The Power Of Being Useless

A lesson from the Taoist sage Zhuangzi

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Zhuangzi contemplates a waterfall
“I have a huge tree which people call the Stink Tree. The trunk is swollen and gnarled, impossible to align with any level or ruler. The branches are twisted and bent, impossible to align to any T-square or carpenter’s arc. Even if it were growing right in the road, a carpenter would not give it so much as a second glance. And your words are similarly big but useless, which is why they are rejected by everyone who hears them.
“You have this big tree, and you worry that it’s useless. Why not plant it in our homeland of not-even-anything, the vast wilds of open nowhere? Then you could loaf and wander there, doing lots of nothing there at its side, and take yourself a nap, far-flung and unfettered, there beneath it. It will never be cut down by ax or saw. Nothing will harm it. Since it has nothing for which it can be used, what could entrap or afflict it?
“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.”
The Way is like an empty vessel; 
No use could ever fill it up.
Vast and deep!
Deep and clear!
It seems to be there.
I do not know whose child it is;
It is the image of what was before the Supreme Spirit himself!
The Daodejing, Chapter Four
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Daoist immortal Liezi flies away on a cloud, while awestruck figures discuss his mysterious disappearance

The meaning of life is: NO

The question Zhuangzi faces is indeed among the most fundamental human problems: How should I live my life? Which of the alternate courses should I take as my guide? Zhuangzi’s response to this problem, simply stated, is this: This question can never be answered in the terms in which it has been put, because our understanding consciousness can never know why it sees things one way rather than another, can never ultimately ground its own judgments, and is actually in no position to serve as a guide for living.To consciously weigh alternatives, apply your understanding to making a decision about what is best, and then deliberately follow the course you have decided on — this is the fundamental structure of all purposive activity and conscious knowledge, the basis of all ethics, all philosophy, all politics, all human endeavors at improvement, and this is precisely what Zhuangzi seems to consider ridiculous and impossible.
Carpenter Shi was traveling in Qi when he came upon the tree of the shrine at the Qu Yuan bend. It was over a hundred arm spans around, so large that thousands of oxen could shade themselves beneath it. It was surrounded by marveling sightseers, but the carpenter walked past it without a second look.When his apprentice finally got tired of admiring it, he caught up with Carpenter Shi and said, “Since taking up my axe to follow you, Master, I have never seen a tree of such fine material as this! And yet, you don’t even deign to look twice at it or pause beneath it. Why?”Carpenter Shi said, “Stop! Say no more! This is worthless lumber! As a ship it would soon sink, as a coffin it would soon rot, as a tool it would soon break, as a door it would leak sap, as a pillar it would bring infestation. This is a talentless, worthless tree. It is precisely because it is so useless that it has lived so long."
Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? When their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to fully live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world — and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it — and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?“Moreover, you and I are both [members of the same class, namely], beings — is either of us in a position to classify and evaluate the other? How could a worthless man with one foot in the grave know what is or isn’t a worthless tree?”
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Taoist immortal Magu with deer and peach tree, also reportedly the patron saint of /r/trees

The secret of eternal life is: give up

How much more fearless is a man who takes heaven and earth as his own bodily organs and the ten thousand things as his own guts, a man who is merely lodging for the moment in his particular limbs and trunk and head, a man who regards even his own eyes and ears as mere semblances. He takes all that his consciousness knows and unifies it into a singularity, so his mind always gets through unslaughtered. His death will be just like choosing a day to climb off into the distance.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. indi@indi.ca

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