Spontaneity as the Way

Illustration of the dexterous Cook Ting parable from the Chuang-tzu

A C Graham writes: “Although it is not easy to offer a definition of Taoism, thinkers classed as philosophical Taoists do share one basic insight – that, while all other things move spontaneously on the course proper to them, man has stunted and maimed his spontaneous aptitude by the habit of distinguishing alternatives, the right and the wrong, benefit and harm, self and others, and reasoning in order to judge between them. To recover and educate his knack he must learn to reflect his situation with the unclouded clarity of a mirror, and respond to it with the immediacy of an echo to a sound or shadow to a shape. For Chuang-tzu the fundamental error is to suppose that life presents us with issues which must be formulated in words so that we can envisage alternatives and find reasons for preferring one to the other. People who really know what they are doing, such as a cook carving an ox, or a carpenter or an angler, do not precede each move by weighing the arguments for different alternatives. They spread attention over the whole situation, let its focus roam freely, forget themselves in their total absorption in the object, and then the trained hand reacts spontaneously with a confidence and precision impossible to anyone who is applying rules and thinking out moves.”

The story of the wheelwright Pien was written by one of Chuang-tzu’s disciples in the “School of Chuang-tzu,” not by Chuang-tzu himself, but a similar story is told in the Inner Chapters, that of cook Ting which I quote below. 

Readers with a background in Buddhism will readily found themselves in familiar territory. The truth is not to be found in the conceptual knowledge of books, it has to be embodied through practice. It is this embodiment that Taoism refers to as “spontaneity.” In Buddhist teachings, you would be told that even in an ordinary life, we are able to walk without telling ourselves, now right leg forward, then left leg forward, and so on. Playing a musical instrument also requires that you are not self-conscious of each and every note, otherwise you would be too slow to produce a melody.

Buddhism, however, only entered China centuries after Chuang-tzu’s lifetime. And the reason why Taoism sees spontaneity as superior to conceptual knowledge is one that is not normally mentioned in Buddhism: te, power/virtue emanating from ch’i, literally “nourishes” our lives and we must not obstruct it with our judgments – what Buddhism would call “pick and choose.”

The spontaneous aptitude is the “te,” the “Power,” the inherent capacity of a thing to perform its specific functions successfully.

The “te” is of course the te of the Tao Te Ching, sometimes translated as “the Classic of the Way and Power,” though modern translators often prefer to translate te as “Virtue,” as in “The virtue of cyanide is to poison” rather than in “Virtue is its own reward.”

Graham continues: “In responding immediately and with unsullied clarity of vision one hits in any particular situation on that single course which fits no rules but is the inevitable one … This course, which meanders, shifting direction with varying conditions like water finding its own channel, is the Tao, the ‘Way’ from which Taoism takes its name; it is what patterns the seeming disorder of change and multiplicity, and all things unerringly follow where it tends except that inveterate analyser and wordmonger man, who misses it by sticking rigidly to the verbally formulated codes which other philosophical schools present as the ‘Way of the Sage’ or ‘Way of the former kings’. The spontaneous aptitude is the te, the ‘Power’, the inherent capacity of a thing to perform its specific functions successfully.”

Another story of the School of Chuang-tzu can be used as an illustration of the need to empty ourselves of ego-centred affects in order to allow the Dao to move our lives.

“Chi Hsing-tzu trained fighting cocks for the King. After ten days the King asked
‘Are the cocks ready?’
‘Not yet. They go on strutting vaingloriously and working themselves into rages’.
After another ten days he asked again.
‘Not yet. They still start at shadows and echoes’.
After another ten days he asked again.
‘Good enough. Even if there’s a cock which crows, there’s no longer any change in them. From a distance they look like cocks of wood. The Power in them is complete. A strange cock would not dare to face them, it would turn and run.”
(Chuang-tzu – Chapter 19)

How to train to recover the knack of spontaneity

Graham then asks ”How am I to train the Power in me so that I am prompted to act without the aid of reasons, ends, moral and prudential principles? By cultivating the spontaneous energies, which Chuang-tzu conceives in terms of the physiological ideas current in his time. He assumes that the organ of thought is not the brain but the heart, and also that everything in motion in the universe is activated by ch’i, “breath, energy,” conceived as a fluid which in its purest state is the breath which vitalises us. Inside the body of the ch’i alternates between phases of activity, as the “Yang,” and of passivity, as the “Yin,” as in breathing out and breathing in. He shares such assumptions of Chinese medicine as that birth and growth are Yang and ageing is Yin,” that illness is an imbalance of the two, and that changes of mood from exhilaration to depression are the Yang energies climaxing and reverting to the Yin phase.” Ch’i is not only active in our bodies. It is active in the whole universe, and we are literally part of a network of interconnected energy fields, once again, not unlike the Buddhist doctrine of Indra’s Net, taught by the Huayan school in the 8th century CE.  Graham in fact points out that Chuang-tzu himself “seems to follow an older scheme of ‘Six Energies’, Yin and Yang, wind and rain, dark and light. Thinking in terms of the traditional physiology, he recommends us to educate the spontaneous energies rather than use the heart to think, name, categorise and conceive ends and principles of action. (But the only specific technique which he mentions, and that, only casually, is controlled breathing.) Then we shall respond anew to the totality of every new situation as [in another story] the swimmer adapts to the varying pulls and pressures of the whirlpool, aware that it would not help but harm him to pause and ask himself ‘How shall I escape?’ even entertain the thought about himself, ‘I want to escape’.”

Thinking as rambling

Controlled breathing covers a wide range of body-based practices such as the various styles of martial arts that developed at a later time in China. To control the breath is to control the flow of ch’i, and this is why it is really all Chuang-tzu needed to say. It is controlling the heart aspect of the heartmind (xin) which for Chuang-tzu is the organ of thought. When you control the heart, you free the mind of affects that fuel your emotions and cause you to pick and choose instead of allowing the Dao to shape your life. “With the abandonment of fixed goals, the dissolution of rigid categories, the focus of attention roams freely over the endlessly changing panorama, and responses spring directly from the energies inside us. For Chuang-tzu, this is an immense liberation, a launching out of the confines of self into a realm without limits.” It also signals a quasi-absolute trust in “nature” – both the nature we encounter outside of us and our own “human” nature, an equation of wisdom with a willingness to abide by nature’s inevitable course. It does, however, stop short of being a fatalism as Chuang-tzu points out that, as we ourselves are part of nature, we do play a role in our destiny by “mirrorring clearly” the various situations life throws at us.

In place of a discursive mode of thinking that for ever rearranges the conceptual representations of “things” into “rational” systems, we are invited to embrace the mode of thinking Chuang-tzu calls “yu,” meaning “rambling,” “roaming,” or “wandering,” which allows us to remain attuned to our experience, moment to moment, and respond spontaneously to whatever shows up in our lives. 

The very first chapter of the Chuang-tzu, titled “Going rambling without a destination” is an example of this rather poetic, heart-based, mode of thinking that “let the heart roam with other things as its chariot, and trust yourself to the inevitable in order to nurture the centre of you.” It is a non-thinking (wuxin) that translates as a direct embodiment of the skill that is usually sought through conceptual thinking. It is a knowing of the body that is not mediated by the mind, and instead requires a silencing of the mind. 

The well-known story of Cook Ting is found in chapter 3 titled “What matters in the nurture of life.”

“Cook Ting was carving an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As his hand slapped, shoulder lunged, foot stamped, knee crooked, with a hiss! with a thud! the brandished blade as it sliced never missed the rhythm, now in time with the Mulberry Forest dance, now with an orchestra playing the Ching-shou.

“Oh, excellent! said Lord Wen-hui. That skill should attain such heights!”
“What your servant cares about is the Way, I have left skill behind me. When I first began to carve oxen, I saw nothing but oxen wherever I looked. Three years more and I never saw an ox as a whole. Nowadays, I am in touch through the daemonic in me and do not look with the eye. With the senses I know where to stop, the daemonic I desire to run its course. I rely on Heaven’s structuring, cleave along the main seams, let myself be guided by the main cavities, go by what is inherently so. A ligament or tendon I never touch, not to mention solid bone. A good cook changes his chopper once a year, because he hacks. A common cook changes it once a month, because he smashes. Now I have had this chopper for nineteen years, and have taken apart several thousand oxen, but the edge is as though is were fresh from the thickness; if you insert what has no thickness where there is an interval, then, what more could you ask, of course there is ample room to move the edge about. That’s why after nineteen years the edge of my chopper is as thought i were fresh from the grindstone.
“However, whenever I come to something intricate, I see where it will be hard to handle and cautiously prepare myself, my gaze settles on it, action slows down for it, you scarcely see the flick of the chopper – and at one stroke the tangle has been unravelled, as a clod crumbles to the ground. I stand chopper in hand, look proudly round at everyone, dawdle to enjoy the triumph until I’am quite satisfied, then clean the chopper and put is away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Listening to the words of Cook Ting, I have learned from them how to nurture life.”


A C Graham – Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters