Letting go day 01

A series on “letting go” seemed wrong a couple of weeks ago, but now I feel the need for it.

Clarity is good, but I don’t just want clarity. I also want ease and trust and letting go.

In the martial art I learn, it’s just not possible to focus on every aspect each time we train. As much as I wanted there to be a single correct way of training, there are many different aspects that need to be kept up turn by turn if you want to progress.

It reminds me of a story from the Zhuangzi:

‘I have heard my master say that they who skilfully nourish their life are like shepherds, who whip up the sheep that they see lagging behind.’

‘What did he mean?’ asked the duke.

The reply was, ‘In Lû there was a Shan Pâo, who lived among the rocks, and drank only water. He would not share with the people in their toils and the benefits springing from them; and though he was now in his seventieth year, he had still the complexion of a child. Unfortunately he encountered a hungry tiger, which killed and ate him.

There was also a Kang Î, who hung up a screen at his lofty door, and to whom all the people hurried (to pay their respects). In his fortieth year, he fell ill of a fever and died.

(Of these two men), Pâo nourished his inner man, and a tiger ate his outer; while Î nourished his outer man, and disease attacked his inner. Both of them neglected whipping up their lagging sheep.’

I’m hoping this series will remind me each day to let go and trust, and enjoy the ease that comes from it. I’m hoping it will take me deeper and deeper into letting go and allowing my life to unfold without resistance.

Being whole in power: feeling good in Chinese philosophy

Feeling good consistently reminds me of the image of water depicted in the Yi Jing:

Water sets the example for the right conduct…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. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed.

Water reaches its goal by flowing continually. It fills up every depression before it flows on. The superior man follows its example; he is concerned that goodness should be an established attribute of character rather than an accidental and isolated occurrence.

We tend to think of “goodness” in a modern moralistic sense, but the Chinese idea of virtue – like the premodern Western idea – is much more holistic than that.

To be a good person is to be more fully human. Virtue in Chinese thought is equated with the “power” that flows to all things from the Dao.

Daoist and Confucian depictions of virtue therefore tend to the more mysterious and metaphysical than the legalistic or judicial contexts found in the Abrahamic religions.

Here’s an example from the Zhuangzi, where Confucius is depicted describing mysterious power:

What do you mean when you say his powers are whole?” asked Duke Ai.

Confucius said, “Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are the alternations of the world, the workings of fate. Day and night they change place before us and wisdom cannot spy out their source. Therefore, they should not be enough to destroy your harmony; they should not be allowed to enter the Spirit Storehouse.

If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy, if you can do this day and night without break and make it be spring with everything, mingling with all and creating the moment within your own mind – this is what I call being whole in power.”

I used to interpret this text as a statement of detachment and dispassion. But now I see in it the clear references to happiness, joy, harmony and delight.

This is not a cold and empty sage who feels nothing. It is a person who dwells in joy and happiness independent of external circumstances and thus masters them all.

Creating the moment within your own mind means actively choosing to focus on what feels good rather than letting circumstances dictate how you feel.

It is our worry and concern about external circumstances that disturb our spirit, harm our virtue, and interfere in the harmony and guidance of the Dao.

Empty your cup

Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like “Zen and the Brain” I ordered from America back in the early 2000s which I hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular martial arts idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

There was more satisfaction in receiving that answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuang-zi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

A Spiritual Reality

Ours is a spiritual reality.

We are spiritual beings, and though we inhabit bodies our bodies do not describe our limits.

Spirit is obvious, yet so obvious it can be denied if we fixate only on the material aspect of our experience.

Like watching a movie and forgetting there’s a whole film crew just out of view. We suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that the objects of our senses are all that matter.

When he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him. He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self.

Zhuangzi

A spiritual reality doesn’t follow the laws we have ascribed to life, the conventions and limitations of “the world”.

Spiritual reality inverts the relationship between inner world and outer: our innermost being is one with the creative power behind all things.

We might spend our days struggling to arrange things to our liking, but the deeper part of us is united with the singular being that created all those things, holds them in existence, and governs them.

There are effectively two “selves” within us: the self who experiences reality as a limited, physical being, and the self who is one with the creator.

Our goal is to reconcile or align the two; bring peace, love, and joy to the smaller “self” who has suffered so long under the illusion of separateness, powerlessness, and mortality in an uncaring world.

Our innermost being feels only love and joy, suffers no fear or anxiety, sees eternity and knows the pure, endless sufficiency of the creative power.

Our spiritual work is to relinquish the falsehoods accrued by our outer self and seek refuge in the abundance of our inner being.

Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.

– Kabir

And then what?

This is where I used to get stuck.

Withdraw from the outer self and enjoy the vision of your innermost being…but then what?

Even though I knew the theory, in practice I couldn’t help but return to the limited, constrained, and conventional view of reality.

I clung to a polarised view of spiritual vs physical, contemplation vs action.

I devalued the physical world in order to focus more on the spiritual, and yet that polarisation proved unstable.

And illogical: if the spiritual is all, how can the physical undermine or confound it? If the outer self is so much less than the inner self, why does it dominate?

I might enjoy a wonderful vision of spiritual reality, but then it was time to return to the real world.

And the whole time I thought I was being impractical, but it turned out I wasn’t being radical enough.

When Peter walked on the water, it was his fears that sank him.

In my case, the very question of “what now?” shows I still had fears, and a kind of faith in the physical world, even though I professed to believe in a spiritual one.

Does happiness come from outside, or from within?

Is this a spiritual world or a material one?

Did God create everything, or did everything create God?

In the end I discovered that my negative expectations about “physical reality” had spiritual ramifications.

I persevered under the mistaken premise that physical reality represented a “problem” for which spiritual insight was the solution.

I kept searching for answers, by unwittingly reiterating the question, over and over again.

And so the true answer is to stop asking the wrong question. Ours is a spiritual reality – it just is.

Not in contrast to how everyone thinks the world works; why should I care (and how would I know?) what everyone thinks?

The point, a spiritual point, is what I think: and embracing a spiritual reality means no longer affirming a physical reality as the problem I have to solve, or the prison I need to escape.

Spiritual reality is not an instead of, or in contrast to. It just is, and is all that is.

Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

Saving our best advice for others

A friend is worried about 4th year med, stressing out about the changing circumstances and expectations, afraid of failing.

I offered lots of advice, but none of it seemed truly satisfactory.

In the end, I asked what she would tell me, if I were in her situation.

We both knew the answer: stop whining. Just do what you need to do. Do your best, try your hardest, if you pass you pass, if you fail you fail.

It’s a comfort because there’s no ambiguity. Either you have what it takes to pass, or you don’t. Passing is either dependent on your efforts or it isn’t.

But what intrigued me is how clear the answer is when we’re looking at other people’s circumstances. Call it ‘the clarity of not caring’ if you like.

Not that we don’t care about others, but we don’t care in a way that obscures the obvious course of action.

When it comes to our own lives, we’re blinded by worries and possibilities. We lose the clarity that lets us be frank with others.

It reminds me of a passage from Zhuangzi:

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

It’s not easy, but when we’re struggling with a problem we can sometimes benefit by imagining someone else in that situation and what we would then advise them.

I once read a book by a psychologist that suggested we have greater insight into ourselves when we look at our objective behaviour rather than using introspection.

These methods aren’t foolproof, nor are they necessarily always the right approach. After all, our advice to others isn’t exactly omniscient, is it?

But it can at least help us gain clarity, temporary respite from fears and desires that otherwise cloud our assessment of the situation.

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 true men of old

Embed from Getty Images

For a second time, Ian’s comments have prompted me to clarify my personal response to eugenics, beyond the ethical critique and into a domain that I have not reflected on in this light for a long time.

In practical terms, I realised some time ago that I could not wait for science to unravel the various psychological, biological, and physical mysteries that limit and confuse us.

Nor did I think I could simply work these things out for myself.

But I knew there were people considered ‘wise’ and better still, there were writings and teachings left by wise and mysterious individuals from centuries and millennia ago. What I found in them was the near-universal understanding that our current state was one of decline from our origins. Humans had, through a variety of attributed reasons, lost their original state, their natural state, and suffered for it.

Take for example the Zhuangzi’s depiction of the ‘true men of old’:

What is meant by ‘the True Man?’ The True men of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tâo.

The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats. When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men.

3. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go. Therefore the sagely man might, in his conduct of war, destroy a state without losing the hearts of the people; his benefits and favours might extend to a myriad generations without his being a lover of men. Hence he who tries to share his joys with others is not a sagely man; he who manifests affection is not benevolent; he who observes times and seasons (to regulate his conduct) is not a man of wisdom; he to whom profit and injury are not the same is not a superior man; he who acts for the sake of the name of doing so, and loses his (proper) self is not the (right) scholar; and he who throws away his person in a way which is not the true (way) cannot command the service of others.

[…]

4. The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but being without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality or display about it. Their placidity and satisfaction had the appearance of joy; their every movement seemed to be a necessity to them. Their accumulated attractiveness drew men’s looks to them; their blandness fixed men’s attachment to their virtue. They seemed to accommodate themselves to the (manners of their age), but with a certain severity; their haughty indifference was beyond its control. Unceasing seemed their endeavours to keep (their mouths) shut; when they looked down, they had forgotten what they wished to say.

These religious and philosophical texts unanimously point toward the reestablishment of this unusual state, a state of being that is achievable, yet difficult. It depends on spiritual discipline, and a certain understanding of metaphysics – the nature of existence and our place in it:

7. This is the Tâo;– there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Thâi-kî, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old.

After years of reading this kind of stuff in its varied religious contexts, I still find the Chinese Daoist and Confucian traditions most appealing. At the same time, I no longer put much stock in the standard sources of civilisational hope and comfort as before. Technology is great, exciting, and full of promise. But it is also an amplifier of our deeper faults and should be viewed in light of the more profound, restorative path illumined by our ancestors.

As a society we are very good at pursuing what we desire. We are very bad at determining what we should and should not find desirous in the first place. We muddle through life, measuring our failure and success by superficial and shifting social standards. In rare moments we become aware of something deeper, more solid, more real than our own selves. I think our lives ought to focus on that deeper reality, despite all the distractions, social expectations and pressures of life that draw us away. If we could grasp hold of that deeper reality and never let it go, then I think we would know what to do in the rest of our lives.

In this respect, I share C.S. Lewis’ dismay at the prospect of a weak and ungrounded humanity modifying itself – or more realistically, some humans modifying others – under the sway of a poorly-examined technological imperative and an emotivism without true ethical boundaries.

The recent decision in the UK to allow alteration of the human germline means that children created with transplanted mitochondrial DNA from a third person (in addition to biological mother and father) will pass this genetic modification down through their own future offspring.

The logic of this change to the legislation is the same as that which I witnessed in a professional capacity as an ethicist during the stem-cell and then cloning debates in Australia.

It suggests to me that there are no limits to what biotechnological innovations our legislatures will approve, so long as a sufficiently compelling technological and emotive case can be made. In a few short years the Australian parliament went from condemning all forms of human cloning (as a line that could not be crossed) to endorsing ‘therapeutic cloning’ for the exact same reasons they had originally endorsed the destruction of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. This is not even a case of our legislators holding ethical beliefs with which I disagree, but of a parliament that can’t even hold to its own stated ethical conclusions for more than a few years.

Stifling Creativity

What is it that stifles creativity?

I have an idea, and then an almost undetectable movement in my mind nullifies it.

If I gave this movement words, it would say “don’t worry. it’s not important. it won’t matter” and surely part of me agrees.

But the part that wants to write is stymied. It’s very difficult to be productive when your own mind is telling you your creation has no real significance.

I’ve tried to trace out the contours of this strange mental landscape where intriguing thoughts and moving ideas can fall away as sudden as their first appearance. I’ve searched for a logic or a balance to it: maybe my desire to publish distorts and inflates the apparent worth of ideas that don’t really have enough substance? Like someone who falls for get-rich-quick schemes, confirmation bias exagerrates the evidence of success and hides any evidence to the contrary.

If I forget about wanting to write, I will recognise worthy ideas and motivations when they do arise. Yet the fear is that this laissez-faire, natural approach will not be enough, that I must really push if I want to get anywhere. I’m too easily caught up by hopes and expectations, and for all the stress and strain that follows, accomplish little more than anxiety. Such fears are totally contrary to my own deeper beliefs.

This lesson is reflected in Zhuangzi’s anecdote of the archer:

“He who is contending for a piece of earthenware puts forth all his skill. If the prize be a buckle of brass, he shoots timorously; if it be for an article of gold, he shoots as if he were blind. The skill of the archer is the same in all the cases; but (in the two latter cases) he is under the influence of solicitude, and looks on the external prize as most important. All who attach importance to what is external show stupidity in themselves.”

This idea of the natural, ‘ziran’ 自然 , is prominent in Daoist philosophy and we shall return to it in future posts. For present purposes ziran means that it is better, in relation to new ideas, to let them arise naturally and without pressure. Having a purpose in mind distorts perception, judgement, and reflection, even to our peril.

You cannot force your creativity, though you can feed it. We can also, like the archer, hone our skills through hard work and diligent practice. These aspects of self-cultivation mean that hard work does take place, effort is fruitful, and creativity remains spontaneous and free, because these diverse functions retain their proper place, the correct relationship with one another. External influences – hopes and expectation, worries and fears – throw our internal state into disorder such that we end up trying to be creative by force, make our efforts spontaneous and diffuse, and, in Daoist terms, neglect the root in favour of the branches.

Stoicism and the Dao

More from Frede:

This focus on our internal life is sharpened by the fact that, according to the Stoics, wisdom is the only good, that a wise life is a good life, and that nothing else matters. So long as one acts wisely, one lives a life of (for us) unimaginable satisfaction and bliss, whatever may happen to one, whether one gets tortured or maimed or killed. The wise person will normally be concerned to avoid such things, but, if they do happen, they will make no difference to him, as he is just concerned to act wisely, by giving assent when appropriate and refusing assent when inappropriate. So the whole focus of one’s life now is on one’s inner life. And there is a further factor which reinforces this focus, namely, the assumption that the course of the world outside is predetermined. All the wise person can do is try to avoid death, but if he does not manage that, he takes this as a sure sign that nature in her wisdom means him to die and that therefore it is a good thing for him to die. All he has to do, having failed in his attempts to avoid impending death, is to give assent to the thought that it must be a good thing that he is going to die.

There are certain parallels to the Zhuangzi:

Before long Tsze-lâi fell ill, and lay gasping at the point of death, while his wife and children stood around him wailing. Tsze-lî went to ask for him, and said to them, ‘Hush! Get out of the way! Do not disturb him as he is passing through his change.’ Then, leaning against the door, he said (to the dying man), ‘Great indeed is the Creator! What will He now make you to become? Where will He take you to? Will He make you the liver of a rat, or the arm of an insect? Tsze-lâi replied, ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, east, west, south, or north, he simply follows the command. The Yin and Yang are more to a man than his parents are. If they are hastening my death, and I do not quietly submit to them, I shall be obstinate and rebellious. There is the great Mass (of nature);– I find the support of my body in it; my life is spent in toil on it; my old age seeks ease on it; at death I find rest on it:– what has made my life a good will make my death also a good.

‘Here now is a great founder, casting his metal. If the metal were to leap up (in the pot), and say, “I must be made into a (sword like the) Mo-yeh,” the great founder would be sure to regard it as uncanny. So, again, when a form is being fashioned in the mould of the womb, if it were to say, “I must become a man; I must become a man,” the Creator would be sure to regard it as uncanny. When we once understand that heaven and earth are a great melting-pot, and the Creator a great founder, where can we have to go to that shall not be right for us? We are born as from a quiet sleep, and we die to a calm awaking.’

To be honest, I really dislike these sections of the Zhuangzi. Guo Xiang, the fourth century Neo-Daoist interpreter and compiler of the Zhuangzi, argued that beings were ‘self-generated’. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Guo takes issue with the view that the key to unlocking the mystery of Dao lies in the concept of wu, nothingness. This is because nothingness remains an abstraction, a negation signifying “nonbeing” or what being is not in Wang Bi’s interpretation, and as such cannot bring about creation. So defined, wu and the category of beings (you) are mutually exclusive; as Guo plainly states, “It is not only that wu cannot change into being but also that being cannot change into nonbeing [in this abstract sense] (commentary to Zhuangzi 22). The appeal to a divine creator should indeed be rejected, but this does not entail a nihilistic absence. Having disposed of these options, what does Guo Xiang have to offer in their place? He writes, “Because wu [by definition] is not being, it cannot produce being. Prior to the coming to be of being, it cannot produce other beings. In that case, then, who or what brought about the birth of being? [The answer can only be that] beings are spontaneously self-generated”

[…]

At the most basic ontological level, prior to the birth of the myriad beings, being is “so of itself,” which implies that being exists eternally. In Guo’s own words, “Generally, we may know the causes of certain things and affairs near to us. But tracing their origin to the ultimate end, we find that without any cause, they of themselves come to be what they are. Being so of themselves, we can no longer question the reason or cause of their being, but should accept them as they are”

This is in contrast to Wang Bi, who developed a form of ‘First Cause’ argument:

Like He Yan, Wang Bi focuses on the concept of “nothingness” (wu) in his explication of Dao. Indeed, as Wang states explicitly, “Dao” is but “the designation of wu,” a symbol of the basis of all beings and functions (commentary to Lunyu 7.6). Contrary to He Yan, however, Wang Bi does not regard the argument from Dao’s completeness to be able to explain fully the mystery of Dao. This is because it fails to resolve the problem of infinite regress. If the chain of beings were to be traced to a specific agent or entity, the origin of the latter must itself be questioned. What gives rise to the category of beings thus cannot be a being, no matter how powerful or fecund, with or without differentiated features. This does not necessarily invalidate the yin-yang cosmological theory, which does yield important insight into the workings of nature and society. Nevertheless, it cannot lay bare the highest Daoist truth, with which the sages of old were principally concerned. To bring to light the mysterious and profound, reflection must venture beyond what may be called the ontology of substance to discern the logic of wu.

‘Wu’ is not simply ‘nothing’, since it is designated by ‘Dao’, everything that is said of Dao must apply to wu. Rather, ‘nothingness’ in dichotomy with ‘you’ as ‘being’, encompasses the ontological distinction between the ‘ten thousand things’ or created beings including humans, and the invisible, intangible, mysterious ‘thing’ that we can hardly call a ‘thing’ since it differs so substantially. Wang Bi admits that in its apparent emptiness, we could pretend the Dao does not exist at all…were it not for the evidence of its effects.

One wishes to say that it does not exist? [The fact still remains] that the entities are based on it for their completion. One wants to say it exists? [The fact still remains] that it does not show its form. That is why [the text] says: “shape of the shapeless, appearance of the no-thing.”
– Rudolf Wagner, A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing

For Wang Bi, the ’emptiness’ of the Dao is its power. To follow the Dao is to embody its emptiness in our lives. This is achieved by getting rid of desires and private interests, including the desire for virtue, which turns out to be a fruitless chasing after the appearance, rather than the source, of virtue. Being free from desires and aversions based in private interests allows one, like water, to adopt the lowliest position without contention.

That the supple overcomes the hard and the soft the violently rigid is known to everyone in All Under Heaven, but no one is able to put [this] to practice. That is why in the statements of the Sage, “[Only] he who takes on himself the humiliation of the state I call the lord of the altars of the nation; [only] he who takes upon himself the misfortune of the state I call the king of All Under Heaven” straight words seem paradoxical.