Zhuangzi’s Grief

I gave this talk, as guest teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center, on Saturday, October 30, 2021. If you prefer to listen, you can access the audio recording on GBZC’s website.

I’m part of a reading group that’s focusing on Chinese literature this year.  Our guide is a Chinese-American poet who grew up in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution.  I thought I’d open with a story from the ancient Daoist text known as the Zhaungzi, named after its author.  

This translation is from a much more recent book called The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life, which I highly recommend.  

Zhuangzi’s wife died and Huizi went to console him.  He found Zhuangzi squatting on the floor with his legs open, drumming on a pot and singing.  Huizi said, “You lived with her, raised children with her, grew old together.  To not cry at her death is bad enough, but drumming on a pot and singing—what could you be thinking?”  Zhuangzi said, “Oh, it’s not like that.  When she first died, how could I not grieve?  But then I looked back to her beginning, before her birth.  Not just before her birth, but before she had a body.  Not just before she had a body, but before she had qi.  In the midst of that amorphous chaos, there was a change, and she had qi; the qi changed, and she had a body; her body changed, and she was born.  Now there is yet another change, and she has died.  This is like the change of the four seasons: spring, autumn, winter, summer.  Now she is residing in the greatest of chambers.  If I were to follow her sobbing and wailing, it would show I understood nothing about our destiny.  So I stopped.”

I’m visiting you at a time when people the world over—and no doubt some of us here—have experienced and are continuing to experience extraordinary loss and hardship. Over the past 18 months, a global pandemic has claimed millions of lives; lives have been lost to hate crimes and some responses to them; political unrest here and elsewhere has claimed lives; storms, fires, and other extreme weather events have taken lives, homes, and livelihoods.  

During the past year, my wife and I each lost our fathers, hers to COVID and mine to declining health in old age.  Our family also lost two dear friends, one 95 when she passed and the other only 12.  Several of our close friends have experienced similar losses or will soon.  

Everywhere one turns these days, hearts seem laden with loss and hardship.  This is always true, of course.  The pandemic and the other extraordinary things I just mentioned have been occurring alongside the ordinary march of old age and illness that ends in death.  

What are we to make of this story about Zhuangzi, as dark clouds gather above us?

For me, this snapshot of Zhaungzi during his experience of loss is evidence of the fruit our practice can bear.

We should first note that Zhuangzi’s response to his great loss is not spiritual bypass, stoicism, or ascetic detachment.  Zhuangzi felt and grieved his wife’s passing.  His first response—his primary response—was to wail and sob for some time.  

But his loss obviously did not crush his spirit.  In fact, his spirit ultimately seems enlarged by this difficult experience.  Zhuangzi embraces the aching part of himself.  It has a welcome seat at the table—and, for Zhuangzi, we’re all sitting together at a very, very large table.

One does not get the sense from this story or others in his book that Zhuangzi approaches practice as an effort to discover and perfect his essential, “true self,” whatever that might mean.  Zhuangzi’s persona and response to life are simple, earthy, and right on the surface.  The picture of Zhuangzi that emerges is that of a tender, vulnerable human being with a wise, open heart.  This tender heart opens to its own stirrings, to silver linings, to the whole of his life as the life of the cosmos.

Realizing, maintaining, and sharing this orientation to life is what Zen practice is about. 

We can and must work to end this pandemic and strengthen public health efforts globally; address climate change; counter hate and violence; and more.  If and as we make progress in these areas, however, we will continue to experience everyday losses and hardships.  

Zhuangzi’s sorrow and his joy are related; they’re of a piece.  As we know, true joy doesn’t arise from the temporary satisfaction of compulsive, personal cravings, or the temporary avoidance of what makes us anxious.  It arises as we lose and find ourselves in and as the vast robe of liberation into which we and all else are woven.

This robe of liberation includes our sorrow.  We won’t experience true joy if we’re defending ourselves against our own pain and sorrow and closing ourselves to others’ hardships.

When people first hear about the Four Noble Truths, some think the Buddhist path is aimed at insulating oneself from suffering; at bypassing—not touching—that which feels painful.  But it’s quite the opposite. 

So much energy today is directed toward finding and magnifying the self—polishing a version of oneself, putting it on display, and defending it.  Sadly, even spiritual practice and our service commitments sometimes are coopted by this program.  If we seek and magnify ourselves in that way, however, the magnifying glass ultimately concentrates the heat we were hoping to escape, rather than reducing it.

We’ve recently been exploring differences between Chinese and American conceptions of the self in the reading group I mentioned, so our guide encouraged us to watch a documentary called The Century of the Self.  It’s about the evolution of modern conceptions of the self in America.  

The late American playwright Arthur Miller is quoted in the film.  He’s reflecting on the death of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, who committed suicide soon after an intensive, weekend-long therapy immersion experience with proteges of Sigmund and Anna Freud.  I’m not against therapy, even in its contemporary psychoanalytic forms, but I do think Miller’s critique nicely diagnoses one illness that plagues our culture more generally.

He says:

“My argument with so much of psychoanalysis, is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness, when in fact, possibly the greatest truths we know have come out of people’s suffering; that the problem is not to undo suffering or to wipe it off the face of the earth but to make it inform our lives, instead of trying to cure ourselves of it constantly and avoid it, and avoid anything but that lobotomized sense of what they call `happiness.’ There’s too much of an attempt, it seems to me, to think in terms of controlling [a person], rather than freeing [a person]. Of defining [the self] rather than letting [the self] go.”

Zhuangzi isn’t valorizing suffering, and neither should we, but nor does he push it away.  Our awakening is an awakening to the contingency and vulnerability of our creatureliness—of all that is dear to us and everyone we love. 

And to the vitality and expansive mystery of our existence.  Our practice is a practice of caring for ourselves and each other as the contingent, vulnerable, and imponderably vast beings that we are.