Monday, 29 July 2019

Why Ask Me? - The Book of Chuang Tzu

What do I think about Taoism (from this one book?)

I find it calming, there is much I like. It seems to have a very clear dark side, or at least dark-grey side which is there in the text but which most Western interlocutors seem to either not see or just keep quiet about.

Though that seems to go for the majority of religious when you actually read the text. The people living them are usually really living a complex synthesis of the better parts of scripture mixed with broadly pro-social stuff that makes sense. The whacko puritans you see acting like loons are usually people who have actually read the books all the way through and are following them exactly.

I like the stuff about darkness. I like darkness generally as a theme. It feels true to me and more true when talking about deep things.

When I imagine the darkness of Taoism I think of it as akin to the darkness of my own mind in the moments before an idea or perception brings itself into focus or allows itself into being.

When I try to trace back the originating influences for an idea, I often find some of them, traces in the world. But I can't find all of them, and I can never 'see' an idea before it exists. It is like the explosive ignition of a firework. It cannot be observed directly. As soon as its effects come into play they expand outward through the neural nets, forming connections and inferences, but the original moment is something that must happen in timeless darkness, unmeasured.

Because I spend a lot of time making things up, I spend a lot of time essentially praying to darkness. Or at least, waiting. Paused with a pen and a blank pad and nothing on my mind, trying to hold the elements of a problem in my mind but without actually focusing on the solution. Present but not present. Waiting for something.


I like this from 'Heaven's Tao'

"Duke Huan was sitting in his hall reading a book. The wheelwright Pien was down below in the courtyard making a wheel. He put down his chisel and hammer, went up to the hall and asked Duke Huan, 'May I ask you, Sir, what words you are reading?'

Duke Huan replied, 'The words of the sages.'

'Are these sages still living?'

'They are long dead,' said Duke Huan.

'Then, Sir, what you are reading is nothing but rubbish left over from these ancient men!'

'How dare you, a wheelwright, comment on what I read! If you can explain this, fine, if not you shall die!' thundered Duke Huan.

The wheelwright Pien replied, 'Your Lordship's servant looks at it from the perspective of his own work. When I work on a wheel if I hit too softly, pleasant as this is, it doesn't make for a good wheel. If I hit furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn't work! So, not too soft, not too vigorous, I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it. I cannot teach this to my son, nor can my son lernt it from me. So for seventy years I have gone along this path and here I am still making wheels. The ancient ones, when they died, took their words with them. Which is why I can state that what Your Lordship is reading is nothing more than rubbish left over from those ancient ones!'"


The irony of a man obsessed with books, discussing a book in which a central concept is that knowledge from books should not be respected, online, via a textual medium, is far from lost on me.

Still, the wheelwright is right. Books, and words generally, are delusions, or just a kind of arrant programme running over the texture of reality, like a bug running over a cake. They are not things you should believe in, certainly not things you should treat as absolute.

Whether I stand any chance of applying this wisdom to my own life; probably not. I would have to say I have failed, and am failing, in my war, with words, against words. The words are winning.


I really liked this part from 'Does Heaven Move?' in which the Yellow Emperor plays his cosmic music, though I am pretty sure I don't understand it, though it is gone over in the text, I like it for the beauty of it;

"At one moment clear, at one obscure, the yin and the yang are in harmony, the sounds pour forth. It is as if I were an insect awakening from hibernation or a crash of thunder; without end, without beginning, at one, death, at one, life, at one, finished, at one, surging forth. It is constant but there is no dependable pattern, this is what alarmed you.

Next I played it with the harmony of yin and yang, and illuminated it by the light of sun and moon. The notes changed from short to long, from gentle to harsh. They all hung upon a single harmony but were not determined by anything. The notes filled the valleys and the gorges, and it was useless for you to try to block them out or protect your spirit, for such notes move as they wish.

The notes are measured and are clear and sharp. So the ghosts and the spirits hide in the dark and the sun moon and stars follow their own courses. I stopped when the music stopped but the sounds flowed on. This worried you; you could not understand it; you looked for them, but could not see them; you went after them, but could not find them. You were stunned and so you stood before the universal witness of the Tao or leaned against an old tree and groaned. Your eyes could not understand and so failed you; your strength collapsed beneath you. I could not catch it. Your body dissolved into emptiness and you lost control and so achieved release. It was this which wore you out.

In the final section, I used notes that did not wear you out. I brought them together spontaneously. This seemed like chaos, like a thicket sprung from one root, like natural music produced from no one knows what, moving yet going nowhere, hidden in deep darkness. Some call this death, others life. Some call it fruit, others the flower. The notes moved, flowed, separated and changed, following no clear pattern. Understandably, the world is uncertain about them.

The world sought advice from the sages, believing the sage to know true shape and true fate. When Heaven has not wound up the spring of life, but the five vital organs are all there ready, this is what is known as the music of Heaven, which delights the heart without words. So the Lord of Yen praised it saying, "Listening for it, you do not hear it; looking for it, you do not see its shape. It fills all Heaven and Earth, embracing the six directions."

You desire to year it, but it is beyond you, which is what confused you."


I like its attitude towards people and the public, which seems ever more meaningful today as we live in our infinite maze of glass. This is from 'Leaving the World Open';


"Ordinary people are happy when someone agrees with them and distressed when others disagree with them. This happiness and distress comes from the desire to be marked apart from the common crowd, a desire set within their hearts. But if they have set their hearts on distinguishing themselves from the rest, how does this draw them out beyond the rest? Better for go with everyone and be at peace rather than struggle, for, regardless of how clever you are, the others have more skills.


There is no way out of it. Trying to be special only highlights the ways in which you are like everyone else. We are all out here posting our travel pics, trying to be unique in exactly the same ways. Why bother?


From 'Heaven and Earth'

"The son who agrees with his parents in everything they say and do is viewed by the ordinary people as an unworthy son. The minister who agrees with everything his ruler says and does is viewed by the ordinary people as an unworthy minister. Yet people don't seem to understand the truth of this. Those who agree with everything that the people say and think good whatever the people think is good, are never called yes-men or sycophants. Does this mean popular opinion is of greater authority than parents or rulers? Someone is immediately angry if you tell him he is a yes-man or a sycophant. Nevertheless, throughout this life he will be a yes-man and all his life he will be a sycophant. His stories are designed to agree with people, his turns of phrase are intended to impress them. From start to finish, from beginning to end he never disagrees with them. He displays his robes, exhibiting the colours; his whole carriage is intended to impress and earn him favour with his peers and yet he cannot stand being called a sycophant! He just follows the fashion, liking this and disliking that as others do and yet he does not see himself as just one of the crowd. This is how far his stupidity has reached! The one who knows he is stupid is not that stupid; the one who knows he is confused is not that confused. The greatly deluded will never be rid of delusion; the monumentally foolish will never be very bright."


There is simply no escape from the trap of a desire for regard or of a relationship with public opinion. How can any of us get away from it? The public eye is right there, can we ever not dance for it? If we make a big fuss about not dancing for it then we are still dancing for it, just in a different way. It is a labyrinth of mirrors and since there is no exit we may as well just breathe deeply and close our eyes.

From 'Supposed Words'


"The Outline asked the Shadow, 'A few minutes ago you were looking down, now you are looking up; a few minutes ago your hair was piled up, now it is hanging down; a few minutes ago you were sitting down, now you are standing up; a few minutes ago you were walking, now you are standing still. Why?"

Shadow said, “Petty! Petty! Why do you ask me about all this? This is all true to me but I haven’t a clue why I do it. I am like the shell of a cicada or the shed skin of a snake: something which seems real but is not. In the sunlight I appear, in darkness I disappear. However, do you think I arise from these? For they are themselves dependent upon others. When it comes, I come also,. When it goes, I go with it. If they arise from the mighty yang, so do I. However, there is no point in asking me about the mighty yang!”


Why ask me? Product of things I cannot see and do not understand, ending for reasons I can barely perceive, lasting as long as I last and following rules most of which I can also not see. Why ask me indeed.

And I like this bit on taking action from 'The Old Fisherman'


Confucius looked sad and sighed, bowed twice, stood up and said, 'Lu has exiled me twice, I have fled from Wei, they have felled a tree on me in Sung and laid siege to me between Chen and Tsai. I have no idea what I did to be so misunderstood. Why was I subject to these four forms of trouble?

The stranger looked distressed, then his expression changed and he said, ' It is very difficult, Sir, to make you understand! There was once a man who was frightened by his own shadow and scared of his own footprints, so he tried to escape them by running away. But every time he lifted his foot and brought it down, he made more footprints, and no matter how fast he ran, his shadow never left him. Thinking he was running too slowly, he ran faster, never ceasing until finally he exhausted himself and collapsed and died. he had no idea that by simply sitting in the shade he would have lost his shadow, nor that by resting quietly he would cease making footprints. He really was a great fool!


Although I think I also disagree with it. You might say I both agree and disagree with it, which doesn't seem to be a big problem with Taoism which loves paradox and uncertainty.

I do think Taoism on politics is interesting interesting and should be taken into consideration.

Bluntly - try hard not to do anything, and if you can't avoid doing anything, then try to do as little as possible, or at least, don't shove or warp things out of the way they are already going to go.


From 'Hsu Wu Kuei'

'I wish to love the people and the act righteously and stop warfare. Would that do?'

'Certainly not. Loving the people is the beginning of harming the people. To act righteously and to cease warfare is the root of increased warfare. If you set about things thus, Sir, you will not succeed. All attempts to create beauty end in evil consequences. You Grace may plan to act benevolently and righteously, but the result is the same as hypocrisy! You may give shape to things, but success leads to argument and argument leads to violence. Your Grace must not have hosts of troops massing in your forts nor lines of cavalry parading in front of the Palace of the Dark Shrine.

'Do not harbour thoughts that betray your best interests. Do not try to overcome others by cunning. Do not try to defeat others by battle. If I kill the leaders and people of another ruler and seize the lands to satisfy my material wants, while my spirit is unsure of the validity of such actions, what is the point? Your Grace, the best thing is to do nothing, except develop true sincerity and thus be able to respond without difficulty to the true nature of Heaven and Earth. Thus the people will not die and it will not be necessary for you to have to enforce the end of warfare!"


"Hsu Yu said, 'Yao has become obsessed with benevolence and I am worried that he will be mocked throughout the world. Future generations might even resort to eating each other because of this!

The people come together without difficulty. Give them love, and praise them, and they will be excited, upset them, and they will desert you. Love and assistance arise from benevolence and righteousness, the majority look to them for assistance. Benevolence and righteousness conducted under these circumstances become insincere, and possibly may be evil, like lending traps to others. Allowing one man to determine what the world needs through his own powers is like trying to comprehend everything in one moment. Yao knows that the worthy man can assist the whole world, but he does not know that such a person can ruin the whole world, for it is only those outside this sphere of influence who can really understand."


Maybe. Its a good warning but it doesn't work for me on a number of levels.

There seems to be a difference between what I seem to read in actual (translated) Taoist texts and Western interpretations of them.

The originals seem really, deeply, obsessively morally neutral and non-interventionist. If we are to follow them as they are written, then it looks like most good works are just out the window.

There is nothing outside the Tao, and this must apply to very bad things as it does to very bad things. Like in this bit from 'The Shores of Dark Waters';


"Master Tung Kuo asked Chuang Tzu, 'That which is called the Tao, where is it?
Chuang Tzu replied, 'There is nowhere where it is not.'
'But give me a specific example.'
'In this ant,' said Chuang Tzu.
'Is that its lowest point?'
'In this panic grass,' said Chuang Tzu.
'Can you give me a lower example?'
'In this common earthenware tile,' said Chuang Tzu.
'This must be its lowest point!'
'It's in shit and piss too,' said Chuang Tzu."


So it must be in rape and earthquakes, murder and mutilation, humiliation, pain, loss and ruin also. After all, it is the Tao, it cannot help but be in those things.

The two ways in which people seem to try to square this circle are the idea of 'essential nature' in the Book of Chuang Tzu, which is broadly a primitivist but slightly positive view in which things only go really badly in nature and between people if people stop following their essential nature. But if we all went and lived on communes or something then all this bad stuff just wouldn't happen.

I don't think this is true. I think that all the way from Chimps to Neolithic Hunter Gatherers to Nation States, these 'negative' or undesired elements have been there. So either there is an essential nature to humanity and it includes a lot of bad shit, or there is no essential nature.

True, the book of Chuang Tzu doesn't directly tell us that this stuff will stop happening if we all become Taoists and follow our essential nature, it just somewhat glides around the issue.

The Westerners, from what I can see, are basically following broadly pro-social Abrahamic/Greek ethics from Jesus, Aristotle and their own lived experience and using Taoism as a kind of contrast or investigative polarity to that, and just calling that Taoism.

Which I think is actually probably a pretty good idea. It's just theoretically stupid, and not what it says on the box, but it does actually work so I can hardly complain too much.

But it is not what it says on the box. What it says on the box is; 


"'Body like a rotten tree stump,
Heart like cold dead ashes,
His understanding is true and real,
Not inclined to pursue questions.
Obscure, obscure, deeply dark,
Heartless, no advice forthcoming,
What sort of person is this!"


It's really, deeply obscure, and very untrusting of any positive human effort;


From Lieh Yu Kou

Confucius said, 'The human heart is more dangerous than mountains or rivers, more difficult to know that Heaven. Heaven has its seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and its times for sunrise and sunset. But humanity has a thickly cloaked exterior and its true nature is hidden deep within. So it is that someone can have an honest face but be miserly; can be truly gifted but be without skills; seem featherbrained but actually have a very clear plan; appear firm but be bent; look slow but be fast. Thus, those who gather around righteousness as if it were there to slake their thirst will later flee from righteousness as if it were a fire."


Its not here to make you happy. It's not here to make you anything. It simply is.

Those who deeply follow the Tao seem to reach a state of disconnection which, from the outside, looks almost like total ego death and/or massive depression;


From 'Governing the World'

So it was that Shen Tao put aside knowledge and any concern for himself, went where he could not avoid going, seeking always to be without interest and pure in all that he did, seeing this as being true to the Tao, and saying that understanding is not understanding, thus viewing knowledge as dangerous and struggling to be rid of it.

He was without ambition and so he was carefree, taking no responsibility and scorning those in the world who praised the worthy. Drifting and unconcerned, he did nothing and laughed at those who the world saw as sages. Cutting corners, smoothing the rough, he flowed and twisted with all things. He ignored right and wrong and simply worked at avoiding trouble. Having nothing to gain from knowledge or reflection, and with no understanding of what was going on, he went through life with a lofty ease and disregard. he walked only when he was pushed, and only started when he was forced to. He was like a whirlwind, like a feather spinning round and round, like the turning of a grindstone. He had integrity, he was without any wrong, without failure or excess, whether in action or in stillness.

How was this possible? Those who are without knowledge are free from the tribulations of self-promotion, from the entrapment that arises from working with knowledge. Whether moving or resting, he never left the proper path, and throughout his life was never praised. I would like to be one without knowledge, not trapped in the teachings of a sage. Such people, like the earth itself, never lose the Tao."


That actually doesn't sound that great? It sounds in some ways rather horrible.

To be fair, being really depressed, and having Ego Death, and being totally absorbed in the Tao are not the same thing internally. And being really depressed is bad, probably, Ego Death is arguably one way or the other depending on circumstances, though I do not like the look of it myself, and being one with the Tao is probably good.

But the only way to really know which of these is going on with someone is to basically ask them, and if they can be bothered answering you they might say "Yes I was one with the Tao, until you interrupted me and fucked it up.


"From 'Heaven's Tao'

"The next day Shih Cheng Chi came to see him again and said, 'Yesterday I was rude to you, Sir. Today I have no heart for it. Why is this?

Lao Tzu said, 'I think I have freed myself from knowledge, from the spiritual and from being a sage. If you had called me an ox yesterday, Sir, then I would have said I was an ox. If you had called me a horse, I would have said I was a horse. If people name a reality, but someone won't have it, then he just makes life more problematic. I am always like this, I don't just put it on for certain occasions.'

Shih Cheng Chi shrank back so as not to be even near Lao Tzu's shadow, then he came forward once more in a humble way and asked how he could cultivate himself. Lao Tzu said, 'Your face is unpleasant; your eyes glare; your forehead is broad; your mouth hangs open; your style is pompous; you are like a tethered horse waiting to bolt, ready to go like an arrow from a crossbow; you examine everything in too much detail; you are cunning in your use of knowledge, yet you lounge around. All this makes me distrust you. Out on the frontier someone like you would be called a bandit.'"


You can't speak of the Tao because it is wordless. You can barely pass it on. Becoming one with it means you basically just hang around doing very little. It is so seperate from the angst and action of the human experience that there seems very little to link them.

Maybe thinking about the Tao is good for you, just don't actually find it or you will become an essentially useless person. (Good from the Taoist perspective, now you are like the old tree which does not get chopped down because it has no relation to the world of things which are used).

(Another thing I don't really have any respect for is the desire to hang on to life and be immortal, but that seems to have become a thing more in later slightly crapper Taoism.)

But what's the point or the pleasure of such a life? It seems as grey and empty as the sky. Just hang around on a mountain being an immortal to no particular end or reason? Why even care about preserving your body if it has no purpose?

Fundamentally, at my anglo materialist core, I do not trust systems of knowing which cannot be exposed to consensus reality. I don't like it. Consensus reality might be an absolute load of hysterical paper-thin bullshit, but its better than nothing.


From 'Dealing with Emperors and Kings'

"As a result of this, Lieh Tzu realised that he had so far learnt nothing real, so he returned home. For three years he did not go out. He cooked for his wife and tended the pigs as if they were humans. He showed no interest in his studies. He cast aside his desires and sought the truth. In his body he became like the ground itself. In the midst of everything he remained enclosed with the One and that is how he remained until the end.

Do not hanker for fame.
Do not make plans.
Do not try to do things.
Do not try to master knowledge.
Hold what is but do not hold it to be anything.
Work with all that comes from Heaven, but do not seek to hold it.
Just be empty.

The perfect man's heart is like a mirror.
It does not search after things.
It does not look for things.
It does not seek knowledge, just responds.
As a result he can handle everything and is not harmed by anything."


Is that it? Just stillness and pigs? It sounds better to be Robber Chih.

Presumably other people have thought about this and have quite complex belief systems about how actually following Taoism results in the kinds of pro-social behaviour and recognisable fulfilment they value.


  1. I definitely am not at all religious, but if I had to pick one it would be Taoism haha. I read the Tao Te Ching for the first time in high school when I was going through some things, and it had a major impact on my life. I used to re-read it every few years, but now it's been quite a while. I only read the Chuang Tzu once, in college, and I enjoyed it, but it never had the same effect on me.

    So that is to say, I am hardly an expert, but I do have some hopefully not terribly uneducated thoughts on the matter.

    I tend to think of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism as being along a spectrum; all three more or less believe that you should seek to ascend from the material plane, but they take very different stances on how to go about that, or what to do in the mean time.

    There's this painting with Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu hanging over and tasting from a pot of vinegar. Buddha says something like "this vinegar is bitter and awful and we should just move on". Confucius says something like "this vinegar is sour, we need to add some sugar and refine it". Lao Tzu says "This vinegar is what it is, and that's fine". I dunno, I think when I was younger I was more the Confucius, then became more the Lao Tzu, but I think now I've become more the Buddha. I put certain aspects of modern philosophy along a similar spectrum: Nihilism -> Absurdism -> Existentialism. It's perhaps a bit reductive, but anyway I aim for the absurdist/taoist. The world is dumb and pointless and we should strive to detach from it, but also it is what it is so I'm just going to try to make the best of it until/unless I reach that higher state of detachment.

    I think you're correct that, to the extent that you value engagement or action in the world, whether in terms of outcomes (acting to make self / world better) or for the sake of it (this person is engaged with life), Taoism, or probably most forms of spirituality, is not an ideal goal. Again, going back to that existentialism spectrum- I exist, and to the extent that I want to continue to exist and not be in pain, I don't think I could ever fully detach, but I also think there's a version of detachment that would benefit me (in an ironically world-engaged sense), and that full detachment, while it might not make my life "better", would allow me some higher fulfillment that I'm not convinced I'll find through any active engagement with the world. But to some extent, that's maybe more a matter of personal preference than some grander philosophical thing.

  2. I'm far from an expert in these matters, but my understanding is that it's partly 'being in unity with the Tao will naturally lead you to accomplish good and valuable things more effectively than actively striving after them ever could', and partly 'most of the things you think are good and valuable probably aren't really all that great after all'. I agree that there's a strong quietist / antinomian strand in Taoism where you just submerge yourself completely in the Tao and accept that distinctions between (say) good and evil, or pain and pleasure, are ultimately meaningless. But my understanding of folk Taoism as actually practised is that it's more about the insight that the things most people want - peace, health, longevity, happiness - are more easily achieved by moving with the flow of the cosmos than by fighting against it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this Patrick. Reading your blog frequently takes me out of my typical content and stretches my mind a bit. That's your gift.

  4. Very interesting break down of Taoism, Patrick. Really appreciate this.

    "Moving through the world in a field of being you"
    is a phrase that comes to my mind. Action arising from your being rather than deliberate intent for specific outcomes. As you refine yourself, you can feel and listen to more of the natural you and filter more of the noise... action and inaction feel less forced, cause less friction.. and the effect on the world seems positive, often unexpectedly, often with synchronicity. This has been my experience, certainly in my work life recently.

    Pardon the babble...
    Just, thanks.

  5. I have to wonder what social environment taoism sprang from. It seems like an idea that might catch on with an unhappy and powerless underclass and find support from an authoritarian ruling class. If things are bad and you have little hope of changing them, then mental distance seems like a good emotional defense. And if you don't want your underlings to question their lot then supporting this taoist thing could reap political benefits.

    1. The Tao Te Ching contains many passages that I would consider very anti-authoritarian, in fact there's almost as much political as philosophical. It's been too long since I've read it to defend that strongly, but there's a lot of "good leaders lead from behind" kind of stuff. In a sense, the same logic about how people should behave is also supposed to apply to leaders. Of course in practice it might not have played out that way, but such is the world. I would think that Confucianism is much more authoritarian, but admittedly the two (three including Buddhism) were often practiced simultaneously.

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  7. Just read this article which contained an entry on "The Pearl of Lao Tzu" which would be an excellent TTRPG mcguffin :). Considering magic pearls are a major resource in my Aquarian Dawn campaign setting it works out especially well for me haha.

    1. Woops forgot to include the link: