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Chuang Tzu the Yogi

The ancient theory of self, evolving from the Vedic Samkhya philosophy through Buddhism and Vedanta, is dogmatic about one thing. It unequivocally states that nonfinite self-knowledge can only be realized via an avenue to nonfinite knowledge.

Every intellectual, emotive, sensory, dynamic, and volitional faculty we have is a finite avenue to knowledge. Combine them in innumerable ways in uncountable contexts and you’ve got a finite avenue to knowledge. Give them each a nickname, mystify them, and ceaselessly beg them for more information and you’ve got a finite avenue to knowledge. Call your finite knowledge something infinite; get a billion people to believe you; make a billion dollars too; and you are left with a finite avenue to knowledge. Think otherwise, feel otherwise, go to church, don’t go to church, and you’re still left with a finite avenue to knowledge.

But turn inward all the finite avenues to knowledge, and maybe, the theory of self posits, you will have embarked on a nonfinite avenue to knowledge.

The inescapability of this dogma has been illustrated throughout history as, this being the case, we find upon looking back numerous examples of mystically inclined individuals faced with the unavoidable challenges involved in the process of looking within, or sense-introversion.

Even as asceticism is cross-culturally practiced, though relatively few humans adopt austerities, so too is the innate drive to look within for self-knowledge. The yogi of ancient India, celebrated in the Mahabharata, may approach the process of mental internalization as a distinct and precise science involving systems of breath and mind control, but it becomes increasingly clear as one reads through the world's mystical literature that the principles which link breath and awareness are not limited to Indian yogic writings.

Under the thralldom of Western academia, which routinely converts artifacts of the past into readily digestible facts for mass consumption, the notion of calling Isaiah or Omar Khayyam a yogi, even if it were discovered that they practiced yoga-like and yoga-inspired methods of sense-introversion, is inadmissible. While it is true that a yoga enthusiast may read in Hebrew or Sufi texts what one wants to see, there are limits to this argument when used to defend the differences between mystical writings emerging from different cultures. Aside from the capacity of humans, even from lands separated by great space, to share knowledge back then, the limits to such an argument concern the fundamental similarities that do exist among all human beings throughout history and across human-made borders. For example, all human beings, to some degree or another, will be found to require food, sleep, and air. While these human needs are clearly very base and point to our physical existence, what can be more universal and fundamental than the quest for self-knowledge, which lies within us and points to our spiritual existence?

Cultures produce great differences in thought, modes of expression, language, dietary habits, clothing, entertainment, etc. However, the mystical direction which leads seekers inward is an outright transcendence, or at least embodies efforts toward the same, of all external trappings and conditions which threaten to chain the seeker's thoughts and sense of self to ideas that are not eternal and all-pervading but are rather dated and easily localized. In a matter of speaking, it would be totally natural from any human of any locale interested in self-knowledge to separate himself or herself from people, conserve nervous energy through ascetic means, and look within.

The deeper one's inward journey, the less one's self-knowledge will be colored and flavored to taste like the local dishes we are all respectively fed from birth. One Christian nun claims to have a vision of Christ, another like Teresa of Avila calls her experience the "formless Christ." Which is deeper but the one where local religion has been partially dissolved?

Mysticism must distance itself from every external conditional informer; the mystic seeking self-knowledge must be centered on the formless. One Taoist sees a vision of Chuang Tzu while another becomes a knower of the Way. Which is the true introvert who is seeking beyond measures and names and forms? Would Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, or any other mystic call the former the Taoist and so equate their temporal selves with an eternal Tao?

Taoism, like Asian Buddhism, borrowed heavily from Indian yoga; but even if it hadn’t, its greatest exemplars of seekers after mystical knowledge would have resembled Indian yogis. When looking within is discovered to be the final frontier of self-knowledge, all methods to facilitate that inward journey become increasingly apparent. They include ascetic energy conservation in silence, fasting, solitude, and continence, and mind control via breath regulation.

One of the greatest exemplars of Taoist yoga was Chuang Tzu. While students of his or lesser seekers probably wrote a lot of writings attributed to him, the material confidently penned by him are recognizably yogic.

If the Way could be cognizable by any one or a combination of the five senses, books on the infinite Tao would be superfluous. Indeed, books on the Tao may be near valueless especially if the Tao is beyond all of our senses. Discussing the Way might be approachable through another perspective, one permeating Chuang Tzu's writing.

In the scholarly realm, a field which holds little value to Chuang Tzu, clear distinctions are often made between mystical knowledge and non-mystical or mundane knowledge. The avenue of the senses shows us the limited mundane self while the mystical avenue of knowledge shows us the unlimited Way or infinite self. Still, it may be that the dichotomy between the mystical to the mundane is not as to the point as seeing the Way in the mundane, and vice versa.

Another way of putting it is that those ignorant of the infinite Tao are blinded by the multifarious trees of the Tao and therefore miss the forest of the Tao. The Taoist is neither blinded by the whole while missing the parts nor is engrossed in the details while missing the infinite Way. If, in his story of the butcher, Chuang Tzu had simply said that the butcher met the ox with his spirit and stopped there, the reader would be left with little to go on. However, in a discussion of the mystical and mysterious Way which is known beyond the senses while expressing itself in everyday affairs, what else could such lines from the butcher as "'My sense organs stop functioning and my spirit moves as it pleases'" mean?

The hallmark of yoga is the freedom of the self’s expansion won from switching off the sense faculties.

Might we simply say that Chuang Tzu advises us to use our eyes and not our fingers to see the flowers, to use our nose and not our tongue to smell their fragrance, and to use our ears and not our intellect to hear the wind blowing through them? In other words, Chuang Tzu advises us to use the Way and not the senses to know the Way. Or, to recall the sole dogma of the theory of self: to employ a nonfinite avenue to knowledge to realize nonfinite self-knowledge. To what means does Chuang Tzu point if this is even possible?

Chuang Tzu's second chapter, the most important chapter of his works, opens with Sir Motley "leaning against his low table." Since the low table or arm prop is referred to in the possessive as opposed to being simply a table that he happens to be leaning against, one may understand from the above that this is not the first time Sir Motley was found to be leaning against his table, likely low enough to be at a height comfortable for himself personally. Sir Motley looks upward to heaven and sighs or slowly exhales. If Sir Motley had leaned against his table, sighed, and either looked downward, closed his eyes, or there was no mention whatsoever as to where he looked, we might simply conclude that Sir Motley was relaxing in his customary position and so there is nothing spectacular to it. However, we are told that he looks upward, not to the skies or the heavens, but to heaven. That is, he is directing himself intentionally.

When one wishes to relax or sleep, the eyes of a human being naturally droop downward. In contrast, when death arrives the eyes of the deceased are unfailingly found to be focused upward. Finally, as death approaches, breath will often become shallower and ineluctably end with a final expiration from where the body gives up the breath and expires. Sir Motley, it appears, is not simply resting but is rather retiring, going inward, as he has been habitually known to do.

If Sir Motley were indeed ready to introvert his senses and awareness, it becomes clear why he would need to lean against his low table. If the energy of the senses were to be withdrawn from the body, the body would likely fall over without the agency of a table to keep it relatively upright. All this may seem like a reach on my part to find mystical significance where there is none, but we find that Chuang Tzu confirms my method of hermeneutics in the sentences that follow. Sir Motley is described as being "disembodied." Though no mind/body dichotomy exists in Chuang Tzu's writings, the soul/body or spirit/body dichotomy clearly exists. Case in point, Sir Motley is the breath or the spirit separated from the name and form of a physical body and mind.

The sentence continues with "he seemed bereft of soul." This explains the term disembodied lest the reader erroneously conclude that something other than the soul, like the mind, left the body. Since the word "seemed" is used, one might ask if this state of being disembodied is in fact fictitious and therefore Sir Motley is not actually disembodied at all. However, Sir Motley has an onlooker in Yen who is standing in attendance. Sir Motley seems bereft of soul to the external world and in this case to Yen, not to himself. Since the state of seeming some way might bring up questions and issues, Yen naturally asks these questions.

The first item of interest in Yen's line of questioning is that he is not actually addressing Sir Motley. Instead he is asking himself what has happened to Sir Motley. Yen doesn't ask him to explain his sudden loss of bodily consciousness but asks generally, "How can we explain this?" He doesn't tell Sir Motley that he has changed but rather states to himself, "The one who is leaning against the table now is not the one who was formerly leaning against the table." This implies that Sir Motley is not really there though the shell of his corpse may be present.

Yen may awaken a sleeping Sir Motley in order to pose a few questions, but he knows better than to address a corpse. What sort of change has been wrought in Sir Motley's countenance of which Sir Wanderer of Countenance Complete, or Yen, takes note? The change is clearly not an overt one but rather a very subtle one that includes the withdrawal of energy from the body and stillness of the mind. No mention is made of any distortion in Sir Motley's facial features, bodily position, or mode of expression in what is readily observable. In fact, the opposite is the case in that Chuang Tzu relates that there is a definite consistency in the external characteristics of Sir Motley. By making the parallel between the Sir Motley before and after by expressly stating the "'leaning against the table'" connection, Yen is telling us that the change is on the one hand subtle but on the other quite intense, integral, and vital. This again confirms the nature of Sir Motley's highly focused activity as directed and purposeful.

A common motif in mystical writings is to equate the human body to a tree. We only have so much wood in years of our life before the fire of our breath burns all the wood of our body and extinguishes itself. Withdrawing the energy from the body and its senses would then be metaphorically illustrated in the very way that Chuang Tzu describes. Yen asks, "Can the body really be made to become like withered wood?" Note that we again find cause to believe that Sir Motley was an active agent in the disassociation of his soul from his body. He "made" his body lifeless and still.

Even the sleeping individual who may be said to partially withdraw energy from the body does not actively make efforts in order to perform the feat of sleep. On the contrary, the tired individual must often make efforts to stay awake and the restless individual who wants to sleep must definitely not make any effort to sleep lest he or she stays awake all night in trying to sleep.

Withered, dried wood is a fuel ready for burning. When most individuals look upward, expire, and leave their bodies, we say they have died and are ready to be cremated. The only things to remain of the body after such a ritual are ashes. Though ash has its uses, it cannot be burned. Sir Motley's body was as if dead or in suspended animation.

The next question then concerns Sir Motley's mind. It may be relatively easy to mimic the outward appearance of a dead body. One may look upward, exhale, relax the body, and keep the breath out. It takes a slight tension to hold the breath after complete exhalation, but perhaps little enough to successfully fool Yen into thinking that Sir Motley was "bereft of soul." However, we find that Yen asks perhaps the most vital question. "Can the mind really be made to become like dead ashes?" If the body were made to become withered wood ready for burning and the mind were again "made to become" burnt dead ashes, then are we to understand that Sir Motley has reached the end of some journey even as the body of a newborn baby ultimately ends in ashes?

Not only is Sir Motley's body dead but his mind is dead as well. This is a phenomenal and mystical feat. It may be that Sir Motley both looked up to heaven and entered heaven at his own will. This left his body and mind lifeless. Even as the breath lights up our thoughts and bodily motions, so too did the extinguishing of his final breath burn away the mind. Only a corpse remains after such an internal rite. Since most people are not born with the ability to live and die at will, Sir Motley is clearly an individual who is practiced in the mystical art of dying.

Sir Motley responds to Yen's questions by saying, "Indeed, your question is a good one." Clearly, Yen is not an incompetent individual who does not know the difference between someone entering a reverie and another entering a mystical state. His questions are not only good but are vital to Chuang Tzu's mystical philosophy; these are the very questions Chuang Tzu wants his readers to ask themselves. If Yen had been asking about something commonplace, if Yen had phrased the questions incorrectly so as to imply that Sir Motley's episode was unexpected or uncharacteristic, his questions would not have been to the point. Sir Motley rephrases the importance of Yen's questions and thus shows that they center around one single consideration.

He continues, "Just now, I lost myself. Can you understand this?" We often think of losing oneself as an unconscious or passive act, as in sleeping or daydreaming. However, the loss of the self that Sir Motley has undergone was of a different and mystical quality. If not, why would he bother to ask Yen if he could understand such a process? Does he assume that Yen never went to sleep or never lost himself in a fantasy? Would such things be so hard to understand? Do these commonplace events shared by all of us inspire the type of discussion concerning heaven and earth that ensues? Yen, after all, can understand sleep but cannot understand such things as the mystical state; Chuang Tzu assumes that most of his readers won't understand it either. Most individuals are unable to perform the feat that Sir Motley has done. In fact, the majority of his readers have likely less understanding than Yen.

Sir Motley begins a discussion of the differences between the sounds produced respectively by the pipes of man, the pipes of earth, and the pipes of heaven. Still, if these pipes and the sounds are so different, why are all three called "pipes" when in fact only the pipes of man are actually pipes? The "pipes of earth" are but the "clefts and crevasses of the towering mountains, the hollows and cavities of huge trees a hundred spans around." Are such things pipes?

Further, if these sounds are not but grosser and finer reflections of one another, why does Sir Motley parallel these naturally occurring terrestrial phenomena with human physical attributes "like nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like sockets" and so further his explanation to Yen that one may hear humankind's pipes but not earth's pipes, one may hear earth's pipes but not heavens pipes? However, since we are dealing hear with sounds, not sights, the pipes of humans and earth are not reflections of heaven but are rather echoes.

The centrality in yogic literature of the breath and prana, the sounds of the breath and the currents or nadis in the subtle “heavenly body”, and the expansion of awareness via these substances cannot be understated. Sir Motley, when losing himself, was able to hear the more and more subtle sounds emanating from heaven, which are but echoed by the earth and mimicked by humanity. The "Great Clod" of the earth may emit a "vital breath called the wind," but the great clod of flesh also emits a vital breath. Again, the sounds of human-made pipes and the blowing of the wind through trees are commonplace events. Still, Yen asks to know "their secret." The secret lies not in hearing a pipe player but rather in hearing the same principle at work when the great clod of a pipe player emits a vital breath through pipes as when the Great Clod of the earth emits a vital breath of wind through the terrain as finally when the rarefied wind blows through heaven. On a deeply mystical level, the body of a human being is composed of many "pipes" whose sounds are ignited by the in breath and out breath. This discussion of sound is therefore the sum of Sir Motley's exposition.

Much of human-made music can be said to be attempts at capturing the sounds of nature and the celestial "music of the spheres." Ultimately, where can one find a soundless region in the roaring universe? By finding the mystical link between a human being's breath and the breath that hovers and blows across the elemental waters of the world, Chuang Tzu invokes in wanderers on the Way a sense of harmony between their bodies and the earth, their vital breaths and the wind, and their souls and the sounds of heaven.

All the noise and clatter of the mouth and mind are the same as the "myriad hollows [that] begin to howl" once the wind/breath "starts to blow." When that wind ceases to blow, however, "nothing happens." Herein we find reference to the yogic breathless state, which is the means to withdraw the senses from the world of objects and realize nonfinite self-knowledge. To rephrase Yen's questions then, can the human body's breath be made to cease to blow? Can the mind be made to desist from its "shouting, breathing, calling, crying, laughing, gnashing" and be made to be silent "when the blast [of wind/breath] dies down?"

We see it all the time. When we sleep, the breath partially retires and the body and mind are made to be partially still. When we are angry, our breath becomes agitated and boisterous. When we concentrate our breath becomes slow and even. As Sir Motley puts it, "A light breeze evokes a small response; a powerful gale brings forth a mighty chorus." If we are to be the natural ones of the Tao must we not also be like the earth and have periods of stillness, as Sir Motley displayed, to accompany our moments of boisterous activity?

If the wind were blowing ceaselessly over the earth, our planet would become a dry and lifeless desert. So too our lives are dry and meaningless like withered wood waiting to be burned if the wind of our vital breath is constantly blowing and clashing within us. Sir Motley, like the earth, can emit the vital breath or draw it in while the average individual can only blow it and toot the narrow self’s pipe loudly and arrogantly. Such an individual, in reverence to the music of his or her own thoughts and chatter, can never hear the pipes of heaven.

All of the infinite varieties of sounds of humanity and the earth are made by two things clashing together. Is there a sound that is not in some way produced by friction? The sounds made by the pipes of man are made by the breath blowing across the bodies of the pipes of various lengths. The sounds of the earth are made by the wind blowing across the land. In fact, the various elements are the medium through which sound can be heard. Even in the vacuum of space are vibrations of sound roaming. Empty space is silent, but once the wave of sound reaches a body of elements such as a planet or a star, or even an instrument that can record the vibration, that sound from across the universe can be heard. We then unfailingly find that the sounds of distant worlds are still made by the impact of two things.

What if there was a sound that was of its own making, which was not born from the gross friction of two objects or energies? Could there be such a unified object, principle, or entity that emitted, or was itself a sound, not made by two distinct things? How could such a sound be heard? Our ears are able to hear sounds which are made through friction. The ears of all animals are unable to hear the sound made without some form of contest between two objects.

What of the sound of our thoughts? Are thoughts made by two things colliding? Since thoughts subside when breath subsides and thoughts recede when the energy coursing through our brains retires, perhaps even thoughts are the children of friction. In any case, our ears are deaf to the thoughts of others and are ultimately not responsible for our ability to hear our own thoughts.

Sir Motley, hearing with the sense of intuition, can pick up the sounds of heaven which Yen cannot fathom. Heaven is not built from dirt and rock, clouds and wind. These are the properties of the earth. If heaven were simply in the skies we could all be in heaven with the celestial beings by simply living in a tall tree, or living on an airplane, or residing in a space station. One is unable to reach heaven by flying upward. Even at the speed of light, it would take lifetimes just to reach the edge of our galaxy.

Sir Motley, in hearing the sounds of heaven, does not fly outward but goes inward. Through introversion we transcend the world and the clod of the universe in a heartbeat. The winds of heaven, says Sir Motley, only "elicit the natural propensities of the hollows themselves." He states this in contrast to the winds of earth though the difference is not yet obvious. Even for the pipes of man, does not the breath of the pipe player simply elicit the sounds natural to the hollows themselves? Where is the distinction between the pipes of earth and the pipes of heaven, then?

It is clear that the pipes of heaven are those things whose existence is based upon the principles of sound without conflict. The pipes of man and the pipes of earth, however, need the wind for their sounds to be heard. "What need is there," asks Sir Motley regarding the pipes of heaven, "for something else to stimulate them?" What need for the wind has such a pipe, whose natural propensity is sufficient to produce sound because it is based upon an otherworldly notion, for it to sing its hymn of the Tao? Only through introversion of the senses can such an ethereal sound be heard. If our ears could hear it, would there not be times when all of us, including Yen, heard the pipes of heaven?

When Sir Motley interiorized his senses and freed the soul from the body, his human frame entered a death-like state. For the millions that do not practice the mystical art of dying, perhaps it is only in their passing that the sounds of heaven are heard. Introversion of the consciousness is an all-pervading theme in the mystical writings of the world because contact between the senses and the objects of sense is universally practiced and unfailingly gets people nowhere. The sensory life may be sufficient to satisfy sensory needs, but more often than not we humans mistake the simple needs of life for full-blown goals that approach self-knowledge.

Human beings take their thoughts, their beliefs, their religion, their icons, their bodies, and what the senses tell them very personally. The Tao, however, like nature is impersonal yet it expresses itself through the myriad personalities and specificities. What else but an endless impersonality, ever remaining undefined and unlimited by any idea, could have the scope to emanate never-ending diversity? When our happiness is personal, it is limited; when it is dispassionate, it is unconditioned. Through pain and pleasure the senses can never give happiness but through such dualistic suffering the senses ever point to the place where unconditioned happiness lies, i.e., beyond the senses.

Discovering this rather blunt message that sense experience gives us, the mystics of the world were born. Chuang Tzu uses words in the same way that our senses use sense objects. He shows that his words and the words of others can never teach the Tao, but at the same time he uses words to point us in the right direction, i.e., away from words. How tragic it is that we rarely give Chuang Tzu and his kind the last word and then retire into silence, but must instead heap words upon words. Enough words! To wander in the Way is sufficient, if not for a time.