Absolute Safety

We all want personal safety for ourselves, and also the safety of the people we care about.  So, many of us believe in a heaven, where we and our loved ones will be protected against all harm.  But suppose that there is no heaven.  Then it seems that absolute safety is not for us mere mortals.

Mystics tend to believe otherwise.  They believe that they can be absolutely safe come what may, here and now and not in the hereafter.  The early Wittgenstein, who waxed poetic about Das Mystische in the Tractatus, once said that feeling absolutely safe was a mystical experience par excellence.  Daoist mystics claimed this too.  In the Zhuangzi, for instance, we occasionally find passages like this:

The utmost man is daemonic.  When the wide woodlands blaze they cannot sear him, when the Yellow River and the Han freeze they cannot chill him, when swift thunderbolts smash the mountains and whirlwinds shake the seas they cannot startle him.  A man like that yokes the clouds to his chariot, rides the sun and moon and roams beyond the four seas; death and life alter nothing in himself, still less the principles of benefit and harm!  (Graham trans., Chuang-tzu, Ch.2, p.58)

But that cannot be literally true, can it?  The kind of safety we get in everyday life seems to be relative, not absolute.  To give you an example: when you get on an airplane a stewardess shows you how to put on a life-jacket.  You feel a bit safer, because if the plane makes an emergency landing in water you can put that on, and it will keep you safe from drowning in water.  But what if the water is shark-infested?  The life-jacket keeps you safe with respect to the water, but not with respect to sharks, who can swallow you whole, life-jacket and all.  This generalizes to all actual cases of safety.

Now although Zhuangzi writes some mystical passages, he is also a sharp reasoner, like Nagarjuna and the early Wittgenstein.  He uses reason as a ladder to climb up on and throw away (to use Wittgenstein’s metaphor), or a fish-trap that you can forget about once you’ve gotten the fish (to use Zhuangzi’s own metaphor).  So Zhuangzi does have an argument to show how one can get absolute safety:

We store our boat in the ravine, our fishnet in the marsh, and say it’s safe there; but at midnight someone stronger carries it away on his back, and the dull ones do not know it.  The smaller stored in the bigger has its proper place, but still has room to escape; as for the whole world stored within the world, with nowhere else to escape, that is the ultimate identity of an unchanging thing.  To have happened only on man’s shape is enough to please us; if a shape such as man’s through ten thousand transformations never gets nearer to a limit, can the joys we shall have of it ever be counted?  Therefore the sage will roam where things cannot escape him and all are present.  (Graham trans., Chuang-tzu, Ch.6, p.86)

The first part of the argument is this.  Take the logic of the locution “hide x“, in the sense of keeping x safe in a location so that x can’t be lost.  Whenever x is smaller than the universe, there is all this spare room in the universe where x can be displaced.  Thus the only x that cannot be misplaced at all is the universe itself.  In other words, if you hide the universe in the universe, it cannot be lost, it will remain absolutely safe.  (Isn’t it wonderful how Zhuangzi plays around with language by pushing it to its limit?  Hiding the universe in the universe isn’t really hiding at all; nothing is lost because nothing is hidden!)  The point of this part of the argument is that you cannot have absolute safety if you identify yourself with the particular portion of the universe that is your own body, or with that fragment of the history of the universe that is your own life.  You can be absolutely safe only if you identify yourself with the entire body of the universe, and with the endless transformations in the universe.

The second part of the argument is that, thus identifying yourself with the entire universe, you will also get infinite joy.  If abiding in this particular human form gives you so much delight, how much more joy will there be in identifying yourself with an infinite number of forms in the universe!

This is a very neat argument, but there are some problems with it.  First, how do we know that the universe itself cannot come to harm?  Couldn’t it self-destruct?  What can limited human reason, based on a partial view of the universe, know for certain about these grand matters?  Second, joys felt by an infinite number of conscious beings should not be confused with infinite joy felt by a single conscious being, but the second part of Zhuangzi’s argument seems to trade on this confusion.  I may now be able to empathize with the joys felt by an infinite number of other living forms, but I cannot look forward to them as my own experiences, since I will probably cease to be conscious after death.  Third, the most likely scenario as to what will happen to the universe is that it will continue to expand, and eventually die in what physicists call “heat death”, when there is no free energy left to sustain any motion or activity or life.  What then will happen to Zhuangzi’s endless transformations, with which we can identify, in which we can rejoice?

So it seems that we cannot find absolute safety and infinite joy in identifying with the whole universe.  Now, our reactions and attitudes to this will most likely be different, I imagine.  My own immediate feeling is this.  That perhaps this all-too-brief human existence, and along with it love and justice here in this insignificantly small corner of the universe, are precious beyond anything else.

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