contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Chuang Tzu

THE ART OF TRAVELING AND SIGHTSEEING

“Lieh-tzu used to love to travel and to see the sights. When his teacher Hu-tzu asked him what he found so enjoyable about traveling, Lieh-tzu said, ‘While other people travel to see the beauty of sights and surroundings, I enjoy seeing the way things change. To other sightseers, it may seem that I am like them, but the difference between us is that they see things whereas I see changes.’

“Hu-tzu said, ‘You think you are different from other travelers, but actually you are not. Although they are amused by sights and sounds, and you are fascinated by things that always change, you are both occupied with what is out there rather than what you experience inside. People who are attracted to the external world are always looking for something new and wonderful that will satisfy their senses. However, only people who look into themselves will find true satisfaction.’

“After this conversation, Lieh-tzu stopped traveling because he thought he had thoroughly misunderstood what it means to travel. Seeing this, Hu-tzu said to him, ‘Travel is such a wonderful experience! Especially when you forget you are traveling. Then you will enjoy whatever you see and do. Those who look into themselves when they travel will not think about what they see. In fact, there is no distinction between the viewer and the seen. You experience everything with the totality of yourself, so that every blade of grass, every mountain, every lake is alive and is a part of you. When there is no division between you and what is other, this is the ultimate experience of traveling.’”

Eva Wong Lieh-tzu: a Taoist Guide to Practical Living Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001

Eva Wong grew up bilingual in Hong Kong, is a practitioner of the Taoist arts and a well-known translator of Taoist and other Chinese texts. She writes, “before I had even heard of Taoism, the stories of the Lieh-tzu were familiar to me from my childhood readers … although my family was bilingual, I grew up in Chinese culture, and the Lieh-tzu gave me and my schoolmates kernels of wisdom packed in fables and proverbs. Even at age six and seven, we knew about the Old Fool who tried to move the mountains, the man who worried that the sky would fall, and the man who tried to chase down the sun”.

The Lieh-tzu is less well known to Westerners than Lao-Tzu’s Tao-Te-Ching or the work of Chuang-tzu. But for Eva Wong the voice of the Lieh-tzu is a friendly one, not that of an all-knowing sage or master. “It is the voice of someone who gives advice not because he is an expert, but because he has made mistakes and learned from them. It comes from a person who allows us to listen. He speaks, he pauses, and when we respond, he speaks again”.

Comparing the three great representatives of early Taoism, Eva Wong says that “Lao-tzu speaks as a sage”, and “when the lecture is over, there is no question period. It is up to us to understand him”. Chuang-tzu “is an eccentric who chuckles to himself and is not concerned about being understood. He “wanders in a world different to ours”, where “the ground of reality is always changing”. But “the Lieh-tzu is different. Lieh-tzu lives in our world. He talks about experiences we can understand … life and death, fortune and misfortune, gain and loss … friendship, human communication, dreams, reality and learning … it is as if someone gently shook us and woke us from a deep sleep … I am awed by Lao-tzu, baffled by Chuang-tzu, but I am never afraid of Lieh-tzu”.

A WAGER

“In the words of Shakespeare, ‘And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, a poet’s pen turns to shape them and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’. All thought, feeling, sensation and perception give to airy nothing – this full, empty, luminous loving substance – a temporary name and form.

“The finite mind – thought, feeling, sensation and perception – is a temporary localization of infinite Consciousness, love and beauty. The three forms or three activities of the finite mind – thinking, feeling and perceiving – clothe this airy nothing, this luminous, empty, loving Presence, with their own particular qualities and limitations, making this airy nothing, this luminous, empty, loving substance, appear as thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions

“But in doing so, this luminous, empty, loving substance never ceases to be itself. It never becomes anything other than itself, such as an object, person, self or world. It simply modulates itself within its own infinite being, knowing itself in and as the forms of all experience, but never ceasing to be and know itself alone”. (1)

This is the proposition, or invitation, of The Direct Path, as presented by the teacher I am attending to most. The resource I am using has audio and book versions in one package. Passages like the one above are interwoven with guided meditations designed to reframe our experience through a careful introspection that is both precise and gentle. When listening, I am more focused on the meditations. When reading I am more focused on the passages, which work like a Lectio Divina – words to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Looking at key words closely, I can appreciate Shakespeare’s use of ‘imagination’ as a light-touch anticipation of Coleridge’s: “the primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation” (2).

At the level of the finite mind I have reached a stage of provisional assent to the Direct Path view. I don’t want to drown out any doubt with the urgent, monological discourse of a new ideology. I notice this tendency in the non-dual community, and I suspect it comes from an impatience with ambiguity and difficulties in holding a point of tension. For me, that would indicate a covert lack of confidence in my inquiry process. At the same time, I want to live from this kind of understanding. In my version, I feel like the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, with the equivalent dilemma of wondering whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. I would say ‘both’ – not holding this view in a fundamentalist way, but strongly enough to live from.

So, I’m adopting the strategy of Blaise Pascal*, who in seventeenth century France decided to make a wager about God: “if God exists, he is infinitely incomprehensible. So human reasoning has no way of determining whether or not he exists. We cannot make up our minds on the basis of reasoning. But we must make up our minds. How is it to be done? Pascal suggests that adopting belief in God, and leading a Christian life, is the soundest bet. In event of winning the bet, an eternity of bliss is gained. In the event of losing the bet, the loss incurred is utterly insignificant. The alternative, – i.e. unbelief – can at best incur an utterly insignificant gain, at worst an immense loss.” (3)

I do not see myself facing the same consequences as Pascal, either in Earth or Heaven, from making a ‘wrong’ choice. But I adopt the strategy: making my existential choice and embracing what flows it.

*Blaise Pascal (1623-62) French mathematician, physicist, religious thinker and philosopher.

(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

(2) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria: Or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions Dent: London, 1906 & 1956 (Everyman’s Library. Edited and with an introduction by George Watson)

(3) Thomas Mautner The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy London: Penguin, 1996

 

THE WOODCARVER

Khing, the master woodcarver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood. When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be the work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

Khing replied, “I am only a workman.

I have no secret. There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit. I did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to

Set my heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days,

I had forgotten praise and criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

By this time al thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

Al that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

Then I went into the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond

doubt.

All that I had to do was to put forth my hand

And begin.

If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

What happened?

My own collected though

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 

Merton, Thomas (1965 & 2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.

 

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

POEM: THE BREATH OF NATURE

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds

Which, noiseless in themselves,

Awaken voices from other beings,

Blowing on them.

From every opening

Loud voices sound. Have you not heard

This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood

On the steep mountain:

Oak trees with holes and cracks

Like snouts maws and ears,

Like beam-sockets, like goblets,

Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water.

You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,

Shouts of command, grumblings,

Deep drones, sad flutes.

One call awakens another in dialogue.

Gentle winds sing timidly,

Strong ones blast on without restraint.

Then the wind dies down. The openings

Empty out their last sound.

Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:

The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.

The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.

What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:

Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.

Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.

What is this power?

From:  Thomas Merton The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

CONTEMPLATION AND THE HIDDEN MOTHER

This is a ‘learning from other traditions’ post. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writes about Chuang Tzu, an early Taoist sage and story teller.

“Chuang Tzu is not merely a professional recluse. The ‘man of Tao’ does not make the mistake of giving up self-conscious virtuousness in order to immerse himself in an even more self-conscious contemplative self-recollection. One cannot call Chuang Tzu a Contemplative in the sense of one who adopts a programme of spiritual self-purification to attain to certain definite interior experiences, or even merely to ‘cultivate the interior life.’ Chuang Tzu would condemn this just as roundly as the ‘cultivation’ of anything else on an artificial basis. All deliberate, systematic, and reflexive ‘self-cultivation’, whether active or contemplative, personalistic or politically committed, cuts one off from the mysterious but indispensable contact with Tao, the hidden ‘Mother’ of all life and truth. One of the things that causes the young disciple of Keng Shan Chu (in a Chuang Tzu story) to be so utterly frustrated is precisely that he shuts himself up in a cell and tries to cultivate qualities which he thinks desirable and get rid of others he dislikes. … The true tranquillity is Ying ning, tranquillity in the action of non-action, in other words, a tranquillity which transcends the division between activity and contemplation by entering into union with the nameless and invisible Tao.”

For me, there is a fine line between making a real commitment to contemplative practice and allowing it to become an idolatry. I find that it does ask me to be intentional, to devote time and effort, to be willing to learn the  skills. So I have some sympathy for the immature student gleefully lampooned in the story. Yet I resonate with the larger point and look forward to shedding a residual anxiety and striving, a slightly distressed earnestness, in what I do. To release wonder more fully, to be immersed in exploration, and to experience connection with a Mystery that cannot, in the last resort, be named or possessed. I’m not sure whether this is what either Thomas Merton or Chuang Tzu were getting at, but it’s what I take from this reading.

Merton, Thomas (1965 &2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.

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