If my apartment was on fire and had time to grab one book (in addition to my cat) it would be ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’ by Thomas Merton. Here’s a passage:
Flight From the Shadow
There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.
So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.
He attributed the failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping, until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps. (Merton, 155)
To get some meaning out of this parable, don’t interpret literally. The shadows and footsteps I take to mean our actions, words and thoughts. If we aren’t happy with them- acting more, speaking more, and thinking more- will not help. We need to stop. Every day there are conversations I walk away from wishing I said something different, or wishing I hadn’t said anything all. I obsess over the scenario, playing it over and over in my head, beating myself up; I plan what I’m going to do next time. Like the man who hates his own shadow, I run away. Why not sit still, accept what has happened, and practice being comfortable with being uncomfortable?
The story is a good example of Taoism and a good example of the Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. The man who runs so much he dies is hyperbole, ludicrous, and used to comic effect. At the same time, we know people who go to extreme measures to avoid sitting with themselves. They work all the time, they drink all the time, they shop all the time. They do all the time. Taoism is a philosophy of not-doing. It’s not necessarily a philosophy of passivity and inaction, but rather a philosophy of moving when you need to move, sitting when you need to sit.
Thomas Merton didn’t know a lick of Chinese, or at least not enough to perform a genuine translation. In his words, “The rather special nature of this book calls for some explanation. The texts from Chuang Tzu assembled here are the result of five years of reading, study, annotation, and meditation. The notes have in time acquired a shape of their own and have become, as it were, “imitations” of Chuang Tzu, or rather, free interpretive readings of characteristic passages which appeal especially to me. These “readings” of my own grew out of a comparison of four of the best translations of Chuang Tzu into western languages, two English, one French, and one German. In reading these translations I found very notable differences, and soon realized that all who have translated Chuang Tzu have had to do a great deal of guessing. Their guesses reflect not only their degree of Chinese scholarship, but also their own grasp of the mysterious “way” described by a Master writing in Asia nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. Since I know only a few Chinese characters, I obviously am not a translator. These “readings” are then not attempts at faithful reproduction but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation.”
Got that? He didn’t stay faithful to the original text, and in so doing, stayed more faithful than anyone who did.
A few words on Thomas Merton, for those of you interested (and still reading- good for you!). Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. On the one hand, he was a Catholic ascetic committed to the monastic way of life. On the other hand, he was in correspondence with the Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferhengetti, well-read on Foucault, and visited the Dalai Llama in 1968- way before it was fashionable. His life came to an absurd and tragic end just weeks after visiting the Dalai Llama, in a freak accident involving an electric fan in Thailand. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, is his most famous work.
I am drawn to Merton (and for that matter, Chuang Tzu) by his emphasis on the contemplative mind. The contemplative mind doesn’t debate, argue and analyze. It’s can’t even be called rational. The contemplative mind is attunement to life, the concentric circles spanning outwards from the point a rock fell into the water.
Next week, I’m going to provide some of my own ‘readings’ of Chuang Tzu. They will be ancient stories adapted to fit the scene of a café on the north side of Chicago. That’s right. Baristas.
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