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12/31/2015 10:26 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2016

Floating in Dao: Zhuangzi's Tumultuous Tranquility

The world? It's something to deal with and find a place in and live your life in, possibly to make a better place. Nature? It's something to study and enjoy and protect and perhaps contemplate and understand. God? It's something to worship and obey and pray to, and to have a personal relationship with and fear and love and be loved by, to be saved by or condemned by, to accept and be acceptable to. The Truth? It's something to seek and grasp and face up to and recognize and prove. The Universe? It's something to gasp in wonder at or explore or comprehend. The One Absolute Reality Behind All Appearances? It's something to dispel illusions so as to realize or merge with or dissolve into or recognize one's identity with.

How about Dao? What are the verbs that apply there? What can we do to, for, with, or about Dao?

Float. Drift. Swim. Wander.

The Daodejing compares Dao to water: it flows downward, naturally tending toward the despised lowest places, but thereby nourishing all things at their roots; and like the flow that wears away the stone, it is a yielding softness that outlasts and overcomes the hard and rigid. Daoist writers often focus on this soft yielding character of Dao-as-watery, the adaptability and shapelessness of water that can effortlessly assume whatever shape it finds itself situated within. Perhaps this watery Dao is thus far something to be utilized and followed or emulated, or perhaps imbibed, fed on like the nourishing maternal breast of Daodejing 20. But Zhuangzi sometimes takes this shapeless unfixable transforming watery Dao as something to "float on" and "drift on" and "swim in" and "wander in," a wavy unstable funhouse medium of ups and downs, of value and valuelessness, of purpose and purposelessness, providing nothing underneath for support and yet bearing all things up on its formless quicksilver surges and drops:

Zhuangzi was traveling in the mountains when he came upon a huge tree,
luxuriantly overgrown with branches and leaves.

A woodcutter stopped beside it but in the end chose not to fell it. Asked the reason, he said, "There is nothing it can be used for."

Zhuangzi said, "This tree is able to live out its natural life span because of its worthlessness."

When he left the mountains, he lodged for a night at the home of an old friend. His friend was delighted and ordered a servant to kill a goose for dinner.

The servant said, "There is one that can crow and one that cannot. Which should I kill?"

The host said, "Kill the one that cannot crow."

The next day, Zhuangzi's disciple said to him, "The tree we saw yesterday could live out its natural life span because of its worthlessness, while our host's goose was killed for its worthlessness. What position would you take, Master?"

Zhuangzi said, "I would probably take a position somewhere between worthiness and worthlessness. But though that might look right, it turns out not to be -- it still leads to entanglements. It would be another thing entirely to float and drift along, mounted on only the Course and its spontaneous Virtuosities, untouched by both praise and blame, now a dragon, now a snake, changing with the times, unwilling to keep to any exclusive course of action. Now above, now below, with momentary harmony as your only measure, that is to float and drift
within the ancestor of all things, which makes all things the things they are, but which no thing can make anything of. What could then entangle you?

(-- from Zhuangzi, The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn, Hackett, 2009, p. 84.)

Worthiness is no good: you will be used. Worthlessness is also no good: you are expendable. Hunkering down somewhere between the two, half worthy and half unworthy, then? That might seem better but it isn't: it's also no good. Everything definite and constant is an entanglement. Everything unwatery entangles. This watery Dao all around and beneath our necks and waists and feet has no one shape or form; it cannot stand still, and it cannot be stood upon. Yet we do not sink down under it either: we float in it, we swim in it. Things emerge from it, but it is no thing, not this, not that, not high, not low. It cannot be grasped as anything at all: it things out thing after thing but is never thinged by things. To ride it is to be likewise unthingable, ungraspable as any this or any that, unlocatable in any locus, impossible to pin down. Its instability is its lubricity, is its softness and yieldingness, but also its power, its dynamism.

Floating in Dao is floating in the unknowable at the bottom of all knowing, the shapeless at the source of all shape. It is not merely unknown so far, or merely unknown by certain knowers but known by others: it is by nature unknowable -- it would be unknowable even to an omniscient observer. But this watery shapelessness is tempestuous: it is the reckless wriggle and the reckless surrender Zhuangzi elsewhere calls, with reckless words, the tranquil turmoil, or the tumultuous tranquility. Shapeless and void, yet shapeshifting and lurching forth with ever new virtuosities, here spasms the ancestor of all things, unable to settle into any one configuration, unable to stop spitting out its bouyant waves swelling upward and its pitching waves plummeting downward.

To ride this tumultuous void is to transform with it, from snake to dragon and back, from valueless to value to valueless, from purposeless to purpose and back. That's how it is for us living beings, the same old updown, the ancient threestep: from clueless infant to know-it-all adult to blithering senile oldster; from incompetent newbie to virtuosic top dog to over-the-hill embarrassment; from dead matter to living go-getter to decaying cadaver. That's how we get whatever gets got.

This is not something done by obeying it or loving it or worshipping it, or by drowning and dissolving into its oblivion, or by knowing it or following it or using it or controlling it or accepting one's place in it. We cannot "do" the floating of us, and the water is even less anyone doing the floating. It carries us without intending to, and what is floatable is that part of us that likewise forgets all intention to be held on to or to hold on, to secure its specific whereabout. We float when we stop trying to keep to one particular place in the water, when we cease trying to hold our position. Who would have guessed that water, which slithers away through your fingers when grasped, is also something you can lie down on? Something that caressingly carries you up by letting you drop into its folded pocket, while snubbingly scurrying away around whatever it accepts into its heaving nourishing breast? Dao dozes like a nursing mother, snoring softly in and out, unaware of the sting and the bliss of her rising and falling offspring, who doze and dream and loaf on her bosom, suckling absent-mindedly, as beautifully oblivious of her as she is of them.