Sunday, June 6, 2010

Three in the Morning

Anekantavada is very similar to the advice Xunzi gives in his chapter on dispelling obsession, which is also similar to the concept of wu wei (perhaps best espoused by Zhuangzi).  Zhuangzi's second chapter, The Equality of All Things (Qi Wu Lun), is short and bursting at the seams with wonderful passages like the following.  (It is easy to compare the story of the blind men and the elephant to this one.)
When we toil our spirits and intelligence, obstinately determined (to establish our own view), and do not know the agreement (which underlies it and the views of others), we have what may be called “three in the morning.”  What is meant by "three in the morning"? A monkey keeper once was giving out nuts and said, "Three in the morning and four in the evening."  All the monkeys became angry.  He said, "If that is the case, there will be four in the morning and three in the evening."  All the monkeys were glad.  Neither the name nor the actuality has been reduced but the monkeys reacted in joy and anger [differently].  The keeper also let things take their own course.  Therefore the sage harmonizes the right and wrong and rests in natural equilization.  This is called following two courses at the same time.
Here is a very cute animation (based on the graphic novelization of Chinese classics by Tsai Chih-chung) of Three In the Morning. Before this is viewed as simply a lesson in delayed gratification, and not as a lesson in the equality of different viewpoints/preferences, keep in mind that the story does not specify the time of day that the monkey keeper spoke to the monkeys.  It may have been in the morning or it may have been in the evening, meaning the monkeys could have received either the larger or smaller amounts of nuts first depending on what time it was.  Furthermore, we could imagine continuing the story where the monkey keeper has another group of monkeys, and having learned from his first negotiation, he offers this second group four in the morning and three in the evening.  Let us imagine that unlike the first group, they become angry at this suggestion (which had satisfied the first group) and are only appeased when he then offers three in the morning and four in the evening.  We could go on.  Perhaps a third group agrees instantly to the first offer he makes and there is no need for a counter offer, but you couldn't draw out the intended moral from such an agreeable group of monkeys!

Another passage that practically trivializes human differences (oversimplification?):
The "this" is also the "that."  The "that" is also the "this."  The "this" has one standard of right and wrong, and the "that" also has a standard of right and wrong.  Is there really a distinction between "that" and "this"?  Or is there really no distinction between "that" and "this"? 
This passage questions a basic assumption: that there are meaningful ethical differences between people or systems of thought.  The implied message appears to be that any differences are more superficial than fundamental.  But this passage alone (taken out of its context) in the end shies from asserting that claim.  Nothing escapes Zhuangzi's skepticism, which is elsewhere turned inward when he says "I have just said something, but I don't know if what I have said really says something or says nothing." and "When I say you were dreaming, I am also dreaming."  The next passage I have quoted below continues this trend:
Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong? If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Or are we both wholly right and wholly wrong? Since between us neither you nor I know which is right, others are naturally in the dark. Whom shall we ask to arbitrate? If we ask someone who agrees with you, since he has already agreed with you, how can he arbitrate? If we ask someone who agrees with me, since he has already agreed with me, how can he arbitrate? If we ask someone who disagrees with both you and me to arbitrate, since he has already disagreed with you and me, how can he arbitrate? If we ask someone who agrees with both you and me to arbitrate, since has already agreed with you and me, how can he arbitrate? Thus among you, me, and others, none knows which is right. Shall we wait for still others?
I can almost hear the voice of my Eastern philosophy teacher rise and fall as he reads this. He loved this and often said "if I wasn't a Buddhist, I'd be a Taoist". Well, he was a Chan Buddhist, which was heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy, so he was able to have his cake and eat it too. I also love the spirit of this passage and the way Zhuangzi admits that even if it may seem that he is right, he may still be wrong after all. Who can say? Apparently nobody can. I imagine that if this passage was in Ecclesiastes (perhaps somewhere near chapter 12, verse 12), it would be quoted all the time!


aratina cage said...

Thus among you, me, and others, none knows which is right.

I have run into a fair number of people who are utterly wrong about some thing and cannot be convinced that they are wrong or even that they might be wrong. I guess it wouldn't matter if their wrongness did not negatively affect my life or the lives of other people, but it usually does; the intellectual debate has real consequences that go far beyond whether or not the idea is true. Deferring to such people would be to the detriment of all affected, thus making it morally wrong not to try and win the intellectual battle.

Judges are supposed to be fair minded and consider both sides, but really, every person is biased. A smart person who is wrong can easily rationalize why their wrong opinion is right, and a smart person who is right can easily cede too much ground to the side with the wrong opinion on account of fairness.

Keir said...

People who feel they must compel others to conform to their standard of right and wrong are clearly mistaken, and this is an important point that Zhuangzi tries to make. So I think that Zhuangzi is waging the same intellectual battle that you are. If no one knows who is right, then no one can compel anyone to live according to a particular ethical standard, least of all in ethical disputes where there is no clear consensus (not to mention a lack of evidence). The morally right thing isn't about proving "I am right and you are wrong", nor is it about deferring to one side or the other. The morally right thing is to say that no one has the right to legislate morals, because no one can claim to be an authority (or claim to have access to one). That said, we all generally see that actions with "intent to harm" are socially unacceptable.

In matters of right and wrong, generally speaking, the skeptic is our friend. He or she will be hesitant to enforce restrictions on freedom, and will ask people who are wrong a simple question: "How do you know?" A skeptic will lay bare the ignorance of wrong people, showing them and the whole world that they have no right to affect anyone's lives. I think this is a good way to approach wrong people. Then when they are shown to be ignorant, provide a more sane approach of your own, and the intellectual battle is almost won. In truth, nobody actually wins any intellectual battle. In his extreme skepticism, Zhuangzi is about as close to right as you can come.