Split wood, light breathing

The Dao has nothing to say not because it is mute, not because it is coy but because it communicates in its own way. Best, therefore, not to ask it anything but to rest–anywhere–in the light of its presence. On  this second spring, the mountains will serve that end.

The Daoist Sage does everything lightly, including loving. Excessive effort bears little, yields nothing save contortions and distortions of spirit, save strife. The Sage walks lightly, speaks with lightness, has mastered appropriate lightness. Accordingly, he is neither wilted nor husky, neither a brute nor a dandy. When he loves, he loves with lilies and splinters and grace. Last night I tweeted:

To split wood with grace, cast the axe forcefully downward and feel the lightness–the light breath–of success. The moon is just so.

On the ‘profound de’: An excerpt from David E. Cooper’s Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective

The following, 10 lines down below the hash marks, is an excerpt from David E. Cooper’s Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective (Green Books, 2012), pp. 76-7. In the Daoist tradition, the sage was someone who lived according to the Way (dao). But how was he to do so? The sage cultivated “profound de.De can be translated, variously, as “virtue” or “inherent capacity” or as finding one’s “appropriate place and function in the world” (72). What then of “profound de?” This is embodied fully “when virtue displays its implicit understanding of dao” (74), an understanding that is practical, exhibited in action and attitude, in tone and style, not in theoretical discourse, hence in words piled on words. We have in mind a boatman upon the water, not a scholar entombed in tomes. Accordingly, for a sage to live with de is for him to shape himself and to be shaped by a consonant harmony with the Way.

In his comportment towards other people and creatures, the sage is gentle, respectful, tolerant and compassionate. For he is, after all, without a sense of himself as anything special; he does not see himself as an autonomous being set over and against other creatures which matter only as means to the satisfaction of his wants and ambitions.

In his bodily comportment, the sage is relaxed and tranquil, balanced and poised, yet possessed of vitality and energy, of a still power. He joins his body, effortlessly and easily, to the prevailing rhythms of the natural world–the seasons, the patterns of weather, night and day, growth and decay. As such, he accommodates himself to the general pattern of heaven-and-earth, of a physical universe whose harmony and steadiness are preconditions for experience of a world.

What today might be called the ‘lifestyle’ of the sage is modest and simple, though not necessarily austere. Drinking wine or beer, enjoying conversation, listening to music played on a zither or flute–these may be among the pleasures of sages. Not among them are the pleasures that people try to obtain from self-centred and artificial desires–desires shaped by the social pressures, conventions and technological imperatives of a world divorced from natural ways of living. These are the assertive desires and pleasures of men and women who have ‘lost the Way’.

What of the tone or style of the sage’s conduct of everyday business, of how he goes about the world? In his actions, gestures, demeanour and speech, the sage shows himself to be responsive but steady, focused but spontaneous, firm but flexible, reserved but accessible. He follows no rigid plans, and does not espouse goals that are to be achieved come what may. Hence, he does not force people or things to fit in with plans or goals. His is not, however, the spontaneity of impulse and immediate passion: his actions are not actes gratuitis, for this is a spontaneity that distorts reality. Instead, his is a spontaneity of a reflective person who accommodates actions and words to the way things are, not to how they seem when distorted by prejudice or passion. It is a spontaneity consonant with the dao. The action of dao, too, is free from distortions and from outside pressures. Dao‘s action, too, is never forceful, for nothing stands in its way that it needs to overcome. Its ‘giving’ of a world of experience is a seamless and continuous flow, and the sage’s route through the world is one of unresisting and uncomplaining immersion in this flow.

Commentary on Laozi’s Daodejing, no. 34: ‘The great Way floods her banks…’

The excerpt, below, is from Laozi, Daodejing, trans. Edmund Ryden, intro. Benjamin Penny, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 71. Bracketed numbers, e.g., [1], occurring at the end of the lines correspond to my notes following the text.

Bear in mind that I have never studied Daoism and, in fact, had not picked up Daodejing before this past Monday, so my commentary is more Borgian than scholarly. In this respect, I am an amateur avant la lettre. As the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, before the 19th C. the amateur was (1) “one who loves or is fond of; one has has a taste for anything” and (2) “one who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker.” The slippage in the second quote intimates the subsequent reversal of meaning of the concept of amateurism, a reversal that begins around the end of the 19th C. when the lawyerly, medical, and engineering professions began to seek legitimization, and that reaches a finale by the middle of the 20th C.

Today, the amateur is only a “mere dabbler” and, it is said, typically a fool, someone who lacks the expertise of the professional, an individual who does not get paid, and has no claim to getting paid, to make, potter about with, or tinker with something. But then the philosopher is not a professional but a serious amateur.

No. 34
The great Way floods her banks; she can go left or right. [1]
She completes her tasks, pursues her affairs, yet she is given no ownership for this. [2]
The myriad things flow back to her, yet she does not lord it over them, [3]
On the contrary,
She is ever without yearning and can be named among the small things. [4]
The myriad things flow back to her, yet she does not lord it over them.
She can be named among what is great.
For this reason,
The reason why the Sage can do great things is because he never himself acts as great, [5, 6]
There he can be great. 


[1] The Way is like a flood, so plentiful as to rise above the river banks. Fullness itself, the Way bathes all, bringing nourishment to the myriad things it touches.

The Way is absolutely indifferent with respect to “the left” and “the right.” If the Way flows over all things, this it does without making any distinctions between “things.” For in the “eyes” of the Way, there is no thinghood, hence it can make no difference to the Way whether it goes “left” or “right”, “up” or “down,” “backward” or “forward,” for these are human concerns derived from all too human concepts. Therefore, the word “can” marks the power of the Way to go wherever it may and in going wherever to wash over all. The Way, like the flood waters, simply goes.

[2] The Way flows “outward” with the power of doing enough. Flowing “outward,” the Way completes its movement as far as finality goes. The Way sweeps the porch of leaves and then, in the next breath, leaves. It is of particular importance that the Way does not own or possess, does not grab and take what it uses or completes. Neither the porch nor the broom nor the leaves nor the stone upon the path are the Way’s. Of course, all myriad things, inasmuch as the Many belongs to the One, belongs to the Way, yet belonging is not to be confused with owning. The Way is invited into the house, dwells within it, takes care of it, and then puts the keys under the pot beside the doormat.

[3] All things flow “back” into the Way. The Way welcomes all things, receiving all gifts. The Way, a great recipient, does not subdue the stranger or the guest. The Way is not a master, and the other is not a servant. The Way has no thumbs.

From [1-3], it follows that the Way bathes all yet holds none.

[4] It is for this reason that the Way is without yearning, for yearning requires lack. The one who yearns for something lacks that which he longs to possess or secure or re-possess. For how could the Way yearn since it passes over and through myriad things, completes every assignment, but takes nothing with it? If the Way cannot grab, how can it hold? And if it cannot hold, then how can it lose? And if it cannot lose, then how can it yearn? In essence, the Way is all there is, and all there is, full and entire, can never want for “something.”

[5] The third and final stanza introduces us to the Sage. The Sage is the figure who lives according to the Way. In this, ethics is at one with metaphysics. As a result, the Sage cannot be estranged from life, estrangement being a logical impossibility.

Now, the Sage would be the one who acts simply: giving forth, receiving unto, holding nothing, and thereby incapable of yearning. It could be said that the Sage is without properties and thus is perhaps invisible when he walks among the common people. Like the Way, the Sage goes unseen.

[6] Not being as great as the Way and perceiving this, the Sage is humble. The Way is great and utmost, the Sage is in the Way, of the Way, but never as magnificent as the Way. This mystery–the Sage’s partaking of the Way, being of the Way’s being, but not being as great as the Way–doubtless leaves the Sage overawed.