Book: The Way of Chuang Tzu
Author: Thomas Merton
Genre: Philosophy, Religion
In my last post, I mentioned that Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu would be the next topic of discussion. Being a handy guide for both learning Taoist ideas and understanding the historical context around them, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Merton begins the book by situating Chuang Tzu alongside other ancient Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Confucius. Once primed with some contextual knowledge, he launches into various Taoist poems and fable-like stories–or what he refers to in his note to readers as “free interpretative readings” of Chuang Tzu’s works. Having read another of Merton’s books, the fantastic and worthwhile Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, I am trusting of his interpretations. However, as I’m not a religious scholar or an experienced Taoist, I thought I would connect the Taoist ideas here to something I know much better: hip hop.
Deceased Minnesota rapper Eyedea made music about the struggles of living. His lyrics gravitated towards topics like mental illness and human connection rather than the various rap tropes that typically (and often unfairly) define the genre. My favorite of his songs, “Here For You,” reflects a Taoist belief system that would have made Merton smile.
The song opens with dialogue from a somewhat obscure movie called Pushing Tin, in which John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton converse:
Billy Bob: There is a way out of this mess and shit. You just cant think your way out of it. Thought is your enemy.
John: I know, I know. I got to think less. I had that thought actually.
Billy Bob: You have to let go.
John: Let go. Let go of what?
Billy Bob: Let go of you. I mean, think about it, what have you done for you lately?
John: I’m having trouble following you there, Russell.
Billy Bob: You have to jump in.
John: Jump in back on the scopes?
Billy Bob: No, in the water.
John: The river?
Billy Bob: Yes, jump in the river!
I have never seen Pushing Tin (it has a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes), so I’m not sure how this conversation is meaningful to John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, but for Eyedea’s purpose, it provides a psychological lens for understanding the rest of the song. Chuang Tzu’s poem “Man is Born in Tao,” begins with the words, “Fish are born in water. Men are born in Tao.” Though Cusack fails to understand, Billy Bob essentially wants him to go with the flow. Overthinking and worrying are symptoms of man suffocating outside of Tao the same way a fish would suffocate outside of water. When we resist the flow of life by constantly overthinking and attempting to control events, we inevitably suffer like Cusack does in the snippet.
For nearly the entire first verse, Eyedea uses the “life as river” analogy to relay his message about non-control. It might be an overused comparison, but it works wonders for Eyedea’s purposes:
Were all born into this river without knowing how to swim
And eventually we learn how to keep this water under our chins
Some times this rivers so cold to be in
Freezing my soul, solidifying my skin
Regardless of how far I see, I never see my travels end
Were carried by the current, being driven by the wind
The scenery we pass, we’ll never see again
So we store it up as memories and don’t let go of them
Were under a spell thinking the river should go straight
We set goals and desires to control our own fate
But all the pain we experience is a result of our expectations
Because it’s the rivers nature to twist and turn
In Chuang Tzu’s “When Life was Full There Was No History,” he reminisces about prehistory–a time when people “loved each other and did not know this was ‘love thy neighbor’, when people lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know they were generous.” Though Chuang Tzu appears to be taking aim at the political environment of his age, his words can be applied in a much more personal way. Expectations, hopes, goals, and dreams seem harmless, even positive, but from a Taoist point of view, these all point towards a specific vision of oneself. Legacies and histories are born in expectations and hopes, either setting oneself up for disappointment when they don’t happen, or disillusionment when they do. In a recent television show I was watching, a wife screamed at her husband, “Life doesn’t happen to you! You make it,” or something like that. For both Eyedea and Chuang Tzu, letting life happen to you is the only way to achieve anything resembling inner peace.
About seventy-five percent through the verse, Eyedea has encouraged his fellow humans to let the current take them, but he has not provided enough of a reason to do this. What is the river, who controls it, and why should I let it control me? The last six lines apprehend these questions:
I stare up at the naked moon, and she stares down at me
Outside thoughts boundaries, I’m all I look outward to see.
The universe is not something separate from yourself
I know you feel alone, but that’s why I’m here to help
I know you feel alone, but just look up at the stars
And everything that is out there is what you really are
Outside thoughts boundaries, I’m all I look outward to see is perhaps more Taoist than anything in Merton’s book. We need to trust the river’s guidance because the river is us. Our consciousness may have become detached from the life force that we all share, but we nonetheless share it. We are all, like the wonderful Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to remind us, star stuff. If we can remember that we are quite literally made of the same stuff flowing down the river and shed the oppositional stance we take towards everything that is perceived separate from ourselves, then we may flow down the river of life without worry. Good and bad, in this equation, are indistinguishable, as the river simply flows.
In his second verse, Eyedea takes the river idea a step further. If we are all the river, then we are all in each other as well:
Now I want you to know
The role you play is part of the whole
Without you it couldn’t be, and I mean that with compassion
So if you ever need anything, I mean anything at all
I’m here for you; all you gotta do is ask man
I’m here for you, in the same way that you’re here for me
Each person in an intricate piece of infinity
I feel that if you could see what I see
Then we as humanity could be free
I’m here for you, not for any self centered reasons
But because existence is interdependent and all is related,
Connected as different manifestations of one single mind
You ain’t isolated from the world even though it feels like that sometimes
In this verse, Eyedea has a suggestion for anyone that feels lonely, unloved, forgotten, or undervalued–look within yourself, for we are all there. Chuang Tzu’s story “Confucius and the Madman” considers utility and the cost of such. Seeing Confucius, the madman approaches him and says, “The grease that feeds the light devours itself. The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down,” and so on. After a few more examples, the madman says, “No one seems to know, how useful it is to be useless.” Usefulness is related to control, which is in turn related to ego. Why do we need to be useful when we are all one entity? Rather than railing against utility, Chuang Tzu is concerned with uneven ideas. It is not that the madman is better than those other things that are useful, but rather he is equal to them. There is no usefulness without use, no you without me. This interdependence is the place where a several-thousand-year-old Chinese philosopher and a modern-era Rhymesayer meet. Each person, as Eyedea posits, is an intricate piece of infinity. If we are one, then I guess we are as alone as it gets–together.
Miss you, Mikey.
Next post: Evicted by Matthew Desmond