Thursday, November 8, 2012

More on the Usefulness of Uselessness

Scott Bradley


I recently obtained Victor Mair's translation of the Zhuangzi (Wandering on the Way) which provides an opportunity to explore that work from a slightly different perspective.

In Chapter One, after introducing the relative equality of all things in terms of their reliance on "something", and suggesting a way of transcendence that relies on nothing, Zhuangzi (or his editor) shows us how this is not a flight from the world, but rather what brings us into harmony with the world.

To accomplish this Zhuangzi uses his favorite straight-man, the logician Huizi. Here and elsewhere we are told that Huizi believed that his friend's proposed flight into “Never-Never Land” (Mair) was "big", but "useless" — a lot of hot air.

Huizi has a huge gourd that he smashes because he finds it useless to his purposes. He also has a stinky tree to which no carpenter would give a second glance, it being useless to his purposes. These, Huizi declares, are useless, just like Zhuangzi's "big words".

Zhuangzi replies that Huizi's problem is that he insists on imposing his understanding of utility on things instead of allowing the things themselves to teach and enrich him. This is the essence of wuwei, allowing each unique thing to realize that uniqueness and thereby enrich the whole. Conformity is the enemy of wholeness, not its facilitator. Roger Ames translates ziran (spontaneity, self-so-ness) as "self-disclosure"; wuwei, non-imposing-action, not only enables its practitioner to so disclose, but it also allows all other things to likewise so disclose.

Huizi does have a 'problem'; the huge gourd "bothers" him; the stink tree annoys him; Zhuangzi’s path bugs him. All of this is a consequence, not of the uselessness of these things, but of his insistence that things conform to his wishes. He is his own problem. In terms of one’s serenity, there is no other locus for a problem. Upset is always and only my problem.

Zhuangzi suggests other possible uses for these things, those suggested by the things themselves. The huge gourd might be used as a float so that Huizi could explore the rivers and lakes, symbols of free spiritual wandering. The stink tree might be (metaphorically) planted in "Never-Never Land" where Huizi can wander without care, doing nothing special, being, in effect, himself "useless". “Utility” is the negation of the sacredness of the world. The stink tree is sacred in itself. Earth is sacred in itself, and its “worth” transcends the avarice of human ideas of utility.

Here we see how in allowing things to be themselves we are freed to be ourselves. Those things which disturb us the most are precisely those things which offer us the greatest opportunity to take flight, through acceptance, into that freedom where we depend on nothing. This is the true usefulness of the supposedly useless. It is not through self-assertion and imposing ourselves upon the world that freedom ensues (for there will always be the push-back of things imposing themselves upon us), but rather in "going along with", affirming, things as they are.

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

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