Reading Notes by Lisa Blasch, edited by Mark Unno

Zhuangzi and Shinran

Part One - Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi portrays the Tao not as a way which human beings must strive to follow, but rather as a kind of natural virtue which is inherent in all things and expressed by them in a distinctly individualized manner. For this reason, the patterns of life are dynamically interconnected and always in a condition of transition. Human beings, however, have a tendency to parse out the world in which they are embedded into opposing dualities in order to understand its meaning and the place they inhabit within this scheme. This produces a world of suffering and preoccupation with meaningless trivialities. To counteract this tendency, Zhuangzi constantly attempts to undermine the distinction between the appearance of the world as we construct it and the world as it is. However, this produces a tension: we can neither make the world into that which we wish it to be, nor can we assume that it can be known outside a human perspective. I will discuss the relation between heaven (Nature) and humankind in order to throw Zhuangzi's view of the self into relief.

Heaven (Nature, Cosmos) and Human Beings

Because Zhuangzi is suspicious of all dualities, that of the distinction between the natural world (cosmos) and humanity is another which must be dispensed with. Still, because human beings can lose sight of the way, this means that there is not automatically no difference whatsoever. If this were true, nothing that we did could fall outside the sphere of the way, and Zhuangzi would be a relativist. Instead, for Zhuangzi, human beings seem to be of both worlds at once. This explains how we can simultaneously be unified with the Tao and separated from it.

In one sense, we are composed of as well as limited by the natural particularity of our life and our social context. As Zhuangzi explains, once we are born with a form, we tend to withdraw ourselves from the world by adhering to the 'little understanding'; by clinging to purely conventional forms of judgement which distill the self from the surrounding world and encourage it to recognize nothing beyond its immediate and particular interests. The beliefs that we have a self-contained identity which separates us from that to which we are non-identical, and that good and evil are mutually dependent, both conceptually and ontologically, are delusions which occur when we mistakenly parse out the world into distinctly isolated 'pieces,' and then manufacture abstract concepts with which to identify and relate them to one another and to ourselves. When we go a step further and insist that conceptual abstractions such as 'self' and 'other' actually correspond directly to the real and separate identities of what is revealed in experience, we have lost touch with the substance of what is actually real, the spontaneous self-expression of infinite potentiality: the Tao.

So, human ignorance, error and suffering are all perpetuated by our tendency to be conceptually discriminating. Instead of exhausting ourselves chasing after selfish desires and transitory ends according to the values we see expressed in the society around us, we should recognize the way in which our particularity and finite capacities are made possible through the self-expression of the world, and free ourselves to act accordingly. For this reason Zhuangzi recommends giving up a life of abstract conceptualization in favor of a mystical form of spontaneity in which no false intellectualizing can take place. Thus the Taoist sage finds herself in a state of natural harmony once she has given up the little understanding in favor of the great. She neither strives to control the future nor becomes obsessive about the past because she is free from the attachments produced by ignorant invention. In her radical spontaneity, each new moment provides an opportunity for the Tao to manifest itself through her actions. She is one particular moment of its human expression.

Still, the self which is spontaneous is not an unthinking self. It is not that knowledge of ourselves and our universe is impossible, but that it must transcend na´ve realism and the bad faith which are all too common in our approach to living. I vividly recall a point about Zhuangzi's notion of subjective agency from an Eastern philosophy class I helped teach a couple of years ago (Levi). As I recall, human beings become subjective agents the moment they give up distinguishing themselves as wholly other from the force which moves through them. This seems like a paradoxical conclusion, to say that I become a self the moment I make the choice to give my self up. However, thinking of the point in other terms helps clear things up. We are all of us natural creatures, given over to certain needs, ends and capacities in the same way all other natural things are. At the same time, my agency is required in order to assist this process &endash; I must eat, clothe myself and choose to live in ways which are harmonious with whatever surrounds me if I am to see my life through to its end. So, my individual agency is an important factor in the persistence of my natural life.


Question 1: Zhuangzi cannot be saying that the self is pre-social, right? Given that we are dispensing with conceptual distinctions, Zhuangzi's point seems to be a reminder that human beings are creatures who are born, live and die in a natural world interpenetrated with culture, and whose lives are subject to the contingencies of growth and decay as a unified process. Human beings are made possible via natural AND cultural processes, so when he describes enlightenment as accepting the Tao as the source of one's own being, doesn't that entail accepting culture as well? If so, what would this mean?

Question 2: I understand that Zhuangzi is advocating a rejection of the Confucian separation of the Tao into that of humanity and that of the cosmos. However, given the rejection of this dichotomy, does the Tao move through culture? If so, is it right to speak of achieving the enlightened self as an ethical practice? Such a practice would clearly recognize no standards for right and wrong behavior but instead would be something like a virtuous disposition, prompting us to do whatever action would achieve or maintain integration between ourselves and the world around us. Is this accurate? Is there more?

Part Two -- Shinran

The similarities between Zhuangzi and Shinran's teachings are so striking to me that I believe I am having trouble differentiating them. It seems to me that if one substitutes the Buddha of Immeasurable Light for the Tao, one has much the same appraisal of the origin of human suffering, the nature of the world and the possibility for liberation. Like Zhuangzi, Shinran is concerned with liberating the self from a world of suffering. While Zhuangzi discusses suffering in terms of a process of perceiving the world as a collection of objects which serve as means to further individualized interests, Shinran explains suffering as our natural tendency as finite creatures to strive for relief from the burdens of life's transitoriness. Both ask us to embody the reality which underlies all appearances. While Zhaungzi criticizes the human tendency to be conceptually discriminating by describing the Tao as an infinite self-expression of life-force, Shinran describes the buddha-nature as the co-originating interdependence of a dynamic absolute reality. Perhaps the most significant distinction I can locate between the Shin text of the Tannisho and Zhuangzi concerns the ethical impact of liberation. Shinran's description of the unity of liberation with compassion in the condition of enlightenment appears to be a conclusion that Zhuangzi does not hold. I will briefly explore enlightenment as the condition of manifesting absolute reality in order to throw compassion into relief, and then proceed to my question.

Editor's Notes:

There is a concept that Zhuangzi and Shinran share, pronounced tzu-jan in Chinese and jinen in Japanese. Roughly translated, it means “becoming so.” Shinran, however, gives this concept a slightly different meaning, saying that it signifies “made to become so.” “So” in this case refers to the thing in itself; a tree becoming so means a tree becomes itself as an expression of the Tao or the Way of Nature. It indicates spontaneity. Human beings spontaneously become themselves in light of the Tao. This spontaneity is an expression of the natural or spontaneous unfolding of the Tao. Shinran states that human beings are made or led to become so by Amida Buddha. This difference is due to the fact that Shinran sees human beings as unable to be spontaneously in accord with the unfolding of the cosmos, or Amida Buddha, literally “the awakening of infinite light.” Human beings, trapped by their own karmic evil, are unable to be spontaneously one with the infinite light of awakening. Instead, they must be made or led to become so.

Liberation, Enlightenment and Compassion

The process of liberation hinges upon overcoming limitations in the practice of manifesting absolute reality. The human condition is marked by delusions of selfhood and egoistic desires, reinforced by the reciproal causality of karma. Even though our finitude makes us fallible in this way, our existence is sustained by the infinite compassion of Amida Buddha, and this makes it possible for us to progress from selfish egoists to enlightened beings. When one has attained a condition of Enlightenment, the experience of the nature of reality &endash; and thus dependent origination and the principle of Karma &endash; brings with it wisdom and a powerful capacity for compassion for the world because it is also Buddha-nature. However, this is not a life of religious devotion, since this would reinstantiate the conceptual dichotomies associated with human limitation. Instead, the transformation involves a kind of reconstitution of the entire subject-object relationship, a denial of their duality, not simply a recognition of their interdependence but an embodiment of it.

Buddha-nature as absolute reality is dynamic rather than static, and its self-expression includes the arising and passing away of all sentient beings. Insofar as these sentient beings are manifestions of Absolute Reality, they constitute its self-expression, are in explicit existential unity with one another, and have value by means of their participation in this dynamic process. Therefore, according to the doctrine of non-self, all that we are and accomplish is ultimately the active, dynamic expression of Absolute Reality, including expressing ourselves toward the other sentient beings who are also its manifestation. In the process of enlightenment, the person achieving liberation is simultaneously reconnected to all beings at once. The saying of the nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu, involves opening oneself up to the “Other Power” dynamically manifested in one's own being. The “deep hearing of the Dharma” is not an intellectual or propositional matter, but a process in which one's whole being becomes awakened to the infinite, dynamic unity of the cosmos. In this process, the force of compassion transforms all accumulated negative karma into enlightened being, in which no substantial distinction between oneself and others exists. One becomes a particular moment in the unfolding of Other Power, thereby indissolubly linked to the fate of all other karmic beings.

For this reason, (it appears to me) that one actually embodies compassion insofar as one is an expression of absolute reality, because one is undeniably bound to those who continue to suffer.

While he or she does not escape samsara, the enlightened person is karmically transformed into a manifestation of the infinite compassion of Amida Buddha &endash; he or she expresses the possibility for all others to achieve the salvation of authentic selfhood. At the end of life, this person attains complete buddhahood by being born into the Pure Land; however, this also does not mean escaping samsara. Because Amida Buddha's nature is always of transformation, after achieving enlightenment this person returns to the world to work for the enlightenment of others.


The upshot of this seems to be that morality is a matter of Absolute Reality relating to itself according the karmic principle of indefinite reciprocal causality. The element of spontaneity suggests that virtuous behavior motivated by compassion will be performed with perfect immediacy. Is the practice of goodness by the enlightened person the authentic spontaneous manifestation of Buddha-nature itself? If so, what becomes of moral reasoning?