By Harisan Nasir
In this essay, I will attempt to answer a simple yet profound question: What does Zhuangzi believe to be the ‘self’? Firstly, we must ask whether Zhuangzi even believes in a ‘self’. Some have drawn parallels between Zhuangzi and early modern philosophers. Some philosophers. One uncontroversial interpretation of one of those philosophers, David Hume. is that he denies the existence of a persisting ‘self’ (Hansen, 2014). I will argue that this does not entirely capture what Zhuangzi’s view on the ‘self’. I will then give a description as to what I believe Zhuangzi believes is the ‘self’, which is more transformative in nature rather than a fixed substance. More importantly, the reason why the Cartesian ‘self’ and the ‘self’ in Zhuangzi seem so intractable is because the former only gives a descriptive account while the latter gives a normative account. Lastly, I will also give Zhuangzi’s motivations to adopt this conception of the ‘self’.
The Butterfly Dream and the Transformative Self
Firstly, I will analyse the ‘butterfly dream’. By doing so, I will show that Zhuangzi rejects the Cartesian concept of the ‘self’. Additionally, this rejection of the ‘self’ can also be seen as the first step of Zhuangzi’s transformation of the ‘self’. A common reading of the butterfly dream would be to interpret Zhuangzi as asking: “Am I a butterfly or am I, Zhuangzi” (Han, 2009, pp.158). However, there is another way of interpreting the parable which is: Zhuangzi does not know whether he was a man dreaming of being a butterfly or that he is a man whom the butterfly is dreaming of (Han, 2009, pp. 159). The difference may seem subtle but is actually profound. In the first interpretation, the existence of an ‘I’ is not doubted; the ‘self’ still exists. However, in the second interpretation, Zhuangzi is seen as doubting his own existence; he could be a figment of the butterfly’s imagination. This contradicts Descartes’s cogito, ergo sum argument that concludes: “I think, therefore I know that I must exist” (Hatfield, 2015). Descartes concluded that it is impossible that a person could doubt his own existence, for the act of doubting requires a ‘thinker’, which in turn is the ‘self’. Hence, the moment a person doubts himself, he is already affirming his own existence. However, this is unlike Zhuangzi’s parable where he can think without knowing his own existence. Zhuangzi’s butterfly parable showed that a person could simply be a figment of another being’s dream; in this case, the other being is a butterfly. Thus, it casts doubt on Descartes’ argument for the existence of a ‘self’ in light of Zhuangzi’s dream parable (Han, 2009). Furthermore, the butterfly can also be interpreted as a representation of the human ‘self’ (Yao, 2013 pp. 512). However, in his essay, Yao proceeds to form a different concept of the ‘self’, one of a spiritual soul (Yao, 2013 pp. 516). I believe that he may be mistaken. The butterfly represents a ‘self’, but it nowhere states that the butterfly is Zhuangzi’s ‘self’ in the dream. The butterfly could be representative of another soul, another ‘self’ of another person who is not Zhuangzi. The parable of the dream becomes clearer this way. I conclude that the parable suggests another agent (which is represented by a butterfly), dreaming of Zhuangzi. Hence, Zhuangzi may not really exist, Zhuangzi’s thoughts are his own, but only part of a dream. Zhuangzi’s ‘self’ might not really exist. Zhuangzi is not the dreamer; he is merely a figment of the dreamer’s imagination.
It may be too hasty to conclude from the Butterfly Dream that Zhuangzi does not believe in a ‘self’, or that we cannot know that we exist. This conclusion would contradict another part of the Zhuangzi where he says:
“But no one knows what makes it like this. It seems as though there is a true master, but you can’t get a glimpse of it. The hundred bones, the nine orifices, the six organs all exist together. Which do I think of as closest to me? Do you like them all? Or do you have a favourite? If so, are the rest its servants and concubines? Can’t servants and concubines rule among themselves? Can they take turns being lord and servant? But if there is a true lord among them, whether I find its qing, “essence,” or not makes no difference to its truth.” (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2001).
Zhuangzi does say that there should be some ‘True Master’ that underlies all emotion and is in control of the physical organs. He also makes reference to a ‘True Lord’. As shown in this passage above, it seems that Zhuangzi does believe that there is a true ‘self’ behind all the changing flux of emotions. What is interesting is that Zhuangzi goes further to say that whether or not he finds this ‘true self’ is inconsequential, ‘makes no difference’. How then, can we reconcile this chapter with the Butterfly Dream and the abandonment of the ‘self”? It seems contradictory for Zhuangzi to doubt the existence of the ‘self’ but also believe in its existence in chapter two. I will show, in the following paragraph, that this is not contradictory at all and is compatible if the ‘self’ is seen as a transformation that occurs in stages.
An alternative interpretation of that same passage in chapter two can also be given. Zhuangzi does not accept the authority and priority of the formed heart/mind (or cheng xin) over the other organs and be the ‘leader’ of Zhuangzi. He does not doubt the existence of the cheng xin but doubts that we should allow for its actualization. He also puts this form of the ‘self’ as cheng xin in a negative light,
“If a made-up mind(cheng xin) counts as a teacher, then who doesn’t have a teacher? Why should it just be the self-chosen experts on the order of things who have them? Stupid people would have them, too. But to have right and wrong before you’ve made up your mind—that’s like leaving for Yue today and getting there yesterday! That’s like saying what isn’t is. What isn’t is? Even the spiritual sage Yu couldn’t make sense of that.” (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2001).
At this point, we can already see what Zhuangzi thinks of the ‘self’. He casts his own ‘self’ into doubt in the butterfly dream. He shows that it is possible and at least worth considering to doubt our ‘self’ in this parable. He also pushes us to reconsider the cheng xin form of the ‘self’ in the two passages that I have quoted above. If we take these two ideas together, we can take it to mean that Zhuangzi is implying that we should simply abandon the cheng xin ‘self’. This means that the ‘self’ truly is a transformative process. We start first with the cheng xin, a form of the ‘self’ that Zhuangzi despises which then should be cast into doubt and abandoned altogether. Does this mean that Zhuangzi wants us to get rid of the self? Some might point out that it could be that Zhuangzi is advocating for a no-self, he says ‘that perfect people have no self’ (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2001). In chapter six, Kongzi praises Yan Hui when he says that he had ‘cast off my limbs, dismiss hearing and sight, leave my form’. This shows again a preference for no-self. However, Zhuangzi is not saying the best form of ‘self’ is a ‘no-self’. Rather, in order to reach the ideal ‘self’, one must get rid of the current ‘self’ that is biased and riddled with predispositions. Getting rid of the ‘self’ is not the goal; rather, it is but one step in the process of reaching the ultimate ‘self’, chang xin.
The Constant Heart/Mind
In chapter seven, Zhuangzi goes on to also talk about chang xin or constant heart/mind. This version of the ‘self’ is thought to be the most ideal state of xin and thus, the ideal ‘self’. The constant heart/mind is the unaffected heart/mind. Unlike the cheng xin, which is an active ‘self’, chang xin is a responsive ‘self’. In chapter seven of the Zhuangzi, it is said:
“Don’t make a name for yourself or follow a plan. Don’t take responsibility or claim knowledge. Thoroughly embody what can’t be exhausted and wander where you can’t be seen. Take everything you get from Heaven but don’t consider it gain. Just be empty. Perfected people use their minds like mirrors, not welcoming things as they come or escorting them as they go. They respond without keeping, so they can conquer without harm.” (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2001).
‘Don’t make a name for yourself or follow a plan’ is once again a rejection of the formed heart/mind (cheng xin) or ‘self’, instead, one should ‘use their minds like mirrors’, this is an adoption of the constant heart/mind (chang xin). In between these two forms, one must ‘Just be empty’. Hence, in this passage, we see again the transformative process of the ‘self’ that Zhuangzi is conveying. In order to reach an ultimate ‘self’, one must abandon the cheng xin ‘self’, become empty, and hence reach the chang xin ‘self’.
“Only the Way gathers in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.” (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2001). Again, here we see Zhuangzi trying to persuade us to empty our heart/mind. Hence, the full transformative process of Zhuangzi’s ‘self’ can finally be appreciated. A person starts with a flawed form of the ‘self’, cheng xin, which is then abandoned by the fasting and emptying of the heart/mind. Only then can the heart/mind become chang xin or the constant heart/mind. This chang xin can be said to be the true ‘self’. It is the ‘self’ that fully reflects and collects the Dao. Throughout Zhuangzi, this transformation can be observed. One example is in the story of Cook Ding :
“When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn’t see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don’t look with my eyes.” (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2001).
We see that Cook Ding starts off with a biased and narrow view, as he could only see oxen, which represents the biased, formed cheng xin. Following which, he ‘couldn’t see the whole ox’; this part reflects the abandonment of ‘self’ and the loss of a ‘self’, which is represented by the loss of sight for the ox. Lastly, with his heart/mind emptied, he can now follow the Way and cuts up the oxen by encountering with ‘spirit’. This can also be seen in chapter twenty-three, the chained convicts have ‘left life and death behind them’. Hence, by abandoning their ‘self’, ‘they have become people of Heaven’(Ivanhoe P. J. & Van Norden B. W. 2001).
Zhuangzi’s Prescriptions for the Self
Zhuangzi’s description of the ‘self’ seems to be normative rather than descriptive. He does not pin down or give a clear definition of the ‘self’. Rather he tells us what we should do in order to achieve an ultimate version of the ‘self’. Rightly so, Zhuangzi’s text, like many others in Chinese philosophy, is not purely descriptive in nature, rather, these texts are normative. They tell us what we should do in order to achieve the Dao, why we should do certain things while also refraining from other things. We would classify most, if not all these texts to be under ethical or moral philosophy as that seems to be the theme of their topics. Just as well, the larger focus of moral philosophy is what we ought to do, rather than what is. My interpretation of Zhuangzi’s ‘self’ reflects this notion as well. This is different from early western philosophers. Philosophers like Descartes, Locke and Hume describe the ‘self’ as something, or the self as not something in a clearly defined manner. For Zhuangzi, his conveyance of the ‘self’ cannot be termed in the same way. Instead, he is saying that theself ought to be something or the self ought not to be something. This is the biggest difference. Rather than telling his readers what the self is, he tells them what the self ought to be.
Traditionally, the ‘self’ has been studied in isolation from the external world. The self stands apart and is separate from the perceived and the objects of the world. Descartes goes even further to say that the ‘self’ is immaterial, meaning that it does not even exist in our physical world (Hatfield, 2015). This is drastically different from the Zhuangzi’s conception of the ‘self’. The heart/mind ‘self’ is not only an intrinsic part of the physical world, it is not only a physical organ, but it is also a tool which guides actions and morality in this world (Cheng, 2014, pp. 569). This version of the self is also said to be relational in nature and acts in accordance to the environment around us (Lai, 2007 pp.81). We can see that Zhuangzi’s motivation for his conception of the ‘self’ has a few origins. Firstly, Zhuangzi rejects the notion that wisdom of the past can always be applicable in all situations (Lai, 2007 pp.90). This may be the reason why Zhuangzi advocates for the forgetting of the ‘self’ and the formed heart/mind. Zhuangzi is motivating his readers to not be bound by old traditions, represented by cheng xin, for they may not always be applicable. Furthermore, the adoption of a mirrored heart/mind, chang xin, could be Zhuangzi’s way of telling his readers that we should simply respond to our environment and any new situations without any preconditioned bias. Thus, being able to adapt to any situation appropriately seems to be one of the main driving points of the Zhuangzi. The ultimate ‘self’ can be said to mirror our surroundings so that we can always adapt to any situation that arises in our environment.
It seems that for Zhuangzi, a running theme of pluralism and subjectivism may have influenced his conception of the ‘self’. In chapter one, the quail laughs at Peng because the quail could not fully grasp and understand Peng’s motives. The story of Peng shows that we are all somehow tainted by our perspectives; ‘Little knowledge does not measure up to big knowledge’. There seems to be some incommensurability between different perspectives. Even Peng does not have the knowledge of the quail since Peng’s perspective is clouded by his huge size and his ultimately broad view, he cannot see things in as much detail as smaller creatures do. This difference in perspectives is again exemplified in Zhuangzi’s view on debates in chapter two:
‘Once you and I have started arguing, if you win and I lose, then are you really right and am I really wrong? If I win and you lose, then am I really right and are you really wrong? Is one of us right and the other one wrong? Or are both of us right and both of us wrong? If you and I can’t understand one another, then other people will certainly be even more in the dark’ (Ivanhoe P. J. & Van Norden B. W. 2001).
The point that Zhuangzi is trying to convey is that simply, we cannot know who has the ‘right’ perspective. Zhuangzi doubts that there even is an agent that could exist whose view is purely objective and untainted (Lai, 2008 pp. 146). This is exemplified in chapter seventeen whereby Zhuangzi and Huizi debate about the fishes in the Hao River. Due to the subjective view of both Zhuangzi and Huizi, they can neither tell what each of them actually knows (Lai, 2008 pp.153). This view of knowledge has major implications for the conception of the ‘self’. The belief that there is no one “true view” due to the biasness of people Zhuangzi to advocate for the abandonment of the cheng xin ‘self’. These ties in Zhuangzi’s epistemology with his view of what the ‘self’ ought to be. Due to our flawed perspectives, we should abandon the ‘self’ and adopt a ‘self’ that is non-judgemental and simply responds to the environment without any predispositions.
In conclusion, I have shown that Zhuangzi’s ‘self’ in this essay is a two-step transformative process. Firstly, a person starts with a biased ‘self’. Zhuangzi casts doubt about this ‘self’ and even mentions the possibility of having ‘no-self’ in the butterfly dream. This is done in order to motivate his readers to abandon cheng xin, the formed heart/mind. With the abandonment of this form of the ‘self’, we can then reach the ultimate ‘self’ as our heart/mind collects the Way as the chang xin. Zhuangzi’s motivation for outlining such a concept of the ‘self’ is based on the fact that he is telling his readers what the ‘self’ ought to be rather than what it is. He is telling us to be abandon social conventions and norms for they might not always apply to all situations that we face in life.
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