The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part III
by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
In his second, even more scathing, attack on Zhuangzi's "big, but useless words", Huizi tells of his Stink Tree which is so useless that no carpenter would give it a second glance. Its wood is so twisted and gnarled that no T-square or template could possibly subdue it. It is an utterly useless tree: "And your words are similarly big, but useless, which is why they are rejected by everyone who hears them." (Ziporyn)
The first thing we might note is that Huizi is again trying to superimpose his preconceived notions onto reality. Because it doesn't meet his expectations, does not properly square or conform to a carpenter's arc, it is useless. He has yet to realize the beauty of the 'uncarved block', the beauty of a thing simply being what it is. And he is, therefore, well beyond being able to let that reality manifest in himself. He cannot affirm and release himself into the up-welling of the life that he is.
And we also note again what it is that he considers "useful", namely, the acclaim of others. Zhuangzi has no 'name', no fame, no following. His words are rejected by everyone who hears them. He is a 'nobody'.
But, after his imagined chuckles subside, we hear Zhuangzi introduce a new dimension into the mix. Huizi's supposed usefulness would, in fact, lead to the very destruction of the tree. From the point of view of the tree, is it not better to be considered useless and thus allowed to live without fear of the carpenter's axe? This is a frequent theme throughout the Zhuangzi and may reveal the influence on his teachings of Yang, the so-called hedonist.
Yang taught that one's first responsibility is to preserve one's life intact, and that political involvement and the gaining of a 'name' were sure ways of failing to do so. This is illustrated by Alexander's sword topping the highest poppies, in answering the question of his generals as to whom to eliminate.
But Zhuangzi's concern was, I believe, of a more 'spiritual' nature. If the object is to 'be empty', to have no name, then having one could only be an obstruction. When approached with the offer of high office, while fishing on a muddy bank, we are told, he flatly refused, not for fear of his physical well-being, but for the loss of his carefree freedom to wander. Similarly, we are told that the sage shuns crowds and the praise of others.
"Why not plant it [the ‘useless’ tree]" he concludes, "in our homeland of not-even-anything, the vast wilds of open nowhere? Then you could loaf and wander there, doing lots of nothing there at its side, and take yourself a nap, far-flung and unfettered, there beneath it." (Ziporyn)
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.