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.

Good Friday notes

One of the aspects of Chinese philosophy that appeals to me is the apparent intuitive grasp of theological themes made explicit centuries later in the events that form the heart of the Christian faith.  The Good Friday reading from Isaiah is likewise presented as a presaging of the messiah’s death and resurrection. This aspect of Chinese philosophy has not been well explored, though it appears in at least one book: Christ the Eternal Tao, written by a Russian Orthodox monk who was into Buddhism and Daoism before his conversion.

Personally, I appreciate being able to read these early Chinese texts as an intuitive attempt to depict the way of heaven, the Logos, without the more human, biographical aspects of biblical narrative and anthropomorphic interpretations of the divine.  Perhaps as an apophatic (negative) expression of theology, emphasising the darkness and mystery of God:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

– Yi Jing 15

The Yi Jing is an ancient book of wisdom and divination, dating anywhere from the 10th to the 4th centuries BC with commentaries added within the following few centuries.

The same theme emerges prominently in various passages of the Dao De Jing, a Daoist text dating to at least the 4th century BC:

Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it.

That the yielding conquers the resistant and the soft conquers the hard is a fact known by all men, yet utilized by none.

Yet it is in reference to this that the Sage said “Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.” Straight words seem crooked.

– Dao De Jing 78


Finally, the first reading on Good Friday came from the Book of Isaiah, the 8th century BC Hebrew Prophet:

See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.

As the crowd were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human – so will the crowds be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before…

Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him), no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him…

…we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God, and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed…

The Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.

– Isaiah 52-53




Creative dismay

I would also have accepted ‘depression’ and ‘despair’, but dismay with its roots in the Latin exmagare “divest of power or ability” seems so much more fitting.

It’s a melancholic thing, I’m sure; and it goes in cycles: first the inspiration, striving to obtain the ideal. This effort is rewarded with success, and success is very pleasing but the ideal is still not obtained. Time passes and we feel the need to achieve success again in some small measure, but this time the effort is not inspired. All we can do is attempt to repeat the previous work as though following a formula, thinking “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”.

But it doesn’t work. You can’t repeat your success because you weren’t aiming for success in the first place, you were aiming for the ideal. Success for its own sake is no ideal. So there you are: both past success and inspiration fading away, increasingly desperate to resurrect some measure of that lost energy, and all you can do is create half-a-dozen scribbled ideas, attempts at writing that might seem plausible in theory but in practice only fill you with a sense of dismay – divested of power, inspiration, success, and the ideal.

The problem lies in trying to seize for ourselves the source of our creativity when in reality it cannot be controlled or held. Our work might be ‘creative’, but our role in the creative process is ultimately a receptive one. As the Yi Jing states:

There is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles [Creative and Receptive]. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand as an equal side by side with the Creative, does it become evil. The result then is opposition to and struggle against the Creative, which is productive of evil to both.

You can receive inspiration and follow ideals; you cannot create inspiration or lead an ideal. This creative dismay is a symptom of trying to lead the creative, to push and manipulate inspiration, typically in aid of some transient external goal. These transient external goals such as the desire to succeed, the fear of losing momentum in one’s work, the enjoyment of having one’s work published and read by an audience – they are ultimately vain and empty if there is nothing deeper to sustain them. To pursue success without ‘inner truth’ is a hopeless cause, as Confucius in his commentary on the Yi Jing notes:

The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! If the superior man abides in his room and his words are not well spoken, he meets with contradiction at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! Words go forth from one’s own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor or disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves heaven and earth. Must one not, then, be cautious?

Dismay may signal the loss of creativity, but it also shows the path of return. By accepting the experience of dismay as a source of inspiration, we return to the role of the receptive principle, devoting ourselves once again to the role of the follower, devoted to the movements of creativity however it may lead.

Yet it is worth remembering how this whole lesson came about: through the superficial and ultimately vain desire to once again succeed at writing, coupled with the fear of losing momentum, becoming unproductive, and falling behind. These fears and desires have never before instigated success in my writing. Desperation has had little bearing on inspiration. It is important therefore to remain objective about writing: both the process and the prospects. To go two or three weeks without an article will not be the end of the world; at the same time a hurried and desperate composition might even detract from my existing body of work. At the same time, I should not ignore the deeper suspicion that the writing I am currently doing may not be the final direction of my work.

On this the opinion of the Yi could not be clearer:

The cock is dependable. It crows at dawn. But it cannot itself fly to heaven. It just crows. A man may count on mere words to awaken faith. This may succeed now and then, but if persisted in, it will have bad consequences.

The modesty of water


The Yi Jing or Classic of Change is an ancient Chinese divination manual that developed into a cosmological and philosophical classic.  In his book of collected essays ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘, the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans referred to it as “the most ancient, most holy (and most obscure), of all the Chinese classics”.

The text and it’s neo-Confucian commentary was translated into German by Richard Wilhelm in 1924, and from German into English by Cary Baynes in 1967.  The text is arranged in a series of hexagrams or sets of six lines, representing various permutations of Yin and Yang, the passive and active cosmological forces or metaphysical principles which are a common element in Chinese philosophy.

In simple terms, each hexagram is an image or symbol of an underlying pattern in reality.  Any situation or circumstance can be depicted or explained in terms of a hexagram.  While it might sound mysterious, it is in principle no different from the normal human behaviour of trying to read the ‘signs of the times’. For example, my present situation of being unemployed yet financially independent is very new to me.  There is a great deal of opportunity and potential, but it isn’t clear how best to proceed.
According to the Yi Jing, my present circumstances are like the hexagram Kan – the Abysmal.Kan is a pit or abyss, a dangerous situation, but it also denotes water, in particular the behaviour of water as it fills and then overflows and escapes an abyss.

Through repetition of danger we grow accustomed to it. Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances. It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions. Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation.

To me this suggests that because my circumstances are still ambiguous and unclear, the way head is simply to remain ‘true to myself’ and not shirk the dangers and difficulties that lie ahead. As the text continues, its relevance to my current circumstances becomes even clearer:

The abyss is dangerous.
One should strive to attain small things only.

When we are in danger we ought not to attempt to get out of it immediately, regardless of circumstances; at first we must content ourselves with not being overcome by it. We must calmly weigh the conditions of the time and be satisfied with small gains, because for the time being a great success cannot be attained. A spring flows only sparingly at first, and tarries for some time before it makes its way into the open.

This is excellent advice.  What bothers me most at this point is the thought that I ought to be striving to achieve something significant, to quickly move forward and develop my prospects easily and seamlessly.  Yet this would be to underestimate and overlook the dangers and difficulties I face. I should instead be content with gradual progress as I adjust to this new situation.

Forward and backward, abyss on abyss.
In danger like this, pause at first and wait,
Otherwise you will fall into a pit in the abyss.
Do not act this way.

Here every step, forward or backward, leads into danger. Escape is out of the question. Therefore we must not be misled into action, as a result of which we should only bog down deeper in the danger; disagreeable as it may be to remain in such a situation, we must wait until a way out shows itself.

This section reinforces the danger of any impertinent action and the need to wait for a way out to appear.

The abyss is not filled to overflowing,
It is filled only to the rim.
No blame.

Danger comes because one is too ambitious. In order to flow out of a ravine, water does not rise higher than the lowest point of the rim. So likewise a man when in danger has only to proceed along the line of least resistance; thus he reaches the goal. Great labors cannot be accomplished in such times; it is enough to get out of the danger.

As much as I would like to undertake ‘great labors’ in terms of building my writing career, furthering my PhD, and building our natural wealth, I am being too ambitious.  I should instead be satisfied that I am no longer in danger either from a soul-destroying employment, or from financial hardship.

Finally, the Hexagram Kan changes into the Hexagram Qian – modesty.  Such a change can indicate future developments, or deeper issues, but in this case it shows what follows naturally from behaving like water:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

The destinies of men are subject to immutable laws that must fulfill themselves. But man has it in his power to shape his fate, according as his behavior exposes him to the influence of benevolent or of destructive forces. When a man holds a high position and is nevertheless modest, he shines with the light of wisdom; if he is in a lowly position and is modest, he cannot be passed by. Thus the superior man can carry out his work to the end without boasting of what he has achieved.

Modesty in practice and modesty in presentation are therefore the key to future prosperity.  Modesty is opposed to the ambition and striving warned against in the Kan hexagram.  While Kan is represented by the image of water, Qian is represented by the image of a mountain within the earth – something great and powerful yet nonetheless buried and hidden.

Together these results indicate that the correct response to my current circumstances is to put aside ambition and embrace modesty, remaining sincere throughout whatever difficulties and dangers we might face. In practical terms this modesty will emerge not only in the daily challenges of our household frugality, but also personally in resisting thoughts of ambition and striving which are out of place with our current circumstances.

After all, to strive for success at this point in time would have no natural connection to the genuine opportunities and advantages of our new circumstances.  How could success come from such an ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction?

The Dao of Parenting

A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

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

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.

The Power of Sincerity

“Sincerity is that whereby self-completion is effected, and its way is that by which man must direct himself.”

We think of a sincere person as someone honest and open. But for a melancholic idealist sincerity has far greater significance.

The definition of sincerity is freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity,
which comes from the Latin sincerus meaning whole, pure, clean, or unmixed, which in turn is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘of one growth’.

‘Of one growth’ means that one’s words, deeds, and even one’s bearing are expressions of one’s deeper nature. No pretence, no duplicity, no contrivance, no artifice.

The idealist appreciates this, because his efforts are useless if they do not accord with his ideal. Efforts are too much to sustain, and superficialities are too much to remember if they are not founded in something deep, unchanging, and reliable.

The Doctrine of the Mean ascribes almost supernatural qualities to sincerity:

Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought;– he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast.

Or perhaps it is better to say that it describes an almost supernatural degree of sincerity.

It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.

This section of the Confucian classic is reminiscent of the older text, the Zhou Yi or Yi Jing, Hexagram 61, ‘Inner Truth’:

Pigs and fishes are the least intelligent of all animals and therefore the most difficult to influence. The force of inner truth must grow great indeed before its influence can extend to such creatures. In dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, the whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must first rid oneself of all prejudice and, so to speak, let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with him, understand and gain power over him. When a door has thus been opened, the force of one’s personality will influence him. If in this way one finds no obstacles insurmountable, one can undertake even the most dangerous things, such as crossing the great water, and succeed.

Both the Confucian text and the Yi recognise that sincerity is not morally neutral; it both encourages and presupposes underlying virtue:

But it is important to understand upon what the force of inner truth depends. This force is not identical with simple intimacy or a secret bond. Close ties may exist also among thieves; it is true that such a bond acts as a force but, since it is not invincible, it does not bring good fortune. All association on the basis of common interests holds only up to a certain point. Where the community of interest ceases, the holding together ceases also, and the closest friendship often changes into hate. Only when the bond is based on what is right, on steadfastness, will it remain so firm that it triumphs over everything.

Sincerity ensures that our words and deeds arise from a secure foundation in our true nature, rather than the vagaries of cultural forces, or the facades of daily life. The attainment of sincerity is more than simply ‘being honest’ or ‘being oneself’. Rather, it is the expression of one’s true nature, which is in turn the foundation of virtue in a human context.