Explaining Conjunctions

Graham’s begins his translation of the last chapter ofThe Book of Leih-Tzu, called “Explaining Conjunctions,” with:

Explaining Conjunctions is the most heterogeneous of the eight chapters. More than half of it is taken from known sources of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., not all Taoist, and it is likely that much of the rest is from sources no longer extant. Nevertheless, there is a single theme guiding the selection, the effect of chance conjunctions of events. The chance combinations which make each situation unique decide both whether an action is right and how others interpret its motives. The moral is that we should discard fixed standards, and follow the external situation as the shadow follows the body. ‘Whether we should be active or passive depends on other things and not on ourselves.’

While I’ve never been particularly fond of “situational ethics,” I certainly believe that it’s dangerous to rush to judgement, especially since much of what we believe is based on other’s observations, not our own.

This seemed like a particularly good example of misjudging someone:

Duke Mu of Ch’in said to Po-lo:

‘You are getting on in years. Is there anyone in your family whom I can send to find me horses?’ ‘A good horse can be identified by its shape and look, its bone and muscle. But the great horses of the world might be extinct, vanished, perished, lost; such horses raise no dust and leave no tracks. My sons all have lesser talent, they can pick a good horse but not a great one. But there is a man I know who carries and hauls, and collects firewood for me, Chiu-fang Kao As a judge of horses he is my equal. I suggest that you see him.’

Duke Mu saw the man and sent him away to find horses. After three months he returned and reported to the Duke.

‘I have got one. It is in Sha-ch’iu.’

‘What kind of horse?’

‘A mare, yellow.’

The Duke sent someone to fetch it; it turned out to be a stallion, and black. The Duke, displeased, summoned Po-lo.

‘He’s no good, the fellow you sent to find me horses. He cannot even tell one colour from another, or a mare from a stallion. What can he know about horses?’

Po-lo breathed a long sigh of wonder.

‘So now he has risen to this! It is just this that shows that he is worth a thousand, ten thousand, any number of people like me. What such a man as Kao observes is the innermost native impulse behind the horse’s movements. He grasps the essence and forgets the dross, goes right inside it and forgets the outside. He looks for and sees what he needs to see, ignores what he does not need to see. In the judgement of horses of a man like Kao, there is something more important than horses.’

When the horse arrived, it did prove to be a great horse.

Of course, the reason I really loved this story is because I would probably have jumped to the same conclusion that the Duke did. It’s far too easy to get caught up in small details and overlook more important points.

Lieh-tzu’s Sense of Destiny

Except for a rather traumatic experience in Vietnam, I’ve never been a great believer in Fate or Destiny, so I’m a little surprised to discover how receptive I was to much of what Lieh-tzu has to say about it, perhaps because it also coincides with my own views on inherited traits. My grandfather was an architect who graduated from both Harvard and MIT, so I’ve always felt that I inherited whatever intellectual abilities I have from him. I certainly never had to work too hard in school to succeed, and, perhaps for that reason, I was always prouder if I did well in sports because I certainly didn’t inherit my father’s All-City Tackle body. Rather, I had to overcome a natural tendency toward scrawniness.

No matter what the reason, though, I enjoyed this story:

Pei-kung-tzü said to Hsi-men-tzü:

‘I belong to the same generation as you, but it is you whom others help to success; to the same clan, but it is you whom they respect; we look the same, but it is you whom they love; we talk the same, but it is you whom they employ; we act the same, but it is you whom they trust. If we take office together, it is you whom they promote; if we farm together, you whom they enrich; if we trade together, you whom they profit. I wear coarse woo] and eat coarse millet, live in a thatched hut and go out on foot. You wear brocades and eat fine millet and meat, live under linked rafters and go out in a car with four horses. At home you complacently ignore me, in court you treat me with undisguised arrogance. Certainly it has been many years since we called on each other or made an excursion together. Is it because you think your worth greater than mine?’

‘I have no way of knowing the truth of the matter. But whatever we undertake, you fail and I succeed. Does this perhaps show that there is more in me than in you? Yet you have the face to say that in every way you are the same as me.’

Pei-kung-tzü could find no answer, and went home lost in thought. On the road he met Master Tung-kuo, who asked him:

‘Where have you come from, walking by yourself with such deep shame on your face?’

Pei-kung-tzü described what had happened.

‘I am going to clear you of shame,’ Master Tung-kuo said. ‘Let us go back to Hsi-men-tzü and ask him some questions?’

He asked Hsi-men-tzü to explain why he had humiliated Pei-kung-tzü so deeply, and Hsi-men-tzü repeated what he had said to Pei-kung-tzü.

‘When you say that one man has more in him than another,’ Master Tung-kuo answered, ‘you mean only that they are not equally gifted. What I mean is something different from this. Pei-kung-tziI has more worth than luck, you have more luck than worth. Your success is not due to wisdom, nor is his failure due to foolishness. Both are from heaven and not from man, yet you are presumptuous because you have more luck, while he is ashamed although he has more worth. Neither of you perceives the principle that things must be as they are.’

‘Enough, Master!’ said Hsi-men-tzü, ‘I shall never dare to say it again.’

When Pei-kung-tzü got home, the coarse wool that he wore was as warm as the fur of fox or badger, the broad beans served to him were as tasty as rice or millet, the shelter of his thatched hut was as shady as a wide hail, the wicker-work cart on which he rode was as handsome as an ornamented carriage. He was content for the rest of his life, and no longer knew which was honoured and which despised, the other man or himself.

‘Pei-kung-tzü has been fast asleep for a long time,’ said Master Tung-kuo. ‘But a man to whom you need to speak only once is easily awakened.’

Even in a democracy like ours it’s impossible to deny that some are fated to have more than others, whether by inheritance or by birthright. It’s more important to be satisfied with what we have than to compare ourselves to others and envy them if they have more than we do.

If You Can Dream It

Though I’m discovering why The Book of Lieh-tzu is generally not regarded as highly as the Taoteching or the Book of Chuang Tzu, it’s hard not appreciate he richness of the Taoist tradition.

When Graham points out that:

Unlike the Indian philosophies, neither of the great Chinese philosophies, Confucianism and Taoism, can be called pessimistic; both assume, not that life is misery, but that joy and misery alternate like day and night, each having its proper place in the world order. If ‘Life is a dream’ implies that no achievement is lasting, it also implies that life can be charged with the wonder of dreams, that we drift spontaneously through events which follow a logic different from that of everyday intelligence, that fears and regrets are as unreal as hopes and desires.

I realize why I’m more drawn to Taoism than to most of the other Eastern traditions I’ve studied.

In a chapter devoted to “dreams,” I found this dream particularly appealing:

Mr Yin of Chou ran a huge estate. The underlings who hurried to serve him never rested from dawn to dusk. There was an old servant with no more strength in his muscles, whom he drove all the harder. By day the servant went to work groaning, at night he slept soundly dulled by fatigue. Losing consciousness, every evening he dreamed that he was lord of the state, enthroned above the people, with all affairs of state under his control. He gave himself up to whatever pleased him, excursions and banquets, palaces and spectacles; his joy was incomparable. Waking, he was a servant again.

When someone condoled with him for having to work so hard, the servant said:

“Man’s term of life is a hundred years, divided between day and night. By day I am a bondman, and my life is bitter indeed; but at night I become a prince, and my joy is incomparable. Why should I complain?”

Mr Yin’s mind was vexed by worldly affairs, his thoughts occupied with the family inheritance, which exhausted him body and mind; and at night he too fell fast asleep dulled by fatigue. And every evening lit’ dreamed that he was harried by every conceivable task, scolded and beaten for every imaginable fault. He muttered and groaned in his sleep, and, there was no relief until dawn. Distressed by this, Mr Yin consulted a friend, who told him:

“With rank high enough to distinguish you, and more property than you need, you are too far above other men. Dreaming at night that you are a slave, reverting from ease to toil, is fortune righting itself. Can you reasonably expect to have it both ways, dreaming as well as awake?”

After hearing his friend’s advice, Mr Yin eased his demands on the servants and reduced the responsibilities which worried him. His ailment took a turn for the better.

Of course, it may be that I’m just suffering from an overload of Scrooge-derived movies that flood the Christmas Season and have molded my perception of the world, but I’d like to believe that a man’s conscience does affect his dreams, allowing him the chance to discover a better way.

Living in the Moment

Graham introduces chapter 2 of The Book of Lieh-tzu, The Yellow Emperor, thusly:

This chapter is concerned with the Taoist principle of action. Faced with an obstacle, the unenlightened man begins to think about possible benefit and injury, and ponder alternative courses of action. But this thinking does him harm instead of good. A gambler plays better for tiles than for money, because he does not bother to think; a good swimmer learns to handle a boat quickly, because he does not care if it turns over; a drunken man falling from a cart escapes with his life because, being unconscious, he does not stiffen himself before collision. It is especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself. A woman aware that she is beautiful ceases to be beautiful; teachers aware of their own merit soon degenerate.

When I read this, I knew instantly that I would love this chapter because it states a truth I’ve long felt. It’s probably the most important thing I ever learned from sports. I played basketball for nearly thirty years precisely to attain this feeling on a regular basis. Few things feel better than being “in the zone,” that moment when your game is going well and all your shots are dropping, or, in my case, you’re collecting all the rebounds and the player you’re guarding has barely scored. Unfortunately, the moment could easily be dispelled by the sudden THOUGHT that if you don’t make THIS shot your team will lose the game. There’s nothing worse than allowing thoughts of failure or doubt to enter your mind at such moments.

This is precisely the feeling that I attain when I’m practicing Tai Chi by myself and it seems like I’ve manage to master the form, it’s a feeling I’d like to attain when practicing in class.

For me, the actual passage that best exemplifies Graham’s introductory paragraph is this one:

Yen Hui asked Confucius a question:

‘Once I crossed the deep lake of Shang-shen; the ferryman handled the boat like a god. I asked him whether one can be taught to handle a boat. “Yes,” he told me, “anyone who can swim may be taught it; a good swimmer picks it up quickly; as for a diver, he could handle a boat even if he had never seen one before.” I questioned him further, but that was all he had to say. May I ask what he meant?’

‘Hmm. I have been playing with you on the surface for a long time, but we have never penetrated to the substance; have you really found the Way? Anyone who can swim may be taught it, because he takes water lightly. A good swimmer picks it up quickly, because he forgets the water altogether. As for a diver, he could handle a boat without ever having seen one before, because to him the depths seem like dry land, and a boat turning over seems no worse than a cart slipping backwards. Though ten thousand ways of slipping and overturning spread out before him, they cannot enter the doors of his mind; he is relaxed wherever he goes. Gamble for tiles, and you play skilfully; for the clasp of your belt, and you lose confidence; for gold, and you get flustered. You have not lost your skill; but if you hold yourself back, you give weight to something outside you; and whoever does that is inwardly clumsy.’

As Graham points out, it really isn’t Confucius offering this advice, but, rather, Lieh Tzu, or another Taoist writer, since it seems unlikely that Lieh Tzu wrote all of The Book of Lieh-Tzu, putting words in his character’s mouth, and what better character to use than the most revered of all Chinese writers/philosophers?

Still, that last line, “You have not lost your skill; but if you hold yourself back, you give weight to something outside you; and whoever does that is inwardly clumsy” seems remarkably wise. Doubts, in the guise of thoughts, too often make us question what we know to be true, and almost invariably we end up regretting not following our heart. I aspire to reaching a state where I can actually live my life without doubt, and certainly without regret.

A.C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-Tzu

I’ve started reading A.C. Graham’s translation of The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Tao. I’ve only read the Preface, Introduction, and the First Chapter so far, but I’ve already found much of interest. Of course, considering how little I still know about Taoism, that might not be saying very much.

Still, Graham’s introductory notes build on what I’ve learned from my earlier readings of the Taoteching, Chuang Tzu, and Klodt’s The Tao of Abundance, allowing me to see the Taoists a little more clearly. One bit of information cleared up an earlier question I’d had about Taoism, with Graham referring to this form of Taoism as “philosophical Taoism; but as a way of life for the tired of office it remained largely dissociated from Taoist alchemy and magic, and had an offshoot in Chinese Buddhism as Ch’an or Zen.”

Graham cleverly distinguishes between Confucianism and Taoism, pointing out that “The Way of Confucianism is primarily a system of government and a moral code, mastered by study, thought and discipline, while:

For Taoists, on the other hand, man occupies the humble position of the tiny figures in Sung landscape paintings, and lives rightly by bringing himself into accord with an inhuman Way which does not favour his ambitions, tastes and moral principles:

Heaven and earth are ruthless;
For them the myriad things are straw dogs.
The sage is ruthless;
For him the people are straw dogs.

One characteristic of this accord with the Way is ‘spontaneity’ (tzü-jan, literally ‘being so of itself’)-a concept, prominent from the beginnings of Taoism, which assumes the central place in the thought of the Lieh-tzü and of philosophers of the same period such as Kuo Hsiang. Heaven and earth operate without thought or purposes through processes which are tza-jan, ‘so of themselves’. Man follows the same course, through the process of growth and decay, without choosing either to be born or to die. Yet alone among the myriad things he tries to base his actions on ought and knowledge, to distinguish between benefit and harm, pose alternative courses of action, form moral and practical principles of conduct. If he wishes to return to the Way he must discard knowledge, cease to make distinctions, refuse to impose his will and his principles on nature, recover the spontaneity of the newborn child, allow his actions to be ‘so of themselves’ like physical processes. He must reflect things like a mirror, respond to them like an echo, without intermediate thought, perfectly concentrated and perfectly relaxed, like the angler or the charioteer whose hand reacts immediately to the give and pull of the line or the reins, or like the swimmer who can find his way through the whirlpool…

I found this image of Taoists in a Sung landscape painting quite compelling, and revealing.

Later, Graham points out that:

The Taoist, it will already be clear, cannot be a ‘philosopher’ in the Western sense, establishing his case by rational argument; he can only guide us in the direction of the Way by aphorisms, poetry and parable. The talents which he needs are those of an artist and not of a thinker, and in fact the three classics of Taoism are all in their different ways remarkable purely as literature (in the original Chinese, I hasten to add).

I hadn’t really thought of Taoism in quite this light before, but I’m sure that this explains a part of its appeal to me. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions I’ve acquired much of my philosophy, and a good part of my religion, from artists. While I’m not adverse to reading philosophy, I’m more apt to be moved by a poem or a drawing or painting than I am by a philosophical treatise.