11/06/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2016

Death and the Atheist Mystic: Zhuangzi's Last Words

No mind ruling the universe; no guarantee of good triumphing over evil; no spirit surviving the body; no life after life after life--and here comes death. No God, no moral world order, no afterlife, no reincarnation--and here comes death. He is a finite human animal, he is an ancient Chinese philosopher, he may or may not be that butterfly, he is Zhuangzi. Here are his last words, his last joke:

Zhuangzi was dying, and his disciples wanted to give him a lavish funeral. Zhuangzi said to them, "I will have heaven and earth as my coffin and crypt, the sun and moon for my paired jades, the stars and constellations for my round and oblong gems, all creatures for my tomb gifts and pallbearers. My funeral accoutrements are already fully prepared! What could possibly be added?" "But we fear the crows and vultures will eat you, Master," said they. Zhuangzi said, "Above ground I'll be eaten by crows and vultures, below ground by ants and crickets. Now you want to rob the one to feed the other. Why such favoritism?"

What is this dying man leaving to his solicitous friends? Is it perhaps a bitter parody of their hopes from one who is hopeless? A fat lot of good it does me, he is perhaps saying, your pious funerals, your coffins and crypts, your ceremonial mourning--I might as well be cast on the ground for the crows. Yet the parody turns around: your rituals are silly, yes, but no sillier than heaven and earth. Is it then perhaps the insouciant chill-out manifesto of an ultra-cool Dude who is shockingly at home in the universe? He is thinking big, in the thrall of the eyeless glory that will engulf him as his final resting place. Yet at the same time his words tuck the cosmos itself into a permanent deathbed: at home, yes, but the home he is at home in is one enormous morgue. Zhuangzi is a joker, but also a cruel and insane master: he is condemning his disciples to watch their beloved teacher and friend being devoured, consumed, dismantled, ground to powder, liquified. Zhuangzi's more tender-hearted contemporary Mencius, the great Confucian philosopher, tells his disciples that the very reason funerals were invented in the first place was to avoid this kind of thing. Back in the day, says Mencius, everyone just tossed mom and dad by the roadside with the trash, but when they happened by a few weeks later they couldn't bear to see the festering mom and dad had gotten up to in the meantime, and so folks got the idea of putting them in boxes deep underground to do their festering in private. But here at Zhuangzi's place there is no escape, the disciples are just sparing their own feelings. In any case he has to go, he has to disintegrate, he has to be consumed. Playful Zhuangzi plays dumb when he plays, offering a willful misunderstanding--you rob one to feed the other, gosh, you guys must really love ants and crickets! But of course this is a shot across the bow at another bias: why this bias for life over death? For one form over the disintegration into infinite forms? Not just for the crickets over the crows, but for me over the crickets and crows, for me alive over me dead?

The issue here, as in so much classical Chinese philosophy early and late, is incompleteness. Bias. One-sidedness. And it is just here that Zhuangzi's bittersweet dying joke itself is unbiased, at once both a resigned and hopeless surrender to the inevitable and an exultant embrace of the totality of ceaseless transformation that is the world worlding, the bubbling source of whatever joy a self feels in happening to have become a self for awhile, and the weirder joy embedded in the sorrow in having to surrender that self after that little while: as Zhuangzi says elsewhere, what makes my life good is also what makes my death good.

What is it? It is tempting to say that Zhuangzi, like Spinoza, reads simultaneously as God-intoxicated man and the most extreme possible nihilist, an atheist's atheist. Not God-intoxicated, though: tipsy on Dao. That is perhaps the difference that makes the peculiar double-vision buzz delivered by both Dao and Spinoza's God possible. It is the unbiased that encompasses both meaninglessness and meaning. The contrast to a personal God could not be more stark. For although this God is sometimes appealed to as a locus of justice and fairness, as the unbiased and encompassing, a moment's reflection reveals that, as long as God is some sort of mind or personal being or spirit, this unbiasedness is quite limited. God is less biased than the warring parties who might appeal to him, but much more biased than the Godless infinities that he is enlisted to replace. More to the point, his relative unbiasedness is usually imagined as ultimately in the service of a larger ultimate bias, an agenda: he is thought to be temporarily all-accepting only as a preliminary to a subsequent judgment. For a personal being is generally supposed to have some things or states he prefers; that is what it usually means for something to be a someone rather than merely a something, a person rather than merely a thing or a principle or a stuff or a substratum. The essence of the usual idea of God as the ruling mind of the universe is preference, is will, is purpose, is care and concern about how things go--and in Daoist perspective, all of those are just words for bias, for one-sidedness, for incompleteness. Dao is precisely the denial of these, the antithesis of purpose and of bias--Dao, the perfect antonym of God, more not God than matter, more not God than the devil. And it is this God-lessness precisely that is powering Zhuangzi's laughter at his own helplessness, at his own childlike excitement for the new headless adventure ahead, at his disciples' pettiness, at the glory of the world as giant coffin, at the scandal of coffin as miniature world. The lack of God, which is the lack of bias at the foundation of the world, is itself what makes his death acceptable. For it is not the getting eaten that rankles; or rather, it is the getting eaten that rankles, but only because getting eaten is a particularly vivid form of being limited, being one-sided, being on only one side of a relation, being finite, fixed, trapped, stuck. Getting eaten is one of the way things flow on from form to form, from state to state, but it is so small a portion of the flow; the solution is not to stop that flow but to augment it, to flow from there into all sides of every relation. That is the vastness of Zhuangzi's coffin.

People who have gotten used to the idea of God find depressing or even terrifying the idea of a heartless cosmos that doesn't care about our fate, that has no interest in whether we live or die. But perhaps this really is just a question of having gotten used to something, or, to put it less politely, the withdrawal from an addiction. As Zhuangzi says elsewhere, even the most hot-heated man does not go so far as to break the sword of his enemy, or to curse at an empty boat that collides with him. The world thwarts us, which is bad enough, but what is much worse is the bias, the smirking agenda, the contravening will, the know-it-all overall plan, which we imagine to be locking us willfully into only one position: the eaten, not the eater; the me, not the you; the creature, not the creator. The horror is in having to be one or the other, rather than always being both, or ready to be any.

Bias means limitation. It means finitude. It means non-omnipresence: that this is only happening here, not anywhere else; only going in this direction, not any other direction; only serving this use, not any other use. Pain and death are finitude writ large and stark: rude blares of "No further." The problem of pain is really the problem of being trapped within boundaries and straining against them. For the atheist mystic, the prospect of death leading only to heaven or only to a particular other life is no better than death leading only to being an inert chunk of matter: the problem in all cases is that we have one transformation that leads to no further transformations. The problem is getting stuck in only one state: that's what it is to be a mortal, a finite being. What if this one change leads to a million more? What if being eaten leads to being not only the eaten but a million eaters? What if the real problem hidden in these traumatic shutdowns and demolitions that we call pain and death is not that they happen, but that their happening is a stopping, they don't keep happening everywhere. Or do they?