The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, December 22, 2008

Finding the Fit

Friday we got about 8 to 10 inches of snow where I am. Other nearby places got up to 13. Then the cold set in. Last night it got down to 0F, with a wind chill of -24F.

I guess we can safely say that winter is here. Damn that global warming.

What better to do when it’s so cold outside that your flesh will freeze and the wind will tear it right off of your bones than to read an essay on Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). This one is entitled “Reflex and Reflectivity: Wuwei in the Zhuangzi.” I placed an excerpt below. The original may be read by clicking on the title of this post.

Enjoy and stay warm!

The Snow Shoveling Daoist, 道士 の 雪掻き

Reflex and Reflectivity:Wuwei in the Zhuangzi
Asian Philosophy, Volume 6:1 (1996), pp. 59-72.
byAlan FoxDepartment of PhilosophyUniversity of Delaware24 Kent WayNewark, DE 19716 USA
go to Alan Fox Home Page
"To live outside the law you must be honest..."

- Bob Dylan
It is impossible to understand Philosophical Daoism, that is, Daoism as found in the writings attributed to Laozi and Zhuangzi, without understanding the central practical principle of wuwei, or "non-action." There are many different intrepretations of this idea, many of which seem to overlook both the overall coherence of the text as well as its many subtle nuances. I propose to offer an different interpretation of this crucial notion, one which differs on some key points from the prevailing interpretation and arguably acknowledges some deeper dimensions of the text and its overall coherence.

In approaching the text, though, we also need to keep in mind its characteristic and well-documented resistance to formulaic or forced behavior. Rather than discovering a new or better formula for behavior, the Zhuangzi emphasizes the benefits of becoming sensitive to a broader and finer range of the subtle demands, constraints, and inevitabilities of unique situations. This sensitivity allows us to respond most appropriately to every unique situation in the way that most or best respects subtleties of novelty and necessity.

Therefore the most effective and efficient mode of human experience is to blend or "fit" (shi) into our surroundings in such a way as to allow ourselves to respond effortlessly and spontaneously to any situation or circumstance, which is simultaneously affected by our presence within it. I suggest that this mode of reflective, and unobtrusive activity is what Zhuangzi refers to as wuwei.

I propose to explicate Zhuangzi's conception of wuwei as it is articulated in the image of the "hinge of dao." This image illustrates several key features of the mode of action of Zhuangzi's ideal person, namely: 1) effortlessness; 2) responsiveness; and 3) unobtrusiveness. First, I will look at and discuss the few actual instances of the term "wuwei" in the Zhuangzi. Second, I will point out that the imagery used by the text to suggest this privileged mode of conduct frequently takes the form of some sort of adaptation or reflection.

Third, I will analyze the metaphor of the hinge, and show how centralizing this metaphor can illuminate Zhuangzi's notion of wuwei and the realized person who acts according to this principle. It will be seen that the image of the hinge is used in the Zhuangzi to represent the way in which the ideal person responds to inevitability. In this way, I will argue that Zhuangzi's ideal person could be described as "perfectly well-adjusted."

Finally, I will demonstrate that this reading of the text offers new meanings and textures to materials which have for so long been read in only certain ways. Most of the translators and commentators who have brought the text to our attention have characterized it, somewhat unfairly, as "mystical," "skeptical," "escapist," "purposeless," and so on. I will show that this kind of reading, to a certain extent, misses the point of the text, and so its truly unique contributions are overlooked.

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