Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets


Central to the understanding of Chuang Tzu and all Taoist thought is the concept of wu wei, which means non-action or non-doing or, more exactly, the action of non-action (just as wu nien is the thought of non-thought and wu hsin the mind of non-mind). This paradoxical way of thinking is typical of Taoism — and, later, of Zen. Such acting without activity is not to be confused with a passive quietism; in fact it’s quite the opposite. You can view it more as an unresisting and effortless state of “going with the flow”; of aligning oneself with the elemental cycles of the natural world; of feeling free, unconditioned, “right”; of being super-awake, with heightened senses and awareness.

Related to this is the recognition of the complementarity of opposites and of the constantly changing nature of life. Thomas Merton explains these two essential insights in The Way Of Chuang Tzu:

“The key to Chuang Tzu’s thought is the complementarity of opposites, and this can be seen only when one grasps the central ‘pivot’ of Tao which passes squarely through both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’. Life is a continual development. All beings are in a state of flux. Chuang Tzu would have agreed with Herakleitos. What is impossible today may suddenly become possible tomorrow. What is good and pleasant today may, tomorrow, become evil and odious. What seems right from one point of view may, when seen from a different aspect, manifest itself as completely wrong.”

To end with two more paradoxical axioms from Chuang Tzu:

“No one is so wrong as the man who knows all the answers.”

“You never find happiness until you stop looking for it.”


One Rule For The Rich, One Rule For The Poor

After greatly enjoying Thomas Merton‘s candid and soul-searching The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals, it seemed natural to turn next to his book The Way Of Chuang Tzu, which contains a useful introduction by Merton himself followed by some  “free interpretative readings” of the great Taoist philosopher’s poems and parables.

“A poor man must swing / For stealing a belt buckle / But if a rich man steals a whole state / He is acclaimed / As statesman of the year.” Chuang Tzu (from The Way Of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton)

I recalled once again Bob Dylan‘s interest in ancient Chinese wisdom.

“Steal a little and they throw you in jail, / Steal a lot and they make you king.” Bob Dylan Sweetheart Like You

Facing The Psyche

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own psyches. They will practise Indian Yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn theosophy by heart, or mechanically repeat mystic texts from the literature of the whole world — all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of the psyche.

Carl Gustav Jung (quoted in Thomas Merton‘s The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals)

Four Preeminences

It’s easy to forget now, but the threat of nuclear war seemed a very real one in the early 1960s. This concern haunts Merton‘s journal entries around this time. On 27 February 1962, a few months before the Cuban missile crisis, he writes about “the absolute necessity of taking this fact [a disastrous war, and our seeming inability to prevent it] into account and living in the perspectives which it establishes — an almost impossible task.” He lists four of these “perspectives”:

1. Preeminence of meditation and prayer, of self-emptying, cleaning out, getting rid of the self that blocks the view of truth. The self that says it will be here and then that it will not be here.

2. Preeminence of compassion for every living thing, for life, for the defenceless and simple beings, for the human race in its blindness. For Christ, crucified in His image. Eucharistic sacrifice, in humility and silence.

3. Weariness of words, except in friendship, in the simplest and most direct kind of communication, by word of mouth or letter.

4. Preeminence of the silent and conclusive action —  if any presents itself — of meaningful suffering, accepted in silence, without justification.

In times of conflict or not — though we are always in times of war somewhere in the world — these perspectives seem eminently important to me.

The Wit And Humour Of Thomas Merton

People may be a little surprised if I mentioned Thomas Merton‘s wit and humour, but how about these two passages from The Intimate Merton:

“All monks, as is well known, are unmarried, and hermits more unmarried than the rest of them. Not that I have anything against women. I see no reason why a man can’t love God and a woman at the same time. If God was going to regard women with a jealous eye, why did he go and make them in the first place? There is a lot of talk about a married clergy. Interesting. So far there has not been a great deal said about married hermits. Well, anyway, I have the place full of icons of the Holy Virgin.”

“Sermon to the birds: ‘Esteemed friends, birds of noble lineage, I have no message to you except this: be what you are: be birds. Thus you will be your own sermon to yourselves!’ Reply: ‘Even this is one sermon too many!’

The Empty Boat

I came across this by Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (399-295 BC) in Thomas Merton‘s The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals. It simply blew me away in all its truth and apparent simplicity.

If we wanted to, we could talk about this “poem” for ever: the desirability (or not) of fame, public acknowledgement, reputation; the meaning of Tao; why it may be good (if it is good) to leave no trace, to be nameless; why the fool is often wiser than the sage (Dostoyevsky‘s “Idiot”, Shakespeare‘s “fools”); what is achievement; what is the best way to wield power, and why is it so often the case that the people with their hands on the power are the people least able to use it correctly  — and, anyway, shouldn’t it be “power to the people”; how do we form judgements, and are many of our judgements prejudiced or incorrect; do judgements get in the way of love and appreciation; is there such a thing as perfection; in what sense is emptiness preferable to fullness. And so on.

But I don’t want to talk about this poem, I don’t think we ought to talk about this poem, I think it should just sink into us and be part of our lives for ever — silently. It’s now part of mine.

Who can free himself from achievement

And from fame, descend and be lost

Amid the masses of men?

He will flow like Tao, unseen,

He will go about like Life itself

With no name and no home.

Simple he is, without distinction,

To all appearances he is a fool,

His steps leave no trace. He has no power.

He achieves nothing, has no reputation.

Since he judges no one

No one judges him.

Such is the perfect man:

His boat is empty.

Thomas Merton The Way Of Chuang Tzu


“Peace is impossible until I fully, totally realize and embrace the realization that I am already forgotten. Not that I can help wanting to be remembered.” Thomas Merton The Intimate Merton

One of the things I admire most about Merton in his journals is his candid honesty. As readers we are constant, intimate witnesses to his doubts and confusions, to what he considers his faults and his failings. He’s very aware of signs of hubris and vanity within himself, and of a kind of “superior” attitude he sometimes displays, and of a pervasive attitude of disgust; he is open about admitting the “impatience” and “violence” in his being.

He recognises  the ambiguities he finds in himself and in others, the eternal dichotomies of human nature. For instance, he fights continually against becoming the well-known writer, the respected poet and teacher; yet part of him, he knows, is attracted to this role. The journals are direct records of such spiritual struggles. Although he speaks from  the uncommon and “rarefied” position of a monk, we do end up feeling that his struggles are our struggles. These struggles, these conflicted thoughts and feelings are universal, part of all our  intellectual and emotional make-up.

On the other hand, good and appealing human qualities shine out quite clearly in his writing, especially when he describes in simple sentences the monastery buildings and surroundings, the woods, the birds, the weather — which he does with an infectious delight and an innocent joy. Full-on asceticism is not for Merton; the senses are God’s gift, and he relishes them to the full.

“My love is /  The fragrance of the orchid / And the sound of waters.” Haiku from Merton‘s Zen calendar.

Journey Into Silence

The Intimate Merton, which I’m reading at the moment, is a 430 page selection from Thomas Merton‘s copious journals. As you progress through the years it’s interesting how the entries become more and more inward, more and more profound, as Merton (a monk in the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky) travels deeper and deeper into solitude. There are so many sentences and paragraphs, thoughts and reflections in these journals which would provide excellent bases for meditation:

“Perhaps the most urgent and practical renunciation is the renunciation of all questions.”

” There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

“For 37 years I have been writing my life instead of living it… I cannot let myself become a hermit merely on the grounds that the thing looks credible on paper.”

“The truth is formed in silence and work and suffering, with which we become true.”

“For all men the solitary knows least where he is going and yet he is more sure, for there is one thing he cannot doubt: he travels where God is leading him.”

“One must get along without the security of neat and simple, ready-made solutions.”

“… a Tennessee warbler. A beautiful, neat, prim little thing — seeing this beautiful thing, which people do not usually see, looking into this world of birds, which is not concerned with us or with our problems, I felt very close to God or felt religious awe… Watching those birds was as food for meditation or as mystical reading. Perhaps better.”

Thomas Merton The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals 

The Book Of Life

“His [DH Lawrence‘s] own notion was for a life of rough and austere and simple beauty.” Catherine Carswell DH Lawrence: The Savage Pilgrimage

I’ve just finished reading DH Lawrence: The Savage Pilgrimage by Catherine Carswell, and have now begun Thomas Merton‘s The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals.

“Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into the infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and interest and praise. Beyond all and in all is God. Perhaps the Book of Life, in the end, is the book one has lived. If one has lived nothing, one is not in the Book of Life.” Thomas Merton Journal 17 July 1956

Somewhere And Nowhere

I am reluctantly coming to the end of Cees Nooteboom‘s book, Roads To Santiago, which I have been savouring slowly and sensuously. I will finish the book tonight. The magnificent last chapter describes Nooteboom‘s circuitous approach to Santiago, and Santiago itself (the true capital of Spain he calls it), and I am finding it haunting and evocative. I cannot resist quoting his thoughts on travelling and the traveller:

“Perhaps that is the traveller’s deepest melancholy, that the joy of return is always mixed with a feeling that is harder to define, the feeling that the places you have ached for since you first saw them simply went on existing without you, that if you really wanted to hold them close you would have to stay with them for ever. But that would turn you into someone you cannot be, someone who stays at home, a sedentary being. The real traveller finds sustenance in equivocation, he is torn between embracing and letting go, and the wrench of disengagement is the essence of his existence, he belongs nowhere. The anywhere he finds himself is always lacking in some particular, he is the eternal pilgrim of absence, of loss, and like the real pilgrims in this city [Santiago] he is looking for something beyond the grave of an apostle or the coast of Finisterre, something that beckons and remains invisible, the impossible.”

Cees Nooteboom Roads To Santiago

What a superb piece of writing! Here Nooteboom puts his finger on the heart of that inherent feeling of schizophrenia which all true travellers will recognise, that sense of being somewhere and nowhere at the same time, that feeling of melancholy joy.

I’m reminded of one of my own poems about the Camino:

All By Myself

I’ve leaned so much
On conchas and flechas amarillas,
I fear I may be lost
Without them.

So now
(Guided by no maps or marker stones,
Pricking no shelled and arrowed way,
No trail angel appearing mysteriously
At a crossroads in the middle of a prairie
To point the right path)
I’ll try contact
Some benign spirit deep within
For comfort and counsel;

Though along the Way I learned,
All by myself, with sweat and tears,
That the more I’m lost, the more I’m found,
And that all roads lead to somewhere and to nowhere.