Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Taoist reflections on my 45th birthday

     The Tao Te Ching says that the universe treats us as straw dogs.  Meaning that we are burned as if in a sacrifice.  The sage, so says the Tao Te Ching, treats people as straw dogs.  Interpreters say this doesn't mean to be mean; it means to remember that everyone is temporary, including the people we love the most.  It makes no sense to kick against the pricks of the universe about this.  This interpretation is certainly consistent with the rest of the Tao Te Ching, but someone can take it in a mean way if they choose -- and I'm sure some have.

     I personally don't plan on being mean to anyone at this point of my life.  However, I've come to know myself well enough to know that I don't plan on starting some spate of massive, public political involvement. That's one way to go in life, but it isn't my way.  I'm emotionally too unconnected.  I realize my connection to the society around me, but it is not in my nature to throw my hat in too much.

     I know what you might be thinking: don't I have an obligation to fight for what's right in society with all my strength.  Well, no.  Who's to say what my obligations are?  It may not seem honorable to you, but honor is a trap.  It may seem immoral to you, but morality is also a trap.  I have to decide for myself the best way to live my life; I have no book or anyone to decide for me.  Giving my own spontaneity up for society does not feel like the best way for me to live.  If my own nature is fulfilled by filling some  role, so be it, if not, and it appears not, then there it is.  I have told the Confucian voices in my head I will disobey them.



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Zhuangzi -- The Butterfly

     For Allinson the butterfly image is the perfect image for the Zhuangzi because it represents an internal transformation to 'beauty' from 'ugliness' -- though he insists on calling caterpillers ugly when I find them rather cute and fuzzy.  I always like to see them crawling around, you know, devil-may-care, along the sidewalk.  I could crush their little guts out if I wanted, but I don't because I'm a nice guy.  Poor little things.

     He also points out how transient the butterfly is.  The self-transformation is itself very delicate and could be 'broken quite easily'.  Any state of mind, even the state of enlightenment, is therefore impermanent.  You can lose it by forgetting the lessons of the zhuangzi.  Now, I know what you're saying: the whole point is to forget that there are lessons to begin with...  There are no lessons.  Just hang out and be spontaneous.  But this is easily forgotten.  Next thing you know you're squashing metaphorical caterpillars by the side of the road before they can become beautiful butterflies, flying around and stuff.  Well, sorry, but I feel like a jerk today.  Sue me.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Zhuangzi -- individual and society

     What I'm beginning to understand about this response to Confucianism is that these taoist thinkers are rejecting in many ways the entire social contract.  The social contract of hierarchy and social obligation.  There is a hint that the spontaneity suggested here yields social relations based on authentic compassion, not on compassion arising from obligation or the sense of right and wrong.  There is, after all, no right and wrong in the philosophical sense.  More important than right and wrong is freedom from societal rules.

     The famous passage where Zhuangzi rejects the position of prime minister is often criticized in the west because he does not accept his 'obligation'.  The critics have missed the point.  The point is that the freedom itself is what life is about, to give that up for this sense of obligation is to destroy the very result of his own enlightenment.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Zhuangzi Part 4 -- Monsters

     Allison starts off the 4th chapter of his book on the Zhuangzi by making us regard social outcasts.  In the extreme case he refers to them as 'monsters'.  These are people whom normal people avoid.  Zhuangzi puts philosophical reflections into the mouths of cripples, hunchbacks, people with no lips, and one Master Shu:

"My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me.  My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head, and my pigtail points at the sky."(as quoted in Allison pg. 52).

Allison goes on...
"The use of the monster serves two philosophical functions.  First, the monster is a living counterexample to the norm, whether cultural or biological or both...That which all monsters possess, which is feared and avoided by those who live according to the rule, is spontaneity.  In a very subtle way, then, the first philosophical significance of the monster is to make us aware that the value represented by the monster -- spontaneity -- is a value which is feared and avoided by normal society."(Allison pg. 53)

Now, the question I have for you is, are you a monster?  Do you feel like one?  I don't mean to make you cry, I'm just asking. ..

Those of us who have always been monsters for some reason or another, we're disabled mentally or physically, have a point of view that is valuable to the rest of you conformist bastards out there.

Fine, I'm mentally ill.  The dose of antidepressants I'm on would turn a moose into a glob of jiggling basalganglia.  And I'm down to 1 drug from 3.  But it gives me a perspective on the rest of you boring pricks.  To hell with you, anyway.

Well, I feel better. 

"...when we have the courage to become monsters or to share the monster's point of view we will be able to be spontaneous.  In the very act of spontaneity we will have come that much closer to being able to apprehend what is true."(Allison 54)\

So, like the Tao Te Ching, the Zhuangzi is radically subversive.  It encourages an anarchist epistemology, one that requires we break out of the society's 'epistemic regime'[to borrow a phrase of Foucault's].  This is not just so we can be tedious PoMo relativists like the rest of you pusillanimous academic frauds, but so that we can live a sponaneous and very likely politically incorrect existence apart from you.