Monday, May 2, 2011


by Scott Bradley

"The master never talked of prodigies [miracles], feats of strength, disorders [omens], or spirits." (Analects VII 20)

"Tzu-lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. The Master said, Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts? Tzu-lu then ventured upon a question about the dead. The Master said, Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?" (Analects XI 11)

I must confess that I find the Confucius of the Analects dry as dust. But here, at least, I take off my hat to him, or, as he would prefer, 'walk by him quickly' to show my respect. (The things one learns....)

These quotes demonstrate that Confucius was not interested in the supernatural; he figured if we take care of the natural we know, the supernatural, which we do not know, will take care of itself. Elsewhere it says that he "never spoke of Heaven".

This same attitude carries through to magic, miracles and omens. Somewhere in the Zhuangzi it says that to be enamored of manifestations of spirituality is to mistake the flower for the fruit. It's not about appearing holy or spiritually empowered. Indeed, these things suggest a bogus spirituality. Beware.

One reason I so enjoy the Zhuangzi is that it is largely innocent of the hocus-pocus of magic and spiritual display. When it appears, it is either simply a fantastic story meant to teach another thing altogether (the sage who lives on dew and rides dragons) or, more frequently, to reveal its folly.

Liezi twice appears as someone hung up on magic. We read that he could ride on the wind; but this is dismissed as just another form of dependence. Once, he becomes so enamored by a magician/fortune-teller that he nearly abandons his own teacher because he doesn't likewise perform miracles. Then, after his teacher sends the magician flying in fear, having revealed to him his own unfixed, chaotic, inner reality, Liezi seems finally to have gotten the message, "letting all the chiseled carvings of his character return to an unhewn blockishnes. Solitary like a clump of soil, he planted his physical form there in its place, a mass of chaos and confusion. And this is how he remained to the end of his days." (Chap. 7; B. Ziporyn)

Not your idea of spirituality? Not to worry; there are other paths.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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