Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part I

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part I
by Scott Bradley


When first I read Zhuangzi's teaching about the usefulness of uselessness I was an immediate convert, viewing myself, as I do, as relatively useless. Redeemed! Yet, if that is in any way relevant to his intended meaning, it is only superficially so.

I know that much, but to be honest, I still sense that I haven't realized the meat of it. So these posts are exploratory; I'm unsure where they will lead.

This teaching is usually developed through supposed dialogues between Zhuangzi and his logician buddy, Huizi. In the first (Chap. 1), Huizi accuses Zhuangzi of having big ideas which, though big, are useless. We might ask right here what does he mean by 'useless'?

We learn from the final chapter of the Zhuangzi that Huizi's writings filled five carts, though all that remains today is about a dozen mostly paradoxical sayings. Ironically, these mostly appear in the book named after his chief rival, the guy with the big, but useless ideas. But still more ironical is the fact that his teachings so greatly influenced Zhuangzi and live on in his teaching. If there is any usefulness in Zhuangzi, some of that is attributable to Huizi.

But Huizi had other ideas about what constituted usefulness. Again in the aforementioned chapter, we are told that above all else, Huizi wanted to make a name for himself. And this he did by winning debates with others: "It was really all about opposing the views of others, so that he might earn fame in defeating them." How it contributed to his sense of being somebody was his test of the usefulness of something.

What were Zhuangzi's 'big ideas'? "Far and unfettered wandering" as a nobody in the land of nowhere. Living in total disregard to the opinion of others. Declining every opportunity of personal advancement. They were indeed "useless" ideas that could only be realized through "uselessness". And yet they had a "usefulness" far beyond the realm of typical human endeavors.

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

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