Thursday 1 December 2005

REVIEW: The Three in the Morning Advice (2005)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIII No. 2 Winter 2005


Review by Martin Cohen

The Essential Chuang Tzu,
translated by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, pub. 1998 by Shambhala Publications. Boston and London ISBN 1-57062-336-8. Hb, pp 170

‘How should I know? Although that's how it is, I shall nevertheless try to explain. If I say I understand, how can I know whether I don't know what I say I understand? If I say I don't understand, by what measure may I know that what I say I don't know I actually know?’

Chinese philosophy, like the people themselves, has a reputation for being inscrutable. There have been many attempts to covey its rich wealth of meanings to the West, and many of the ideas in 'Greek' philosophy seem to have originated in China . But today Chinese philosophy rates barely a mention in most encylopedias of philosophy and philosophical treatises. Of course, it is partly ethnocentrism, not to say racism, but then again, Chinese philosophy is rather obscure. Why does it matter if the grass is pulled up by its roots - or not? What does the fox getting its tail muddy signify, exactly?

So here is one of the great books of Chinese philosophy, traditionally attributed, like those 'Socratic' dialogues, to a single author, Chuang Tzu (369-286 BCE) or Chuang Chou. Or Chusi - 'Choosy' - for short. Or indeed Zuangzi these days.

One of the three great sages of Ancient China, Chusi stressed the unity of all things, and the dynamic interplay of opposites. 'Good' and 'bad', he pointed out, are like everything else, interrelated and interchangeable. What is 'good' for the rabbit is 'bad' for the farmer (to offer a rather limp example of my own). The book 'Chuang Tzu', of which about a quarter is considered to be directly attributable to 'Master Chuang' is lively and playful, a mixture of stories and poetry as well as philosophical arguments, and has always been highly popular in China.

The same is not true in the West, despite many attempts to translate it into English. The best known being those at the end of the nineteenth century by Herbert Giles (in 1889) and by James Legge (in 1891). Fifty or so years later, a more poetic version appeared by Lin Yutang (in 1948) and at the end of the century, the Chuang Tzu was graced by no less than three retranslations - those of Angus Graham (in 1981), Victor Mair (in 1994) and finally two US writers, Sam Hamill, who as well as being a translator writes poetry, and J.P. Seaton, Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina, who returned to the classic in 1998.

In this latest version, the Essential Chuang Tzu, the poet and the professor try to offer a freer and they claim more 'authentic' rendition of the style of the original. Although they deny being too free. Instead they claim to respect the three aims of translations: being faithful, being expressive and being elegant.

And the introduction to the book, by Irving Yucheng Lo, gives some interesting ideas of how NOT to translate Chuang Tzu. One effort, originally published in 1931 (and reprinted in 1989) by Fung Yu-lan, for example, explains: 'The universe is a finger; all things are a horse. The possible is possible. The impossible is impossible.' The point is, Fung Yu-lan goes on ineffectually: 'The Tao makes things and they are what they are. What are they? They are what they are. What are they not? They are not what they are not.'

Victor Mair's 1994 translation punningly rebranded as 'Wandering on the Way' takes this same passage and offers:
'Heaven and Earth are the same as a finger; the myriad things are the same as a horse. Affirmation lies in affirming; denial lies in our denying. A way comes into being through our walking upon it; a thing is so because people say it is so. Why are things so? They are so because we declare them to be so. Why are things not so? They are not so because we declare them to be not so'. 
This is better, but also not better enough. And here is the latest Hamill and Seaton version, offered proudly by Irving Yucheng Lo for comparison in the foreword for their book: 'Heaven-and-earth- is one finger. All the ten thousand things are one horse. Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay. Walk in he Tao. Accomplish it all. Say words, and they're so. How so? Is so? How not so? Not so so?'

Not so so or not so-so? At this point one might decide after all to stick to Victor Mair's version were one to have a sufficiently wide library. Or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. The one with the 'antimonies'. Or the Tao of Pooh. the one with Eeyore. Or just anything really.

But there are little gems to be gleaned if one perseveres with the strange Chinese texts. For example, here is how Chaung Chou attempts to show the relativity of moral judgements:
If, as some sages said, killing was wrong, was it wrong to kill a hare when it was the only way to save yourself from starving? Surely not. Perhaps then it was always wrong to kill another human being? But what if that human being is a robber intent on killing and robbing a family? Surely it is then not wrong to kill him, if that is the only way to stop him? 
All moral knowledge depends in this way on context and situations -- it is relative. Chuang goes on to prove that in fact all knowledge -- not just moral or aesthetic judgements -- is equally rooted in context, and equally 'relative'. ' I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming it was Chou.' The lesson is that we should strive to transcend the world of distinctions.
'Looking at it from the Tao, there is no noble and no mean. From the point of view of things, each take itself for noble and all others for mean. ... They are mere products of opinion. From the point of view of difference, if we take something for big because it is big in some way, then there's not one among the ten thousand things that is not big. If we take something for small, then there is not one among the ten thousand things that is not small. When you know heaven and earth as seeds of grain and grass, when you know that the tip of a hair is a mound or a mountain, then you know something about difference and measurement...' 
Another of the themes of the Chuang Tzu, is the desirability of non-action even to the extent of eschewing government. Take the story of the man who crossed the river in an outrigger, when a boat smashes into him.
If the boat is empty, even if you are a hot-tempered person, you wont be angry. But if someone else is on the boat 'you'll yell at him to get out your way'. If he doesn't hear you, you'll yell again. And if he still pays no heed you'll yell a third time and follow that with really ugly sounds. The point is, You weren't angry the first time, with the empty boat, but you are the second time. Better to 'empty yourself' and be angry neither time.
A companion theme is the futility of it all anyway. How do we know that life is not merely a delusion? the text asks.
How am I to know that to despise death is not merely to be like one exiled in his youth and who now cannot find now his way home?... Now maybe there's a Great Big Awakening, after which we know that his has all been a Great Big Dream. Fools think they are awake now, having ferreted out the knowledge for themeless, ... the name for this is the Pitiful Deception. 
 It is here that perhaps the most famous passage of the Chuang Tzu comes, the 'butterfly dream'.
Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming it was Chou. 
The one thing turns into the other. And the key to Taoist philosophy is the concept of 'changing'. Naturally, for human beings the great change opportunity is death. 'The Great Clod loaded me down with this form', recalls Tzu Lai, 'and burdened me with life. It eased me with age and will realise my own heart and mind in death. Thus, if I make life a good, I must make death a good as well.'

But what if we like our present life? What if we think our life is 'important' - at least to us? And there follows a warning against human conceit and folly. ' If a master swordsmith were smelting today and the metal leaped up and said, 'I must be make into the famous Mo-ye sword', the smith would take it for metal of bad omen.'

Instead, modesty is a repeated theme. When Lieh Tzu discovered eventually that 'he hadn't yet begun to learn anything' he set us a good example:
He went home remaining inside for three long years. He did all the chores for his wife and fed the pigs as if they were people. He showed no affection for the affairs of the world, giving up the ostentatious for the plain. He stood alone inside himself like a clod of earth. And amid the flutter of confusion and division, he was at one to the end of his string of days. 
For, as Master Chuang says wisely (and here we return to our opening enigmatic statement):
To use a horse to prove that a horse in not a horse is not as good as to use non-horse to prove that a horse is not a horse'. Is that clear? No? Well, 'Heaven-and-Earth is one finger. All the thousand things are one horse. Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay. 
And even if it is still not okay, the text continues nonetheless, now even more emphatically:
Walk in the Tao. Accomplish it all. Say words, and they're so. How-so? Is so? How not so? Not so so? There is no thing that is not acceptable. Sprouts rise up, and mighty pillars, lepers and lovely women, strange and extraordinary things - in Tao they are one. To divide one is to 'accomplish', and whatever is accomplished is destruction, whatever is unaccomplished cannot be destroyed: it is eternally beginning again at the beginning... 
And here comes a useful little piece of advice for those who have exhausted 'the spirit and the mind' trying to make things one 'never realising that they are all the same' - the tip is called the 'Three in the Morning' advice. It recalls that there once was a monkey keeper who fed his monkeys nuts. One day when he said, 'I'll feed you three in the morning, and four in the afternoon', the monkeys became furious. So he offered instead to feed them four in the morning and three in the afternoon and the monkeys were delighted.

That's human nature certainly. But a higher way to live, with Buddhist or monkish tones, is described in a conversation between Kuang Ch'eng-tzu and the Yellow Emperor.

In passing it should be explained that, as in Plato's dialogues, the 'characters' need to be divided into different categories to follow the text. There are the historical figures, which in the Chuang Tzu include logicians like Hui Tzu (circa 370-310 BCE) and Confucius himself. Then there are the mythological or legendary figures like the Yellow Emperor. The words of these kinds of figures, as in Plato, are defined by what either they actually did say, or what they were generally agreed to have believed. The third group, however, is made up of entirely imaginary characters who can be given by Chuang Chou and the other authors of the Chuang Tzu any role they please. So, the character 'Cloud General' is said to roam the universe in search of an answer for good governance, before changing upon a creature who explains the value of 'transcending' such questions through non-action. But back to the Yellow Emperor's lesson.
Come. I'll speak to you of the true Tao. The essence of the true Tao is the chaste deep secrecy of mysterious darkness. The poles of true Tao are obscured in dark silence. No looking, no listening. Wrap your spirit in silence. Then your form will straighten of its own accord. You must silence your heart and mind to the point of clarity... Shut your doors to the external. A lot of knowing is a loss. I'll take you on to the Great Brightness and get you to the source of perfect yang. I'll lead you through the gate of Secret Darkness to the source of perfect yin. Heaven and earth have a manager already. Yin and yang are experts... Things can never be exhausted, and yet humankind insists there is an end to the string. There is no measure to things, yet humankind claims they have poles.... All the doctrines of the hundred schools that prate of illumination are born of dust and will return to dust.And the conclusion is then put: 'the destruction of the Tao and its Power for the sake of benevolence and righteousness is the error of the sage.' 
 Okay? In that case, back to the horses again.
Now horses, living on the land, eat grass and drink water. When happy, they twine their necks and rub together. When angry, they turn their backs to one another and kick. This is what horses know. But add a yoke and a moon-shaped plate on the forehead and horses know boundaries and limits, they know they are enslaved. Then, slyly, they look sidelong and arch their necks to bite. They thrash about, trying to expel the bit and shake free of the rings. They have learned now, from their capable hearts, how to be outlaws. This is the crime of Po Lo.
And similarly, people: 'with food in the mouths', used to be happy, 'drumming their bellies as they wandered'. After all, this was all people were able to do. But then along came some sage, twisting and bending to rites and music ! And 'the people began to prance on tiptoe, addicted to 'knowing', and struggling to go home to bed with profit'. There was no stopping them. This also is the crime of the sage. And so, Lao Tan (after a brief reprise of the executions and the forced amputations typical of rulers) sums up the remedy: 'So I say, cut down the sage. Reject his kind of knowing, and All Under Heaven will be ruled'.

Yet Chusi himself is a sage with his own great teachings. There's the ( Buddhist) one that suffering is mainly a result of refusing to accept 'what is', and the other one that is a message of nonconformity and freedom, itself a vital antidote to the effects of over-rigid Confucianism. That's ironic. But then the other legacy of Chusi is his use of paradoxes - or 'koans' as they would become in Zen philosophy. Already, that's three schools of philosophy drawing on the one book. So, obscure or not, Hamill and Seaton's version is well worth a look.

The Philosopher's verdict: at best, it is mystical

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