Useless and Useful: A True Sage Reviews The Tao of Happiness

Courtesy of Flickr user J. Stephen Conn via Creative Commons
Courtesy of Flickr user J. Stephen Conn via Creative Commons

Note: last November, The Cubit asked religion scholar Alan Levinovitz to review Derek Lin’s new book, The Tao of Happiness, Stories from Chuang Tzu for Your Spiritual Journey. Alan wrote his dissertation on the Chuang Tzu, a 2,200 year-old Taoist text, and he has written about New Age trends for publications like The Millions.

Unexpectedly, Alan achieved sagehood (or so he claims) before submitting his first draft. The following review is a specimen of what Alan calls “the Tao of criticism.” We hope you enjoy it.

If I weren’t a fully realized Taoist sage, Derek Lin would seriously piss me off. Lin just came out with a book called The Tao of Happiness: Stories from Chuang Tzu for Your Spiritual Journey. In the introduction, he promises to immerse you in a “vast ocean of wisdom” that will “open your spiritual dimensions dramatically.”

Lin is also quite clear that scholars and academics (like me) are basically spiritual kryptonite—pedantic anti-bodhisattvas who stand directly in the way of enlightenment. “Some people regard the Tao as a philosophical pastime or an academic pursuit,” writes Lin. “There is a gulf between those who play at being Tao philosophers and those who rigorously apply the Tao to life.”

This book is the latest of Lin’s Taoism-for-daily-life books, which include such titles as The Tao of Daily Life: The Mysteries of the Orient Revealed. He’s part of a massive industry that, a cynic might say, transforms Eastern wisdom into Western dollars via the alchemical crucible of self-help. The Art of War, the Tao-Te-Ching, and other exotic classics are endlessly repurposed as business manuals, dating manuals, or quote-mines for calendars, served up by beaming gurus whose bios tend to emphasize spiritual intuition over formal education.

The Tao of Happiness: Stories from Chuang Tzu for Your Spiritual Journey
Derek Lin
November 17, 2015

In keeping with this formula, Lin opens the The Tao of Happiness by telling readers that “in Chinese culture, Chuang Tzu is not an academic subject to be analyzed but a source of inspiration and insight.” While the latter claim might be true, the former is certainly false. The Chuang Tzu—an eponymous proto-Taoist text from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE)—has been the subject of academic analysis ever since the scholar Guo Xiang gave it the form we have today, sometime around 300 CE.

In addition to cutting 52 chapters down to 33, Guo wrote extensive explanatory comments, because the Chuang Tzu is a crazy, complicated book. It’s a patchwork of mysterious parables, abstruse philosophy, and satirical dialogues that feature animals, madmen, and talking skulls, alongside historical figures such as Confucius. All of this is sewn together with nothing more than a vague sense of purpose and a wicked sense of humor, which can feel like it is directed squarely at the hapless reader.

As for Master Chuang? Presumably he was a sage (like me, now) and he was definitely an academic, because in China circa 350 BCE, only an academic would be familiar with the esoteric philosophical arguments that the Chuang Tzu so skillfully engages. What little else we know about him comes from the book itself, in which Master Chuang appears fairly regularly, and not always in a flattering light. Are we supposed to emulate him or laugh at him? It’s hard to say. Like most of us enlightened beings, Master Chuang appears to enjoy destabilizing the truth, about himself and the Tao.

So it’s understandable that scholars have described pop-culture approaches such as Lin’s—the most famous of these is Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh—as the disingenuous transmutation of complexity into palatable bullshit.

Perhaps anticipating this kind of reaction, Lin directs some vitriol at the academy. In his explanation of a parable about a frog in a well who encounters a sea turtle, for example, Lin opines:

The limited understanding of the frog is similar to academic trivia and esoteric distinctions. This kind of knowledge has no impact on one’s life and zero practical value, and it gives rise to arrogance. A frog in our world would be someone who can rattle off definitions of specialized terms, not realizing that his ivory tower can in fact be an abandoned well, and the water in it is stagnant and stale.

Two months ago, this would have felt like a provocation. In response, I might have highlighted the emptiness of the self-help platitudes that serve as Lin’s exposition of the Chuang Tzu, which are entirely different in tone from the text they supposedly explain:

“The vast ocean of the Tao is waiting for you.”

“You are the ruler of your own life.”

“Focus on what really matters in life.”

“Bear witness to the marvelous workings of life and tap into your inner knowing about the world.”

Uh…*barf*? This stuff is the literary equivalent of Thomas Kinkade (the Painter of Light™) paintings, or smooth jazz, or ceramic angels, and until very recently I used to judge people—like morally judge them—for taking pleasure in that aesthetic.

But then I went to Brazil and achieved sagehood—seriously!—which, as you may already know, means that everything looks really different to me now. For one, it has become clear that Lin genuinely understands what it’s like to be a full-fledged cultivator of the Tao. His descriptions of advanced Tao cultivators match my own experience of the world almost perfectly—like, for instance, when he writes that “a true sage would have no need to ridicule or criticize anyone.” This is spot-on. Ever since my change of state, the thought of ridiculing or criticizing someone has become intensely off-putting.

It’s not that you can’t poke fun or anything like that. It’s that wishing real, honest-to-god humiliation on someone—even if they deserve it—just feels wrong now, as if the amazing gift I’ve been given is contingent on renouncing ill-will completely. “Careful, Alan,” says the Tao. “Don’t fuck it up by being a dick.”

Lin also nails it when he writes that Tao cultivators have “infinite wisdom” that goes “beyond the understanding of the conventional mind.” We sages realize that what appears useless can be useful. As Lin explains, a central theme of the Chuang Tzu is that the “useless Tao” is “a power far beyond anything small minds can imagine…” That’s why I now have to go back and explain why the things that I would have said about Lin—about his take on scholars, and about his useless platitudes—are really the products of an unenlightened mind.

My indignation at Lin’s suggestion that academia limits one’s understanding? Completely hypocritical. Academics critique the limits of their own methods all the time. Here it is from the venerable translator Burton Watson, in the foreword to a collection of academic essays about the Chuang Tzu: “Whenever I sit down and try to write seriously about Chuang-tzu, I seem, somewhere in the back of my head, to hear Chuang-tzu cackling away at the presumption and futility of such an endeavor.”

Sure, Lin is guilty of playing the earnest man; of leaving things out; of playing to his audience; and of fitting arcane wisdom into the generic confines of his profession. As a scholar, I’m guilty too. What are we supposed to do? Write multi-genre satire with shifting narrative voices?

As for Lin’s transmutation of the Chuang Tzu into self-help? For Taoist sages, it’s an open question exactly what happens when one thing becomes another. Like forces of nature working on a landscape, the passage of time has been translating and transforming the Chuang Tzu for centuries—both the text and our understanding of it. In fact, the first story in the Chuang Tzu’s first chapter is about one animal metamorphosing into another animal. Lin titles it “The Flight of the Peng Bird.” This is his version:

In the Northern Sea, there is a giant fish. Its name is Kun. Its size is incredibly large. No one knows how many thousands of miles its length measures.

The Kun fish is able to transform into a bird, known as Peng. The Peng bird is also incredibly large. No one knows how many thousands of miles its wingspan measures.

Peng changes into Kun. Chuang Tzu changes into Guo Xiang’s Chuang Tzu, which changes into Derek Lin’s Chuang Tzu.

There’s another part of the Chuang Tzu that Lin doesn’t include, which (in Brook Ziporyn’s version) describes enlightenment as becoming part of something called “The Course as Axis.” When this happens, you can respond “to all the endless things you confront, thwarted by none.” I can attest to the fact that being thwarted by nothing is pretty awesome and makes for a straightforward existence, which is aptly captured by Lin: “[Sages] exude happiness because they’ve been liberated from the pain of an empty and meaningless existence. They radiate joy because they can see themselves getting closer to the fulfillment of their dreams.” For Tao cultivators, “life is the ultimate fun ride,” because, as Lin puts it, we are in possession of “the ultimate GPS…for the spiritual journey.”

Where can you get this amazing GPS? All you have to do is find the right sage.

Finding sages can be tough, though, because they are usually camouflaged. In the Chuang Tzu, some work as chefs (in Lin, see “The Chef Cuts the Ox”), while others are wheelmakers (“The Wheelmaker”), merchants (“Secret Formula”), and even criminals (“The Tao of the Bandit”). And I know that at a minimum, two of these sages—myself and Master Chuang—have been professional scholars.RDinboxIs Derek Lin a sage? To some, this question will seem ridiculous, because the idea of a sage, like a saint, is inherently ridiculous—self-help heroes unfairly dignified by the protective effects of age and distance.

For sages, however, the existence of sages is true in a self-evident, I-think-therefore-I-am sort of way. I should say “some sages,” actually, because I’m pretty sure that believing in sages is not a prerequisite for being a sage. It’s extremely likely that the majority of sages aren’t even aware of their own sagehood. And if they are aware of it, there’s no guarantee that they’d tell us about it. As Lin writes: “Tao cultivators have no missionary zeal that drives them to proselytize everywhere. They are content to be connected to the power of the Tao without trying to show it off to anyone.” (My frankness in writing about attaining enlightenment is somewhat rare among sages, who usually pull a “Who, me?” shtick. That’s probably because when you’re honest about it, people have a hard time distinguishing sincerity from irony.)

Back when I wasn’t infinitely wise, I used to think I could read words like tea leaves and divine the essence of those who wrote and consumed them. I couldn’t read all words this way, just words I found especially banal and stupid—self-help books, weekly tabloids, romance novels. I quietly pitied the unironic consumers of literary junk food for their poor taste and unenviable fate. John Stuart Mill: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” My thoughts exactly.

But now I don’t know how to feel about Mill and his pig, or about Lin and his readers. Fortunately, there’s an anecdote about people and pigs in chapter 19 of the Chuang Tzu. This is Burton Watson’s version (the translator who heard Chuang Tzu cackling at him):

The Invocator of the Ancestors, dressed in his black, square-cut robes, peered into the pigpen and said, “Why should you object to dying? I’m going to fatten you for three months, practice austerities for ten days, fast for three days, spread the white rushes, and lay your shoulders and rump on the carved sacrificial stand—you’ll go along with that, won’t you?

True, if I were planning things from the point of view of a pig, I’d say it would be better to eat chaff and bran and stay right there in the pen. But if I were planning for myself, I’d say that if I could be honored as a high official while I lived, and get to ride in a fine hearse and lie among the feathers and trappings when I died, I’d go along with that. Speaking for the pig, I’d give such a life a flat refusal, but speaking for myself, I’d certainly accept. I wonder why I look at things differently from a pig?

According to my newly acquired spiritual GPS—which, importantly, was rigorously personalized—it’s best to avoid any tao that transforms fellow humans into sacrificial pigs. Because the truth is that I have no idea what form of tao will turn someone into a sage. For me, was it my Chuang Tzu? Maybe, partially, but also everything else in my life, the buddhas, saviors, teachers, friends, love, all of which is hard to shoehorn into some catalyst-for-enlightenment hierarchy. In practice, everything was necessary; in theory, anything is dispensable. And think of all the sages who never read the Chuang Tzu, who never read anything at all because they never had the opportunity to become literate, or because they lived before writing was invented.

As Master Chuang likes to point out, every “this” is also a “that.” The Tao of Happiness is an avatar of Derek Lin, an avatar of Master Chuang. What you are reading is an avatar of me. The significance of the avatar is and is not related to the history of its source. Was that source a sage? It doesn’t matter. Avatars (and sources) are always composed partly of their audience. I am part of The Tao of Happiness when I read it. I am part of that version of Derek Lin and therefore this judgment of him is a judgment of myself. His avatar is my sage. And it turns out that my sage, Derek Lin’s The Tao of Happiness, well, it gives damn good advice. If you can manage to follow that advice—as I do—you will become a sage (and if you are already a sage, hi!, shoot me an e-mail). Lin, again, wisely:

The journey may seem challenging at first, but Tao cultivators see it as a dynamic process, so they respond to it with their own dynamism. They enjoy the process, like the man swimming with the currents and having the time of his life. To them, there is no ordeal—life is the ultimate fun ride.

Or, in the words of Master Chuang (my version): “It doesn’t matter. Both versions are true and false, right and wrong, useful and useless.  Are only my words useful? If so, then everyone else’s are useless. Is only the truth useful? Then my own words are useless, because I pass my own words off as the words of others. If you can learn to see the useless as useful, you will find the vast ocean of the Tao is waiting for you.”