The Flitting Shadow of a White Pony



Zhuangzi: 369 BC to 286 BC
Mengzi: 372 BC to 289 BC
Socrates: 469 BC to 399 BC
Man Chained to a Wall:
Time: The Present

SCENE: Zhuangzi, Mengzi, and Socrates are seated in a garden in heaven, by the sea, the sun is shining. Living on earth around the same time, their memories and their view of humanity's progress have much in common. Soon after leaving this world, they were attracted to each other and often share thoughts. Mengzi and Zhuangzi are almost the same age. Socrates died just before they were born, so they refer to him as "Elder Brother".

Zhuangzi, the lively one, usually started them off.

Zhuangzi: I was just thinking, even here in the next life, the soul is still impossible to describe. We are caught between trying to describe, and de-meaning it by our descriptions. "If Tao can be named, it is not Tao".

Mengzi: I agree, and yet we try. Why is something so important, so fundamental, still such a mystery?

Zhuangzi: On earth our dreams tried to tell us there was more to the world than the one we saw with our senses. In our sleep, we used to travel through time and space, even solve problems. That was a clue. My dreams were so strong I used to wonder which was more real - awake or asleep. Elder Brother, I think we are all like those men chained to the wall in that play Plato wrote about you. Do you remember? Men were chained facing a wall so even their heads could not turn. Life went on behind them, but their awareness of it was limited to shadows cast on the wall in front of them.

Socrates: Yes, I remember. At least we wonder about the nature of our soul. In those days, in Greece, people did not even recognize its existence. They believed the spirit faded like smoke when the body died. When Herodotus and I went to Jerusalem we learned much about the soul from Jewish scholars. Going back, at least to the time of Abraham, they believed in the existence of the soul, its immortality - and, they believed there was only one God - not the many we had then in Greece.

Zhuangzi: Elder Brother, I recall your friends in Greece were not happy with your new ideas.

Socrates: (laughing): Yes, they killed me! Actually, they asked me to poison myself. They really were like those men chained to the wall. They could not imagine that the shadows were not real; that a greater reality was the source of the shadows. It made sense to me that this vast organized universe - from macro to micro - must have a Creator. Just as the sun is the source of life in the physical world, so to the spirit world should have one, transcendent center. We get glimpses of the spiritual sun from its shadows in the material world.

And then, the next wonder - why have a creation if it's known to no-one? It was logical that creation, to be complete, needed a creature that could be conscious of its Creator, a creature that was also conscious of the creation and even of itself. Otherwise, what are these soul-faculties for; imagination, thought, comprehension, and memory?

It would be easier if the Creator just told us all the answers; but, no, we have that most amazing of creations, a mind that can investigate reality. And, once there are Creator-conscious creatures, why snuff them out after a brief period on this earth? It made sense that such beings would stay to engage in an on-going process of approaching and recognizing that Creator. That's the work of the soul. One could even say that is the purpose of existence is for the soul to hear the Hidden Voice, to see the Hidden Beauty, and find the Path of the Creator. My countrymen called me deluded. I was shouting from outside their world and they could not hear me.

Zhuangzi: (Smiling) Well, at least the punishment they gave you helped confirmed your belief; here you are! We know man's life on earth is like the flitting shadow of a white pony on its run as seen through a crack in the wall. A momentary flash and it disappears! Like jets of water from the bubbling fountain, men spring out and return to their source; by one transformation they are born, by another transformation they die. At the point of dying, all living beings become miserable and men feel sad. But it is only the removal of the bow from its sheath, or the shedding off of a shell. There may be some confusion amidst the yielding to this change, but the spiritual soul and animal soul are just taking leave of each other.

Socrates: Yes, it's true. After I drank the poison my belief was confirmed; I was a bird released from my cage. It's a pity, though, in those days it was dangerous to believe in the soul. But that's not the only way I offended them. I tried to promote justice and the pursuit of goodness. They, on the other hand, thought "might makes right". A clash was inevitable. Virtues are the DNA of our spirit, the limbs of the soul; without developing this capacity the soul does not advance.

Mengzi: Li Zhi spoke well about that. He said, "The parrot can speak, and yet is nothing more than a bird; the ape can speak, and yet is nothing more than a beast. Here now is a man who observes no rules of propriety; is not his heart that of a beast?...Therefore, when the sage's arose, they framed the rules of propriety in order to teach men, and cause them, by their possession of them, to make a distinction between themselves and brutes".

Zhuangzi: It's interesting, isn't it? While the soul has the capacity to recognize its Creator, and reflect all the qualities of its Creator; it also has the capacity to ignore that Creator, and even deny its existence. Not only have we been given the gift of consciousness, we have been entrusted to use it as we see fit. For a man to give full realization to his heart is for him to understand his own nature; and a man who knows his own nature will know Heaven. If we are true to our nature, we are like artists, contributing to an ever-expanding, ever-deepening reflection of the Creator in the creation. By retaining our heart and nurturing our nature, we are serving Heaven.

(The sound of a distant complaining voice grates their ears.)

Socrates: What's that?

Mengzi: It's one of the men chained to the wall.

Zhuangzi: Let's see what he wants.

Man Chained to Wall: I am tired of listening to your idle words. I am even tired of this metaphor I''m in. What have you accomplished with all your speculations?

Mengzi: Well, the better the thinking, the better the action.

Man Chained to Wall: And who are you to say what our thinking should be?

Zhuangzi: (Thoughtfully) That raises the issue of authority.

Socrates: Yes, who are the sages that Li Ji talked about?

Mengzi: Let's talk about it next time.

Zhuangzi: Time?