Dao and modernity

The Christian and secular books of the world stand in stark contrast to the Dao, as it is articulated in the classic Daoist texts.  There is no more radical reflection on uselessness than is found in Daoism. The notion of that being comes from nothingness and is secondary to it was one that the Daoists shared with Buddhists. But in the Buddhist system, the consequence of insight into nothing is compassion for all creatures and a teaching designed to produce an absolute liberation from the bonds of being. This is the opposite of the Daoist doctrine of inaction. The insight into the way does not lead us to compassion, but a certain type of perfection: perfect uselessness. This is the theme pounded over and over in the Chuang Tzu.

In the chapter entitled Heaven and Earth, Tzu-kung and his disciples encounter a farmer laboriously lugging pitchers of water to his field from a well. Stopping, Tzu-kung offers some friendly advice about a machine the farmer could use to do this work.

"It's a contraption made by shaping a piece of wood. The back end is heavy and the front end light and it raises the water as though it were pouring it out, so fast that it seems to boil right over! It's called a well sweep."

So far, we could be reading a story about a Yankee peddler. We could be reading any story about modernity.

“The gardener flushed with anger and then said with a laugh, "I've heard my teacher say, where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. With a machine heart in your breast, you've spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It's not that I don't know about your machine - I would be ashamed to use it!"

Here, too, as we know from hundreds of records of “savages” resisting civilization, we could also be reading a leave from a field report in development economics. But this is not development economics. It is a text that begins in praise of uselessness. Instead of taking the farmer’s words as evidence of his backwardness,  Tzu-kung takes them as a response pointing out,clearly, Tzu-kung’s own lack of enlightenment.

However, the reader is also involved in this text. He who has ears, let him hear – this is the fourth wall of the parable. The reader, then, seems to have gained his lesson in enlightenment rather cheaply in this staging of the sage and the peasant. So that the end of the story reaffirms the uncertainty of the lesson:

“When Tzu-kung got back to Lu, he reported the incident to Confucius. Confucius said, "He is one of those bogus practitioners of the arts of Mr. Chaos." He knows the first thing but doesn't understand the second. He looks after what is on the inside but doesn't look after what is on the outside. A man of true brightness and purity who can enter into simplicity, who can return to the primitive through inaction, give body to his inborn nature, and embrace his spirit, and in this way wander through the everyday world - if you had met one like that, you would have had real cause for astonishment.14 As for the arts of Mr. Chaos, you and I need not bother to find out about them."

The self-erasing dialectic of the useless, here, infects the very lesson in which it is taught. I will set this as a portal through which to view the formation of the “useful” character in Western capitalism.

A second and more famous story applies the paradox to the tree.

In the Human World chapter of the Chuang Tzu, there's a story upon which I've often reflected:
Carpenter Shih went to Ch'i and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn't even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shih and said, "Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don't even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?"
"Forget it - say no more!" said the carpenter. "It's a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they'd sink; make coffins and they'd rot in no time; make vessels and they'd break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It's not a timber tree - there's nothing it can be used for. That's how it got to be that old!"

After Carpenter Shih had returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, "What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs - as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don't get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves - the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it's the same way with all other things.
"As for me, I've been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I've finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What's the point of this - things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die-how do you know I'm a worthless tree?"

When Carpenter Shih woke up, he reported his dream. His apprentice said, "If it's so intent on being of no use, what's it doing there at the village shrine?" 15

"Shhh! Say no more! It's only resting there. If we carp and criticize, it will merely conclude that we don't understand it. Even if it weren't at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you'll be way off!"
Again, the assistant lends the needed needling to the larger point. To achieve uselessness, one must find a way of leaping over the larger point. And that leap is the extra-ordinary.

That the parable is in the human world is, of course, a conjunction that should suggest an idea – or at least the approaching ghost of an idea, for it is possible that the monotonous production of the idea is too poor a thing, too head-bound a thing, for a Daoist.