The use of being useless

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

Sometimes when reading the Yi Jing or Confucian books, we can forget that the “superior man” is not recognised as such by our society or culture.

The Daoist classics offer a more colourful account of the sage or the man of virtue as someone who stands apart from society and culture, someone whose words and actions are as likely to bemuse or confuse as they are to enlighten.

In emulating the “uncarved block” Laozi describes himself as seemingly inferior to others:

All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles,
As though feasting after the Great Sacrifice,
As though going up to the Spring Carnival.
I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign;
Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the mind of a very idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self-assured;
I alone depressed.
(I seem unsettled as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.)
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.

His description is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s “use of what is useless”, and we find it echoing again in the theme of this blog – the superior man is not a utensil.

To be interested in this stuff, to take it seriously, let alone to try to practice it, is to invest in something profoundly anti-social and counter-cultural, at least as our society and culture currently stand. Like choosing poverty over wealth, low status over high, solitude over popularity.

Understanding the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end sounds well and good until you realise that “the transitory” includes everything that occupies and demands our attention in nearly every moment of ordinary life.

Who wants to be dull, dark and depressed? Who wants to be intractable and boorish? But that’s what remains when your desire for the transitory begins to fade.

The uselessness of a martial art

gate
I took this photo about ten years ago at WuYi Shan in Fujian. To me, Kung Fu is kinda like this gate: very old, well-worn, but beautiful, and always promising more on the other side.

My kung fu teacher has always emphasised the dangers of fighting, regardless of one’s skill or confidence in a martial art. Last week he put it more succinctly, noting that the greater our ability and knowledge, the greater our awareness of the danger implicit in any physical confrontation. Paradoxically, the better we are at kung fu or any martial art, the less likely we are to use it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Wenzi:

When you go on the Way, it makes other people unable to wound you no matter how boldly they stab, unable to hit you no matter how skillfully they strike.

Indeed, to be immune to stabbing and striking is still an embarrassment; it is not as good as causing people not to dare to stab you no matter how bold they are, not to dare to strike you no matter how clever they are.

Now not daring does not mean there is no such intention, so it is even better to cause people not to have the intent.

Those who have no such intention do not have a mind that loves to help or harm. That is not as good as causing all the men and women in the world to joyfully wish to love and help you.

If you can do that, then you are a sovereign even if you have no land, you are a chief even if you have no office; everyone will wish for your security and welfare.

It’s an amusing quotation, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, but well worth considering in the context of martial arts, and learning to skilfully attack and defend oneself. Skill in attacking and defending are a part of ‘the Way’ even if we never have to use them.

There’s a difference, after all, between a person who has a skill but doesn’t use it, and one who doesn’t have the skill and hopes he never needs it. Likewise, there’s a difference between the kinds of people who get in a lot of fights, and the kinds of people who devote years of their lives to learning a martial art. Certainly the former are more dangerous than the latter, but mostly in the same way that a drunk-driver is more dangerous than a skilled driver.

These days it is considered vital for martial arts to be ‘reality-based’ or tested somehow in a sporting context or a military or law-enforcement context. But for most of us the reality has nothing to do with these contexts, and even the ‘reality’ of the most common assault scenarios is relative. A few years ago I came across a map of Adelaide that showed the crime rate for specific crimes by suburb. Want to avoid violent assault? The best approach appears to be: a) don’t live in the lower socio-economic areas of the extreme Northern and Southern suburbs, and b) don’t hang around drunk or on drugs in city night-spots in the early hours of the morning.

I don’t know a great deal about the historical context in which the Chinese martial art I learn was first created, but chances are it is still more ‘reality-based’ than the behaviour of the drug and alcohol inspired perpetrators of casual violence in our society. In a city with an excellent state-subsidised medical system and a responsive network of paramedics you don’t really need to worry that starting a drunken fight might get you killed, or worse still, leave you injured, disfigured, and unable to work with a string of dependents beggared and homeless thanks to your irresponsible behaviour.

I think what attracts many of us to martial arts is that they promise something beyond a mere set of skills driven by utility. They may have started out as that, once upon a time, but in the present era they take on a life and a purpose of their own, bringing a great deal of richness to our own lives even if we are never in a position where the art is ‘useful’ in the most practical sense of self-defence.

For me, my martial art encompasses self-defence but goes beyond it, with enough physical, cultural, technical and psychological benefits and fascinations to keep me at it, hopefully until I’m too old to do anything else. This alone is enough to distinguish such a martial art from whatever realities motivate people to start pub-fights, to ‘king hit’ random strangers, or generally stir up trouble wherever they go.

But admittedly there is also a pleasure in knowing that if I or someone I care about is ever attacked I won’t make it easy for the attacker. It is good to know that I have developed the strength and the skill to give as good as I might get, while still knowing the limits of what any level of skill can guarantee.

“In springtime the dragon is useless”

A good friend recently gave me a copy of a book called ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘ by Simon Leys, the pen name of the late Pierre Ryckmans, the renowned Belgian-Australian sinologist, literary critic, and writer.

The ‘uselessness’ theme is not incidental.  In his foreword the author quotes Zhuangzi:

“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

In case there was any doubt, the first chapter ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ demonstrates Ryckmans’ deep appreciation of useless:

“In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to the “smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.

What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): the successful man adapts himself to the world.  The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

I’m already into the second chapter, which includes an amusing private exchange between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ irreverent attack on Mother Theresa.

I’m especially looking forward to his chapter on G.K. Chesterton, amidst a wealth of other literary commentary; but I suspect the most intriguing section will prove to be the significant minority of the book dedicated to Ryckmans’ work as a sinologist, exploring Chinese political and literary culture from the misunderstood Confucius to contemporary political dissidents.

I’ll leave you with a poem from Tao Yuanming, quoted in Ryckmans’ essay on Chinese aesthetics:

I built my hut among people
And yet their noise does not disturb me
How is this possible, I ask you?
Solitude can be created by the mind, it is not a matter of distance.
Plucking Chrysanthemums at the foot of the hedge,
I gaze toward the faraway mountains.
At dusk the mountain air is beautiful,
When birds are returning.
Truth is at the heart of all this:
I wish to express it, yet find no words.

Thank you greatly for the gift Mark, I know I will enjoy it!