"A man seeking revenge does not go so far as to smash the sword of his enemy; a man, no matter how hot-tempered, does not rail at the tile that happens to fall on him. To know that all things in the world are equal and the same--this is the only way to eliminate the chaos of attack and battle and the harshness of punishment and execution!"
-- Chuang Tzu
I am going through a spiritual re-awakening of sorts. Buddhist-Daoist type thing. A serious development, I think. Considering veganism and such.
I mention this as background to how I'm trying to confront the embarrassment inherent to taking this kind of thing very very seriously, the same way I would be kept up at night with the urgency of needing to know with Winston Smith what does it all mean in 1984 as if this wasn't just some thing written by some guy.
Anyway, This odd quote comes at the heels of an even stranger paragraph claiming that drunk people are less susceptible to physical injury simply because they are less aware of what is going on ("because his spirit is whole").
It's a sort of appeal to indifference, or to acceptance, I suppose. to a not-getting-hung-up-on-on-things type thing. Because things are just things, including us.
A probably necessary background is that Chuang Tzu is writing while everybody's killing everybody in a huge civil war that, this being China, is probably more comparable to a world war. The chaos of attack and battle and the harshness of punishment and execution are not just metaphors - they are very real and very ridiculous nonsense.
But still, there's an apparent logical contradiction here. If all things in the world were equal and the same, wouldn't that mean that it would make sense to get angry with bad people's swords or with flying tiles? Isn't the whole point that we should distinguish between what is deliberate and planned and avoidable and what is simply bad luck?
I think the answer to this can be approached by remembering that, opaque stylistics and gleeful logical incoherence notwithstanding, Daoism is very clearly and very unequivocally about not stressing out. It's not really "profound" - it's sort of precisely, and often satirically, the opposite.
It's about the attribution of undue significance, I think, Everything happens because of a cause, but not necessarily because of a reason. A tile falls on you because of gravity, a sword injures you because there's an arsehole at the other side of it, and shit in general happens because the climatic conditions of the world involve a perpetual rain of shit.
So buy an umbrella. But stop screaming at the sky because all that does is create an opening for turds to fly in through.
The more spiritualistic wishy-washy implications are that we happen because of causes. We are things that come into being because of things and will one day die because of things. This is not to suggest that there isn't anything beyond thinginess, but it is to suggest that it should only be looked for in what isn't things or thing-based.
The non-thing beyond things, in this metaphor, would be the incompetent roof design, or the sword-brandishing dude, or perhaps his troubled childhood. What would they represent, being not-things?
Why, the absence of the Dao! A workman working with the Dao would build a proper roof. A society and culture operating through the Dao would avoid needless violence and enmity. Working with the Dao addresses what is immediately relevant and disregards points of honour, convention, or stress in general. The avoidance of a master plan, a grand narrative or any kind or reductive urgency, so goes the idea, would allow us to freely, happily and acceptingly live, and, possibly, to not freak out so much about one day having to die.
Because maybe this non-thing is not just the absence of thinginess, but something beyond it. But we'll leave that for next time. Maybe.