contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Lao Tzu

DRAGONS, ARCHETYPES & STORYTELLING

Extract in which Ursula K. Le Guin looks at the creative evolution of her six Earthsea books. The focus is on new perspectives in the fourth book, Tehanu.

“In Tehanu, Tenar is brushing her hair on a windy dry morning, so that it crackles and makes sparks, and the one-eyed child Therru is fascinated, seeing what she calls ‘the fire flying out all over the sky’.

“At that moment, Tenar first asked herself how Therru saw her – saw the world – and knew that she did not know; that she could not know what one saw with an eye that had been burned away. And Ogion’s words – ‘they will fear her’ – returned to her, but she felt no fear of the child. Instead, she brushed her hair again, vigorously, so the sparks would fly, and once again, she heard the little husky laugh of delight.

“Soon after this scene, Tenar herself has a moment of double vision, seeing with two different eyes. An old man in the village has a beautiful painted fan; on one side are figures of lords and ladies of the royal court, but on the other side, usually hidden against the wall:

Dragons moved as the folds of the fan moved. Painted faint and fine on the yellowed silk, dragons of pale red, blue, green moved and grouped, as the figures on the other side were grouped, among clouds and mountain peaks.

‘Hold it up to the light’, said old Fan.

She did so, and saw the two sides, the two paintings, made one by the light flowing through the silk, so that the clouds and peaks were the towers of the city, and the men and women were winged, and the dragons looked with human eyes.

‘You see?’

‘I see,’ she murmured.

“What is this double vision, two things seen as one? What can the blinded eye teach the seeing eye? What is the wilderness? Who are the dragons?

“Dragons are archetypes, yes; mind forms, a way of knowing. But these dragons aren’t St. George’s earthly worm, nor are they the Emperor of China’s airy servant. I am not European, not Asian, and I am not a man. These are the dragons of a new world, and the visionary forms of an old woman’s mind. The mythopoeticists err, I think, in using the archetype as a rigid, filled mold. If we see it only as a vital potentiality, it becomes a guide into mystery. Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it, as Lao Tze said. The dragons of Earthsea remain mysterious to me.”

(1) Ursula K. Le Guin Earthsea Revisited In Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition London: Gollanz, 2018 Illustrated by Charles Vess.

Earthsea Revisited is a printed version of a lecture delivered in 1992, in which Ursula K. Le Guin described the lifelong revisioning of gender and culture which changed her approach to storytelling. This evolution moved her decisively away from the traditional, masculine, ‘hero’s journey’ framework with which she started. Books of Earthsea brings together all six books, with additional stories and authorial reflections from different periods. Some of this work has been familiar to me for a long time, and some is new. I found it helpful to have all of the material collected in one volume.

SPECIAL BOOKS

I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.

But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.

This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.

Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)

Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)

Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)

Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

NONDOING

“Doing nothing is not a universal suggestion; it is specific to the time when a story is ending, and we enter the space between stories. I am drawing here from the Taoist principle of wu-wei. Sometimes translated as ‘nondoing’, a better translation might be ‘noncontrivance’ or ‘nonforcing’. It means freedom from reflexive doing: acting when it is time to act, not acting when it is not time to act. Action is thus aligned with the natural movement of things, in service to that which wants to be born.

“In this I draw inspiration from a beautiful verse from the Tao Te Ching. This verse is extremely dense, with multiple meanings and layers of meaning, and I haven’t found a translation that highlights what I’m drawing from it here. Therefore, the following is my own translation. It is the last half of verse 16 – if you compare translations you will be astonished at how much they differ.

“’All things return to their root.

Returning to the root, there is stillness.

In stillness, true purpose returns.

This is what is real.

Knowing the real, there is clarity.

Not knowing the real, foolish action brings disaster.

From knowing the real comes spaciousness,

From spaciousness comes impartiality,

From impartiality comes sovereignty,

From sovereignty comes what is natural.

What comes naturally, is the Tao.

From the Tao comes what is lasting,

Persisting beyond one’s self’”.

Charles Eisenstein The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2013

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”.

ANCESTORS

I watched the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice recently and felt depressed – addicted as well, but depressed. My problem? I didn’t feel connected to anybody in the story. I couldn’t fully empathise. I acknowledge descent from people like them – probably in a humbler station of life than those who got the attention. I could offer gratitude and respect for their fecundity/virility, for their resilience, for doing the best they could with the life on offer. I felt uneasy at the display of their mortal remains on TV. But connection? Not really.

So where would I look for living ancestry? If we take the Eurasia of the time as a whole we find, as part of the cultural mix, an acute consciousness of something painful and awry in the military-aristocratic cultures of the day, perhaps in the very cosmos itself. We can follow this as a persistent theme in powerful emergent literatures. Such indeed was the revulsion that some teachers and writers became world and life denying. But that’s not true of everyone. The words below, attributed to the early Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu, seem grounded enough:

Brim-fill the bowl,

It’ll spill over.

Keep sharpening the blade,

You’ll soon blunt it.

Nobody can protect a house full of gold and jade.

Wealth, status, pride

Are their own ruin.

To do good, work well, and lie low

Is the way of the blessing. (1)

In Athens, a little closer to home, Socrates suggested that our highest good lies in our moral centre and best self, and that all external goods, such as bodily pleasure, health and social reputation are correspondingly of subordinate value. Essential good was to be sought within rather than in externals. Socrates himself was famous for the simplicity of his way of life. His ascetic follower Diogenes, a kind of crazy wisdom master described by Plato as “Socrates gone mad”, is said to have had a late life encounter with the young Alexander of Macedon, soon to become ‘the Great’. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, reckoning that if Diogenes came up with something it would establish a relationship of patronage and dependency. Diogenes was sitting against a wall and had been enjoying the sunshine until Alexander came along and loomed over him. So he requested the King to stand away from his sun. Alexander went on to fight his way through the Persian Empire all the way to India. There he cornered a group of gymnosophists (= naked sages, either Jain or Yogi) and happily repeated his pattern of asking clever questions and receiving sagely answers.

I am not a follower of Lao Tzu, Socrates or Diogenes, but I do feel connected to them. I have involved them in my contemplative inquiry. In this sense they are my ancestors. Edited and mythologised though they may be, they speak to me over the centuries. I realize that literary wisdom comes out of older, oral traditions. Humans are capable of wisdom and it doesn’t depend on writing. The Tao Te Ching is an anthology of verses passed from teachers to pupils who were expected to memorise them. I understand that their initial recording and publication were controversial in their day. Socrates and Diogenes didn’t care much for writing: they left that to others. I do not doubt that there were paths and people of wisdom in the Celtic-speaking lands – people who stuck by the way of personal relationship and oral transmission in their teaching: this is, after all, the rumoured way of the Druids. I just doubt that we would find them amongst the princes, warriors and court Druids presented in The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice.

So my Samhain thoughts this year turn to exemplars, teachers and sharers of wisdom – firstly and obviously those who are publicly known and remembered; secondly and perhaps more importantly with those who remain unknown but whose invisible influence has leavened the life of the world.

  1. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: a book about the Way and the Power of the Way (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998.

REFLECTION ON CHINESE POETRY

In his poem Written on a Cold Evening Yang Wan-li* writes:

The poet must work with brush and paper,

but this is not what makes the poem.

A man doesn’t go in search of a poem –

The poem comes in search of him.

I realise, that when I read or present classical Chinese poems, I am not just working with translations from another language, but with translations from a completely different approach to the art of writing itself. So here I’ve added a piece about Chinese calligraphy, taken from an article by Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University which is available on: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm

Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China, revered as a fine art long before painting. What makes the written language distinctive is its visual form. Unlike written words formed from alphabets, Chinese characters convey more than phonetic sound or semantic meaning. Written words play multiple roles: not only does a character denote specific meanings, but its very form manifests the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself. Writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to describe the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words:

“[When viewing calligraphy,] I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright.” (Sun Guoting, 7th century)

How can a simple character convey all this? The seeming simplicity of the tools is belied by the complexity of effects. A multiplicity of effect is produced in part by varying the consistency and amount of ink carried by the brush. Black ink is formed into solid sticks or cakes that are ground in water on a stone surface to produce a liquid. Calligraphers can control the thickness of the ink by varying both the amount of water and the solid ink that is ground. Once they start writing, by loading the brush sometimes with more ink, sometimes with less, by allowing the ink to almost run out before dipping the brush in the ink again, they create characters that resemble a shower of rock here, the wonder of a drop of dew there.

Unlike a rigid instrument such as a stylus or a ballpoint pen, a flexible hair brush allows not only for variations in the width of strokes, but, depending on whether one uses the tip or side of the brush, one can create either two-dimensional or three-dimensional effects. Depending on the speed with which one wields the brush and the amount of pressure exerted on the writing surface, one can create a great variety of effects. The brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, their entire body. The physical gestures produced by the wielding of the brush reveal much more than physical motion; they reveal much of the writers themselves – their impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, rebelliousness.

I would add that this kind of writing enacts the dance between ‘emptiness and form’ referred to in the Buddhist Heart Sutra (a favourite text in China) and the earlier references to that same dance in the Tao Te Ching, where it says, less abstractly:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub

Where the wheel isn’t, is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot

Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room.

Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is, is in the use of what isn’t. **

In Chinese calligraphy and painting the empty spaces can be as significant as the filled ones. The two cannot be separated and this is an enduring lesson both of Chinese arts and spirituality (in their Taoist and Buddhist influenced versions). For me it’s a key lesson of the contemplative journey in any culture.

*From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

** From Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin)

 

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