Thursday, July 18, 2019

Practical Mysticism: Part Two - Chuang-tzu or Zhuangzi

The Chuang-Tzu or Zhuangzi (depending on how you Romanize it) is the second foundational text of Taoism. Unlike the terse and cryptic Tao te ching, the Zhuangzi is boisterous prose, overflowing and doubling back with ridiculous stories. It's easier to read as a document, but sadly it's just not common. You can walk into a bookstore and find the Tao te ching, but you'd need to special order Zhuangzi's work. Which you should.

The selections I quote here are from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings by Brook Ziporyn, by Hackett Publishing. Ziporyn translates Tao as "Course" instead of "Way" which is the typical "way" to translate it, but I've left it alone despite the fact that it seems a little weird.

Chapter 1
Huizi said to Zhuangzi, "I have a huge tree which people call the Stink Tree. The trunk is swollen and gnarled, impossible to align with any level or ruler. The branches are twisted and bent, impossible to align to any T-square or carpenter's arc. Even if it were growing right in the road, a carpenter would not give it so much a second glance. And your words are similarly big but useless, which is why they are rejected by everyone who hears them."

Zhuangzi said, "Haven't you ever seen a wildcat or weasel? It crouches low to await its prey, pounces now to the east and now to the west, leaping high and low. But this is exactly what lands it in a trap, and it ends up dying in the net. But take a yak: it is big like the clouds draped across the heavens. Now, that is something good at being big - but of course it cannot so much as a single mouse. You, on the other hand, have this big tree, and you worry that it's useless. Why not plant it on our homeland of not-even-anything, the vast wilds of open nowhere? Then you could loaf and wander there, doing lots of nothing there at its side, and take yourself a nap, far-flung and unfettered, there beneath it. It will never be cut down by ax or saw. Nothing will harm it. Since it has nothing for which it can be used, what could entrap or afflict it?

"Stink Tree" gives a good sense of the bizarre humor Zhuangzi brings to his work, but this fable about uselessness echoes throughout the entire work.

Chapter 2
But to labor your spirit trying to make all things one, without realizing that it is all the same whether you do so or not, is called "Three in the Morning."

What is this Three in the Morning? A monkey trainer was distributing chestnuts. He said, "I'll give you three in the morning and four in the evening." The monkeys were furious. "Well then," he said, "I'll give you four in the morning and three in the evening." The monkeys were delighted. This change of description and arrangement caused no loss, but in one case it brought anger and in another delight. He just went by the rightness of their present "this." Thus, the Sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonize with others and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter's Wheel. This is called "Walking Two Roads."

Let people believe their bizarre ways when it doesn't change the fundamental facts of the matter. Complementarity and balance in all things.

Chapter 2
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering about joyfully just as a butterfly would. He followed his whims exactly as he liked and knew nothing about Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and there he was, the startled Zhuang Zhou in the flesh. He did not know if Zhou had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly was now dreaming it was Zhou. Surely, Zhou and a butterfly count as two distinct identities! Such is what we call the transformation of one thing into another.

One of the most famous stories, even people who don't know where it's from have heard this fable.

Chapter 3
The cook was carving up and ox for King Hui of Liang. Whenever his hand smacked it, wherever his shoulder leaned into it, wherever his foot braced it, wherever his knee pressed it, the thwacking tones of flesh falling from bone would echo, the knife would whiz through with its resonant thwing, each stroke ringing out the perfect note, attuned to the "Dance of the Mulberry Grove" or the "Jingshou Chorus" of the ancient sage-kings.

The king said, "Ah! It is wonderful that skill can reach such heights!"

The cook put down his knife and said, "What I love is the Course, something that advances beyond mere skill. When I first started cutting up oxen, all I looked at for three years was oxen, and yet still I was unable to see all there was to see in an ox. But now I encounter it with the spirit rather than scrutinizing it with the eyes. My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow. I depend on Heaven's unwrought perforations and strike the larger gaps, following along with the broader hollows. I go by how they already are, playing them as they lay. So my knife has never had to cut through the knotted nodes where the warp hits the weave, much less the gnarled joints of bone. A good cook changes his blade once a year: he slices. An ordinary cook changes his blade once a month: he hacks. I have been using this same blade for nineteen years, cutting up thousands of oxen, and yet it is still as sharp as the day it came off the whetstone. For the joints have spaces within them, and the very edge of the blade has no thickness at all. When what has no thickness enters into an empty space, it is vast and open, with more than enough room for the play of the blade. That is why my knife is still as sharp as if it had just come off the whetstone, even after nineteen years."

"Nonetheless, whenever I come to a clustered tangle, realizing that it is difficult to do anything about it, I instead restrain myself as if terrified, until my seeing comes to a complete halt. My activity slows, and the blade moves ever so slightly. Then all at once, I find the ox already dismembered at my feet like clumps of soil scattered on the ground. I retract the blade and stand there gazing at my work arrayed all around me, dawdling over it with satisfaction. Then I wipe the blade and put it away."

The king said, "Wonderful! From hearing the cook's words I have learned how to nourish life!"

Even without the Buddhist prohibition against meat eating a butcher is by no means a glamorous job. A king learning sage advice from a common butcher is a wonderful subversion. Plus, this sounds like a shonen anime.

Chapter 6
The Genuine Human Beings of old slept without dreaming and awoke without worries. Their food was plain but their breathing was deep. The Genuine Human Beings breathed from their heels, while the mass of men breathe from their throats. Submissive and defeated, they gulp down their words and just as soon vomit them back up. Their preferences and desires run deep, but the Heavenly Impulse is shallow in them. The Genuine Human Beings of old understood nothing about delighting in being alive or hating death. They emerged without delight, submerged again without resistance. Swooping in they came and swooping out they went, that and no more. They neither forgot where they came from nor asked where they would go. Receiving it, they delighted in it. Forgetting about it, they gave it back. This is what it means not to use the mind to push away the Course, not to use the Human to try and help the Heavenly. Such is what I'd call being a Genuine Human Being.

This is from a longer selection of the Genuine Human Beings of old but this gets the point most directly.

Chapter 7
The emperor of the southern sea was called Swoosh. The emperor of the northern sea was called Oblivion. The emperor of the middle was called Chaos. Swoosh and Oblivion would sometimes meet in the territory of Chaos, who always attended to them quite well. They decided to replay Chaos for his virtue. "All men have seven holes in them, by means of which they see, hear, eat, and breathe," they said. "But this one alone has none. Let's drill him some."

So each day they drilled another hole. After seven days, Chaos was dead.

This ends a chapter and has no preceding context. Just a haunting little fable at the last of the chapters it is believed Zhuang Zhou personally wrote. What a goodbye.

Chapter 10
To try and govern the world by doubling the number of sages would merely double the profits of the great robbers. If you create pounds and ounces to measure them with, they'll steal the pounds and ounces and rob with them as well. If you make scales and balances to regulate them with, they'll steal the balances and rob with them as well. If you create tallies and seals to enforce their reliability, they'll steal the tallies and seals and rob with them as well. And if you create Humanity and Responsibility to regulate them with, why, they'll just steal the Humanity and Responsibility and rob with them as well.

How do I know this is so? He who steals a belt buckle is executed, but he who steals a state is made a feudal lord. Humanity and Responsibility are always among the properties found in the homes of the feudal lords. Have they not also stolen Humanity, Responsibility, Sagacity, and Wisdom?

Some real ancient anarchism with this, also a look at intentions behind stated goals.

Chapter 19
When a drunken men falls from a cart, he may be hurt but he will not be killed. His bones and joints are no different from those of other men, but the degree of harm done by the fall differs radically, for the spiritual in him forms one intact whole. Having been unaware that he was riding, he is now unaware that he is falling. The frights and shocks of life and death have no way to enter his breast, so he is unflinching no matter how things may clash with him. Finding his wholeness in liquor he reaches such a state - imagine then someone who finds his wholeness in the Heavenly. The sage submerges himself in the Heavenly, and that is why nothing can harm him.

A seeker of revenge does not go so far as to smash his enemy's weapon, and even the most ill-tempered person bears no grudge against a loose tile that happens to plunk down on his head. This reveals to us a way in which all the world can become peaceful and balanced.

A fantastic metaphor.

Chapter 26

A fish trap is there for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. A snare is there for the rabbits. When you have got hold of the rabbits, you forget the snare. Words are there for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?

Zhuang Zhou plays with linguistics.

Chapter 33
Blank and barren, without form! Changing and transforming, never constant! Dead? Alive? Standing side by side with heaven and earth? Moving along with the spirits and illuminations? So confused - where is it all going? So oblivious - where has it all gone? Since all the ten thousand things are inextricably netted together around us, none is worthy of exclusive allegiance. These were some aspects of the ancient Art of the Course. Zhuang Zhou got wind of them and was delighted. He used ridiculous and far-flung descriptions, absurd and preposterous sayings, senseless and shapeless phrases, indulging himself unrestrainedly as the moment demanded, uncommitted to any one position, never looking at things exclusively from any one corner. He considered the world sunken in the mire, incapable of conversing seriously with himself, so he used spillover-goblet words for unbroken extension of his meanings, citations of weighty authorities for verification, words put into the mouths of others for broad acceptance. He came and went alone with the quintessential spirit of heaven and earth but still never arrogantly separated himself off from the creatures of the world, for he rejected none of their views of right and wrong and thus was able to get along with worldly conventions. Although his writings are a string of strange and rare gems, their intertwining twistings will do one no harm. Even though his words are uneven, their very strangeness and monstrosity is worthy of contemplation. For his overabundance was truly an unstoppable force. Above he wandered with the Creator of Things, below he befriended whoever could put life and death outside themselves, free of any end or beginning. He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths. He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus his writings have a liberating effect on all creatures. The guidelines within them are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones. Vague! Ambiguous! We have not got to the end of them yet.

Chapter 33 is the last chapter of the Zhuangzi and one written not by Zhuang Zhou himself. It is believed to be written by a more Confucian-leaning scholar who took account of philosophical threads of the time. It's a fascinating review of the Zhuangzi and its goals from an outsider.

Next time: The Upanishads!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Practical Mysticism: Part One - Tao Te Ching

I have read a great deal of ancient Eastern mystical texts because I've found them interesting and useful. I think there's something practical to it, but it's hard to convince people to read thousand year old books. Ergo, I intend to deliver the best quotes and sections on this blog, with brief commentary, as a kind of introduction. If you want in depth looks, you can find far more knowledgeable sources than I. But I can whet your appetite.

First is the Tao te ching of Lao Tzu, where I started, and one of the most well known texts. In an age when Chinese scholars had a way of pottery and a way of archery and a way of statecraft, Lao Tzu, before he disappeared, left a way of the way. It's a series of 81 difficult and mysterious poems. Of course, you should read all of them, but here are 10 I think are especially valuable. Translation is by Red Pine from the Copper Canyon Press edition.

1. The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings

This is the thesis statement of the entire work, drawing a stark line between reality as such and the reality perceived, named, and taxonomized by human cognition.

2. All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don't look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don't claim them
they are never without them

A basic statement of the yin/yang system of balance and comparison. There are no absolutes, all things are in relation to their opposite.

8. The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don't compete
they aren't maligned

Fairly self explanatory, also the first statement that water is the goal of the follower of the Tao.

11. Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it's the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it's the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it's the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes a things useful
but nonexistence makes it work

A clever inversion showing the value of nothing, and the importance of space.

19. Get rid of wisdom and reason
and people will live a hundred times better
get rid of kindness and justice
and people once more will love and obey
get rid of cleverness and profit
and thieves will cease to exist
but these three sayings are incomplete
hence let these be added
display the undyed and preserve the uncarved
reduce self-interest and limit desires

This seems paradoxical. How would getting rid of wisdom, reason, kindness, and justice improve the world? Remember that Lao Tzu is skeptical of knowledge we have named and tamed, and the true meaning starts to become clear.

29. Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can't be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
avoid extravagance
avoid excess

To command and control is not the Tao. You will lose what you intend to gain.

36. What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can't survive out of the depths
a state's greatest weapon
isn't meant to be shown

It's all balance and cycles. You should work with the flow of things rather than struggle in vain against the cycles of the natural world.

63. Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it's easy
deal with the great while it's small
the world's hardest task begins easy
the world's greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard

The Taoist sage cultivates expertise to always exist in the zone, unforced excellence, effortless through practice and planning.

67. The world calls me great
great but useless
it's because I am great I am useless
if I were of use
I would have remained small
but I possess three treasures
I treasure and uphold
first is compassion
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel
because I'm compassionate
I can be valiant
because I'm austere
I can be extravagant
because I'm reluctant to excel
I can be chief of all tools
if I renounced compassion for valor
austerity for extravagance
humility for superiority
I would die
but compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack
what Heaven creates
let compassion protect

Another enjoyable paradox about Taoist sages.

78. Nothing in the world is weaker than water
but against the hard and the strong
nothing outdoes it
for nothing can change it
the soft overcomes the hard
the weak overcomes the strong
this is something everyone knows
but no one is able to practice
thus do sages declare
who accepts a country's disgrace
we call the lord of soil and grain
who accepts a country's misfortune
we call the ruler of all under Heaven
upright words sound upside down

The Tao prescribes a logical course of action, but its mastery is difficult. And the harder you try and master it, the more you fail.

Next time, Taoism continues with Chuang-Tzu or Zhuangzhi!