Grieving, Daoist style

IMG_4872There are several early Daoist stories about grieving that are apt to strike us today as surprising, perhaps harsh, certainly bizarre at first sight. It seems that the experience of bereavement, coupled with the complex set of expectations about how people should respond to it by custom and ritual in Chinese culture at the time–where the rituals in question were predominantly “Confucian” in origin–were a key place of instruction in Daoist discourse. Bereavement was a teaching moment.

One of the starkest, harshest-seeming anecdotes of this sort is found in the Liezi (ca. 300 CE):

There was a man of Wei, Dongmen Wu, who did not grieve when his son died. His wife said to him: “No one in the world loved your son as much as you did. Why do you not grieve now he is dead?”

“I used to have no son,” he answered, “and when I had no son I did not grieve. Now that he is dead, it is the same as it was before when I had no son. Why should I grieve over him?” [A.C. Graham’s translation, modified]

Another such story concerns Zhuangzi himself. There’s no way of knowing whether the following actually occurred (or, indeed, whether Zhuangzi even existed as a real human being), but the lesson stands regardless. It’s found in one of the later chapters of the Zhuangzi (2nd-1st century BCE?):

Zhuangzi’s wife died. When Huizi went to offer his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Huizi. “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing–this is going too far, isn’t it?”

Zhuangzi said, “You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons. Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.” [Burton Watson’s translation, modified]

In both instances the bereaved person reframes his loss by, in effect, taking out the “his.” Life is an ongoing series of constant changes (bian 變–that’s the key word in the Zhuangzi story). Humans tend to like certain elements in this ever-swirling mix, dislike others. These stories take the Daoist remedy of equanimity and acceptance in the face of all changes and illustrate it in the extreme case of bereavement. The father in the Liezi tale may seem to us barely human; the Zhuangzi tale humanizes its protagonist by having him admit that he did initially grieve his wife’s death in the way most people would. (Graham translates that line, 是其始死也,我獨何能無概然, as “When she first died, do you suppose that I was not able to feel the loss?”) Accepting change, and letting go of the things we cannot control, are what the Zhuangzi author means by “understanding fate” (通乎命).

Some anecdotes demonstrate how the same remedy of acceptance works in the case of facing one’s own impending death. My favorite–and one of my favorite passages in all of world literature–shows up, once again, in the Zhuangzi, this time in the inner chapters (ca. 320 BCE?–although Esther Sunkyung Klein has published an article that should make us rethink this early dating). There were four friends, the story goes, who agreed that “life and death, existence and annihilation, are all a single body” 生死存亡之一體–that is, agreed on the principle of equanimity or acceptance in the face of all change, even the ultimate changes known as “life” and “death.” One of the friends, Master Lai, fell ill, gasping and wheezing. His wife and children surrounded him and began to cry, but another of the friends, Master Li, shooed them away, saying, “Get back! Don’t disturb the process of change!” 避!無怛化!. He then leaned against the doorway and said to his friend,

“How marvelous is the fashioning of things! What’s it going to make out of you next? Where will it send you? Will it fashion you into a rat’s liver? Will it make you into a bug’s arm?”

Master Lai replied, “A child, obeying his parents, goes wherever he’s told, east or west, north or south. And the Yin and Yang–how much more are they to a person than father or mother! Now that they’ve brought me to the verge of death, if I should refuse to obey them, how perverse I would be! The Great Clod burdens me with form [or a body], labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death. When a skilled smith is casting metal, if the metal were to leap up and say, ‘I insist on being made into a Moye!’ [a famous sword of old, like Excalibur] he would surely regard it as very inauspicious metal indeed. Now, having had the audacity to take on human form once, if I should say, ‘I don’t want to be anything but a human being! Nothing but a human being!’, the fashioner of things would surely regard me as a most inauspicious sort of person. So now I think of heaven and earth as a great furnace, and the fashioner of things as a skilled smith. Where could he send me that would not be all right? I will go off to sleep peacefully, and then with a start I will wake up.”

Even in as brief a passage as this, we see several metaphors rolled out for the world, the universe, the ongoing process of change and whatever mysterious agents or mechanisms direct it, none of which the author claims to have any clear idea about: Yin and Yang; the Great Clod大塊; heaven and earth; and, my personal favorite, something termed 造物者 or 造化, “the fashioner/fashioning of things (wu 物)” or of “transformations” (hua化). (I don’t think the author cares exactly who or what this entity is; it’s a metaphor, not a theological postulate. Note that this “fashioning/fashioner” may not even be a personalized agent and is surely, as the metalsmith analogy makes clear, not the creator of the materials he/she/it works with in constantly reshaping and reforming bits of stuff to form new things and creatures.)

The penultimate sentence is a cry of faith à la mode Daoïste: if one accepts all changes with equanimity, accepts the things one can’t do anything about anyway, and goes with the flow, then one moves to a viewpoint where it’s possible to ask “Where could he/she/it send me that would not be all right?” 惡乎往而不可哉 and mean it. And the last sentence imagines this to-us-mysterious process of change (maybe there’s some conceivable point of view from which we could see it more clearly, but from here it just seems like an inscrutable CHANGE, like being conveyed on a conveyer belt into a dark tunnel or perhaps an MRI machine) as being like gradually falling asleep and then waking up with a start as someone/something … else. 成然寐,蘧然覺.

Maybe a bug’s arm.



Returning as a ghost


I use my phone to track my daily steps, as a simple way of reminding myself to walk more.
Sometimes when I’m near a goal (such as 10K steps in a day) but not quite there yet, I find myself walking in loops through my old house while holding or pocketing my phone, hoping to nudge the total steps past the goal.
I think it’s therefore likely that if I return as a ghost to haunt this house, I will do so by walking around and around on the floors, making the old floorboards creak.
But I’ll be a friendly ghost, I hope.

Weird ideas about the origins of “religious” stuff, Western and Chinese

IMG_0778The title of this entry isn’t intended literally, since the Chinese didn’t have a word or category precisely corresponding to the Western category/words for “religion(s)” until the late 19th century. But there are some striking parallels between certain modern, Western ideas about how there first began to be “religious” phenomena, on the one hand, and certain Chinese notions about how worship of particular gods at particular temples first began, on the other. Here’s just a pair of examples.

One way 19th century Western theorists imagined “religion” to have looked in its very earliest, “original” form, somewhere near the dawn of the human species, was the attribution of “special” powers to objects, beings, or other phenomena experienced by people as strikingly unusual, uncanny, powerful, or weird. (This is the type of theory dubbed “preanimist” by historians of theories of religions.) To take just one of dozens of examples, we find the Anglican missionary Robert Henry Codrington in 1877 writing a letter from his outpost in Melanesia to the German-born Oxford don Friedrich Max Müller about a key word used by the people among whom Codrington lived. That word was mana, and in the letter Codrington described it as “a supernatural power … a force altogether distinct from physical power,” a force credited to things deemed very unusual. The following year, in his Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878), Müller ventured a theory of religion’s origins from this and similar ethnographic data, calling mana “the Melanesian name for the infinite.” In his Gifford Lectures of 1890 Müller went on to theorize as follows:

We have now classified the whole of our experience … under two heads, as either natural or supernatural, natural comprising all that seems to us regular, conformable to rule, and intelligible, supernatural all that we consider as yet or altogether beyond the reach of rule and reason…. It was the vast domain of surprise, of terror, of marvel, and miracle, the unknown, as distinguished from the known, … which supplied from the earliest times the impulse to religious thought and language.

The following year Codrington himself wrote that mana is “supernatural” in the sense of being “what works to effect everything which is beyond the ordinary power of man, outside the common processes of nature.” He engages in a thought experiment of a sort typical in these conjectures about what the primordial form of “religion” must have looked like, a word-picture of an imagined primal scene and person. Let’s call it the motif of the striking object: “A man comes by chance upon a stone which takes his fancy; its shape is singular, … it is certainly not a common stone, there must be mana in it” (Codrington, The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-lore [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891, 118-20]). People create gods and other “religious” phenomena, in other words, through their responses to certain experiences, and they do so (according to this particular theory) when something stands out as strange, unexplainable, or impossible to assimilate under familiar categories of normal life. They also do so with other people: in other words, although the motif of the striking object portrays things as initially a matter of an individual person coming upon a strange scene, it was seen as essential that other people quickly get into the act and similarly start treating the new strange thing as something strangely powerful. Thus were born gods and spirits and the worship of gods and spirits, according to the theory.

Now let’s go back around 1700 years in history, and across the Eurasian land mass from Oxford, all the way to China. There we find the learned classicist gentleman Ying Shao 應劭 (140-206 CE), in his Comprehensive Discussion of Customs (Fengsu tongyi 風俗通義), writing:

I respectfully submit: In Tongyang prefecture, Runan commandery, a man once [set a trap and] caught a marsh deer in the fields but had not yet gone to retrieve it. A merchant caravan of a dozen or so carts happened to pass by. From afar the merchant noticed the deer caught in the trap, so he took it and started on his way. But, thinking this unfair, he left an abalone in its place. Later, the trap’s owner went out [to check] and found, instead of the deer he had caught, the abalone. As the path through the marsh was not often traveled by people, the man thought the situation very strange 怪其如是 and became convinced the creature was a god大以為神. Word spread and people came seeking cures for their ailments and good fortune, and many of them obtained favorable responses 效驗. So they erected a shrine. Dozens of spirit-mediums gravitated there. Canopies and tents were erected, bells and drums were brought in, and people from a radius of several hundred li came to make offerings. They called the god Lord Abalone [baojun 鮑君].

Several years later, the [original] owner of the abalone passed by the shrine. After inquiring as to the reason for it, he said, “That was my aquatic creature. What kind of divinity could it have?” He entered the hall and took the creature away. Afterwards [the cult] collapsed.

There is a saying: “Things around which people congregate will be deemed divine” 物之所聚 斯有神. In other words, it is simply people’s joining together and egging each other on that results in such phenomena言人共獎成之耳.  {My translation was aided by consulting that of Michael Nylan in her doctoral dissertation. Details available on request.}

At this pivotal moment in the story—

Later, the trap’s owner went out [to check] and found, instead of the deer he had caught, the abalone. As the path through the marsh was not often traveled by people, the man thought the situation very strange and became convinced the creature was a god.

—we are reminded of Codrington’s imagined scenario: “A man comes by chance upon a stone which takes his fancy; its shape is singular, … it is certainly not a common stone, there must be mana in it.” In the Chinese case—at least as seen by Ying Shao—it is similarly the strangeness of the situation that accounts for the ascription of divinity. From the story-protagonist’s perspective, the only explanation of the cross-species transformation is that the creature must be divine. For Ying Shao, as for Codrington, this ascription is in fact false, yet it triggers a cascade of responses in the surrounding human community.

Another fascinating thing about the story is that it reports apparently real results from people’s worship of the pseudo-deity, or at least that people attributed their improved fortunes to the “god’s” agency—a sort of cultic placebo. Ying Shao’s closing remark on the whole business anticipates other Western theorists–specifically Emile Durkheim and the other Années sociologiques writers–by 17 centuries (in ways I won’t tax your patience by explaining here).

A final note: lest we think that such theories of things deemed “religious” or “sacred” are nowadays only relics of a bygone era, consider Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (2009), a very interesting book. Here we find essentially the same theory, only this time updated by being refracted through the lens of cognitive science. Taves explores “the processes whereby experiences come to be understood as religious at multiple levels, from the intrapersonal to the intergroup” (xiii)—processes “that are simultaneously embodied and interactive” (14). Working both from the history of discourse on religion (especially Durkheim) and from recent neurocognitive studies (particularly those of Nina Azari, a neuroscientist with dual doctorates in psychology and religious studies), Taves arrives at “specialness” as the key feature of things or experiences deemed religious. This specialness resolves into two types: idealness and anomalousness. She elaborates on the notion of anomalousness by delving into cognitive-scientific studies on the property of counterintuitiveness. “Regardless of culture people divide things into the basic categories of persons, animals, plants, natural objects, and tools. A concept is counterintuitive when it includes features that violate the characteristics that humans normally associate with these basic categories” (42, citing work by Pascal Boyer). Things typically become counterintuitive in one of two ways: agents can acquire unexpected or unwonted abilities (e.g., an animal that is perceived as gaining the power of human speech), or nonagents can acquire the ability to act as agents (e.g., an icon that weeps, speaks, or moves). There is much more to Taves’ book, but this much suffices to make my point: seeing religiousness as having essentially to do with anomalousness isn’t merely a quaint artifact of the mid 19th century. It is still central to scholars’ attempts to wrestle with what it means for people to deem something “religious.”

The moral of the story? When studying other cultures we too often assume either that their categories were just the same as ours (i.e. we project our notions onto theirs) or that they differed completely from ours (i.e. we project the complete absence of our notions among theirs). Sometimes the reality turns out to be more interesting and more complex. For as long as there have been behaviors, practices, and ideas of the sort we nowadays often term “religious” there have been people trying to understand them from some other point of view, and since people are everywhere basically the same, the explanations they’ve arrived at have overlapped more often than one might think.


Being of a kind with (other) animals

IMG_7542Ancient and early medieval China produced quite a few thought-provoking, striking, sometimes deeply moving stories about the relationships between animals and human beings. These stories can be a powerful antidote to our species’ seemingly natural tendency toward undue self-regard. Here are just three of my favorites.

The first comes from the text called Liezi 列子 (early 4th century CE), one of my favorite books:

            Tian of Qi was going on a journey. He sacrificed in his courtyard to the god of the roads, and banqueted a thousand guests. Someone was serving fish and geese at the seat of honor. Tian looked at them, then sighed and said:

            “How generous heaven is to humankind! It grows the five grains and breeds the fish and birds for the use of human beings.”

            All the guests answered like his echo. But a twelve-year-old boy of the Bao family, who had a seat among the guests, came forward and said:

            “It is not as your lordship says. The myriad things between heaven and earth, born in the same way that we are, do not differ from us in kind. One kind is no nobler than another: it’s simply that the stronger and cleverer rule the weaker and sillier. Things take it in turns to eat each other, but they are not bred for each other’s sake. Humans take the things which are edible and eat them, but how can it be claimed that heaven bred them originally for the sake of humanity? Besides, mosquitoes and gnats bite our skin, tigers and wolves eat our flesh—did heaven originally breed humans for the sake of mosquitoes and gnats, and our flesh for the sake of tigers and wolves?”

[Translation modified from that of A.C. Graham. The Chinese: 齊田氏祖於庭,食客千人。中坐有獻魚鴈者。田氏視之,乃歎曰:「天之於民厚矣!殖五穀,生魚鳥,以為之用。眾客和之如響。鮑氏之子年十二,預於次,進曰:「不如君言。天地萬物,與我並生類也。類无貴賤,徒以小大智力而相制,迭相食;非相為而生之。人取可食者而食之,豈天本為人生之?且蚊蚋噆膚,虎狼食肉,非天本為蚊蚋生人、虎狠生肉者哉?」」

Confucianism, the regnant ideology in China when this story was written, famously centers on the human. Some writers and texts were at pains to point out the limitations of this often arrogant human-centeredness. This little story does so powerfully. Other living things in this world “do not differ from us in kind.”

The second little story survives in more than version. Here’s the one attributed to a collection of “tales of anomalies” by a certain Dongyang Wuyi 東陽无疑 (flourished around 435 CE) titled “Qi Xie’s Records” 齊諧記:

Dong Zhaozhi of Fuyang in [the state of] Wu was once crossing the Qiantang River by boat when, in midstream, he saw an ant on a short twig floating on the current. It was scurrying to and fro and clearly in fear for its life. So he used a length of rope to get the twig and bring it on board the boat. [In some versions, other passengers criticize Dong for bringing the ant on board, and they threaten to kill it.] That night he dreamed that a black-clad personage thanked him, saying, “I am king among ants. I am grateful to you for your kindness in saving me. If in the future you find yourself in difficulty, you must let me know.”

            More than ten years passed. There was rampant banditry at the time, and Zhaozhi was wrongly arrested for being a bandit leader and was jailed at Yuyao. Suddenly he remembered his dream of the ant king. As he thought it over, he asked his cellmates, “The ant said that I should let him know at any time. Where could I let him know now?” One of the others in the cell said, “Just take two or three ants, place them in your palm, and make your request to them.” Zhaozhi followed his advice. He dreamed that the black-clad personage told him, “You should flee quickly into the Yuhang hills. The emperor will soon issue a pardon.” Zhaozhi then awoke to find that ants had chewed through his fetters, allowing him to escape the prison. He crossed the river and headed into the Yuhang hills. A pardon soon arrived and so Zhaozhi was spared.

[As quoted in Taiping yulan 643 (one of several versions): 齊諧記曰吳當陽縣董昭之泛舡過錢塘江江中見一蟻 著一短蘆惶遽畏死使以繩繫蘆著舡舡至岸蟻得出中 夜夢見一人烏衣來謝云僕是蟻中王君有急難當見先 語歷十餘年江左刼盜縱橫錄昭之為刼主繫餘姚獄昭 之自惟蟻王夢云緩急當告今何處告之獄囚言但取兩 三蟻著掌中祝之昭之如其言暮果夢昔烏衣人云可急 去入餘杭山天下既赦命不久也於是便覺蟻齧械巳盡 因得出獄過江投餘杭山遇赦遂得免 ]

And the third, from the tale collection “Further Records of an Inquest into the Spirit-Realm” or Soushen houji 搜神後記 (also known in medieval times as Xu Soushen ji 續搜神記) attributed to the poet-recluse Tao Qian 陶潛 (365-427 CE):

            During the Xiankang period of the Jin [335-343], the Regional Inspector of Yuzhou, Mao Bao, was garrisoned in the [northern] capital city of Ye. At that time, a soldier saw a white turtle for sale in the Wuchang market. It was four or five inches long, pure white, and adorable. So the soldier bought it, took it home, and raised it, keeping it in an urn. Each day it gradually grew larger until it reached a foot or so in length. Taking pity on it, the soldier carried it to a riverbank and released it into the water, watching it go.

            Later, when Ye fell to Shi Hu, Mao Bao fled Yuzhou. Those who were trying to escape across the river there were drowning in large numbers. At the same time, the man who had raised the turtle, wearing his armor and carrying his sword, was trying to get across the river as well. When the soldier entered the water, it felt to him as if he were standing on a rock, and the water came only to his waist. In a moment he began moving across the current. When he looked down in midstream, he saw beneath him the white turtle he had once released, its shell now six or seven feet long. When the turtle had carried the man safely to the eastern bank, it stuck out its head and gazed fixedly at him. Then it swam off. From midstream it turned back to look at him several times.

[As quoted in Taiping yulan 479 (one of several versions): 續搜神記曰晉咸康中豫州剌史毛寳戍邾城有一軍人 於武昌市見人賣一白龜子長四五寸色白可愛其人買 取持歸着瓮中養之日漸大近及尺許其人憐之持至江 邊放於水中視其遊去後邾城遭石虎敗毛豫州既赴江莫不沉溺所養龜人于時被鎧持刀亦同自投入水中覺如 墮一石上水裁至腰湏臾浮去中流視之乃是先養白龜 甲巳長六七尺既送至東岸出頭視之徐游而去中江猶 顧者數四焉]

“From midstream it turned back to look at him several times”: that’s the line that always gets me in the throat. (This particular textual version has: “From midstream it turned back several times, as if 猶 to regard him.”) It’s the gaze of recognition, recognition of a relationship with a being who while different is not different in kind.

[More such stories available in R.F. Campany, A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China (University of Hawaii Press, 2015), paperback.]


IMG_3049.JPGI like “to ping” as a currently in-vogue verb for our electronic messaging back and forth… messaging that both connects us and spaces us apart.

Metaphorically it’s like we’re each our own submarine captains, signaling to other captains of other submarines out there in the darkness.

Once in a while someone answers.

My America

Sipping coffee near the station in an airport Dunkin Donuts where employees bring out orders and hand them to customers.

Many races and colors of people on display. Several languages overheard. Many ages, personal styles of hair and clothing, quite a few tattoos.

Every single person is friendly, polite, and warm. People make a point of wishing each other a good day, and they smile.

This is my America.

Those pesky foreign words

exportPondering what to teach in a new, very general course on Buddhism next fall, and how to teach it, my mind stumbled upon an unpleasant teaching-related memory. I was only one or two years into my role as a professor, a role I had entered into immediately upon leaving graduate school. I had little idea what to teach or how to teach it, and although there was a teaching center at my university to try to help lost souls like me, and although I had a few generous senior colleagues who offered advice, ultimately every time I walked into the classroom I had to sort out for myself why I was teaching what I was teaching that day and how best to teach it. I spent lots of time curled in the fetal position during those early years.

One of the courses I was assigned was Religions of the East. The room I was obliged to teach it in reminded me of a bowling alley: extremely deep but rather narrow, with one center aisle–so deep that it felt as if the students in the far back were sitting across the line in the next county. Bad sound system, bad florescent lighting, drafty, and for technology in those days an overhead transparency project was considered advanced. To show slides you had to set up your own projector and bring your own slide tray; to show film material you had to order a projector delivered to the classroom by a campus service, and sometimes it didn’t materialize or it failed to work. Some days you were just glad to see a usable-sized piece of chalk on the chalkboard tray.

To be honest, I felt all right teaching most of the China stuff, and a bit wobbly on the Japanese stuff but okay. On the Indian stuff I felt completely out to sea (the Indian Ocean, in fact). And Tibet? I had some slides from photos I’d taken at a local sand mandala ceremony (at the local Tibetan monastery–yes, Bloomington, Indiana, had, and presumably still has, not one but two such monasteries outside of town) and that was about it.

But here’s the thing. So much of the class was about words. These were words that sounded strange to the ears of Indiana eighteen-year-olds. I found it impossible to teach the subjects I felt obliged to teach without throwing some of these words around, and the number of words started to pile up. Eventually I started making vocabulary lists and passing those around. I don’t think it helped much.

My first real inkling that there were maybe too many of these strange-sounding words flying around my classroom came when I entered a campus cafeteria one day. I heard a couple of young female voices, with mocking singsong intonation, chirping contextless words like “yin-yang,” “karma,” “samsara,” “nirvana,” “bodhisattva,” and giggling. My eyes found them then: a small cluster of women seated at a lunch table. They weren’t looking at me, but it dawned on me what they were doing: they had taken, or were currently taking, my class, and they were mocking the class for all the strange-sounding words they’d been subjected to. It was their revenge for their ordeal. The implied message ran along the lines of “See, this is all we got from your class, a string of weird-sounding, absurd strings of verbal nonsense  that mean nothing to us whatsoever.” In their eyes, at least, I hadn’t managed to overcome the otherness of it all. It remained a sequence of gibberish.

It stung. That’s probably why I filed the memory away. Over time I learned to spend less time on words and concepts, and more times on things like practices, rituals, visuals, things that people actually do in Asian religious settings, as well as on stories people tell, not just their vocabularies of key doctrinal or ideational items. But some strange words are always necessary in teaching the sorts of things I teach, and I’ve never taught in a place where I could take for granted that students either knew those words already or wanted to learn them. Which is an odd position to be in. I’m always carrying freight across linguistic borders before audiences who didn’t sign up for linguistics classes.

But, hell, I’m lucky to have a job.


During a yoga class today, the instructor spoke of letting go of one’s need to prove oneself as good enough. Of just being okay with who and what you are, now, in the present moment.

I found myself in tears on the mat.

If you’re like me, part of you is still trying hard to prove you’re good enough–long after you’ve forgotten whom you’re trying to convince.

Maybe we can all use our breath to remind us. If every inhale is the question, “Am I?” then every exhale can be the “Yes, I am.”IMG_0449.JPG

Fifty years ago


April 4th happens to be the day I was born.

On my ninth birthday, I was visiting my grandparents in the town of my birth, which happens to be Columbus, Mississippi, when news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., over in Memphis, was broadcast on the television. In the way my memory replays that event—which may not reflect exactly the way things actually unfolded—I had just blown out the candles on my birthday cake (probably one of my grandmother’s caramel-frosted yellow cakes) and we were cutting the cake to serve it when my grandfather’s older brother burst in the house and a big argument ensued about the day’s news. Suffice it to say that not everyone in the house was saddened or outraged by the events.

Fifty years ago.

History sometimes unfolds like a corkscrew. You circle back around to the same place you were, say, fifty years ago, but you’re farther up (or down) a spiral.

I’m hoping it’s up, not down. But some days lately it’s damned hard to tell.


The real effects of illusory phenomena

IMG_6268One of my favorite old Chinese stories is this one from the 3rd chapter of Liezi 列子 (perhaps 4th century CE), elegant in its conciseness, poignant in the feelings it conveys, deep in its implications:

There was a man who was born in Yan but grew up in Chu, and in old age returned to his native country. While he was passing through the state of Jin his companions played a joke on him. They pointed out a city and told him: “This is the capital of Yan.”

He composed himself and looked solemn.

Inside the city they pointed out a shrine: “This is the shrine of your quarter.”

He breathed a deep sigh.

They pointed out a hut: “This was your father’s cottage.”

His tears welled up.

They pointed out a mound: “This is your father’s tomb.”

He could not help weeping aloud. His companions roared with laughter: “We were teasing you. You are still only in Jin.”

The man was very embarrassed. When he reached Yan, and really saw the capital of Yan and the shrine of his quarter, really saw his father’s cottage and tomb, he did not feel it so deeply.” [translation only slightly modified from that of A.C. Graham]


Like many passages in this work, this one plays at the boundary between illusion and actuality, dreaming and waking, high and low. The point it seems designed to make could be summarized as noting the real effects of illusory phenomena. The poor soul from Yan feels the impact of his first glimpses of the sites as if they were really the sites in question. Having learned that they weren’t really his old homeland, the emotional impact on him is diminished when he finally does see the real places. The word “real” 真 repeated in each phrase, to drive the point home.

You can be more strongly moved by things you take as real but aren’t than by things you know are real.

The travel companions in this story have always seemed to me inordinately mean. This is especially true when one recalls two things: the importance of the veneration of one’s ancestors in premodern China, and the frequency (during the period when this story was probably written) with which families and individual refugees were displaced from their ancestral homelands by warfare. This poor man’s journey to Yan amounts to a sacred pilgrimage to the home of his ancestors. For his fellow travelers to have tricked him into believing that the intermediate country of Jin was his ancestral Yan, and that someone else’s tomb was his father’s tomb, was the height of cruelty. They thus deprived him of what should have been the emotional apex of his pilgrimage.

But then again the text could be read as arguing precisely that the match-up between our reactions to things and their “reality” is not a necessary one–that illusions (in this text often xu 虛) can do the trick just as well, obviating the need for any worry about what’s “real” and what’s not.

A final note: You might well identify strongly, as I do, with the poor traveler’s “shame” (can 慚) at having been tricked, even though it was no fault of his own, and at having shown his emotional reactions so openly to people who were merely playing a joke on him. How this detail resonates.