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.

Comparative Taoism

I first discovered Taoism in a World Humanities class while I was in undergrad. I’d spent years searching out various religions—different sects of Christianity, Judaism, Neo-paganism, Buddhism, etc.—but while I’d found things in each belief system that I could agree with, nothing I’d studied or practiced entirely coincided with (or even addressed) the things I wondered about and felt to be true. So when I was assigned to read parts of the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu, I felt like I’d reached a light in the darkness. I connected with Taoism’s sense of and respect for mystery, its resistance to dogma, its view of naming, language and categories as mutable and illusory, its doubts about one’s sense of self and reality as a whole, its belief in nonduality—the list goes on. I felt like I’d finally reached something familiar, something whole, something very, very wise. Since then, as I’ve continued in my studies in English literature and creative writing, I’ve stumbled upon ideas by various non-Taoist writers that are Taoist in nature, which is always really satisfying because it shows that Taoist concepts aren’t so foreign to the West — they’re just fragmented, scattered here and there over time. Anyway, it’s become a little hobby of mine to match quotes.

Two writers/poets who frequently convey Taoist concepts and beliefs in their work are Oscar Wilde and Wallace Stevens. Shakespeare also has some Taoistic quotes to offer. The following are some examples by these three, but there are more. Perhaps I’ll add to this list as time goes on and I make more discoveries.


On the Value of Useless Things

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?” ~Chuang Tzu


On the Fallacy of Right and Wrong

“Any preoccupation with ideas of what is right or wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2

“How great is the difference between ‘eh’ and ‘oh’? / What is the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’? / Must I fear what others fear? / What abysmal nonsense is this!” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20

“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 you set off for Yueh today and got there yesterday. This is to claim that what doesn’t exist exists.” ~Chuang Tzu


On Sympathy

“No artist has ethical sympathies.” ~Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental; / It treats all things as straw-dogs. / The Sage is not sentimental; / He treats all his people as straw-dogs.” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 5

“If benevolence has a constant object, it cannot be universal.” ~Chuang Tzu


On Naming and Language

“Tired of the old descriptions of the world, / The latest freed man rose at six and sat / On the edge of his bed. He said, / ‘I suppose there is / A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just / Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist, / Which is enough…’” ~Wallace Stevens, “The Latest Freed Man”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” ~Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet 2.2

“Tao is always nameless. / …When once the Primal Simplicity [Tao] diversified, / Different names appeared. / Are there not enough names now? / Is this not the time to stop?” ~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32

“Names should stop when they have expressed reality.” ~ Chuang Tzu

“Let it be! Let it be! [It is enough that] morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live.” ~Chuang Tzu


On Letting Go of One’s Sense of Self

“One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow… / and not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the sound of a few leaves, / Which is the sound of the land / Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” ~Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

“Tzu-ch’i of South Wall sat leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathing—vacant and far away, as though he’d lost his companion. Yen Ch’eng Tzu-yu, who was standing by his side in attendance, said, ‘What is this? Can you really make the body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes?…’ Tzu-ch’i said, ‘You do well to ask the question, Yen. 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, ‘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

“Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind! No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.” ~Chuang Tzu


A Peaceful View of Death

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause: there’s the respect / That makes calamity of so long life; / For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes, / When he himself might his quietus make…” ~Shakespeare, Hamlet 3.1

“In the middle of the night, the skull came to [Chuang Tzu] and said, ‘You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man. The dead know none of these! …Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!’ Chuang Tzu couldn’t believe this and said, ‘If I got the Arbiter of Fate to give you a body again, make you some bones and flesh, return you to your parents and family and your old home and friends, you would want that, wouldn’t you?’ The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. ‘Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?’ it said.” ~Chuang Tzu


On Death and Dreaming

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with sleep.” ~Shakespeare, The Tempest 4.1

“He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when the morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream.” ~Chuang Tzu