The Ringing of Subtle Wisdom

I was rereading the introduction to Tao : a new way of thinking by the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang.  He was discussing the meaning of Tao when he noted that “In Chinese art, the soundless is more primordial than sound.”  I suppose that is correct, in the beginning there would be silence before sound…

In any case, he goes on to quote Heidegger (On The Way to Language):

The soundless gathering call by which Saying moves the world-relation on its way, we call the ringing of stillness.

Chung-yuan Chang comments, “It is this ringing of stillness that opens the mind of man to Eastern aesthetics… Thus, the question remains: How does one attain Tao?”  The Buddhist might ask, How does one attain enlightenment?

Chung-yuan Chang goes on to quote Chapter 38 of the Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

The highest attainment is free from attainment.
Therefore, there is attainment.
The lowest attainment is never free from attainment.
Therefore, there is no attainment.

Following this, he shares these words from the 4th century Buddhist philosopher, Shen Chao:

You may conceive of attainment as that which is able to be attained.  Therefore, there is attainment.  However, I consider attainment as nothing to be attained.  Therefore, attainment is achieved though non-attainment…  Subtle wisdom lies beyond things…”

Lao Tzu suggested that we understand Tao (and Buddhahood) by not understanding it, one of those paradoxical statements that Taoism and Zen (heavily influenced by Taoism) are well-known for.  Thing is, we shouldn’t be looking for attainment in the first place but rather “subtle wisdom.”  Attainment is an established ideal, while acquiring subtle wisdom is a practical process we call The Way.

The English word “subtle” corresponds with the Chinese character miao, which means “wonderful, mystic, clever, and subtle.”  Of these meanings, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i preferred “subtle.”  Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-i the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

[Image: Chinese character “miao”]

Reality is that which is genuine, original or natural, as opposed to that which is artificial and illusory.  We are not trying to achieve something so much as we are trying to see through something.  We’re trying to see through the real and into the Real.

That’s why the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be told is not the infinite Tao,” and why the Heart Sutra says, “Within emptiness… there is no attainment with nothing to attain.”  And yet, the Heart Sutra also says that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas practice in the way of Transcendental Wisdom and “awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.”  Huh?

Lama Govinda explains that is means “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not enlightened by fixed teaching but by an intuitive process that is spontaneous and natural.”

Introspection or meditation is the observation of subjective mental qualities.  It is not thought.  However, it is probably as far from thought as we can get.  Wayfarers should want to cultivate a mind that that does not seize and cling to things,  an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility.  This may seem to be a very simple thing but actually it is quite difficult to realize on a ongoing basis.

Finally Chung-yuan Chang quotes Heidegger quoting Nietzsche:

Our thinking should have a vigorous fragrance, like a wheat field on a summer’s night.

If fragrance had a sound, it would be the ringing of subtle wisdom.


True Happiness Pt. 1

I’ve shared some the writings of Chuang Tzu (369—298 BCE) before. He was an early and influential Taoist philosophers. Also known as Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi, he worked as a minor official for a small town in China during the late 4th century BCE,  and a follower of the philosophy of the Tao, which teaches the principle of wu-wei, “not-doing.”

His basic writings are known simply as “Chuang Tzu,” and here is the beginning of Chapter 18 Kih Lo or “True Happiness” based on the translations by James Legge and Burton Watson.

Chuang Tzu

Is there such a thing as true happiness to be found in the world or isn’t there? Is there some way to preserve your life or isn’t there? If so, what should you do, what should you rely on, avoid, stick by, follow, leave alone? In other words, what should you find happiness in, what should you hate?

The world honors wealth, fame, longevity, a good name. The world finds happiness in a life of ease, good food, fine clothes, beautiful sights, pleasant music. It looks down on poverty, meanness, early death, a bad name. It finds bitter a life that knows no rest, a mouth hungry for good food, a body with no fine clothes, eyes that see no beautiful sights, ears that hear no sweet music. If people do not get these things they fret a great deal and are troubled with fears – isn’t it silly?

Now, those who are rich wear themselves out rushing around on business, piling up more wealth than they could ever use – so concerned with external things. Famous people spend night and day worrying if they are skillful – indifferent to more important things. Birth is the beginning of a person’s suffering, and when there is longevity, people just become sillier, spending more time with worry than with living – what a great bitterness.

People of passion are regarded by the world as good, but neither their passion nor their goodness can keep them alive. I wonder if the goodness ascribed to them is really good or not. Perhaps it’s good – but not good enough to save their lives. Perhaps it’s no good – but still good enough to save the lives of others. Hence, it is said, if good advice isn’t listened to, sit still, give way, and do not wrangle. Tzu-hsu wrangled and destroyed his body. But if he hadn’t wrangled, he would not have acquired his fame. Was this goodness really goodness or was it not?

As to what ordinary people find happiness in – I don’t know whether this is really happiness or not. I see them in their pursuit of it, racing around as though they cannot stop – they will say they’re happy, or they’re not happy . . . In the end is there really happiness or isn’t there?

I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this. It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise. The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong. And yet doing nothing can determine it. Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way. Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace. Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life. Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere! Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction. So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done. But who among us can attain this inaction?