Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna on the Truth of No Truth By David Loy
Ultimate serenity is the coming to rest of all ways of taking things, the repose of named things; no truth has been taught by a Buddha for anyone, anywhere. (Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamikakarika 25:24, p. 262)
I am not in a position to confirm or refute that story, but I enjoy speculating about another:
Zhuangzi, the greatest Daoist philosopher, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor (whom he never mentions) by also traveling to India, where he ... became Nagarjuna, the greatest of the Buddhist philosophers.
There is also a worrisome historical discrepancy:
Despite these formidable objections, however, Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna share something even more important: the targets and conclusions of their philosophies are remarkably similar, as I will try to show.
"For Zhuangzi the fundamental error is to suppose that life presents itself with issues which must be formulated in words so that we can envision alternatives and find reasons for preferring one to the other."
This error is quite a good characterization of what Nagarjuna does, except for the fact that Nagarjuna uses his dry distinctions to perform a self-deconstruction refuting the hope of logic to re-present the world conceptually.
Like Zhuangzi, who "temporarily 'lodges' at the other man's standpoint" the better to show what is wrong with that standpoint, Nagarjuna adopts his contemporaries' terminology in order to show what is wrong with that terminology.
On the surface, though, the Zhuangzi could hardly be more dissimilar. It offers a bewildering succession of anecdotes and arguments whose shifting tone makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to determine which voice represents the author. "Where then is the real Zhuangzi? ... the text turns into a hall of mirrors where a frightening succession of images recedes into infinity and illusion becomes indistinguishable from reality."
This postmodernist playfulness, which prefers posing questions to drawing conclusions, functions quite differently from Nagarjuna's univocal dissection of this and that alternative.
It subverts our need for a Master discourse, for that text which subsumes and unifies others into the truth -- that Truth our philosophical labors try to stake out and lay claim to, the perfectly reasonable position that Zhuangzi loves to mock.
These questions will be addressed by considering what Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna have to say about them. Zhuangzi has been labeled a relativist and/or a skeptic, Nagarjuna a skeptic and/or a nihilist, but in their cases such bald designations put the cart before the horse.
Instead of inquiring into what kind of a skeptic or relativist Zhuangzi is -- that is, which of our boxes he would fit into (and what fun he would have with that!) -- it will be more fruitful to inquire into the relationship between knowledge and other important themes for him: no-self, mind-fasting, and dreaming.
The interesting issue, then, is not whether the "skepticism" of Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna is consistent with other claims such as no-self, but to turn this around: what context do no-self, meditation, dreaming and waking up, etc., provide for their understanding of our understanding of knowledge?
All experiences associated with the illusory sense-of-self can be analyzed into one of five impersonal skandhas (form, sensation, perception, volitional tendencies and conditioned consciousness), with no remainder: there is no transcendental soul or persisting self to be found over and above their functioning.
Dependent-origination explains "our" experience by locating all phenomena within an interacting set of twelve factors (ignorance, volitional tendencies, conditioned consciousness, the fetus, sense-organs, contact, sensation, craving, grasping, becoming, new birth, suffering and death), each conditioning and conditioned by all the others.
In response to the question of how rebirth can occur without a self that is reborn, rebirth is explained as one in a series of impersonal processes which occur without there being any self that is doing them or experiencing them.
When asked to whom belong, and for whom occur, the phenomena described in pratitya-samutpada, the Buddha explained that each factor arises from the preconditions created by the other factors; that's all.
Chapter two, the most philosophical, begins with Ziqi in a trance, to reveal afterwards that "this time I had lost my self, didn't you know?" Like other anecdotes about mind-fasting, which explain how to lose one's self, these passages are not concerned to philosophically deconstruct the self into its elements, but they emphasize or presuppose the need to get beyond self.
Why is that so important? One problem with the self is its supposed identity: it provides the continuity that persists through change. Insofar as we value the self-identical, the world as the locus of transformation -- which threatens the self -- tends to be devalued.
Daoist emphasis on the ceaseless transformation of things does not reserve a corner for the self to watch from or hide away in, for it is the transformation of that "self" the Zhuangzi celebrates the most.
Will he be made into a rat's liver, or a fly's egg? (ch. 6, pp. 88-89) To resist this is to be preoccupied with the welfare of the self: with satisfying its desires and defending what are believed to be its interests.
To have a sense of self without being able to know what this self is, to be preoccupied with something that cannot be secured because it does not exist -- these are formulas for dis-ease (the Buddhist duhkha).
The other way to express the problem with self is that it is separate from other things. The subject that observes and manipulates objects becomes alienated from its world. And to experience oneself as separate from the world -- as one of many things in it -- is to experience the world as a collection of separate things, which according to both Daoism and Buddhism is a serious error.
The first verse of the MMK asserts its thorough-going deconstruction of the being of all things: "No things whatsoever exist, at anytime or place, having risen by themselves, from another, from both or without cause." Paralleling the contemporary poststructural radicalization of structuralist claims about language,
Nagarjuna's argument merely brings out more fully the implications of pratitya-samutpada. Dependent-origination is not a doctrine about causal relations among things, because the mutual interdependence of phenomena means they are not really things.
The importance of this move becomes clearer when we realize that, although Nagarjuna addresses the philosophical controversies of his time, his main target is that unconscious "metaphysics" which is disguised as the world we live in. If philosophy were merely the preoccupation of some intellectuals we could ignore it, but we are all philosophers.
The fundamental categories of our everyday, commonsense metaphysics are the self-existing things we interact with all the time -- chairs, doors, cars, trees, etc. -- which originate, change, and eventually cease; and in order to explain the relations among these objects the categories of space, time and causality must also be employed.
The problem with this understanding of the world is not only that it is erroneous but that it causes us to suffer: for we understand ourselves in the same way, as special instances of self-existing things which are nonetheless subject to the ravages of time and change -- which are born only to grow old, become ill, and die.
But if I self-exist, how can I change? How could I die? For that matter, how could I have been born? This is the simple contradiction that Nagarjuna uses to deconstruct self-being. That all phenomena appear and disappear according to conditions means that our usual way of perceiving the world as a collection of separately-existing things is a delusion.
Nagarjuna does not follow this critique by presenting the "correct" Buddhist metaphysics, however, for merely by subverting such ontological claims the Buddhist deconstruction of self-existence (especially our own) can allow something else to become apparent: something that has always been there yet has usually been overlooked in our preoccupation with satisfying desires and trying to make ourselves self-existent.
I have ignored chronology to discuss Nagarjuna first because his analysis is more focused and easier to explicate, which means it can help us with some of the obscure yet important passages in the Zhuangzi, such as the following:
The men of old, their knowledge had arrived at something: at what had it arrived?
There were some who thought there had not yet begun to be things -- the utmost, the exhaustive, there is no more to add.
Instead of offering an account of social development or evolution, Daoist history is the story of a progressive decline in our understanding of the Way. Some of the old sages knew the ultimate, which is that there are no self-existing things; everything is a manifestation of the Dao.
Later, people perceived the world as made up of things, but these things were not seen as separate from each other; their interrelationships and transformations meant the world was still experienced as a whole.
Yet this by itself is too narrow, for (like Madhyamika scholars who think Nagarjuna's analyses are aimed only at certain Indian philosophical positions) it overlooks the discriminations that we have all learned to make in the process of coming to experience the world in the "ordinary" way other people do.
Therefore 'good' [by itself] is unintelligible" (MMK 23:10). In the same way the concept "bad" is also unintelligible by itself (MMK 23:11).
We distinguish between good and bad because we want to affirm one and reject the other, but their interdependence means we have both or neither: since the meaning of each is the negation of the other, one can consciously be "good" only by consciously avoiding "bad".
Insofar as all thinking tends to alternate between "That's it" and "That's not", between assertion and negation, this type of critique tends to end up incorporating all conceptual thinking, including all that we usually identify as knowledge.
Perhaps we can see how such a radical mental cleansing might also wash away the self, but what would that leave behind? Later we shall need to consider whether there is an alternative type of thinking which does not fixate on "That's it" and "That's not".
When a "That's it" which deems picks out things,] the Way interchanges them and deems them one.
Their dividing is formation, their formation is dissolution; all things whether forming or dissolving in reverting interchange and are deemed to be one.
Only the man who sees right through knows how to interchange and deem them one; the "That's it'" which deems he does not use, but finds for them lodging-places in the usual.
The "That's it" which goes by circumstance comes to an end; and when it is at an end, that of which you do not know what is so of it you call the "Way". (ch. 2, pp. 53-54)
Although our dualistic ways of thinking cause us to discriminate between things in the world and to see them as separate from each other, the Dao does not discriminate between things but treats them as a whole, for it transforms them into each other.
The next sentence is more obscure:
This seems to be making a point consistent with the alternation of yin and yang in the I Ching: things take form (yang movement) by individuating, yet with the completion of that movement (e.g., maturity) the yang principle is fulfilled and begins to yield to yin dissolution;
however, the Dao transforms them into each other, at whatever stage, because they are not separate from each other.
Likewise, those who understand this clearly do not treat things as separate from each other.
Such people are not trapped by discriminative concepts which fixate things into this or that, for their more fluid thinking is aware that such designations are always tentative, appropriate only for particular situations and purposes.
Such tentative judgments are made because they are useful; realizing that judgments are to be made according to their usefulness frees one from rigid discriminations and enables us to perceive how things change into each other -- and to realize that is close to realizing the Dao.
The discriminations which are made according to particular circumstances cease when those circumstances change; what remains then is the world experienced as it is before our conceptual thinking divides it up: what is called the Dao.
According to this, the best judgments ("truths") are tentative because they are appropriate only for particular situations and different judgments are needed when those situations change. This perspective is expressed more clearly in the Liezi:
The method we use yesterday we may discard today and use again in the future; there are no fixed right and wrong to decide whether we use it or not.
The capacity to pick times and snatch opportunities, and be never at a loss to answer events belongs to the wise.
If ethical relativism means denying a fixed moral standard by which to evaluate situations, one could hardly find a better formulation; yet the last sentence seems to confuse the issue again, by emphasizing a distinction that most contemporary versions do not reserve a place for.
Evidently it is not enough to defend such a relativistic position, or to be a relativist in practice, for those philosophers who accept relativism do not thereby become wise, and those who live relativistically do not thereby live wisely.
Mahayana Buddhism makes a similar point with its doctrine of upaya, the "skillful means" with which the bodhisattva works for the liberation of all sentient beings, adopting and adapting whatever devices are suitable to the immediate task at hand, disregarding conventional moral codes and even the Buddhist precepts when necessary.
The difference between them and us is that they are liberated by relativism, or into relativism, while the rest of us are more likely to become its victims, since the freedom it encourages panders to our preoccupation with satisfying insatiable desires. In other words, the difference is self.
Since sages and bodhisattvas are liberated from self-preoccupation, because they do not experience others as objects whose well-being is distinct from their own, relativism frees them from the formal constraints that the rest of us seem to need and allows them to get on with the task of apparently saving all sentient beings while actually doing nothing at all (a paradox embraced by both traditions).
That the Buddha (and our own Buddha-nature) has no fixed form by which he can be recognized is emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in the prajnaparamita sutras whose teachings are very similar to Nagarjuna's.
Something cannot become something by means of something, it necessarily goes on coming forth from that which is without anything; but that which is without anything is for ever without anything.
The sage stores away in it. (ch. 23, p. 103; Graham's italics)
Be assimilated to them and you harmonize,/ Take hold of any of them and you lose" (ch. 33, p. 281).
"Hold on to all that you have received from Heaven but do not think you have gotten anything.
Although Nagarjuna mentions little about such practices, as a monastic he was doubtless familiar with them and they provide the context within which his work must be situated, especially its emphasis on prapancopasama, the cessation of conceptual ways of understanding, which is necessary if one is to experience things as they are.
Burton Watson suspects that the Zhuangzi must originally have been accompanied by similar practices to help students realize what it is talking about, yet all that survives in the text are some references to controlled breathing.
Nonetheless, the mirror-metaphor, like all metaphors, has its limitations.
"To be transformed day by day with other things is to be untransformed once and for all.
To forget oneself completely, truly to become no-thing, means more than to reflect the transformations of things: it is to be wholly identified with them, to be them -- in which case there are no things and no transformations, since "that which is without anything is for ever without anything" (quoted above).
Such a world is not a collection of things but is composed of events.
Evidently someone who realizes she is no-thing remains no-thing even as she playfully assumes this or that form.
When there is no thing or self that exerts itself to do things, there is the spontaneity (ziran, "so of itself") of actions that are experienced as no actions (wu wei), of transformations that are just as much non-transformations.
When I forget my-self I fall into the world, I become its manifold of interdependent phenomena transforming into each other. What does mean for language and truth? Do they too become such a manifold?
To realize that there are no things is not to float in a porridge where each spoonful is indistinguishable from the next; it is to store away in the Gate of Heaven which remains no-thing even as all things arise from it and transform into each other... If we replace "things" in the previous sentence with "words", what would that imply about language?
Clearly there is a special art to this as well, which is not completely indifferent to logic and reasoning as we have come to understand them in the West, yet which is not to be completely identified with them.
One of the delights of the Zhuangzi for Western readers is the way its polyvocal text disrupts our distinction between form and content, rhetoric and logic -- a bifurcation which may be not "natural" but an unfortunate legacy of the Western intellectual tradition.
What is the knowing-how with words that Zhuangzi shows? "The Way has never had borders, saying has never had norms. It is by a 'That's it' which deems that a boundary is marked" (ch. 2, p. 57).
A "That's it" which deems is speech that fixates things and becomes fixated itself, which Zhuangzi repeatedly contrasts with the more fluid "That's it" which goes by circumstances, speech which changes when circumstances change.
The parallel here between things and words is so close that it is more than a parallel, for they reflect each other: our language fixates the world into things, and once they are fixated the words that fixate them are also fixated -- into "the truth".
In contrast to the everyday world of rigidly differentiated objects, the Dao is not an otherworldly denial or transcendence of things, but their no-thingness which enables their interpenetration and incessant transformation into each other; in contrast to the everyday use of words which fixates things by fixating categories, the Dao does not involve an ineffable rejection of language as inevitably dualistic and delusive, but celebrates language such as we find in the Zhuangzi, a playfulness possible when we are no longer trapped by and in our own words.
"Words exist because of meaning; once you've got the meaning you can forget the words.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?"
Here we are delighted by the tension between needing to escape words that "deem", and the conclusion which delights in words that do not deem.
Why do we cling to words that deem? As one would expect, here too the problem is self. "Saying is not blowing breath, saying says something; the only trouble is that what it says is never fixed" (ch. 2, p. 52).
That's no trouble at all if we don't need to fixate on our words, but the problem is we do: the transformation of words, like the transformation of things, is terrifying to a necessarily insecure (because illusory) self that is always seeking to secure itself.
How uncomfortable it is to realize that our opinion of something is wrong and needs to be changed; how much more anxious do I become when I start letting go of all my opinions about the world and, most of all, my opinions about myself -- to let-go of the self-image whereby my-self is fixated.
What is It is also Other, what is Other is also It.
Or really no It and Other? Where neither It nor Other finds its opposite is called the axis of the Way.
When once the axis is found at the center of the circle there is no limit to responding with either, on the one hand no limit to what is it, on the other no limit to what is not. (ch. 2, p. 53, my italics)
"It is easy to keep from walking; the hard thing is to walk without touching the ground." (ch. 2, W58).
And it is easy to keep from talking; the hard thing is to talk without needing to touch a ground.
Yet without a self we float quite easily, if its need to ground itself is what weighs us down.
How do I know that what I call ignorance is not knowing?" (ch. 2, p. 58) What we usually consider knowing -- deeming that something "is this" -- can reveal our ignorance about the transforming nature of language and things.
If "we have the axis on which things turn, and to start from have that which is other than ourselves, then our unraveling will resemble failing to unravel, our knowing will resemble ignorance" (ch 2, 63).
The exception will be when we want to accomplish things in the world, yet that is no problem for the sage, whose free roaming harbors no such schemes. "Since the sage does not plan, what use has he for knowledge?
The teaching of the Buddhas is wholly based on there being two truths: that of a personal everyday world and a higher truth which surpasses it. Those who do not clearly know the true distinction between the two truths cannot clearly know the hidden depths of the Buddha's teaching. Unless the transactional realm is accepted as a base, the surpassing sense cannot be pointed out; if the surpassing sense is not comprehended nirvana cannot be attained. (MMK 24:8-10)
Sakyamuni himself made an implicit distinction between words that deem and words that change with circumstances when he compared his own teachings to a raft that may be used to ferry across the river of samsara to the other shore of nirvana and then abandoned, not carried around on one's back.
"If I had a position, no doubt fault could be found with it. Since I have no position, that problem does not arise."
No wisdom can we get hold of, no highest perfection, No Bodhisattva, no thought of enlightenment either. When told of this, if not bewildered and in no way anxious, A Bodhisattva courses in the Tathagata's wisdom.
In the Diamond Sutra Subhuti asks the Buddha if his realization of supreme enlightenment means that he has not acquired anything. "Just so, Subhuti.
The basic problem, again, is that discriminating between ignorance and truth -- rejecting the one, grasping the other -- is an intellectual way (is especially the intellectual's way) the self tries to find some secure ground for itself.
in religion, it is faith in the doctrine which can save us and which therefore needs to be defended at all costs against heretics; less dramatically yet more intimately for many of us, it can also be the "liberating insights" of psychoanalysis and deconstruction, etc., or the "enlightening" Asian wisdom of Buddhism and Daoism.
This is not to deny that they can be liberating and enlightening; but only when we do not need to secure our-selves can we become comfortable with and able to live the lack of such a higher truth to identify with.
As Nagarjuna puts it, the transactional realm -- our everyday use of language and understanding of truth -- is necessary to point out the surpassing sense of truth, that there is no higher truth whose understanding liberates us.
Yet what one hand offers the other must take away. No statement of this paradox can be final, pretending to offer a definitive understanding, for to do so makes us like the would-be sage who realized that no one should have disciples and promptly organized a group of disciples to disseminate this teaching.
Dreaming of waking up
Between Zhou and the butterfly there was necessarily a dividing; just this is what is meant by the transformation of things. (ch. 2, 61)
Everything in this world can be taken as real or not real; or both real and not real; or neither real nor not real.
What is the difference?
While we dream we do not know we are dreaming, and in the middle of a dream interpret a dream within it; not until we wake do we know that we were dreaming. Only at the ultimate awakening shall we know that this is the ultimate dream.
Yet fools think they are awake, so confident that they know what they are, princes, herdsmen, incorrigible! You and Confucius are both dreams, and I who call you a dream am also a dream. (ch. 2, pp. 59-60)
Despite Nagarjuna's unwillingness in the epigraph above to commit himself to one view at the cost of the other, there are prominent passages in the Mahayana scriptures which also unambiguously assert that this world is unreal and dreamlike.
Shove it from you and leave the transformations behind; then you will enter the oneness of the featureless sky. (ch. 6, p. 91)
They are constantly appearing, disappearing, and transforming into something else. Yet that is also true for this world, according to Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna! In which case the distinction between them becomes less important.
To wake up, then, is to realize there is only the dream. To dream of waking up from that dream is to fantasize about attaining a Reality that will save me from my empty, unfixed, transforming nature, which makes me uneasy because I want to be self-identical.
If so, to "wake up" from my constantly-changing nature (in which I become, say, a butterfly) is actually to fall asleep into the ignorance that thinks "I" am this body, this particular self within a collection of other discrete things.
Yet the Zhuangzi says that the alternative to dreaming is not another world or higher dimension but "the oneness of the featureless sky." Such a featureless oneness is indistinguishable from no-thing-ness.
It is important to forget oneself and experience this no-thing-ness -- to become no-thing -- because that extinguishes the self; and it is just as important not to remain in that featureless oneness because, in Buddhist terms, that is "clinging to emptiness".