Zhuangzi on life, death, and relativism

Although reading through the Zhuangzi can become a rather confusing endeavor, this remains to be one of the most important surviving texts of the teachings of the historical Zhuangzi. It can be argued that these texts aren’t all attributable to him – it is believed that while a majority of these teachings are originally from Zhuangzi himself, others are from his followers and from the followers of Yang Zhu among others[1] – the essence of the philosophies found within these helped shape various philosophies such as relativism, zen, and Taoism. The question is just how these teachings are interpreted, since if you take the Zhuangzi’s texts on free excursion, what we commonly interpret as true is not always the case[2].

Perhaps the most central element in the whole of the Zhuangzi is the impermanence of things – and learning to live with it. All throughout the entire text, you see references made by Zhuangzi – or his students – in how things are perceived differently by each and every individual. The whole theory behind his free excursion meditations is the belief that life is never what you see. You have to wander beyond[3] and experience living at a pace that is free from any and all attachments to life. Upon reading, you will be led to think that Zhuangzi postulates that the way of life that is perceived to be the best is one that is leisurely and generally worry-free, but two things about this kind of life remains to be problematic in application. First of all, life is never exactly worry free, since people will always run into conflict one way or the other, but that’s deviating from the more important second point. This is that all of Zhuangzi’s teachings are highly metaphorical, and that free excursion means looking beyond your own personal box, making an effort to take the extra effort to learn that our own limitations are just concepts that we ourselves have implanted in our minds.

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Let us take his own example: Zhuangzi tells us of the Peng who can “. . . rise ninety-thousand li[4] . . .” and makes for the south. And then, he tells us about the cicada and the dove who watch him, and jeer at the Peng’s efforts. The opinion between the two is that why one should make the extra effort to do something that is ultimately superhuman – so to speak – in terms of actions when the regular day-to-day efforts are already more than what one can take? This is upon an initial reading, nothing more than a tale similar to Aesop’s fables – the personification of animals who can achieve and who can give their opinions, and an ending moral of what one should expect from himself, given his limitations. But upon closer inspection, you can see that this isn’t all there is to it. Zhuangzi spends a lot of effort in describing the Peng and what it could do, so one must look at the Peng as the protagonist in this fable. Thus, one can deduce that what the Peng is capable of doing is exactly that which is admirable.

Now, if that were so, then the cicada and the dove are, in fact, the antagonists, although they are such through inaction. They mock the Peng for exerting effort they deem unnecessary. In this manner, they are living within what they know and are comfortable in, and are disparaging the Peng for acting in a way that, to them, seems unusual and plain wrong. Thus while they are presented with the chance to grow in understanding, the cicada and the dove choose to reject the invitation to freely consider the pros and cons of the Peng’s travels, and live within the confines of their own world. This is the key metaphor in the entire parable, and the point that Zhuangzi is expressing. The boundary of our own thinking is what prevents us from experiencing the “free excursion” of the mind, so to speak. Everything is never what they initially seem to be, and in order to appreciate life despite the inability to know everything[5], one must clear all initial perceptions of everything and “free” the mind from the shackles of knowledge. Everything you see, everything you know, is not what you think they are, and in order to live life to the fullest, one must keep an open mind.

This philosophy actually fits right in the paradigm of the social construct of relativism, and Zhuangzi is perhaps one of the first proponents of this social philosophy, although his teachings focus more on appreciation while relativism focuses more on acceptance. Zhuangzi is more zen-like in his belief, while relativism is still a social construct with its own restrictions (e.g. using the you-can’t-blank-therefore argument, i.e. You can’t call blacks a lower class just because they used to be slaves). Both are, however, proponents of harmony in life and living, except that Zhuangzi’s is acceptance at a completely holistic level.

His beliefs and his rather specific philosophy of living in constant awareness of relativism, is not limited to life and living alone. Zhuangzi also considers death a part of the cycle of living, and as such is also subject to the parameters of relativism. This is best illustrated in the story that involves the philosopher and the skull. Zhuangzi was walking to Ch’u when he comes upon a skull by the roadside. He laments the skull his death – not unsimilar to Hamlet’s lament of Yorick’s demise – but ultimately uses the skull as a pillow to sleep for the night. The skull appears to him in his dream, and chides him his words. Zhuangzi is not one to judge the situation of a skull (a metaphor for the departed). The skull, in fact, sees nothing wrong in his situation, and in fact relishes the situation[6]

Once again, Zhuangzi tells us that one should not judge circumstances too hastily, in this case the event being the death of an individual. It is his opinion that after all, who are we to assume knowledge of what a person feels upon death? There is no guarantee that there is anything after death, but then again, since we cannot be exactly sure about things, there is no reason to assume that death is a tragedy.

Zhuangzi takes this belief to an even more difficult to understand level with the butterfly dream. In this story, the Zhuangzi tells us the story of how our venerable old philosopher went to sleep and dreamt that he was a butterfly. As a butterfly, Zhuangzi forgets all about being himself, but the butterfly is conscious of himself being Zhuangzi, and his senses shift seamlessly from the butterfly to Zhuangzi waking up. He is left confused in the transition between sleep and awakening, which is significant; the seamless transformation from him as Zhuangzi, to the butterfly, then back to being the philosopher, is an ideal. When one undergoes the transformation from one who thinks within the box to one who is free from the shackles of bias, the ideal is that one does not notice the transition. This is a significant marker that, according to Zhuangzi, pinpoints that the individual has already transformed.

All in all, the text of the Zhuangzi serves as a guide to living life without mental borders. This sees bias and prejudice, doubts and traditional thinking as shackles to what is a decent, happy and intelligent way of living. Of course, what the teachings are truly trying to say will always be up for interpretation; in a way, Zhuangzi is an anarchist, seeing governance as a hindrance to the natural flow of events. But this is not to say that one cannot pick up a few pointers here and there from him. Just remember that cautious thinking and internalization is advised when studying Zhuangzi’s philosophy. Because even though the texts depict a harmonious way of living, there are some benefits to social rigor that have merit even in the most zen-like society. After all, it is impossible for a person to completely let go of bias.



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