Let me state for the record that I had no intention of writing this essay on the Zhuang-zi and its second chapter “Discourse on Thinking of Things as Being on the Same Level”. Truth be told, I had already gotten a pretty decent start on the second essay but felt the drivel that had spilled forth relating Grimm’s Fairytales to Chinese folktales of love was mediocre at best and maybe subconsciously I was wanting another topic to come along; a topic that would provide an outlet for my random musings and fodder for my flippant comments. Lo and behold, along came the Zhuang-zi. In the introduction, Owen describes the Zhuang-zi as a hodgepodge of pre-Qin and Western Han texts from sundry sources, oh how benign that sounds! Unbeknownst to the hapless reader, the description becomes increasingly dastardly in the final paragraph but still fails to adequately portray the lunacy that will run amuck for the next ten pages. I would like to expound on my thoughts in an effort to derive what I feel to be the meaning, or lack thereof, of “Discourse on Thinking of Things as Being on the Same Level.”
Imagine my relief when we were discussing this piece during class on Friday and I learned that I was not the only person awash in befuddlement. After reading the paradox filled pages that make up “Discourse...” Thursday night, I felt like I had literally fallen down the rabbit hole and straight into a mad tea party with the Mad Hatter and March Hare, conundrums and double talk assaulted my mind from every angle. Now I know how Alice must have felt, not that a state of confusion is anything new to me but I failed to see a method to the Zhuang-Zhou’s madness. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason why some of “Discourse...” did not make readily sense is because of the large gap of time between when material like Zhuang-Zhou’s was commonplace and today when the only exposure students have to it is in history books and english classes. Cultures have changed and ways of thinking have most certainly changed. My point is, if you do not exercise a certain way of thinking, then you lose it. I feel that today Americans have gotten used to having things spelled out for us, so stretching our minds a little in order to fully wrap them around a foreign concept is not common practice. If that is the case, then it is no wonder thoughts like “Or to use a horse to convey the lesson that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a non-horse to convey the lesson that a horse is not a horse.” make us do a tailspin. I do not mean to make it sound like we are not a society of deep thinkers, but perhaps we have grown more comfortable with having the obvious stated to us than we should.
The next question brought to mind is, the Zhuang-zi must have been fairly meaningful to the Chinese during its day, but why? I may be getting in way over my head on this one, but I will forge on. The pertinence of Zhuang-zi probably lies in the Daoist thinking behind it. One such thought is that death is a natural part of life, one of its infinite transformations. Zhuang Zhou’s dream of being a butterfly illustrates this belief. The butterfly is an age old symbol of transformation, a creature that goes with the flow of things and does not fight the forces of nature. Another belief, that philosophical disputation, though sometimes stimulating, is a somewhat futile enterprise because "right" and "wrong" cannot be determined through argument. This is prevalent in the quote:
"Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong?”
While reading Zhuang-zi, I either thought of how incredibly deep and thought provoking the words were, or how exceedingly superficial the entire text was. It seemed to me the Chinese could have taken the tongue twister “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood." and turned it into something philosophical. Upon reflection. I consider it to be a little bit of both elements, thought provoking yet shallow. As if Zhuang-Zhou wanted the readers to think too much into a particular sentence and become hopelessly lost in its myriad of potential meanings.
Finally, one last deep thought from a shallow mind concerning “Discourse of Thinking Of Things Being on the Same Level”. Bob Dylan had a tour in 1992 he dubbed the “Outburst of Consciousness Tour”. How perfect! That is exactly how I would subtitle the Zhuang-zi, an outburst of consciousness. It is as if Zhuang-Zhou had what I would term an “ah ha!” moment and wrote everything down, whether it was of any value or not. If the reader can get past the feeling of mental disequilibrium that is obtained when learning something one’s mind cannot fully encompass, then they have a pretty good chance of being highly entertained by “Discourse of Thinking of Things Being on the Same Level.”
One last quote, and I promise I will stop. “To say something is not just blowing forth breath. In saying there is something said, but what is said is never quite determined. So is there really something said or has there never been anything said?” Perhaps someone else can establish whether or not there is anything being said in the Zhuang-zi.