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Thought Itself

The History of Philosophy, Logic & The Mind with Eric Gerlach

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Chinese Philosophy

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Peng Bird & Zhuangzi

Johnathan_Livingston_SeagullMy parents had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the shelf when I was a small child, but like their copy of the Dao De Jing, I couldn’t make much out of it then.  Now that I have studied and taught Asian philosophy, I can see connections to many points made by the Daoist Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher.

As the book opens, Jonathan practices slow flying by himself for no reason other than for the love of flying.  He falters and falls, which is a disgrace for seagulls, who only fly for the purpose of food.  His parents ask him why he flies and neglects eating, and he tells them he just wants to know what he is capable of.  He learns many other skills alone, but when he returns to the flock, he is banished as an outcast.  Alone, he learns to dive deep in the sea and far inland for better food, to fly for hundreds of miles while asleep, to fly above the mist and fog that grounds most gulls, and to free himself from boredom, fear and anger.

Zhuangzi contemplates flock of birdsWhile many ancient Chinese philosophers suggested various ways one could structure the state, as Laozi does in the Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi is entirely concerned with liberating the individual mind in a chaotic and close-minded world, to seek freedom and happiness through simplicity and open-mindedness.

In the first passage of the Zhuangzi, the Peng bird is mocked by the dove and the cicada (a large grasshopper-like insect) for flying high and far in the sky. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act, as they are only interested in what they can find on the ground.  They die every winter and do not survive by migrating south, like the Peng bird.  Later in the text, Jo of the North Sea tells us:

Frog with ZhuangziYou can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog, limited by the space he lives in.  You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect, bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the Way (Dao) with a cramped scholar, shackled by his doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Way of things.

There are many other relevant passages, but it is extraordinary how similar the beginnings of both texts are.  I imagine it is not a coincidence.

How Can We Try Not To Try? The Daoist Paradox of Wu-Wei

Effortless Action SlingerlandIn his book Effortless Action, Edward Slingerland delves into a deep paradox found in the work of ancient Chinese philosophers.  Wu-wei, which can be translated as either non-action or effortless action, is a state of freedom, flexibility and spontaneity acquired through the practice of living a good life.  It is identified with life and the cosmos, and can be called the skill of living well, the skill of all skills.

While it can be found once in the Analects of Confucius and then later in the Confucian works of Mencius and Xunzi, it is most prominent in the Daoist works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Some philosophers, such as the Daoists, say that it is our original state, that which we had before we were born and early as children.  Others, such as Xunzi, say that it is opposite our original state, which we did not have at all when we were immature, and is only acquired through study and practice.

This presents us with a paradox: How can we try not to try?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellHeidegger was familiar with the works of the Daoists, and it is possible to answer this paradox in a Heideggerian way, relevant to the Dreyfus-McDowell debate about the interrelation of thought and action.  When we are first performing an action, we must think as we act and are clumsy in acting, but after we acquire a skill it becomes second nature and does not require the effort of thinking or being clumsy.  I discussed this in a previous post about Chuck Knoblauch over-thinking while throwing to first base.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, illustrates this in the story of Butcher Ding, who learns over the years to trust his actions without thinking and impresses the emperor.

pythagorean YIf one practices living life well, at first it is difficult, but after good habits become ingrained it becomes easy and effortless.  Thus, one can become effortless through effort over time, and the paradox is resolved.  This is similar to the forking paths of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that the left-hand path of pleasure is easy but it leads to destruction, while the right-hand path of effort is hard but it leads to wisdom, happiness and tranquility.

The problem is that bad habits are as easy, if not easier, to obtain as good habits, and so we must make the effort to choose what will become effortless.

WISE UP: Zen Master Hui Neng Says Your Mind Is Moving

WISE UP: Zhuangzi’s That Has a This

WISE UP: Bodhidharma Schools the Emperor in Zen

UNBOXED: The World Beyond the West & the Problem of Eurocentrism

Eurocentrism is the tradition of focusing on the ancient Greeks and Western Europeans to understand ourselves and our history.  Eurocentrism is based on the assumption that there is a separate and distinct culture known as “the West”, superior to other cultures in knowledge, wisdom and freedom, and this explains the impressive achievements of Western science, philosophy and politics.

Many authors, teachers and professors accept this assumption without question, but it is rarely demonstrated with direct comparisons, by comparing the ancient Greeks to the ancient Egyptians and Persians or by comparing the European Enlightenment to the earlier golden ages of China and Islam.  Though the Greeks got much from the Egyptians and Persians, as the Europeans did from the Chinese and Muslims, this is often ignored.  When comparisons are made, they often use a small number of examples to support the traditional Eurocentric view that the West is superior to all other cultures.

Eurocentrism cannot be found amongst the ancient Greeks or Romans, who did not identify with each other or with the tribes of Western Europe.  Romans thought Germanic and Celtic tribespeople were barbaric and inferior, owning them as slaves in Rome and depicting them as savages in art.  Julius Caesar wrote that the Gauls were primitive, warlike, and immoral, justifying their conquest and enslavement.  These are the very things Europeans would use to justify the domination of Africa and the Americas thousands of years later.  Rome enriched itself and financed the construction of impressive buildings with the wealth and slave labor reaped from the conquered.  Western European culture was almost entirely destroyed and replaced with Roman culture.  This is why witches, the shamans of their tribes, were burned at the stake and are still portrayed as evil today.

After the fall of Rome, in one of the most remarkable cases of Stockholm syndrome in history, the conquered identified themselves with their conquerors and adopted Roman history and identity as their own to make claims to power and lineage.  Then, after the Protestant Reformation, many Western Europeans ceased to identify with Rome and chose instead to identify exclusively with the ancient Greeks.  As Christianity had passed from Greece through Rome to Europe, Protestants turned from Latin sources back to Greek to retranslate the Bible, discovering the wisdom and knowledge of the Greeks in the process.

Over the last five hundred years, as Western Europe rose in power, wealth and dominance, the Europeans explained their successes in terms of Greek and Roman history and identity.  What was in medieval times called Christendom, and then during the Enlightenment called the European race, is in modern times called “The West”, still portrayed as distinct and superior.  This is why the Nazis invented the Olympic torch run which passed a flame from Athens to Berlin in 1936, a symbol of the superiority of the Western mind and reason.  Hitler saw the Nazis as a rebirth of Western Civilization, and argued that the Germans should look to the Greeks and Romans to be inspired by their fellow superior Aryans, even though the Greeks and Romans thought that Germans were subhuman and incapable of reason or government.  Perhaps the Nazis were trying to prove the Romans were right.

Between the fall of Rome and the rise of Western Europe, the Tang and Song dynasties of China and the golden age of Islam developed much of the technology, scholarship and science that was crucial for the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.  In 1620, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing were the most significant advancements of humankind, separating ancient from modern times, unaware that all three were Chinese.  Karl Marx argued that these same three inventions brought about capitalism and the middle class.  Along with these, paper, books, cast iron, gears, the belt drive, the chain drive, the spring, the waterwheel and the windmill all passed from China into Islamic lands and then into Europe.  The Muslims added algebra, possibly the most useful invention in history, based on Egyptian, Indian and Greek mathematics.  The Chinese and Muslims, like the Greeks and Romans, passed many things on to Western Europe, which was and is neither Greece nor Rome nor China.

The history of human thought and culture is our common heritage, which includes everything brilliant, and everything stupid, that our species has ever done.  All cultures have sought knowledge and wisdom, even though ignorance and arrogance is also all too human.  We can learn about ourselves from the achievements and problems of all cultures, and we inherit traditions and innovations from many cultures.  Why be Eurocentric when a wider perspective shows us much more?  Why pay attention to one set of cross-cultural influences, when the whole is our history?

My second short video in the WISE UP series

Every morning zen master Zuigan would say to himself, “Master”, and answer, “Yes, sir””
“Become Sober”, “Yes Sir”, “And do not be deceived by others”, “Yes, sir. Yes sir.”

WISE UP: Liu Ling’s Cosmic Pants

Liu Ling, a Daoist master of ancient China, was often at home, drunk and naked. When visitors stopped in and were shocked to find him this way, he would tell them, “Heaven and earth are my home, and my house is my pants. What are you all doing in my pants?”

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