The Poetic Philosopher & The Mythic Peng Bird: Expressing the Unknown in Zhuangzi

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The philosopher’s mission, to take higher truths and put them into words, is not an easy one to do well. Like a fish trying to explain water, we are limited in describing that which is invisible yet all around us. The best works of philosophy are aware of the challenges in approaching the limitless; among them the works at the foundation of the ancient, living tradition of Taoism.

The idea that one should live in harmony with the Tao 道, or natural way, has shaped millennia of Chinese philosophy and religion. The ensuing tradition of Taoism has had such staying power not in spite of the philosopher’s mysterious challenge, but precisely from being aware of it. To quote from the opening of the primary Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English

How, then, does one tell of that which cannot be told, or speak of that which cannot be named? If we are to follow the example of early Taoist texts, it is in setting the limitations of our logic aside and instead embracing the language of metaphor. One master of such metaphor is Zhuangzi, author of the Classical Chinese text which bears his name. Other philosophers might begin their work with a series of definitions or a demonstration of logic; Zhuangzi begins with a beautiful, poetic myth which invites us to encounter the unknowable.

Journey Through Darkness

The writing of Zhuangzi is filled with flowing, paradoxical imagery that has made it notoriously difficult. This challenge is magnified through translation, but is present even for scholars of Classical Chinese; intentionally unusual imagery is present from the text’s very opening; an image of a fish, named Kun 鯤. The Kun fish measures thousands of li (a measure of distance that’s similar to a mile) across and dwells in the far northern darkness of the world. The Kun fish is peculiar even down to its name, as Zhuangzi uses the Chinese character for fish 魚 alongside one can mean insect, child, or egg 昆 as if to suggest that the unfathomably large creature still has yet to grow.

Indeed when the seasons change and tides begin to shift, the Kun fish transforms, becoming the equally massive bird named Peng 鵬. As the Peng bird beats its wings, each of which spans thousands of li, the sky appears to be filled with clouds and the ocean rocked by storms. The Peng rises from the ocean ninety thousand li above the earth, the beginning of its journey to the Lake of Heaven in the far southern darkness.

A quick note regarding measurements; li differ from familiar measurements like miles in that they factor in difficulty, so one mile’s journey across a mountain pass would be more li than one mile’s journey across a field. And in Classical Chinese works, 10,000 is symbolic of a great many. All this is to say, at 90,000 li, the Peng bird flies unfathomably high; as the clear sky looks blue to us due to its distance, so the earth below appears to it. And it is so all-encompassing that those below do not know what to make of it, normally only feeling the winds which blow and carry the Peng on its journey, or mistaking its wings for rolling clouds. Otherwise, the bird itself is as mysterious to those below as the darkness from which it journeys.

Universal Harmony

Only the great winds that blow across China in the changing seasons can carry a creature as grand as the Peng bird; without the winds beneath its wings the Peng would simply crash to the surface, just like a great ship is helpless to move through a puddle, but needs deep water for to float. With the strength of these winds, the Peng is able to rise ninety-thousand li, as the creatures below look up in disbelief. Cicadas, doves, and quails laugh and question, “Why would something ever need to rise ninety thousand li? We fly from tree to tree, and that is enough for us.”

Zhuangzi takes this queue to branch off from the images of the amazing Peng bird and the doves and cicadas below to examples across nature that illustrate the difference in perspective between large and small:

What do these two creatures understand? Little understanding cannot come up to great understanding; the short-lived cannot come up to the long-lived.

How do I know this is so? The morning mushroom knows nothing of twilight and dawn; the summer cicada knows nothing of spring and autumn. They are the short-lived. South of Chu there is a caterpillar that counts five hundred years as one spring and five hundred years as one autumn. Long, long ago there was a great rose of Sharon that counted eight thousand years as one spring and eight thousand years as one autumn. They are the long-lived.

Zhuangzi, Chapter 1, “Free & Easy Wandering,” translated by Burton Watson.

The images of short- and long-lived things hint at why, unlike his contemporaries, Zhuangzi does not lean on his ability for reason. Because we are short-lived compared to the eternal, mysterious things which philosophy studies; things which, like the Peng bird, are lofty and grand. We can either laugh at these lofty things or look to the mysteries with reverence and awe; yet the question remains, what can the short-lived things, like doves, cicadas, and humans, learn from philosophy, and the long-lived, mysterious Peng bird?

Difference in Perspective

This question has been asked by many in the millennia since Zhuangzi is said to have written his text; often met with drastically differing interpretations.

The earliest commentary on Zhuangzi, by Guo Xiang (3rd-4th Century) recognizes the clear differences in large and small things, but attributes no difference to their value. The Peng operates on a level that is incomprehensible to the dove; it would be ridiculous for a dove to rise 90,000 li. But, Guo notes, it would be equally ridiculous for the Peng, thousands of li across, to jump from tree to tree. For Guo, the lesson in the image is for each creature, from the mushroom which lives for one morning to the caterpillar which lives for centuries, to live best according to their own place.

The wandering Buddhist monk Zhi Dun (4th century) is among the first to explore Zhuangzi within the context of Buddhism. Stories tell of Zhi Dun as a lover of birds, so it is no wonder that his writing holds a special affinity for Zhuangzi’s doves and quails. They laugh at the Peng, he says, because its great journey causes it to forget the present moment. The doves and quails instead are pleased with what is within their own hearts. A spiritual master 真人 would be able to both rise as high as the Peng and laugh as joyfully as the doves.

In contemporary, especially Western, studies of Zhuangzi, the Peng is revered specifically because it is unknowable. On a cosmic scale, we are far closer to doves and cicadas, measured in feet and inches, than to the Peng, measured in li. Some, thereby, view the message of Zhuangzi as one of skepticism, laughing at our attempts to understand something as elusive as philosophy. To others, Zhuangzi uses the image of the Peng not to discourage our attempts to understand philosophy (which, to be fair, would be a terrible way to begin a philosophy book) but rather as a poetic image, preparing our minds to approach the subject in the pages that follow with the necessary awe and wonder.

Conclusion: Free & Easy Wandering

Throughout his text, Zhuangzi provides many unexpected examples of spiritual masters: a skilled butcher whose knife stays ever-sharp as he cuts along the natural gaps in the ox; a master carpenter who allows the grooves of the wood to guide him in revealing the design hidden within; and even Zhuangzi himself, who finds joy again after mourning the passing of his late wife, by reflecting on the time before she had body and spirit, and the mysteries which brought her into being and sustained her, a stream of change like the seasons.

While philosopher’s mission remains elusive, these examples show what a life lived along with higher principles looks like. Like the mythical Peng bird, it is at once all-encompassing and invisible. But even the Peng needs the wind beneath its wings – the same wind which carries the doves across the trees.

Whether we seek them or not, we encounter nature’s eternal mysteries in every moment. We can study and try to understand them, but for every question that we answer more arise. Zhuangzi invites us to reconsider the philosopher’s mission; that we cannot – and do not need to – systematize and articulate the eternal. If we can instead learn to recognize and flow with it, whether 90,000 li or simply from tree to tree, we can wander free and easy.


Date: 2024-02-10 18:25:59 - Views: 146