Emptiness and Mystery

In an email conversation with a Christian friend of mine, we discussed some basic Taoist concepts and explored the relationship between Taoism and Christianity. I think some good things were said, so I’ve decided to post portions of my half (or 3/4, since I tend to get carried away) of the conversation here. The below isn’t all, but is enough for the moment; I’ll post the rest later on.

On Emptiness:
I agree that empty things are useful because they can be filled — emptiness is their substance (rather than being filled with their own solid substance), which makes them more useful than things that can’t be filled. A [good] image to explain this is a wooden bowl — it’s useful because of the lack of wood in the center that allows people to put soup or rice or whatever into it. If it were full of wood, rather than empty, it would just be a solid wooden mound with no purpose. So, in terms of people, being empty means letting go of your own desires and selfishness and ambition […] so you can harmonize with the rest of the world; you can be “filled” by other people and learn to make your way in the world without creating conflict, instead of struggling against the grain to have your own way. There’s a strong survival component in Taoism because of the era in which it originated — the Warring States Period in China, where everyone was fighting with everyone else, change was rampant, and you never really knew who was the friend or foe of your people. So, from that perspective, there’s a practical side to being malleable or “empty.” As I’ve come to understand it, Lao Tzu advocates staying empty in order to be filled ceaselessly, being open to taking on new ideas and ways of life without holding onto them. So, like the bowl, the Taoist sage allows him- or herself to be filled, but also allows him- or herself to be emptied again. It allows for a free flow of ideas without attaching one’s ego to them. It’s a way to have peace in any situation and is also a practical survival mechanism, should that be necessary. Does that make sense?

I think [Taoists] do prefer emptiness over fullness, but only if [they’re] forced to choose between one or the other. Taoism seeks balance, above all, so it’s not considered ideal (or even practical) to be completely empty or completely full. Just like it’s not good either to starve or to eat so much that you feel nauseous — it’s better to eat just enough that you’re comfortable. The rationale for choosing emptiness over fullness is that (here comes yet another metaphor) being at the bottom of a mountain is safer than being at the very top. Once one reaches the top-most point of something — success, celebrity, love, depression, literal height — there’s only one direction left to travel: down. But if you’re at the bottom, there’s always room to travel up and, if you fall, it hurts less. Emptiness is good for the mind, especially in meditation, because it’s a state of purity in which one can just experience life, without all the hang-ups of being human — struggle, worry, painful love, consuming desire, sadness, etc. But even complete emptiness can’t be maintained all the time, so a state of balance — wavering between more-full and more-empty — is best.

On Thinking About the Tao and Other Big Questions:
You’ve made a good point. I don’t think that one shouldn’t think about the Tao, either, and I don’t think that Lao Tzu would have considered not thinking about the Tao a “rule” of Taoism. I think it’s a lot like thinking about God and why certain things happen — it’s a mystery; no one can possibly comprehend God or God’s plan. So while it might be soothing (or just fun) to try to rationalize certain things, and while it might be useful to seek out knowledge where it can be found, one has to keep in mind that there will always be mysteries. And it’s good, I think, to respect mystery, even to love it. It’s good to acknowledge that blank spot in human wisdom that can’t possibly be filled. It’s humbling. Still, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions, to wonder and search, even if it leads us nowhere but staring mystery in the face.

Oscar Wilde: Victorian Taoist

I’m always interested in finding Taoist elements in Western literature, and I find a lot of them in Oscar Wilde’s work. In honor of the 110th anniversary of his death, I’ve decided to display a few of them here, along with corresponding Taoist quotes. Enjoy!

Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
“The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy. But because of [the recognition of a] ‘this,’ there came to be boundaries. Let me tell you what the boundaries are. There is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions… As to what is beyond the Six Realms, the sage admits it exists but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate… So [I say,] those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

The well-bred contradict other people.  The wise contradict themselves.
“Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2)
“Straightforward words / Seem paradoxical.” (Tao Te Ching 78.4)

To become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life.
“To serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate — this is the perfection of virtue.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4)
“If you are content with the time [you have to live] and willing to follow along [with death], then grief and joy have no way to enter in.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 3).

Only the shallow know themselves.
“Tzu-ch’i said… ‘Now I have lost myself. Do you understand that? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘May I venture to ask what this means?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘ The Great Clod belches out breath and its name is wind. So long as it doesn’t come forth, nothing happens. But when it does, then ten thousand hollows begin crying wildly. Can’t you hear them, long drawn out? In the mountain forests that lash and sway, there are huge trees a hundred spans around with hollows and openings like noses, like mouths, like ears… They roar like waves, whistle like arrows, screech, gasp, cry, wail, moan, and howl… In a gentle breeze they answer faintly, but in a full gale the chorus is gigantic. And when the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again. Have you never seen the tossing and trembling that goes on?’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself — all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
“Yen Hui went to see Confucius and asked permission to take a trip. — ‘Where are you going?’ [Confucius asked.] — ‘I’m going to Wei.’ — ‘What will you do there?’ — ‘I have heard that the ruler of Wei is very young. He acts in an independent manner, thinks little of how he rules his state, and fails to see his faults. It is nothing to him to lead his people into peril, and his dead are reckoned by swampfuls like so much grass. His people have nowhere to turn. I have heard you say, Master, “Leave the state that is well ordered and go to the state in chaos! At the doctor’s gate are many sick men.” I want to use these words as my standard, in hopes that I can restore his state to health.’ — ‘Ah,’  said Confucius, ‘you will probably go and get yourself executed, that’s all.'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4).
“What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful.” (Chuang Tzu, ibid.).

Always! That is the dreadful word … it is a meaningless word, too.
“Hence a gusty wind cannot last all morning, and a sudden downpour cannot last all day. Who is it that produces these? Heaven and earth. If even heaven and earth cannot go on for ever, much less can man.”  (Tao Te Ching 23.2).

Such a Thing as a Thing to Say

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or even if there is such a thing as a thing to say.
-Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer, or Have You Earned This Cliche?”

These are the thoughts that plague me, not only in my fiction but in writing this blog as well. Perhaps more so with this blog because there’s no story in which to gradually reveal meaning; I have to be as concise and direct as possible. Every time I consider making a post, I run the topic through the gamut: Is this something obvious that everyone already knows to be true? If not, would anyone care? Is this a significant contribution to the blogging community? Do I have anything significant to contribute at all? Is there anything I can say that I feel is absolutely true, without exception? Should I even bother?

Taoism is largely to blame for this impotence in writing. As written in the Tao Te Ching, “To use words but rarely / Is to be natural” (23.1-2). The Taoist sage does not presume; he or she says and does as little as possible. Listening is valued above speech and silence above noise. This is because the sage realizes that human perception is limited; one can’t see all the facets of an issue and one can’t foretell exactly the outcome of any given action or decision. I’ve had a lot of foot-in-mouth moments in my life and I know exactly how it feels to make a statement half-cocked and come to regret it later. It’s in the interest of self-preservation for one to be silent, to listen rather than speak. During the Warring States period in China, where Taoism was born, one’s life could be saved by keeping silent because change was rampant and one’s enemy one day might turn out to be one’s leader the next, and one’s leader could just as quickly become one’s enemy.

My situation isn’t so precarious, but self-preservation is still valuable in terms of dignity and peace. Aside from human rights issues, I can’t pretend to know the value or outcome of any law or political decision, so I veer away from blogging about politics. And there’s so much that I don’t know about religion, or art, or literature, or people in general that I hesitate to make any hard-and-fast claims about any of that, either. All I know is what I see before me, and I know that my sight can only travel so far. I don’t know that anything I see or feel is valuable to anyone but me, or even correct.

So how should I presume? Why have a blog? Why write at all? Why not just stay silent? I’m not sure, really. Part of it is vanity, a desire to be heard and praised. Another part is a desire to create something beautiful for the sake of beauty. It also comes from a desire to express myself, to take those sparks within me and make them manifest. To make myself vulnerable and, through that, connect with other souls who have the same questions and preoccupations. Communication is about connection, after all. And perhaps my hesitation stems from a fear of not finding those connections, of further alienation. I think it’s also about the desire for meaning, but not the meanings that others create. It’s to construct and discover my own meanings, to find truths for myself. Silence is good for contemplation; expression makes those contemplations solid, real, allows me to test them out. And still another part of me writes — creates — to exorcise those demons that lie within, to put them to good use, to turn them into something beautiful and valuable, if only for me.

Whatever the reason, I continue to write. I still don’t know if there’s value in anything I have to say, but that doesn’t quell the impulse to speak. So I waver between doubt and hope, fumbling in and out of whatever spotlights I make for myself, searching for answers and meanings hidden in the shadows.

Do Closed Minds Protect Brains?

I remember when I was in middle school, during the 2000 elections, a friend of mine whose father was a political science teacher was arguing with another friend about who to vote for. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but the first friend ended up saying, “Well, my dad says you shouldn’t have such an open mind that your brains fall out.” We’d thought it was clever and we laughed, and it seemed like good advice. And the dictum has stuck with me for the past ten years: Don’t open your mind too much or your brains will fall out.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, comparing it to the Chuang Tzu, which seems to advocate the opposite. It states:

Everything has its ‘that,’ everything has its ‘this.’ From the point of view of ‘that’ you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’ — which is to say that ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other. But where there is birth there must be death; where there is death there must be birth. Where there is acceptability there must be unacceptability… Where there is recognition of right there must be recognition of wrong… Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a ‘this,’ but a ‘this’  which is also ‘that,’ a ‘that’ which is also ‘this.’ His ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it; his ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it. So, in fact, does he still have a ‘this’ and ‘that’? …A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness. (Burton Watson translation)

In essence, when one considers that everything has a positive and negative aspect, and that all opposites are drawn from and depend on each other, everything gets murky. The mind is opened to see social and political dichotomies as limited in scope, and one realizes that one knows nothing, can distinguish no dogma as being intrinsically better than another, even if one chooses a particular side over another. It’s like free-falling into a chasm: there’s nothing to grab onto to stabilize oneself. All those things that thrive on opposition — political parties, international disputes, religious debates and wars — lose their certainty, their concrete alignments. They become just themselves.

And while it can be a scary experience, it’s an experience of truth, I think. Where would the two major political parties be without each other? The Democratic Party is defined by the Republican Party through their differences, and vice versa. If you took away one, the other loses its meaning as well. They rely on one another for meaning — not only for defining, but creating each other through the discovery of new differences. It’s the same with all opposites, from laws and law-breaking to beauty and ugliness. And (if we’re honest with ourselves) when we look at issues and parties and ideals from a neutral perspective, we begin to see that what we might perceive as a total “good” contains an element of “bad” and, in the “bad,” one can usually find some good. And it’s hard to tell what the effect of any given decision will be because people are so unpredictable and complex. Sometimes choosing a side is nothing more than ignoring a portion of reality.

The Chuang Tzu has a famous parable:

When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said, ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted. There was no change in the reality behind the words and yet the monkeys responded with joy and anger. Let them, if they want to. So the sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in Heaven the Equalizer. This is called walking two roads.

Another part in the same section states:

If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher? …But to fail to abide by this mind and still insist upon your rights and wrongs — this is like saying that you set off for Yueh today and got there yesterday. This is to claim that what doesn’t exist exists.

It’s logical and useful to open one’s mind fully to consider a situation indiscriminately, seeing how the points in opposition relate, rather than relegating one to “good” and the other to “evil” along some moral paradigm. But it requires a detachment, a destabilization of self, which is hard to do, especially when the situation is much more dire than acorns. Still, I don’t think considering all possibilities, withholding judgment, and choosing not to staunchly pick a side is the equivalent of letting one’s brains “fall out.” It’s letting one’s mind breathe — not through a sliver, but through a wide, gaping hole. Because we don’t know everything, even when we consider seemingly simple, everyday things. We can’t always predict the best course of action and what might seem a terrible idea in the beginning might eventually prove to be beneficial in the end, at least in some way. And we can’t honestly say that we know a person’s motivations or usefulness, so how can we judge anyone but ourselves? And can we even judge ourselves?

Which isn’t to say that I’m always open-minded. But I really do try. I try most of all to understand people — all people, even the ones that others don’t want to understand — partly because I’m curious, but also because understanding breeds compassion, and compassion breeds peace. And peace is good. It feels better, healthier, to let go of the burden of picking a side, of sticking to one’s guns all the time, of always having something to say. It’s a relief to just be, isn’t it? And what of all the good that can be accomplished by not clinging to ideals or categories, by allowing other people to just be as well?

Everything’s Empty: The Poetry of Cold Mountain

Taking a break from work today, I read several poems by Hanshan (“Cold Mountain”), a near-mythical poet who wrote in the Taoist and Chan Buddhist tradition. Living as a fugitive during the Tang dynasty, he composed his poems on stones, trees, and the walls of caves. The following are my favorites so far.

(Note: I’ve left the punctuation as I found it, since several sources have recorded it the same way. I believe these translations were done by Red Pine.)

I recently hiked to a temple in the clouds
and met some Taoist priests.
Their star caps and moon caps askew
they explained they lived in the wild.
I asked them the art of transcendence;
they said it was beyond compare,
and called it the peerless power.
The elixir meanwhile was the secret of the gods
and that they were waiting for a crane at death,
or some said they’d ride off on a fish.
Afterwards I thought this through
and concluded they were all fools.
Look at an arrow shot into the sky-
how quickly it falls back to earth.
Even if they could become immortals,
they would be like cemetery ghosts.
Meanwhile the moon of our mind shines bright.
How can phenomena compare?
As for the key to immortality,
within ourselves is the chief of spirits.
Don’t follow Lords of the Yellow Turban
persisting in idiocy, holding onto doubts.

Children, I implore you
get out of the burning house now.
Three carts await outside
to save you from a homeless life.
Relax in the village square
before the sky, everything’s empty.
No direction is better or worse,
East just as good as West.
Those who know the meaning of this
are free to go where they want.

The Tao of the Airbender

For the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender between our Netflix DVD rentals. So far, we’ve made it half-way through Book 2. My husband knew about the show years before, but I wasn’t aware of it until I saw a preview last month for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, which piqued my curiosity, thanks to my hopeless affinity for movies involving any kind of psychokinesis.

I have to say: I’m thrilled that there is a kids’ TV series out there (canceled though it may be) that blends Eastern and Western values. There’s that familiar American go-get-em, believe-in-yourself-and-you-can-fulfill-your-dreams attitude, as well as a healthy feminist strain throughout. But the show also promotes less familiar virtues, like flexibility and balance within oneself and in one’s interactions with others. It shows the complex humanity of all kinds of people, which breaks down that too-easy black-and-white paradigm with which our world is burdened. It shows the value of different kinds of people, from the lighthearted and transcendent Airbenders and the compassionate Waterbenders to the stolid Earthbenders and the passionate, impulsive Firebenders. That may, in fact, be the show’s greatest virtue: its lack of preference for one way or another, its ability to see the value and beauty of all cultures. I also love that the series addresses monism (i.e. the idea that everything is connected, the same and indistinguishable, and difference is an illusion) and the illusion of time (that it doesn’t exist beyond human perception). Those are heavy concepts — for kids and adults — but they were handled in such a way that I think an 11 year old could grasp it. It’s a breath of fresh air to see that kind of thinking in an American show and is the reason I watch.

Because I’ve become such a fan of the show, I’m a little wary of the upcoming film adaptation. Judging from the previews, it seems like it’s going to be a typical superhero action film that includes little of the philosophy of the TV series. From the little dialogue that’s shown in the previews, it seems to latch onto the American go-get-em, believe-in-yourself aspect of the series, but doesn’t make time for the Eastern philosophical aspect. Granted, you can’t really rely on previews to show exactly what the film is about, and they would naturally want to focus on the action and visuals as much as possible to appeal to a larger audience. I just don’t want them to do what was done to The Golden Compass — very little exposure to or explanation of the nature and philosophy of the world, but a lot of suspense and fighting. I’m afraid that two-thirds of the movie will be chase scenes or fighting sequences, rather than the journeys and discoveries of the characters that make the show meaningful. Still, I do plan on seeing the film (in 2-D? 3-D?) and am looking forward to it; I’m just not going to get my hopes up. If all else fails, it promises to at least be a visually stunning film in its own right. And who knows? It could end up being more meaningful than I anticipate. And I’d rather risk having a pleasant surprise than a disappointing experience.

Update: The movie wasn’t meaningful in the slightest. In fact, it was worse than I ever imagined. A voice-over actually narrated the action as it was happening and the plot was choppy and full of holes. The best I can say about it was that it was visually appealing. I think Shyamalan should stick to directing and let someone else write the screenplay from now on.