Pinging

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.

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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.

Acceptance

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

IMG_7437

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]

燕人生於燕,長於楚,及老而還本國。過晉國,同行者誑之,指城曰:「此燕國之城。」其人愀然變容。指社曰:「此若里之社。」乃喟然而歎。指舍曰:「此若先人之廬。」乃涓然而泣。指壠曰:「此若先人之冢。」其人哭不自禁。同行者啞然大笑,曰:「予昔紿若,此晉國耳。」其人大慚。及至燕,真見燕國之城社,真見先人之廬冢,悲心更微。

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.

AAS tasting notes

8E1F34F2-3FD6-4C03-9A4F-F77FBA5D2F7F.jpegIn my crappy, exorbitantly priced room in a hotel too far away from the conference, there’s one of those small sized Keurig coffee makers. There were four coffee pods. Three were decaf.

That shit’s just wrong, y’all. Un-American. I wasn’t going to let that aggression stand, man. I threw out the decafs so they’d hopefully refill with the real stuff. I punctured the foil tops for good measure, like spiking an artillery piece before abandoning it to the enemy.

*

A colleague who arrived here by train from New York told the following story: Standing on the platform, she overheard one end of a phone conversation. The guy was telling his interlocutor, “No, don’t eat beforehand. Wait till we get there. There’s a *ton* of food at the White House.” I guess when rats 🐀 flee the ship 🚢 in large numbers the leftover food 🥘 starts to pile up in the galley.

😎

My last letter to my father

IMG_6769.JPGA letter I wrote to my father in June 2007, as he was dying of cancer. He died about three weeks after I sent this letter to him, and it might have been my last communication to him, I can’t quite recall. Three weeks later I was flying across the country to see him, but when my plane landed I was informed he had died while I was in the air.

Dear Dad,

It’s another stunningly beautiful day here in Los Angeles… seasonably warm but dry air, bright sunshine, a slight cooling breeze.  I’m sorry you haven’t gotten to see this place that I now live.  I’ve been thinking about some things I wanted you to know, and I thought I’d set them down on paper for you in a letter.  I’m sending this today by email but will also be sending a hard copy by U.S. Post to your Jefferson Heights address.

First, about your upcoming decisions about your future care:  I just want you to know that I will support you absolutely and totally in whatever you decide is best for you.  You should think only of what you want, for your own reasons (which you don’t even need to explain to us, unless you want to), and not about what we might want or need.  Because what we want and need is for you to do what you think best for you.  That is what will make me and Chris happiest.  Or maybe I should speak for myself here, though I’m sure Chris feels the same way and has communicated something similar to you himself.

What I hope for you is that, in these upcoming times, you will experience freedom from physical pain and discomfort as much as possible, freedom from unpleasant distractions and difficulties, enjoyment and pleasure (both in the company of others and alone), good rest, uncluttered contemplation and memory of the life you’ve had, and peace of mind, free of fear.  If I were deciding on care options for myself, I would be deciding on what I thought would best allow me to have those things.  But again, of course, the decisions are all yours to make.  I’d be happy to discuss any of them with you whenever you want.  I know you’ll make the decisions you feel are best for you, and, again, I will support you in those, whatever they are.

Second, I want you to know how very deeply I have admired, and continue every day to admire, your approach to your illness.  I’m so glad you have your faith to sustain you through this.  Your attitude of calm acceptance, of confidence in your care providers, of compassion for others in worse shape than you’re in—all of these have been wonderful to see, and have set an excellent example for me as I contemplate my own future last days, whenever they may come.  The inner strength and grace you have shown have been very inspiring and comforting to me; knowing that you are facing things in the calm way you are has been a source of great comfort to me.  Thank you.  – On the other hand, if you need to have moments of fear, doubt, sorrow, regret, uncertainty, pain, etc., please by all means have them.  At this point you owe nothing to anyone but yourself, and I simply want you to do what you need to do, and be whatever and however you need and want to be, for your own reasons.  You’ve spent almost your entire lifetime, even many of what should have been your boyhood years, looking after others and being responsible.  You’ve fulfilled those duties to the fullest, and now you can quite appropriately rest and do what you want to do for yourself without a thought to anyone else.  Now, for once, it’s just about you.

Last but not least, I wanted to thank you again for being my father.  I know that any parent, biological or “step,” has many choices to make, and that the most basic one is whether to be (or to remain) parent to a child.  I myself have faced such choices, and have probably not always made the best choices when I had them.  So at my own advanced age I have at least some understanding of the commitment involved in choosing to be a parent—and especially the parent of a child who is not your own offspring.  The depth of that commitment is unfathomable.  So, I recognize that you did an extraordinary thing when you took on the countless obligations that came with being my father, and I will always be grateful to you for that.  And then there’s all that you taught me as you played that role in my life… more than I can possibly list or summarize here.  But some of the many lessons you taught me had to do with a sense of personal responsibility for my actions; self-confidence in my ability to achieve just about anything I put my mind to; the importance of challenging myself to reach higher goals, and the wonderful satisfaction that came with having achieved them, and the sense of reward that comes with hard work; the value and satisfaction of work itself; pride in family, in one’s home, in one’s personal appearance and in the way one carries oneself (you taught me to keep my shoulders back, to look people in the eye when shaking hands, to be respectful of elders and courteous to women); living a well-rounded, balanced life; the confidence that comes from knowing how to maintain one’s home and automobile; financial sense, and appreciation of a dollar earned; a sense of masculine personal style.  You bought me my first suit.  You encouraged me (without forcing me) to stay in Scouting at times when I was tempted to quit, and those decisions really paid off for me in (once again) a sense of achievement and self-confidence as I cleared hurdle after difficult hurdle in the Scouting program, with your support.  You took me to all sorts of sports and cultural events in which you probably had little interest of your own—you took me because you thought I should be exposed to those things (I especially remember several outings in New York, going to hear Nixon in the parking lot of Bambergers in the cold rain, the infamous trip to the race track at Bristol).  You emphasized the value of education—not least in footing a lot of the considerable bill for my college tuition, allowing me to earn an education that has stood me in very good stead ever since.  You had a wonderful manner of challenging me to challenge myself, in a way that was gentle yet firm (for example, I remember a certain phone call I made to you from Europe one summer during college, when I was experiencing culture shock and wanted to come home… and I remember all the times you patiently explained that a job worth doing was worth doing right, and you not only explained that but also demonstrated it every day in how you did things yourself).  You kept your promise the night I was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout, even though I had forgotten that promise.  You played chess with me during those long car trips, sometimes even continuing the game over dinner in a Howard Johnson’s.  You didn’t disown me when I damaged your prized ’64 Chevy Impala.  You pulled my loose teeth and insisted I learn to swim because it was what I needed, even though I screamed bloody murder.  You supported me in my decision to major in Philosophy in college, and to study Chinese religions in grad school, even though you probably had little understanding of the value of these topics yourself.  In so many ways, you made it “not about you,” which I suppose is at the core of what parenting is.  I saw your gentle side when I was a child and was sick or in pain; you would sit on the edge of the bed and touch me and speak to me very tenderly.  You tried repeatedly to teach me that “patience is a virtue”—I’m not sure I ever learned that lesson properly, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on your part!  Thanks for not punishing me any more than I’d already punished myself the time I returned home from the ice cream truck in Mobile with a frozen popsicle stuck firmly to my tongue.  (I was sure my tongue would have to be surgically removed because of my disobeying your command not to eat any of it before dinnertime!  You gently removed it and said nothing further, and so my terror was dissipated.)  At times when I was being closed-minded on certain topics, you helped me keep my mind open.  You were not the perfect father, of course (who is?), and I wasn’t the perfect son, and we had our problems and differences, and I wish we’d played more together (both when I was young and later), but I suppose we really did extremely well, all things considered.  We are two very different people who found ourselves together and we made the best of the situation and had some very good times together, and I, for one, wouldn’t trade it.  I hope at this point you can look back and agree that you feel the same way.  We probably don’t completely understand each other and never will, but we love each other despite our differences, and that is enough, and is much more than many people can say about their family relationships.

I don’t want you to go, and of course I’m not ready for you to go and won’t be, and it will be hard.  That’s how life is, and you’ve taught me that too:  life is hard, and we just have to face up to it and do our best.  I’m glad I haven’t gone first, just because I wouldn’t have wanted you to have to live through the pain of that in your life.  You will always be a part of me and you will live in my memory as long as I live.  Please know that you will always have my gratitude.  And also know that you now have my full support.  If there is ever anything at all that I can do for you, or if you just want to talk, please get in touch immediately.  You are always on my mind and heart.

I’m glad I have your last name as my last name.

Thank you Dad.  Thank you for everything.

I love you

Your son,

Rob

Getting the goal off your back

IMG_7272Once a year or so I am fortunate to have the chance to introduce students to the Platform Sutra (Tan jing 壇經 for short), one of the foundational texts of Chan or Zen Buddhism. Although it’s not my favorite text in the world–the Zhuangzi holds that place in my mind and heart–it contains one of my favorite passages in world religious literature. Like so many passages in religious literature, it’s structured as a dialogue between a master and a disciple. The disciple gets walloped by some bit of news, and through the story we are shown the impact.

In this case the disciple is a poor fellow named Fada 法達, a monk who has been engaged continuously in reciting the Lotus Sutra for seven years. Imagine reciting the same text aloud each day for seven years! Fada has been doing this because the Lotus Sutra itself relentlessly encourages people to recite it, preach it, copy it, honor it, uphold it, etc. He’s doing exactly the sort of thing the Lotus Sutra says he should be doing. Yet, the story tells us, “his mind was still deluded and he did not know where the true Dharma lay” 心迷不知正法之處. It’s not hard to imagine that he may have been waiting for some big realization to emerge into his consciousness as a result of this practice. Yet there he was after seven years, still Fada, still reciting.

Fada comes before the master whose story is featured in the Platform Sutra, one Huineng 惠能, and asks him to “resolve his doubts” 決疑. Huineng responds with a discourse that essentially reframes the practice of reciting the Lotus Sutra and reinterprets the main teaching of that sutra. In Huineng’s reformulation the real teaching of the Lotus is simply to awaken one’s mind. Exactly what that means, and how one is to go about it, are not things that are spelled out in this anecdote. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the message is set up as a dyad, a binary switch: you either do one thing or you do the other thing–and doing the one thing is all there is to do. “If you practice with the mind you turn [also meaning “recite”] the Lotus; if you do not practice with the mind, you are turned by the Lotus” 心行轉法華,不行法華傳. And now the money passage:

“Fada, upon hearing this, at once gained great enlightenment and broke into tears. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘indeed up to now I have not turned the Lotus, but for seven years I have been turned by it. From now on I shall turn the Lotus, and in consecutive thoughts practice the practice of Buddha.’ The master said: ‘Buddha-practice is itself Buddha’ 即佛行是佛.’ Among those present at the time there was none who was not enlightened.” [Translation modified from that of Philip Yampolsky.]

Buddha-practice is itself Buddha. When this text was written, most Buddhists for over a millennium had been practicing various practices and teachings with the goal of gradually, slowly advancing on the path toward better rebirth and (for Mahayanists at least) eventual Buddhahood themselves–emphasis on eventual. We are talking about a religious goal that was imagined to require countless lifetimes to reach. In this little discourse Huineng collapses the distance and difference between the activity of practicing and the goal of practice. The activity is the goal. Buddha-practice is Buddha. There is nowhere else to get to with the practice other than the doing of the practice, now.

It’s been pointed out many times that Chan/Zen itself didn’t really quite live up to this profound teaching. But here’s the thing: whatever power this teaching has depends on its hearer’s not already comporting with it. Huineng doesn’t get to be the guy who brings this amazing news without the Lotus Sutra already having been in place teaching what it taught. And the news doesn’t have the impact it has without poor Fada’s having been slogging it out in daily recitation for seven years. It’s Fada’s seven years that sets up Huineng’s knockout punch.

For imagine Fada laboring under that burden, seven years reciting every day yet still harboring doubts: Am I doing the right thing here? Am I wasting my time? What about the opportunity costs–all the other practices I could be doing that I’m not able to do because I’m doing this one? How long will I have to keep doing this before I get to where I think I’m supposed to be? Am I there yet? Huineng drops on him that the thing he’s been doing is itself already the goal. There is nowhere else to get to. Buddha-practice is itself Buddha. What a burden to have lifted off oneself–it strikes me as being right up there with “Take up your bed and walk” or “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” or “Lazarus, come out!”

I don’t know about you, but I have always identified with poor old Fada. If you’re someone who is constantly working to be good enough and constantly feeling you’re not there yet, imagine meeting a Huineng able to convince you that the work is enough, that you are enough, that there’s nowhere else to get to. No wonder he broke into tears.

Emerging from the heels

IMG_5225Both in a text called Zhuangzi 莊子 (the earliest parts of which date to around 320 BCE) and in another one called Liezi 列子 (perhaps compiled in the late 3rd to early 4th century CE) there appears a curious tale. It involves three main characters: a mysterious shaman who possesses the skill of physiognomizing people or other creatures such as horses by “reading” the face, head, palms, and other areas of the body for signs of future fortune; a teacher identified by the sobriquet The Gourd Master (Huzi 壺子); and Huzi’s disciple, named Liezi. Liezi goes to see the shaman and comes away mightily impressed by him. The Gourd Master scoffs, suggesting his student bring the shaman around to see him. “I will show myself to him” 以予示之, the master says, in a rather odd turn of phrase. The stage is set for a showdown.

The concise wording of the text implies that the shaman examines the Gourd Master in a room while Liezi waits outside. After the examination, the shaman emerges from the room with bad news: the master will die within the week. “I saw something strange in him. I saw something like wet ashes” 吾見怪焉,見溼灰焉. (“Wet ashes” reminds us of an earlier passage in Zhuangzi in which a man lost in meditative trance is described by an acquaintance coming upon him as having a bodily form like a “dried-up tree” and a mind like “dead ashes.”) Liezi goes in and, weeping, delivers the bad news to his teacher. But the Gourd Master tells of how he had shown the shaman a certain configuration of his energies. The configuration is suggestively described: “the Patterns of Earth, sprouting without moving or standing upright. He probably saw my Workings of Closed Off Virtue” 鄉吾示之以地文,萌乎不震不正。是殆見吾杜德機也. Bring the shaman around again, the Gourd Master suggests.

Next day the shaman returns. Leaving the room, he imparts good news to Liezi: his master is on the way to recovery. The Gourd Master meanwhile reports to Liezi that he had shown the shaman another configuration, this time “the Heaven-Fertilized Ground, no name or substance to it but with the workings emerging from the heels. He probably saw my Workings of the Good One” 鄉吾示之以天壤,名實不入,而機發於踵。是殆見吾善者機也. Bring him around again, the teacher urges.

Next day the shaman emerges to complain, “Your master is never the same”–literally “never even”–from one day to the next, the word qi 齊 suggesting the tamping down of long objects of unequal length (such as arrows or bamboo strips in a bundle, say) to even them across one end. “I have no way to physiognomize him!” The master explains to Liezi that he had shown the shaman “the Great Void that Nothing can Overcome. He probably saw my Workings of the Balanced Breath” 吾鄉示之以太沖莫勝。是殆見吾衡氣機也. Bring him back again.

Next day, the shaman hasn’t even settled himself in position before the Gourd Master when his wits leave him and he flees. “Run after him!” the master orders, but Liezi can’t catch up to him. The Gourd Master explains, “Just now I appeared to him as Not Yet Emerged from Our Source. I came at him empty, wriggling and turning, not knowing anything about ‘who’ or ‘what,’ now dipping and bending, now flowing in waves 鄉吾示之以未始出吾宗。吾與之虛而委蛇,不知其誰何,因以為弟靡,因以為波流. That’s why he ran away.”

The story ends by reporting the effect of all this on Liezi: he concludes he hadn’t really ever begun to learn anything. He goes home and for three years doesn’t emerge, replaces his wife at the kitchen stove, feeds the family’s pigs as if feeding people, and shows no preferences in what he does. He gets rid of carving and polishing and returns to the condition of the uncarved block of wood or stone, remaining sealed in this condition of oneness until he dies. [My summary with partial translation is based on the translation of Burton Watson, with modifications.]

The story is structured like a good joke, a succession of stages climaxing in a punchline. But neither the sequencing of stages nor their descriptions are fortuitous. What the Gourd Master has done, in effect, is to walk the shaman back up the rungs of the cosmogonic ladder. Starting on earth, they pass through heaven and the void to end up at the state prior to anything in the world having emerged from its source–primordial nothingness. Each stage possesses energy, life, “workings” (the term ji 機 designated the trigger of a crossbow but also the germs of life forms), but it’s less and less formed as we ascend the latter toward the primordium until, at the last, it wiggles like a worm and oscillates between particle and wave. At each stage the shaman imagines he has a handle on the master’s prognosis but grows increasingly befuddled until, at the last, he completely “loses it” 自失 and flees the scene. This is because his physiognomic art deals in form. What the Gourd Master shows him is formlessness, something for which he is so unprepared that one glimpse unhinges him. The shaman’s method works like a sprocket, but the master displays no chain links for the sprocket’s teeth to fit into, and so the sprocket just spins.

To the shaman this is terrifying. But it’s Liezi whose behavior brings the punchline. What he has witnessed jolts him out of cultural forms and into a sort of formlessness of outlook and of lifestyle, a “oneness” in which he ends his days. He abandons conventional gender roles, ignores conventional distinctions between species, gives up conventional tendencies to prefer some things over others, and jettisons the conventional tendency to form things. He stops the normal patterns of human “carving” and returns to the condition of the Uncarved. To the reader this may look “strange”怪, just as the master’s energies initially looked strange, looked like “wet ashes,” to the shaman. But that’s the way it always goes in such cases. Those beyond the realm of cultural form and conventional language always appear strange from the point of view of those still operating with sprocket and chain.

It’s classic Zhuangzi (and Liezi), this little parable. Disarmingly structured like a joke, it packs a lot into a small space: a sketch of an implied cosmogony, a “fall into order” and into form; a ladder affording an exit up out of this matrix of forms, if one but knows where to find such a ladder (or someone who can loan you theirs–teach you how to forget and unlearn), a stairway past heaven and all the way back to Nothing; a portrait of a practitioner of a popular but esoteric divination method, at work amidst his clients; a vignette of master-disciple relations; a critique of the fixity of our “normal” ways of doing things, we human beings; and even a sidewise glimpse of gender roles and domestic animals.

If I were to be consigned to a desert island for my sins and allowed but five books, Zhuangzi would be my number one choice, hands down. I’d have to think long and hard before settling on the other four.