Thought Itself

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



Onami & The Great Wave

Wavy no relation to Gravy

The wrestler Onami (Great Wave in Japanese) was unbeatable in practice matches, throwing all of his teachers, but easily defeated in tournaments.  He sought the help of a Zen master who lived in a temple in the mountains who told him to imagine he was a tidal wave sweeping away everything in his path.  Onami meditated that night in the temple, and slowly he felt the roll of his breathing turn into waves.  First they swept away the flowers in the offering vase in front of the Buddha statue, then they rose higher and swept away the vase, then swelled into a flood that swept the Buddha and bodhisattvas out of the temple.  After that night, Onami was invincible.  When we feel fear and anxiety interacting with others, it is useful to imagine that we and they are all the fluid, rolling motions of the larger situation that surrounds us, fearing neither they nor the situation as something external to ourselves.

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: The Best Dada Quotes of Tristan Tzara

Tristan Tzara (1896 – 1963) was the manifesto writer for the DADA art movement of the early 1900s which inspired much of modern art.

I know that you have come here today to hear explanations.  Well, don’t expect to hear any explanations about Dada.  You explain to me why you exist.  You haven’t the faintest idea.  You will never be able to tell me why you exist but you will always be ready to maintain a serious attitude about life.

Dada is not at all modern.  It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.  Dada is immobility and does not comprehend the passions…but with the same note of conviction I might maintain the contrary.

I love you so, I swear I do adore you.

Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people.  The truth is that people love nothing but themselves and their little possessions, their income, their dog.

If one is poor in spirit, one possesses a sure and indomitable intelligence, a savage logic, a point of view that cannot be shaken.

Always destroy what you have in you.  On random walks.  Then you will be able to understand many things.  You are not more intelligent than we, and we are not more intelligent than you.

I consider myself quite charming.

We are well aware that people in the costumes of the Renaissance were pretty much the same as the people of today, and that Zhuangzi was just as Dada as we are.

If I cry out: Ideal, ideal, ideal, Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom,” I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality, and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books, only to conclude that after all, everyone dances to their own personal boomboom.

I am against all systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.  To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s own littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread, the sudden burst of a propeller into lilies…

Here is the great secret: thought is made in the mouth.

I still consider myself very charming.

A great Canadian philosopher has said that thought and the past are also very charming.

To make a Dadaist poem: Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Cut out words and put them in a bag. Shake, gently. Take out the scraps one after the other. Copy them down. The poem will resemble you.

WISE UP: Zhuangzi & the Monkey Trainer

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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