Chuang Tzu - Fasting of the Mind

Yan Hui went to see Confucius, asking leave to depart. Confucius said, “Where will you go?”

Yan Hui said, “I shall go to Wei.”

“What will you do there?”

“I have heard that the ruler of Wei has reached the prime of his life and become quite autocratic in his ways. He makes frivolous use of his state without seeing his error. He thinks nothing of the death of his people—nationfuls of corpses fill the marshes, clumped in piles like bunches of plantains. The people there are utterly without recourse. I have heard you say, Master, ‘Leave a well-ordered state and go to one in chaos. At a physician’s door there are always many invalids.’ I wish to take what I have learned from you and to derive some standards and principles from it to apply to this situation. Perhaps then the state can be saved.”

Confucius said, “Ah! You will most likely go and get yourself executed! If you’re following a course, it’s better not to mix anything extraneous into it. Mixing in the extraneous, you wind up with multiple courses, which leads to mutual interference, which means constant anxiety. And yet all your anxiety will not save you.

“The Consummate Persons of old made sure they had it in themselves before they tried to put it into others. If what is in yourself is still unstable, what leisure do you have to worry about some tyrant? “

Do you know what it is that undermines real Virtuosity, and for what purpose, on the contrary, ‘cleverness’ comes forth? Virtuosity is undermined by getting a name for it. Cleverness comes forth from conflict. For a good name is most essentially a way for people to one-up each other, and cleverness is most essentially a weapon for winning a fight. Both are inauspicious implements, not the kind of thing that can be used to perfect your own behavior.

“But even if your Virtuosity were ample, reliable, and firm, and you engaged in no contention for the sake of a good name, unless you somehow attained perfect comprehension of his mind and disposition, your high-handed display of regulating words about Humanity and Responsibility in the face of such a tyrant would just be a way of showing off your beauty at the expense of his ugliness. This is called plaguing others—and he who plagues others will surely be plagued in return. You are in danger of being plagued! Conversely, if he happens to be the type who takes delight in worthy men such as yourself while despising men of lesser quality, why would you want to change him in the first place?

“On the other hand, if you just agree with everything anyone says, the princes of the state will surely take advantage of you in their jostlings with one another. Your eyes will be dazzled by the struggle, your countenance flattened by it, your mouth busied with it, your face expressive of it—and finally your heart and mind will be completely made of it! Then it will be like using fire to put out a fire, or pouring water on a drowning man—I’d call that augmenting the excessive. Beginning in this way, you’ll just keep following the flow until even your sincerest words are untrustworthy—and then you’re certain to end up dead at the feet of the tyrant.

“In ancient times, Jie killed Guanlong Feng and Zhou killed Wangzi Biqian. These were men who cultivated their own persons, devoting themselves to their love of the masses below and thus resolutely remonstrating with their rulers above. The rulers did away with them because of their impeccable characters. This is what comes from love of a good name. Yao attacked Cong Zhi and Xun Ao and Yu invaded You Hu. These nations were laid to waste and their citizens slaughtered. They had been incessant in their use of force and insatiable in their quest for property, the things referred to by names. This is what comes from the quest for property and a good name. Hasn’t anyone taught you even this? The allure of property and a good name cannot be contained even by sages—much less you!

“But I’m sure you’ve thought of some way around all this. Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

Yan Hui said, “Punctilious in bearing, I shall become empty and humble. Diligent in my work, I will make myself unified and focused. Would that work?”

Confucius said, “No, no! How could that ever work? Filled to overflowing with aggressive resolve but presenting an ever-changing appearance to the world so as to accommodate common opinion, manipulating the impressions of others to win a place in their hearts, I’d say even a gradually advancing Virtuosity will be unable to take shape, much less the Great Virtuosity. If you cling without transforming, externally accommodating but internally without any self-criticism—how could that ever work?”

Yan Hui said, “Then I shall be internally upright but externally adaptable, using preexisting doctrines linked to antiquity. To be internally upright is to be a follower of the ways of Heaven. Such a one knows that Heaven looks upon both himself and the ‘Son of Heaven’ equally as sons. Would he then care whether his words were pleasing or displeasing to others? Such a one is seen by others as an innocent child. This is what I mean by being a follower of Heaven.

“To be externally adaptable, on the other hand, means to be a follower of the ways of man. To bow and salute is the ceremony that goes with being someone’s underling. Others do it, so would I dare not to? He who just does whatever others do will not be criticized by those others.

“To use preexisting doctrines linked to antiquity means to be a follower of the ways of the ancients. Although one seems to speak only accepted dogmas, in reality a criticism is hidden in it—but it was the ancients who said so, not me! In this way, although upright, one cannot be attacked. This is what I mean by being a follower of the ancients. Would this work?”

Confucius said, “No, no! How could that ever work? You’re like a ruler with a great multitude of policies and methods but without any foreign intelligence. Although this might well allow you to get by without being faulted, that’s about all you’ll accomplish. How could it have any effect on the tyrant? You are still taking your mind as your instructor.”

Yan Hui said, “I have nothing more. What then should I do?”

Confucius said, “You must fast! Let me tell you. To have something in mind and then go out and do that thing—do you think this is a simple matter? Majestic Heaven does not accommodate those who look on this as easy.”

Yan Hui said, “My family is poor, and I have had no wine or meat for many months. Can this be considered fasting?”

Confucius said, “That’s the fasting you do for a religious sacrifice. It is not the fasting of the mind.”

Yan Hui said, “What is the fasting of the mind?”

Confucius said, “If you merge all your intentions into a singularity, you will come to hear with the mind rather than with the ears. Further, you will come to hear with the vital energy rather than with the mind. For the ears are halted at what they hear. The mind is halted at whatever verifies its preconceptions. But the vital energy is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings. The Course alone is what gathers in this emptiness. And it is this emptiness that is the fasting of the mind.”

Yan Hui said, “Before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real. But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist. Is that what you mean by being ‘empty’?”

Confucius said, “Exactly. Let me tell you about it. With this you can play in his cage without impinging on his concern for a good name. When he’s receptive, do your crowing, but when he’s not, let it rest. Do not let him get to you, but do not harm him either. Seeing all possible dwelling places as one, let yourself be lodged in whichever cannot be avoided. This will get you close to success. It is easy to wipe away your footprints, but difficult to walk without touching the ground. It is easy to use deception when you are sent into your activities at the behest of other humans, but difficult to use deception when sent into activity by Heaven. You have learned how to fly with wings, but not yet how to fly without wings. You have learned the wisdom of being wise, but not yet the wisdom of being free of wisdom. Concentrate on the hollows of what is before you, and the empty chamber within you will generate its own brightness.

 “Good fortune comes to roost in stillness. To lack this stillness is called scurrying around even when sitting down. Allow your ears and eyes to open inward and thereby place yourself beyond your mind’s understanding consciousness. Even the ghosts and spirits will then seek refuge in you, human beings all the more so! This is the transformation of all things, the hinge on which Shun and Yu moved, the lifelong practice of Fu Xi and Ji Qu. How much more should it be so for others!”

Trans., Brook Ziporyn from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries

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