Living like life itself edition

I couldn’t write for the past two weeks due to various reasons. So, I’m sorry that you’ve become less intelligent without my wisdom.

A couple of months ago, when I was scrolling on the Substack app, I came across this parable by Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher and a foundational figure of Taoism.

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been going down the rabbit hole of philosophy. To me, the best thing about philosophy is that it grabs you by the shoulders like a tender lover and then violently shakes you until some earwax comes loose and your brain restarts. A curse and a blessing of modernity is that many of us lead structured, cocooned, and cosseted lives. There are no lions and tigers looking to turn us into high-protein snacks anymore.

Given our material comforts, we’ve become zombies, going through the motions of life without having to think or question anything. This kind of living leads to a buildup of plaque on our minds and souls. The longer this goes unnoticed, the more calcified the plaque becomes. Every once in a while, we need something subversive that shatters our comfortable delusions. Something that forces us to re-examine our strongest ideas and beliefs.

In reading philosophy books and listening to philosophers, I’ve come to realize that philosophy’s role is to do just this. A lot of what passes for modern philosophy is grotesque and conceited mental masturbation. But beneath all the sticky mental ejaculate, there’s a rich and ancient world of subversive delights that awaits us. This Taoist parable is one such example.

I wanted to share this as soon as I read it, but I wanted to let it marinate in my head a little and try to understand it better. I won’t claim to have understood this fully, but I’ve been rereading it. With each reading, the many hidden meanings in the parable start to become a little less foggy. But what’s clear is that it will force you to question a lot of things. You may also discover something about yourself in the process of reading the parable.

He who rules men lives in confusion;
He who is ruled by men lives in sorrow.
Yao therefore desired
Neither to influence others
Nor to be influenced by them.
The way to get clear of confusion
And free of sorrow
Is to live with Tao
In the land of the great Void.

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

The straight tree is the first to be cut down,
The spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.
If you wish to improve your wisdom
And shame the ignorant,
To cultivate your character
And outshine others;
A light will shine around you
As if you had swallowed the sun and the moon:
You will not avoid calamity.

A wise man has said:
“He who is content with himself
Has done a worthless work.
Achievement is the beginning of failure.
Fame is beginning of disgrace.”

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 is he, 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.”

The parable seems to have been a translation from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton. Another book gets added to my long list of regrets, sorry reading list.

Given the gap since the last post, I have many things to share, but I will refrain. This parable is the only thing I want you to think about. I would also love to hear your thoughts in the comments.