Zhuangzi and the Gorgon

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Dear Good Old Professor,

The primary purpose of this research is to establish the viability, and to attempt to show the fruitfulness, of understanding the text of the Zhuangzi, the seven inner chapters in particular, in light of the reported experience of meditative practice as taught in the Buddhist tradition. I also try to see what implications and conclusions can be drawn from such study in connection to some related issues in the metaphysics of human nature and the philosophy of consciousness.

Eske Mllgaard wrote at the beginning of his journal article, dated 2005, stating that "In the post-metaphysical climate of the modern Western academy, Chinese thought is often seen as a happy pragmatism free from transcendental pretense." Having said that, he went on to give his analysis of what he saw as "Zhuangzi's notion of transcendental life." In this age a philosopher writing from the metaphysical angle seem to be acutely aware of the hesitant, if not necessarily antagonistic, reception of his peer audience. Nevertheless, this less than favorable reception does not stop the more metaphysically-minded authors from saying what they perceive in the ancient Chinese text. In 2008, there saw the publication of another article written in similar vein, by Chris Fraser, discussing the "Psychological Emptiness in the Zhuangzi."

I have a few points to make by way of mentioning Mllgaard and Fraser. First, I make clear that my interest in the Zhuangzi is metaphysics. Second, the metaphysical angle, while possibly unfashionable, is not necessarily implausible. These two forerunners have made their arguments, and have done so in the near past of recent years. I take it to mean that the burgeoning western interest in Chinese philosophy is still willing enough to hear the metaphysical case. Third, while these recent efforts will give support to my undertaking, they also raise the demanding question as to how my research can further the understanding of the Zhuangzi and improve on what the forerunners have achieved.

It is the hope of this proposal to improve on Zhuangzi scholarship by introducing the study of mindfulness. At least three times the practice of meditation is mentioned in the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi. I would argue in my research that these mentionings are strategically significant in terms of both literary presentation and theoretical understanding. In other words, Zhuangzi the author - suspending for the moment the question of authorship - is not simply making use of meditation as a prop-like device to produce a make-believe drama in which a sage is apt to spout mystical claims, after stereotypically emerging from his daily spiritual practice. It is not just the same old writing technique with which an author creates the sage image in order to add weight to his own messages. Rather, I believe that Zhuangzi's metaphysical messages are deeply rooted in his own meditative experience. I do not harbor the fancy that the archaeological circle will some day supply evidences as solid, or tenous, as Zhuangzi's precious meditation cushion. Instead, I will take the indirect way - some would see it as more direct - of showing how meditation, when properly understood and correctly practiced, can lead to experience that has resonance with the messages contained in the Zhuangzi, in particular the seven inner chapters.

Bringing in the notion of mindfulness will have certain implications on the way we read the Zhuangzi. First and foremost, we bring back the element of experience to the work, referring in particular to that of the metaphysicians. From my reading of Mllgaard and Fraser, their work primarily consists in conceptual analysis and linguistic interpretation (of the dictionary kind). It is certainly true that conceptual analysis and linguistic interpretation is an indispensible part of philosophizing. But these two favorite devices, as it is, are limited to the application to a given text. This leads me to wonder if Zhuangzi had produced his own text by way of reading another earlier text, which were in turn produced by similar work on a still earlier text, ad infinitum. Leaving that aside as a mere possibility, I deem it more probable that Zhuangzi has come up with his text by way of reflecting over his own experience, that the concepts and words making up the text are results of his effort at faithfully reporting his own experience. Readers of the Zhuangzi should be much better poised for the task of understanding when they also engage themselves in similar self-investigation, just as the best way of reading Berkeley is to engage in the characteristically idealistic musing.

Doubtless the most effective way of understanding Zhuangzi is to walk the way Zhuangzi himself has walked. However, it does not mean exactly that the best interpreters of the Zhuangzi are necessarily themselves dedicated and successful meditators. Philosophizing, as long as it is primarily an act of communicative understanding, must center itself around the work of analysis. Those whose conditions do not favor their taking up the perceivedly onerous practice of meditation can in fact borrow insights from those diligent mindfulness practitioners, say, from the Buddhist tradition, who have produced some excellent meditation treatises, sometimes with rigor admirable even from the standard of modern scholarship.

I am of the opinion that a substantial part of the inner chapters is really a report of meditative experience, as accurate as it is beautiful. The reason that the Zhuangzi report does not lend itself to a straight forward and simple reading is that the author was writing with a style that was, while distinguishingly imaginative, suitable to his own cultural and literary milieu. While the intent is expositional, his style is decidedly literary, because it is the Chinese ancient custom to see composition as the proper ornament of an educated person, in addition to being a mere act of communication. And even more specific to the Chinese culture, Zhuangzi's masterful wordplay is a corollary of a genius writing at a time when the word processor has yet to be invented. (As it is well-known, the Chinese words, with their hieroglyphical strokes, are not easy to put together, and therefore ancient Chinese writers are usually great economists of words.) Though not as laconic as the Dao De Jing, and even as wordy as to come up with a series of seven chapters, his pen is actually terse. He does not feel the academic need to explain how a particular keyword is being used, which would only spoil the amusing literary beauty that is more valuable as he sees it. And yet his word usage is not governed by the authority of a commonly accepted dictionary. He is freely using his words to mean things as a magician-metaphorist sees fit. The result of all these factors is that Zhuangzi's report and profound reflection of the enigmatic experience of meditation is at the same time a rare gem of poetic art in Chinese literature. Though definitely accurate and full of insights, it does not readily lend itself to the modern reader's conceptual and linguistic analysis, particularly when he has never imagined that Zhuangzi the literary author is not only a philosopher, but also a meditator.

Having said thus, the basic method of this proposed research is still the essential tools of analysis and interpretation. The major break from the current way of doing things is that it takes the texts of meditation treatises as a more reasonable source of meaning. We put the texts of the Zhuangzi and meditation treatises side by side, and try to see how the words and concepts and passages from the former can be construed as to mean the pointers laid out and the experiences detailed in the latter. This juxtaposing interpretation is still philosophical analysis, but this analysis has its firm foothold in human experience, which is, at the end of the day, the ultimate source of human knowledge regarding the matter in question.

This research will take meditation texts from the Buddhist tradition. The similarity, or dissimilarity, between Buddhist metaphysics and that perceived in the Zhuangzi has long been a subject of comment in traditional Chinese scholarship. Two merits are seen in this choice. First, as already mentioned, some modern-day Buddhist meditators have handed down their practical experience in a prose language that is suitable to contemporary academic readers. In line with western pedagogism, these magnanimous souls not only lay bare their repertoire, they also thoroughly discourse upon the rationale behind and intended effects of their skills. The conceptual clarity of their writings will greatly facilitate the surgical work of connecting the meditative experience to the text of the Zhuangzi. Second, while it is certainly a curious question as to why, if the inner chapters are really some kind of a holy text of meditative experience, a religious lineage of meditation has not been identified as starting directly from Zhuangzi the suspected mystic, the Indian tradition from the adjacent subcontinent has since the early days of the preaching career of the Buddha made clear that meditative experience is the essence of the religion. The religiosity of Buddhism almost ensures that the dedicated spearhead of its followers are in possession of the definitive understanding of Buddhist mysticism. Which is to say, not that in the face of religious passion we can safely relax into credulity, but that we have a better chance of coming upon the truth when these treatise writers are both competent and dedicated.

Buddhism is one of the most formidable players and among the earliest of pioneers in the history of metaphysical inquiry. With the passage of time, the proponents of Buddhism have developed their philosophy and their way of doing it into a fashion that can hardly be recognized as the same as that which can be found in the Zhuangzi. However, I venture to claim that if one would go back to the very source of these disparate discourses, that is our common humanity as revealed in meditative practice, one might find good reasons to say that both brands of metaphysics are saying essentially the same thing. This is a higher ambition that the proposed research will also attempt to achieve. If the relevant part of the Zhuangzi inner chapters can be construed by way of conceptual analysis as to express the Buddhist experience of meditation, then the religious teachings on the nature of Buddhahood that are the guiding spirit of such practice must be somehow correlated with Zhuangzi's metaphysical claims. The second major part of the research will be to develop a theoretical construct that can simultaneously capture the core insights from both brands of thoughts.

In the third part of the research, I will try to bring the construct into dialogue with contemporary philosophy. I look forward to this research as a valuable opportunity to enrich my understanding of contemporary metaphysical theories and the different ways of philosophizing on the human consciousness. This is the part I feel most excited about because I think this is the kind of work that will bring me closer to the heart of philosophizing. I have in mind two major questions. First, from the best of my understanding, Zhuangzi, in resonance with the Buddha, sees the human essence not in the human senses. He would, as I see it, quite probably concur with the Buddha that we are essentially our self-awareness. This stance however is diametrically different from some breed of metaphysics, a pretty dominant way of thinking in the modern day, that says we humans are nothing but our senses. How would I moderate and decide the debate between them?

The second question intrigues me the most. Again from my understanding, the notions of awareness and identification are twin concepts, like the opposite sides of the same coin, like the symbiosis of day and night. The dark night of identification must recede when the sun of awareness shines in the sky. However, as I see it, just as the notion of awareness has but a marginal place in respectable philosophical discourse, the function of identification, its twin brother, is largely ignored if not altogether unknown in the world of philosophy. What could that mean? Looking outward and around, however, we see that identification is a basic principle underlying, though less than consciously, a substantial part of social science researches. In psychology, we see its fruitful application to the study of personalities. In sociology, we have the study of genders, where the postmodernists are quick in spotting dominant discourses and subject positions. Even in the study of social classes, we see that if the group of people sharing a batch of related socio-economic attributes identify with the symbols that have come to represent the group, the group is more likely to bring class actions to the political arena. The same principle applies to the study of nationalism. And, to complete the story, if globalization is inevitable, the best we can do is to give ourselves a very successful globalization. Some school holds that the key to success is the installment of some effective world institution, whether in the form of a full-fledged organization or a minimalistic protocol of acceptable international and national (if that is at all imaginable) conducts. In this case, I would argue that the success of such institution in turn depends on whether a transnational identity is forthcoming. Anything less than a globally concerted effort at building a world institution to rule out evil enemies will be equivalent to laying the groundwork for the seedbed of terrorism.

Just as eyesight, among other senses, is at the root of human experience, identification is the basis of civilization. If I am not mistaken, what I call the function of identification is named klistamanas in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, otherwise known as the seventh consciousness. The Yogacara school comprehends the human psyche as a composite of eight parts or layers of consciousness. In addition to the five well-known parts that correspond to our bodily senses, there are the sixth consciousness of ideation, that is our versatile monkey mind, and the eighth consciousness, which, while commonly understood as the store consciousness, I also take to be the seat of our self-awareness. This picture, and its defense, is to be the best gift that philosophical Buddhism can bring to this age. In connection with my first question, we must ask ourselves, should we include the functions of identification and self-awareness in our understanding of ourselves? Quite simply I think, if we choose to exclude them, we must by the demand of integrity also wipe out our civilization and our will and ability to be better than we are.

To conclude my proposal, let me draw a parallel lesson from the general history of human medicine, by way of quoting the thought exchanges I recently had with a newly-made skeptic friend. I told him that the break in the push for evidence for meridians finally came in 1998 in the form of a medical paper titled "Experimental exploration and research propect of physical bases and functional characteristics of meridians." The research was done by a project team, headed by Prof. Fei Lun from Fudan University. The paper abstract highlights that "Elements of Ca, P, K, Fe, Zn, Mn, etc are found concentrated in the deep connective tissue structures in locations corresponding to acupoints." Making my comments, I say,

"I am not sure if the evidence is clinchingly established, or not. But it is a good story illustrating at least the desparate urge of rescuing some perceived good thing. Here I am not exactly interested in the evidence status of meridians. What I am interested in is, what should be the proper mentality in regarding some potentially important thing, such as meridians, before clinched evidence is obtained? Certainly the attitude of belief before evidence can be problematic. But the lack of evidence should not be taken as equivalent to a stop sign for exploration. Too obvious to be necessary for mentioning. So the mentioning on my part only shows how worried I am."

In reply, my friend says,

"I know the effect of meridians. My wife actually studies Chinese medicine with a practicing Chinese med doctor. And I've seen them done some real magic with some friends. I'm talking about people who can't move their arm, and after some stroking of the meridian points, they can move again. If you don't know what it is, it's real magic. However, my take on this is that before there is real science-based evidence and theory and experiments, it's basically magic. Now, I don't mean to put magic in the negative light here. But we look to science on solving problems only because they give us comfort in knowing why certain things happen within certain assumption and can be repeated..."

Anyone who has ever found and faced off with the gorgon of identification does not doubt the magic of awareness. In the above exchange, what comes to the surface is, of course, the keyword evidence. Where on earth or in the body can I find evidence for the twin phenomena of identification and awareness? Or more to the point, what is to be counted as evidence in these matters? No, I don't believe I can find evidence in the Zhuangzi. But I do believe if we can understand the text better, we stand a better chance of understanding ourselves.

5 留言:

匿名 說...

In this age a philosopher writing from the metaphysical angle seem to be acutely aware of the hesitant, if not necessarily antagonistic, reception of his peer audience.

you have made the most fuckingly suckable grammatical mistake.

匿名 說...

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匿名 說...





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匿名 說...

OMG! Keen, you're so S-E-X-Y with your metaphysics. You are so intelligent! so clever! so cool!

匿名 說...

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