Thursday, May 6, 2010

Walking in the Nameless, Part 6

by Scott Bradley
If you do evil openly, it can be punished by humans. If you do it secretly, it can be punished by ghosts. It is only after you have brought both humans and ghosts into your own daylight that you can truly go forth in your solitude. For when you accord with what is within you, you walk in the nameless. When you accord with the external, on the other hand, you aspire only to the expectation of payment. When you walk in the nameless, even your everyday activities have their own radiance. But when you aspire to the expectation of payment, you become merely a merchant. Everyone sees you tottering on tiptoes, but still you think you are towering above them.
~ from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections from Traditional Commentaries by Brook Ziporyn ~
These final sentences in the passage, as I have arbitrarily delineated it, are a continuation of the practical instruction to the disciple-practitioner. The contrast of the public and the private spheres with respect to conduct is a common theme in Confucianism. The cultivation of one’s person should make no such distinction except in that within the private sphere the need for diligence is amplified.

We all wish to avoid the public punishments for misconduct, but we may believe that there are no such punishments for private misconduct. This is a mistake. Though the author speaks of “doing evil”, the real object of approbation is probably something much more innocent, namely the hypocrisy inherent in deliberate sagacity.

Focusing on the “external”— public image, self-image — one cultivates not his spontaneous-self, but his ego-self. His sagacity is a means to an end, the bolstering of self through public recognition that he is ‘somebody’. The public punishment for this is that the world sees him for what he really is, a fool on tiptoes, thinking of himself as towering over others. The private “evil” is essentially the same. The cultivation of a self-image is no less “external” than the cultivation of a public image.

As we learned above, the spontaneous-self is beyond all knowing and thus any ‘image’ held and cultivated is “not a revelation of” its rootedness in spontaneity. The punishment for this is a failure to realize the peace that the entire enterprise is designed to accomplish. The cure is to abide in the center of Heaven the Potter’s Wheel where all such foolishness is trimmed away.

When the author speaks here of “ghosts” he might mean just that — “ghosts” — but he speaks of them again further on in the chapter, and there the meaning is metaphorical. People who “chase after the external”, he tells us, “only find their own ghosts.” Likewise, “to go outside yourself and attain what you’re after is called attaining your own death, and the gain that is left as a result of destroying yourself can only be a kind of ghost.” They are like “ghosts” because they are chimera, unreal, empty and unsustainable. I

suspect that the meaning in the passage under consideration is likewise metaphorical. Consider your ‘ghosts’ and it is your memories that come to mind. Memories are pages in your ‘story’, a novel inspired by ‘events’ selected by the peculiar self-image which both rises from the ‘story’ and perpetuates its writing. Dwell outside your spontaneous-self and you live the story. Dwell within that spontaneity, and the story and the self-myth it perpetuates will fall away.

Guilt is certainly another ‘ghost’ that punishes us severely. With regards to the ‘evil’ of the disciple-practitioner’s deviation from the spontaneous life, guilt is simply yet another manifestation of that failure. In other words, the guilt has the same source, self-identity, as the “evil” which gives it rise. Looking back at Nanrong Chu’s futile attempts to deliberately realize spontaneity, wherein he “tortured” himself, we have a case in point. Laozi predicted its result: “pent-up sorrow”. The deliberate mind ties itself up in knots attempting to be what it cannot be and guilt ever supplies the necessary cordage. Yet none of this can survive the cultivating turning of the Potter’s Wheel.

We might profitably contrast the idea here, “if you do evil”, to the previously mentioned “if evils beset you”. There is much “evil” that besets us, but it would be a mistake to believe that it is all a consequence of our own behavior on the one hand, or of fate on the other. There is that for which I am responsible and that for which I am not.

Understanding the difference between the two and learning to distinguish between them is a necessary part of “cultivating the humanness”. Someone accuses you of being “useless”. This may merely be an expression of the world’s incomprehension of one who does not strive after ‘success’ and ‘fame’. Or, it may be a consequence of your failure to realize the full expression of rootedness in Mystery, namely its ‘ethical’ side, as expressed in “reaching through to others”. To engage in the “cultivation of the humanness” is, in part, to discern when such an “evil” is of your own making and thereby let the inner Potter’s Wheel trim away its source. That this is not a “torturing” of oneself through deliberate self-inspired self-improvement is suggested in the sentence following.

What does it mean to “bring humans and ghosts into your own daylight”? When we have done this, we are able to continue on into our own “solitude.” What is this? “Humans” are the external (public-image), “ghosts” are the internal (self-image); in this instance, they both represent fetters by which we are bound. Who is bound? — a self with a fixed identity. You cannot escape these bonds as long as you cling to the illusion of this identity; lose it and the fetters fall away. How can we realize no-fixed-identity? By basking the entire identity illusion in “our own daylight.” Just as “the radiance of heaven” shines forth and illumines your humanness, enabling you to cultivate that humanness and discover the unending sustainability that is your primal nature, so you, in your cultivating, illumine that which hinders your realization of that sustainability.

The ‘problems’ themselves become the means by which you see more clearly what it means to be rooted in the spontaneous-self, the no-self, the nameless. Thank you “evil” and ‘image’ — “every enslavement is also an ennobling.” All the worries and guilt that reside in having a ‘name’ and a ‘story’ cascade into the void of nothingness when you become ‘nameless’.

Having made peace with your dragons, you can enter your “solitude”. What is this “solitude”? It is the inner life, the Numinous Platform, which, although it “reaches through to others” and realizes a subjective unity with all things, must of necessity remain its own unique reality. This unity is realized, not through the loss of one’s uniqueness, but rather through the full realization of that uniqueness. This solitude is also a reflection of having no-fixed-identity.

To be nameless is to be alone in the land of the nameful. In Thomas Merton’s adaptation of Chapter 20 of the Zhuangzi one is exhorted to “descend and be lost amid the masses of men” where he is “unseen”, has “no name and no home” and “leaves no traces.” Zhuangzi says the same in his description of the sage: “Minute and insignificant, he is just another man among the others. Vast and unmatched, he is alone in perfecting the Heavenly in himself.” This is indeed a solitude, but it is one in which all the world is embraced.

Considering this sentence paraphrased as “When you have brought others into your daylight, you can enter your own inner experience” provides a mirror image of the previous statement, “Reach through to others through respect for what is most central within yourself.” I

n the first, harmony with others enables one to fully experience inner harmony, and in the second, inner harmony enables harmony with others. Clearly, the art of cultivating one’s humanness is a dialectical endeavor where the process of one’s inner awakening brings about a change in one’s relationship with the outer (others) and the illuminated outer enables one to realize further change in the inner. The implication is, of course, that this awakening is gradual as opposed to the sudden awakening of Zen. But just as Zen does not deny the possibility of gradual awakening, so we need not deny the possibility of sudden awakening in the philosophical Daoist perspective. In either case, this dialectic is in some sense necessary.

How is this a solitude? “When you accord with what is within you, you walk in the nameless.” When you are in harmony with and rooted in the Mystery of your being, you dwell in the land of no identity at all. Who “walks in the nameless”? Only the nameless walk in the nameless.

We might capitalize “nameless” and call it Tao, but there is really no distinction between Tao and our own namelessness. There is one Mystery.

There is an alternative, however. “When you accord with the external, on the other hand, you aspire only to the expectation of some sort of payment.” The alternative is that you try and ‘be somebody’ in your own eyes and in those of the world. Self arises. And when self is master, all that you do has one deliberate motive: to assure yourself that you are real, that you are ‘somebody’.

Consider again the disciple-practitioner. Were he to “accord with the external”, what kind of ‘someone’ would he wish to be? This disciple, who seeks the way of the sage, will have confused this with being a sage. The ‘sage’ is himself, the ‘someone’ he wishes to be. His every effort toward sagacity will thus be but another grasping for ‘name’. To really be a sage is to entertain no such image; it is to be able to say, like ‘Laozi’, “I have freed myself from knowledge, from the spiritual, and from being a sage.”

Jumping over the positive alternative expressed in the next sentence, let’s complete this description of the negative alternative in the final two sentences (of my chosen passage). “But when you aspire to the expectation of payment, you become merely a merchant. Everyone sees you tottering on tiptoes, but still you think you’re towering above them.”

Because the disciple has focused on the image of sagacity where his self-identity remains entirely intact, everything he does to further sagacity is but a seeking for profit. Wishing to appear sagacious, putting on airs, as it were, he might deceive himself and think himself actually sagacious, but all his fellow practitioners see him for what he is: a hypocrite. It is interesting that in Chapter 33, in the positive side of its assessment of Shen Dao, it says “he simply towered alone in his place.” “Towering” above others is only a deviation from spontaneity when it is a self-conscious image of oneself. That he is also “alone” points out the “solitude” inherent in this experience.

In contrast to this deviation from spontaneity we have: “When you walk in the nameless, even your everyday activities have their own radiance.” Deliberate activities have no radiance for either yourself or others. They are executed with an end other than themselves in mind and thus cannot be truly enjoyed for themselves. You have turned them into a commodity and your appreciation of them is contingent upon their accomplishing an external goal. Meanwhile, your intended audience sees your duplicity and recoils from the taint of ego (which opposes their own).

“Walking in the nameless”, however, your activities are executed with no other end than themselves. Things are done for their own sake. For this reason, they shine. And since there is no motivational mediation between you and the activity, your enjoyment of them is complete. There are numerous stories in the Zhuangzi that have this as their theme. Here I’ll cite but one: The woodworker, Qing, whose bell stand amazes all that see it. In his explanation of how this is possible, he tells us how he manages to forget every external motivation until he is “just matching the Heavenly with the Heavenly”.

The famous Zen exclamation says this as best as can be said: “What glorious activity, chopping wood and carrying water!”

Note: At the conclusion of this miniseries, a link will be provided for those interested in downloading or printing the entire document replete with footnotes.


  1. This is just what I needed to read today. Thanks.

  2. in wicca, a similar concept is the threefold rule. whatever "energies", or intent, you send out from yourself to others comes back to you threefold. it is the idea that every action you create, whether visible or invisible to the outside world, has its effect and consequence, and those effects and consequences will eventually affect you! it's another call to be mindful of whatever we do and the effects of our actions.

  3. Cecil,
    Keep your chin up, brother.

    It just goes to show that truth can be found in many different philosophies.


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