The Daoist, the Frog and the Pipe: self-reference in Daoism

A quick essay on philosophical Daoism and its self-referential nature, along with examples from painting and Japanese haiku poetry. I fully realize that this is most likely far outside the general field of interest within the community, but the few who might enjoy I hope you do.

An old pond,

a frog leaps in,

sound of water.

-Matsuo Basho, 1686

This humble sounding haiku is held as the token of the esoteric and seemingly complicated haiku art form. It is timeless and impersonal but open to anyone's enjoyment and interpretation. The reader has no need for knowledge of anything other than general awareness of nature to recognize the subject matter; the poem references nothing but itself. Although many of Basho's haikus were referential, for example autobiographical or political, this one of the old pond helps to emphasize what it is about a well made haiku that catches in the reader's memory and imagination. Furthermore to my point in this short paper, it so happens that a good haiku shares its qualities with daoist thought.

In so many words, a daoist must forget himself. Daoist texts differ in some principles, between Zhuangzi's and Laozi's teachings for example, but this self-forgetfulness is apparent in all throughout. The daoist can not literally step outside himself, but he reaches a more desirable state of mind by training himself to think less and less until he is free of thoughts or opinions of the surrounding world, for some time at least. That is, his mind stops aligning and comparing itself to exterior circumstances; he stops referencing, until there is hardly even a “he” left. This hopefully sublime state of mind could be described as Ego-less; there is no thinker, only thought. Zhuangzi's tales are rich of allegories for this. The story of the dancing cook and the ox, to mention one, has the cook describing his mastery as if his “...sense organs stop and the [inspiration] takes control”. The cook has stopped trying, lets go and simple does what he is inspired to do.

With time, the daoist's way towards the emptiness, the doing-without-doing, that Basho's haiku inspires will come more naturally to him until he will not need any inspiration or help. Like the cook in Zhuangzi's story, the daoist stops attempting and simply does, is or self-so's. This way is a “fasting of the mind”, as Zhuangzi has Confucius call it in one story. There, Confucius tells his pupil that if he merges his intentions into a singularity, he will come to hear with the mind rather than the ears. That way, he will hear with the vital energy (qi) rather than the mind. The vital energy is then an emptiness, and in this emptiness The Course (dao) will gather. (Ziporyn, Zhuangzi p.26-27)

In the haiku of the old pond and the frog, the poet has not put himself in the center of a scenery and described it, but observed and described it so that nothing more than the pond and the frog need exist for this tranquil beauty to exist and take place. He makes the poem seem completely ignorant of him. There is no chemistry between subject and object there; no viewer vs. viewed. If one observes nature without an ego, one should find poetry. If one observes poetry without an ego, one should find nature. From an observation of something like the pond and the frog in this haiku, one should experience the pond and the frog and not what the poet thinks or feels about the pond and the frog. They do not need the poet's help.

Is this a perfectly non-referential art form then? Could such a thing exist? Generally, there is always thought to be a pair of subject and object in most circumstances. Art and philosophy are no exceptions, since both heavily involve an observer and the observed. It seems like there could rarely if ever be only an observer or only the observed, since both exist in reference to the other, like left vs. right. A haiku, much like a daoist, may never be able to completely eliminate all traces of a perspective, but the art and mastery of attempting it is all the more noble for that reason. The haiku and the daoist should likely be seen as self-referential, not in the sense of repeating to themselves “Me, myself, I, Ego...” but more in the sense of being “isolated” in a way. One should take the word 'isolated' with precaution, since it is a characteristic of Daoism that everything is connected and in flux. I use the word here to mean that each haiku, just like each daoist (especially during meditation), is a specific case or occurrence experiencing itself at one specific moment.

This specified self-referential nature has its echoes in other forms or strands of art, besides the meditative Chinese and Japanese paintings and poetry. Magritte's fittingly named painting The Treachery of Images, which shows a common tobacco pipe under which is written “Ceci n'est pas une pipe.”, is one of the more famous examples. It is so mundane and minimal, yet sticks in each viewer's memory as profound and remarkable. It portrays a pipe only to deny the fact of its being a pipe, which it of course is not, seeing as it is only a painting. In other words, it only has one reference, itself, and chooses its reference to the viewer to negate it.

Others of Magritte's paintings play along the same fine, tantalizing line, such as The Pilgrim, where the viewer is met by nothing but an erect but empty gentlemanly suit and a bowler hat floating above as if perched on an invisible hat. The observer feels noticed or watched by this finely dressed person, and yet there is no one there; I (a subject) observe this painting (an object), recognizing a person (a subject) who observes me (an object) at the same time, yet there is only me there since neither is there a person in the suit nor is there anything more than a painting in front of me. The painting, or the pilgrim, is completely contained and content in his own world, disregarding me even as he theoretically faces me. There is no subject-object play that concerns him, any more than in the case of the daoist, the frog or Zhuangzi's cook.

Another way to describe what is common and remarkable about the examples I have mentioned here is to point out how free of emotion they are. The daoist comes closer to his destination the more free of emotion he becomes, the cook cuts the best slices of ox after practicing for years to free himself of emotions that get in the way of his inspiration, the frog jumps into the pond (or the pond is jumped into by the frog) without any sign of care or emotion and Magritte's pilgrim is so free of emotion he is not even there anymore!

Of course, a work of art might well display emotions without recognizing the viewer's presence, but it is close to impossible to imagine a painting, poem or any other work acknowledging the viewer without an emotion being conveyed in some manner. Even a completely indifferent gaze of the painting's subject towards its observer immediately demands attention.

This would seem similar to Denis Diderot's (French, 18 cent.) theory of painting. He claimed that for a painting to refrain from becoming un théâtre; “an artificial construction whose too obvious designs on its audience made it repugnangt to persons of taste” (Fried, Courbet's Realism p.7), the artist had to take the greatest care to make the subjects seem completely absorbed in their actions. The audience was not supposed to be able to connect or involve themselves in the painting at all, and thereby the enchantment was magnified. Coincidentally, Diderot himself wrote a story named Ceci n'est pas un conte or This is not a story (1772).

And so, as a painting or a poem can be said to achieve a certain level of beauty by not striving for beauty, a certain level of wisdom by not striving for wisdom, so can a daoist achieve a certain level of tranquility by not striving for tranquility (and indeed not striving for not striving for tranquility, ad nauseam). As a daoist wants to master his forgetfulness, he must practice not trying, to not try, and he must practice not being, to be not by his own volition and skill, but to simply be. He must be as if spontaneously there, connected to his surroundings without his surroundings getting caught within him. They must simply pass through him, and he will finally be self-so.

A daoist might then approach something like Basho's subject-object free, self-referencing haiku of the frog and the old pond (although, as a game, one may always cheat to find a subject everywhere. For example, compared to whom is the old pond old? The frog, presumably.) as Diderot approached paintings. The daoist reads the haiku, searching for inspiration, and to his surprise he is mesmerized by the complete emptiness and disregard of anything outside the poem's subject matter. Like me when I encounter Magritte's pilgrim, the daoist finds himself in a loop of recognition with the poem, and in its emptiness he does not find the old pond or the frog, but instead he finds the complete lack of anything else. It is just a simple, emotionless “plop” of water as the frog jumps in. No Ego, no emotions, only … “plop”.

Copyright 2012 Gestur H. Hilmarsson

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Posted by Penzilneck

A quick essay on philosophical Daoism and its self-referential nature, along with examples from painting and Japanese haiku poetry. I fully realize that this is most likely far outside the general field of interest within the community, but the few who might enjoy I hope you do.

An old pond,

a frog leaps in,

sound of water.

-Matsuo Basho, 1686

This humble sounding haiku is held as the token of the esoteric and seemingly complicated haiku art form. It is timeless and impersonal but open to anyone's enjoyment and interpretation. The reader has no need for knowledge of anything other than general awareness of nature to recognize the subject matter; the poem references nothing but itself. Although many of Basho's haikus were referential, for example autobiographical or political, this one of the old pond helps to emphasize what it is about a well made haiku that catches in the reader's memory and imagination. Furthermore to my point in this short paper, it so happens that a good haiku shares its qualities with daoist thought.

In so many words, a daoist must forget himself. Daoist texts differ in some principles, between Zhuangzi's and Laozi's teachings for example, but this self-forgetfulness is apparent in all throughout. The daoist can not literally step outside himself, but he reaches a more desirable state of mind by training himself to think less and less until he is free of thoughts or opinions of the surrounding world, for some time at least. That is, his mind stops aligning and comparing itself to exterior circumstances; he stops referencing, until there is hardly even a “he” left. This hopefully sublime state of mind could be described as Ego-less; there is no thinker, only thought. Zhuangzi's tales are rich of allegories for this. The story of the dancing cook and the ox, to mention one, has the cook describing his mastery as if his “...sense organs stop and the [inspiration] takes control”. The cook has stopped trying, lets go and simple does what he is inspired to do.

With time, the daoist's way towards the emptiness, the doing-without-doing, that Basho's haiku inspires will come more naturally to him until he will not need any inspiration or help. Like the cook in Zhuangzi's story, the daoist stops attempting and simply does, is or self-so's. This way is a “fasting of the mind”, as Zhuangzi has Confucius call it in one story. There, Confucius tells his pupil that if he merges his intentions into a singularity, he will come to hear with the mind rather than the ears. That way, he will hear with the vital energy (qi) rather than the mind. The vital energy is then an emptiness, and in this emptiness The Course (dao) will gather. (Ziporyn, Zhuangzi p.26-27)

In the haiku of the old pond and the frog, the poet has not put himself in the center of a scenery and described it, but observed and described it so that nothing more than the pond and the frog need exist for this tranquil beauty to exist and take place. He makes the poem seem completely ignorant of him. There is no chemistry between subject and object there; no viewer vs. viewed. If one observes nature without an ego, one should find poetry. If one observes poetry without an ego, one should find nature. From an observation of something like the pond and the frog in this haiku, one should experience the pond and the frog and not what the poet thinks or feels about the pond and the frog. They do not need the poet's help.

Is this a perfectly non-referential art form then? Could such a thing exist? Generally, there is always thought to be a pair of subject and object in most circumstances. Art and philosophy are no exceptions, since both heavily involve an observer and the observed. It seems like there could rarely if ever be only an observer or only the observed, since both exist in reference to the other, like left vs. right. A haiku, much like a daoist, may never be able to completely eliminate all traces of a perspective, but the art and mastery of attempting it is all the more noble for that reason. The haiku and the daoist should likely be seen as self-referential, not in the sense of repeating to themselves “Me, myself, I, Ego...” but more in the sense of being “isolated” in a way. One should take the word 'isolated' with precaution, since it is a characteristic of Daoism that everything is connected and in flux. I use the word here to mean that each haiku, just like each daoist (especially during meditation), is a specific case or occurrence experiencing itself at one specific moment.

This specified self-referential nature has its echoes in other forms or strands of art, besides the meditative Chinese and Japanese paintings and poetry. Magritte's fittingly named painting The Treachery of Images, which shows a common tobacco pipe under which is written “Ceci n'est pas une pipe.”, is one of the more famous examples. It is so mundane and minimal, yet sticks in each viewer's memory as profound and remarkable. It portrays a pipe only to deny the fact of its being a pipe, which it of course is not, seeing as it is only a painting. In other words, it only has one reference, itself, and chooses its reference to the viewer to negate it.

Others of Magritte's paintings play along the same fine, tantalizing line, such as The Pilgrim, where the viewer is met by nothing but an erect but empty gentlemanly suit and a bowler hat floating above as if perched on an invisible hat. The observer feels noticed or watched by this finely dressed person, and yet there is no one there; I (a subject) observe this painting (an object), recognizing a person (a subject) who observes me (an object) at the same time, yet there is only me there since neither is there a person in the suit nor is there anything more than a painting in front of me. The painting, or the pilgrim, is completely contained and content in his own world, disregarding me even as he theoretically faces me. There is no subject-object play that concerns him, any more than in the case of the daoist, the frog or Zhuangzi's cook.

Another way to describe what is common and remarkable about the examples I have mentioned here is to point out how free of emotion they are. The daoist comes closer to his destination the more free of emotion he becomes, the cook cuts the best slices of ox after practicing for years to free himself of emotions that get in the way of his inspiration, the frog jumps into the pond (or the pond is jumped into by the frog) without any sign of care or emotion and Magritte's pilgrim is so free of emotion he is not even there anymore!

Of course, a work of art might well display emotions without recognizing the viewer's presence, but it is close to impossible to imagine a painting, poem or any other work acknowledging the viewer without an emotion being conveyed in some manner. Even a completely indifferent gaze of the painting's subject towards its observer immediately demands attention.

This would seem similar to Denis Diderot's (French, 18 cent.) theory of painting. He claimed that for a painting to refrain from becoming un théâtre; “an artificial construction whose too obvious designs on its audience made it repugnangt to persons of taste” (Fried, Courbet's Realism p.7), the artist had to take the greatest care to make the subjects seem completely absorbed in their actions. The audience was not supposed to be able to connect or involve themselves in the painting at all, and thereby the enchantment was magnified. Coincidentally, Diderot himself wrote a story named Ceci n'est pas un conte or This is not a story (1772).

And so, as a painting or a poem can be said to achieve a certain level of beauty by not striving for beauty, a certain level of wisdom by not striving for wisdom, so can a daoist achieve a certain level of tranquility by not striving for tranquility (and indeed not striving for not striving for tranquility, ad nauseam). As a daoist wants to master his forgetfulness, he must practice not trying, to not try, and he must practice not being, to be not by his own volition and skill, but to simply be. He must be as if spontaneously there, connected to his surroundings without his surroundings getting caught within him. They must simply pass through him, and he will finally be self-so.

A daoist might then approach something like Basho's subject-object free, self-referencing haiku of the frog and the old pond (although, as a game, one may always cheat to find a subject everywhere. For example, compared to whom is the old pond old? The frog, presumably.) as Diderot approached paintings. The daoist reads the haiku, searching for inspiration, and to his surprise he is mesmerized by the complete emptiness and disregard of anything outside the poem's subject matter. Like me when I encounter Magritte's pilgrim, the daoist finds himself in a loop of recognition with the poem, and in its emptiness he does not find the old pond or the frog, but instead he finds the complete lack of anything else. It is just a simple, emotionless “plop” of water as the frog jumps in. No Ego, no emotions, only … “plop”.

Copyright 2012 Gestur H. Hilmarsson

Posted by Xeiphyer

Good and interesting read, did you write this or was it taken from somewhere?

Posted by Penzilneck

@Xeiphyer said:

Good and interesting read, did you write this or was it taken from somewhere?

Thanks for the feedback. I wrote this for a short seminar on philosophical Daoism this semester. I might write a more elaborate version later, since the constraints of this one didn't allow for much proper referencing or explaining.

Edited by rockyhorrorgerri

I've never actually seen anyone spell Taoism with a D.. even though the T makes the D sound. I had a world's religion class two semesters ago and also had to write an essay on the belief of the Tao. Good stuff!

Are you taking it -religion- as an elective or a degree choice?

Posted by Penzilneck

@rockyhorrorgerri said:

I've never actually seen anyone spell Taoism with a D.. even though the T makes the D sound. I had a world's religion class two semesters ago and also had to write an essay on the belief of the Tao. Good stuff!

Are you taking it -religion- as an elective or a degree choice?

This was actually a purely philosophical course (if there can be such a thing). We were lucky enough to get a German visiting lecturer who after having studied Western philosophy for decades, and climbed to respected academic positions, discovered it had not taught him anything about how to live a good life and subsequently turned his focus completely towards Eastern philosophy where he found purpose and fulfillment in a fraction of the time spent on previous studies. I'm majoring in philosophy and pounce on any chances for something out of the (regretful) norm like this. To answer the actual question, it was elective.

The difference in Tao vs. Dao, much like between Qi and Chi, is mainly the difference between European vs. American traditions when translations and Anglicization began on both sides of the Atlantic. Hard to say if either should be said to be "correct", but since interested people are aware of the difference and reasons for it, there isn't much confusion. You at least noticed the difference, which earns you +5 sinoligical points.

Thanks for the feedback, btw.

Posted by rockyhorrorgerri

@Penzilneck said:

@rockyhorrorgerri said:

I've never actually seen anyone spell Taoism with a D.. even though the T makes the D sound. I had a world's religion class two semesters ago and also had to write an essay on the belief of the Tao. Good stuff!

Are you taking it -religion- as an elective or a degree choice?

This was actually a purely philosophical course (if there can be such a thing). We were lucky enough to get a German visiting lecturer who after having studied Western philosophy for decades, and climbed to respected academic positions, discovered it had not taught him anything about how to live a good life and subsequently turned his focus completely towards Eastern philosophy where he found purpose and fulfillment in a fraction of the time spent on previous studies. I'm majoring in philosophy and pounce on any chances for something out of the (regretful) norm like this. To answer the actual question, it was elective.

The difference in Tao vs. Dao, much like between Qi and Chi, is mainly the difference between European vs. American traditions when translations and Anglicization began on both sides of the Atlantic. Hard to say if either should be said to be "correct", but since interested people are aware of the difference and reasons for it, there isn't much confusion. You at least noticed the difference, which earns you +5 sinoligical points.

Thanks for the feedback, btw.

Very neat. I'm sure your class was as (or even more) interesting as mine. I took a similar course like I said and had a professor whom was very bias to any study of religion that was Muslim or related... which was sad that we had to miss portions of it. And thanks for the clarification of the differences. I know there are two ways of going about spelling it, just like I stated never had I seen anyone actually use the T.