not a Chinese scholar, and therefore I can loosely interpret and then pick and choose those parts of the text which seem to present a coherent pattern for my sensibility. It is my hope that practitioners of various traditions might obtain something useful from my interpretations even if mine are not authoritative translations.

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