Long before the outbreak of the latest financial crisis hardly anyone doubted that contemporary civilization has some severe ills that must be urgently and systematically addressed. Most people are willing to admit quite obvious political, economical as well as cultural dimensions of the ongoing crisis. It is much more difficult to realize that our problems have in fact epistemological roots and the humankind, in order to survive let alone thrive, must change its basic premises relating to the nature, the method and the goals of knowledge. Because this change requires a radical break with the former ways of thinking and genuine creativity it is only to be expected that the impulses for the new spiritual revolution may come from various spheres of life: the arts, science fiction, even popular culture while relatively conservative academic establishment as well as political institutions will probably be reacting reluctantly and slowly.

V. V. Maliavin

Dar gerokai prieš paskutinės finansinės krizės pradžią vargu ar kas nors abejojo, kad šiuolaikinė civilizacija sunkiai serga ir kad ją būtina skubiai bei sistemiškai gydyti. Daugelis žmonių linkę lengvai priimti tebevykstančios krizės politines, ekonomines, taip pat kultūrines dimensijas. Daug sunkiau suprasti faktą, kad iš tikrųjų mūsų problemos turi epistemologines šaknis ir žmonija tam, kad gyvuotų ir klestėtų, privalo keisti pagrindines žmogaus santykių su gamta prielaidas, metodus ir pažinimo tikslus. Kadangi šie pokyčiai reikalauja radikalaus ankstesnių mąstymo ir autentiško kūrybiškumo formų nutraukimo, belieka tikėtis, kad impulsai naujai dvasinei revoliucijai ateis iš įvairių gyvenimo sferų: menų, mokslinės fantastikos, netgi populiariosios kultūros, bet konservatyvus akademinis sluoksnis, kaip ir politinės institucijos, tikriausiai reaguos lėtai ir nenoriai.

V. V. Maliavinas

***

Nuolatos girdime apokaliptinį toną. Tuoj pasibaigs nafta, atominis karas ant nosies, ojojojoj tuoj ekonominė krizė parblokš pasaulį, vertybių nebėra, dvasingumas žlugęs, dievas mirė ir net žmogus nusigalavo, ir t . t., ir pan., ir be pabaigos. Cha cha cha cha cha. Begalinis pratisas juokas gali išgelbėti šių į niekur nevedančių pliurpalų situaciją žmogaus, išsaugojusio sveiką protą. Klauskime taip: koks skirtumas man (štai šiam visiškai individuliam, baigtiniam ir nepakartojamam konkrečios situacijos, amžinos pradžios įkaitui) ar mirtis mane užklups staigiu netikėtumu, išreikštu širdies smūgiu, dūriu tarpuvartėje, paskutiniu atodūsiu gulint baltoje patalynėje, dangaus kūnui atsitrenkus į žemę ar atominio grybo bangai nušlavus nuo žemės viską, kas ant jos ir joje esti? JOKIO.

Michelis Foucault mums sako, kad dvasingumas gimė sukurtas per įvairiausių praktikų kultivavimą kaip imperatyvo ‘Gnothi seauton – Pažink save’ pasekmė. Graikai sako, kad gyventi nuolatinėje krizės būsenoje – filosofams suteikta palaima ir našta vienu metu. Joks metodas, praktika, kultivavimas, judesys ar pastanga negali mūsų išgelbėti nuo laukiančios individualios apokaliptikos – mirtis neišvengiama. Larsas von Trieras savo naujame filme Melancholija mums puikiai pademonstruoja šią situaciją: kai Žemės susidūrimas su kita milžiniška planeta tampa neišvengiamas, o tai reiškia, kad mirties klausimas tampa suskaičiuojamo laiko klausimu, lieka vienas vienintelis klausimas: kaip tu, štai šis konkretus, dar kvėpuojantis gyvis, tai atliksi: ar nusižudysi, ar ramiai lauksi, ar tikėsiesi, ar blaškysiesi, ar panirsi į transą, ar džiaugsiesi…ar, ar, ar

Dvasinė krizė – chimera, gundanti tam, kad mes kažkokiu būdu galėtume prisijaukinti, o gal net užbėgti už nugaros štai šiam neišvengiamam susitikimui. – Truputį pabėgėsiu į priekį, pažiūrėsiu, kas manęs ten laukia ir tada galėsiu matyti, kaip čia man dabar buvoti. – Ne, taip nebus, demarkacinė linija nubrėžta visiems. Graikų filosofai aiškiai suvokė šią situaciją, todėl atmetė ir pagundą, kuri atsiveria šios chimeros identifikacijos situacijoje, – pasinerti į juslių okeaną. Vulgariai interpetuojamas Epikūro posakis Geriau būti nepatenkintu žmogumi, nei sočia kiaule, pasirodantis kaip įvairių gradacijų (kad ir malonumų) pradžia, galbūt reiškia tiesiog blaiviai suprastą dalyką, kad žmogui neduota būti tik gyvūnu. Taip pat manęs negali išgelbėti dvasingumo skrydis, kaip ir pasinėrimas į juslumo okeaną. Lieka vienintelė galimybė – oriai ir maksimaliai dorai gyventi. Ne visą gyvenimą. Šią akimirką.

Sofistas

***

Vladimiro Maliavino straipsnyje „Gaivinant jusles: daoistinis atsakas moderniajai dvasinei krizei“ (Recovering the Senses: Taoist Response to the Modern Spiritual Crisis) kalbama, kad šių dienų krizę, kurią autoriaus apvelka ir apokaliptiniu brolių Wachowskių „Matricos“ rūbu, iš esmės galima įveikti ne grubia jėga, o vidinėmis ir nematomomis pastangomis. Technikai – tarpiškumo įsikūnijimui – reikia priešpastatyti „pabudusią civilizaciją“, kuri betarpiškai suvoktų kūrybiškumo šaltinį, egzistavimo pagrindą be paties pagrindo.

Kviečiame skaityti/mąstyti/būti/čia/dabar.

.

V. V. Maliavin

Recovering the Senses: Taoist Response to the Modern Spiritual Crisis

 

Long before the outbreak of the latest financial crisis hardly anyone doubted that contemporary civilization has some severe ills that must be urgently and systematically addressed. Most people are willing to admit quite obvious political, economical as well as cultural dimensions of the ongoing crisis. It is much more difficult to realize that our problems have in fact epistemological roots and the humankind, in order to survive let alone thrive, must change its basic premises relating to the nature, the method and the goals of knowledge. Because this change requires a radical break with the former ways of thinking and genuine creativity it is only to be expected that the impulses for the new spiritual revolution may come from various spheres of life: the arts, science fiction, even popular culture while relatively conservative academic establishment as well as political institutions will probably be reacting reluctantly and slowly.

I am convinced that Taoist legacy which includes both bold epistemological models and, essentially, a rich tradition of self-cultivation, has a lot to contribute to the cure of contemporary woes. On the side of metaphysics and epistemology its main advantage is the absence of the opposition of subject and object and the realm of rational understanding which mediates between them. This intellectual endeavor has created the modern Western civilization with its humanitarian values and its technical efficiency but which has by now exhausted itself with the spread of modern telecommunications. The foundations of traditional Western epistemology simply do not match the reality of modern informational technologies. This fact accounts for much of the embarrassment and anxiety that is haunting the West amidst the celebrations of contemporary technical achievements.

The Eastern approach is based on the direct, immediate communication with the world, or, to put it differently, on the immanent continuity between the inner and the outer dimensions of existence. Such communication and continuity can not be objectified or rarefied in rational structures. In fact they leave no space for the Logos as the blissful union of rationality and language that create the intellectual double of reality. The ontological continuity that lies at the basis of Eastern thinking can only be revealed through going beyond the commonsensical meaning, silencing speech, disclosing the limits of reason. For what the Oriental thinkers are looking for is not rational knowledge but one’s genuine and hence eternal existence which can only be found in life’s immanent transcendence, beyond rational knowledge. Language in the East is not a tool of rational mind. Fundamentally it is an allusion, a hint at something that can not be named only because it is all-pervading. Saying something we are bound to say something else. While speaking we cannot help giving free rein to the “metaphorical slippage” of words, every moment we say something else, something new. This reality that we are always talking about without knowing what it is bears the name “emptiness” because emptiness is self-transforming reality par excellence: emptiness in order to be what it is must empty itself and become… the perfect fullness. Everything is simultaneously one’s own opposite. So emptiness is everywhere and yet is nowhere to be found. A popular aphorism of Chinese wisdom states:

“Emptiness within is the mind and the body.

Emptiness without is the world of things”.

What do these words refer to? A core reality of existence which is just an e-vent, something just coming on, a change rooted in the inner dynamics of life. It exists prior to reflection and is perceived directly by spontaneous and extraordinary acute inner awareness devoid of subject. In the light of change everything is what it is not, everything has identity precisely to the extent it disavows itself. So the world of change is the world of universal non-similarity comprising the highest unity; it has no ideals, no abstract models determined by the intellect. Instead of shaping reality into conceptual truths it presents reality as a revelation, a primal phantasm transcending the opposition of subject and object, both familiar and strange, strangely familiar…

Looking for a more concrete definition of reality in Taoism we come across the concept of “Thusness”, “That which is so of Itself” (zi ran). This notion is free from metaphysical oppositions between transcendence and immanence, universal and particular which has been the unshakeable basis of the European thought since Antiquity. Taoist zi ran means simultaneously the most general principle of existence and the singularity of its each moment. It is related, no doubt, to the expression “transcending everything by itself” (chao ran) including itself of course. By virtue of this it is the embodiment of singularity and its main feature is in fact “to stand in solitude” (du li) described in the Tao Te Ching. Yet it is also closely connected with the notions of “multiplicity of subtleties” (chung miao), “infinite variety” (zhung fu) expressing the ontology of multitude and singularity found in that great book.

So, the concept of zi ran justifies perfectly both the unity and multiplicity of being. Things are identical inasmuch as they are different. Such a perspective does not establish any privileged way of representing reality and thus does not imply any violence, any attempt to correct the world ( since violence is basically a claim for the identity of things in nothingness).

This starting point of Taoist thought has far reaching consequences for human culture and practice. First of all, it affects profoundly the phenomenological status of image and the perceived world in general in Chinese tradition. So a brief comparison of Western and Taoist approaches to the nature of image would be in order here.

An expression traditional image requires at least tentative elaboration. Tradition is above all something that is being transmitted and, therefore, something that perpetuates itself within changes, something eternally recurring and thus renovated. In this sense it is the very essence of the reality as a universal continuity mentioned above, the condition of every communion. The source of tradition is the creative power of life itself. Consequently, tradition presupposes the coexistence of different life-worlds or perspectives of vision; it points at the essentially symbolic realm of universal co-being-ness, a “passing eternity” where a community of minds acquires the nature of co-mutiny, instantaneous coming and going. Tao Te Ching has many names for this reality, for instance “the eternal thread”, “the limit of Antiquity” or simply “Heaven”. Indeed, it is the internal “thread” and the uncreated, in the likeness of Heaven, limit of each existence.

Thus, the study of tradition inevitably leads to the discovery of meta-historical continuity which precedes all things and traverses historical time. This meta-historical implosion of authentic experience is confirmed by tradition, i.e. non-subjective transmission that can not coincide with the visible historical changes. Participation in this continuity of “genuine life” is the real foundation of sociality in Asian civilizations. It is a sociality of school both as a way of self-cultivation and the medium of transmission. The school’s Founder (“the highest ancestor-teacher”) represents those qualities of phantom existence that account for the school’s endurance. He is the witness to the invisible “thread” that maintains the meta-historical foundations of school.

As I have already attempted to show[1], this self-perpetuating core of individual/social existence (un)folds in consequent circles, a spiral-like movement rooted in the experience of universal co-relatedness in the hub of the cosmic circle. Tradition in China links history and nature. It stretches across the whole history of Chinese civilization while being reflected more or less vaguely in every particular teaching, i.e. every historical moment of China. Perhaps, this new kind of hermeneutics of Chinese civilization will prove to be a decisive step from comparative philosophy to what it is destined to become: a philosophy of the universal com-parity.

Now in Christian tradition, especially Orthodoxy, “traditional image” is closely related to the concept and the usage of icon – the most popular representation of the imago Dei and an important object of reverence, though not of worship in a strict sense, in Orthodox and Catholic practice. It is well known that Christian writers have always opposed icon (derived from Greek eikon) to idol (from Greek eidolon). The opposition between the two has been aptly defined by J.-L. Marion who treats them not as objects or substances but rather as two inversely juxtaposed “manners of being for beings”. The idol, according to Marion, “consists only in the fact that it can be seen, that one cannot but see it. And see it so visibly that the very fact of seeing it suffices to know it”[2]. Epistemologically, therefore, the idol’s function is to stop the gaze, to confine it to the material visibility of the world, “to dazzle” it. By doing so the idol conforms to man’s measure. It is indeed what can be created by and for the human capacities and human world as such.

The icon functions in precisely the opposite way. Fundamentally, it is a revelation, i.e. the apparition of invisible reality. It sets the limits of seeing. Paradox, to be sure, but only to the superficial, or better say, formal thinking. The icon reveals not some form or substance (ousia) but the very nature of event (parousia) with its perspective of eternity. It refers (definitely not re-presents) to a unity in multiplicity, a self-transcending life of spirit. The genuine event cannot but be a miracle. In phenomenological terms, the icon “attempts to render visible the invisible, hence to allow that the visible not cease to refer to an other than itself… The icon summons the gaze to surpass itself by never freezing on the visible. The gaze can never rest or settle if it looks at an icon; it always must rebound upon the visible, in order to go back in it up the infinite stream of invisible”[3].

This is precisely what the life of spirit is: an incessant overcoming of everything “given” in which the spirit “gives itself”. In the technique of icon painting this essential feature of the iconic vision is expressed by the so called “inverted perspective” so brilliantly analyzed by the Orthodox theologian Pavel Florensky: in the iconic space the furthest images appear as the largest. Such a vision both highlights and suspends the feeling of distance generating an experience of the infinite depth in the hairbreadth scission, or gap[4].

The Christian icon is particularly related to the openness (pure apparition) of face; indeed, it expresses the very mystery of “the infinite depth of the face”. No wonder that Christian writers used to refute the iconoclastic tendencies in the Christian Church by differentiating between the natures and the person of God. The iconoclasts, by pointing at the inconsistencies of the veneration of icons, stressed the difference between the two natures of the God-Human. But the icon, as St. John of Damascus pointed out, is intended to reveal the presence of God’s indivisible person (Greek hupostasis)[5]. To define this fundamental raison d’etre of icon the Orthodox thinkers often resort to the term “primordial image”. It is not immediately clear, though, what is the relation between the “person” and the “nature”, on the one hand, and the “primordial image” and the external “image”, on the other. The “nature” and the “image” have no independent existence and can exist only as attributes of the “person” and the “primordial image”. Apparently, this relation is meta-logical and modeled after the nature of Divine Trinity itself. Modern authors tend to explain the relation between image and primordial image in term of synergy between God and Man: primordial image is a sort of energy, a virtual reality that pre-determines visible images[6].

While icons are revered by both Catholics and Orthodox, J. Kristeva justly underscores the cardinal differences between the concepts of image in Western and Eastern mentality. In Catholic world image is closely connected with the idea of figura representing real persons and events of history which stand for the noumenal reality of Christian mysteries. This conception predicted from the start the evolution of European painting toward naturalism and humanism of the European painting. The Orthodox icon, by contrast, is not painted but “inscribed”. The icon, according traditional definition is the “witness to thungs invisible”. As Kristeva notes, the icon “is a graphein, a sensibly trace, not a spectacle”[7] So, in Orthodoxy the icon is presented, strictly speaking, not for looking but for the cultivation of spiritual energy, heightening one’s awareness. It is a gate to spiritual path.

This distinction between image as figura and image as graphein is important for understanding the nature of image in Taoism. In fact, Chinese concept of image (xiang) presents an interesting corollary to the Western understanding of the image. One should bear in mind, of course, that the basis of Chinese thinking is not any kind of essence, substance or even form but the change, the process of becoming. Consequently, Chinese thought and culture do not attach much importance to the (necessary fixed and static) relation between subject and object. Their real subject and ideal is the co-existence of various life-impulses, the universal and essentially unfathomed harmony, the space – both infinitely large and infinitely small – of all kinds of interaction, the limit of every existence.

Interestingly enough, we do not find in the inventory of Chinese thought the very concept of a fixed image which can be seized in contemplation. It is sometimes treated in a commonsensical way (as, for instance, in the Hsi Tse Commentary to I-ching just as “something that can be observed”). But already in the I-ching and even more obviously in the Tao-Te ching it is treated both as the ontological reality of the world and the inner reality of human awareness. So image in Chinese thought is mentioned usually in conjunction with the uncreated Heaven. As we know already, Chinese intellectual tradition is interested primarily in the continuity of consciousness and the external world. Consequently, the concept of image in China has always been closely related to human creativity and cultural practice. The idea of image in the I- ching is inextricably tied to creative imagination. According to the classical definition, the “Heavenly images” which designate “the first visible reality” both in the outside world and the inner depth of man served as a model for the writing. These were in fact “the pattern of Heaven and the order of Earth” as well as the traces left by the divine animals. In other words, the image, in Chinese view, is defined not so much by its essence or nature as by its limit: it is precisely there where it stops to be.

Since the image in China is rooted in the force of creative transformations it can only be conceived as a dynamic reality. Indeed, its real core is the Will (yi) which, in conformity with the basic premises of Chinese tradition, refers to the pure dynamism of life as well as the human drive for self-perfection, i.e. it is both natural and cultural. So the Chinese artists were inclined to stress the mutual penetration of the human mind and the natural environment though the mind and the nature, strictly speaking, do not mirror each other (that would be in fact an idolatry) but rather merge simultaneously in a “dark unity” (xuan tung) of self-transcending Will.

The existential roots of this thinking should be sought in the nature of our raw experiential data. Chinese “image” has nothing to do with the external physical objects. It refers to the sources of living experience, the sphere of perception. The early commentators of I- ching speak of “seminal images” (jing xiang, see Wang Bi’s commentary to the 25th Ch. of Tao-Te ching) or “subtle images” (miao xiang). Images in Chinese vision are rather amorphous and elusive, if perceived externally, but fairly lucid and compelling, if contemplated internally, reality. They are not essences but rather structures. The extremes coincide, as is prescribed by the overall harmonic vision shared by all Chinese thinkers. Lao-zu instructs “to hold fast to the Great Image” apparently meaning by the latter the wholeness of Being, the plethora of existence which is rooted in the unity-multiplicity of the Great Void. In Medieval times Chinese artists used to speak about “spiritual matching” (ling fu) of one’s feeling and the world.

Now we can see that the image in Chinese tradition occupies an intermediary position between physical objects and the Void which is the source of all things. Images “follow” the Way; they are essentially bearers of “intentions” (yi) and from the start have a nature of phantasm. In fact, the word “image” is used in China for naming the elephant – one of the most fantastic animals for the ancient Chinese. But this also means that images, according to Taoism, refer to the creative Void, “the mysterious Female” (Lao-tzu) that gives birth to all things. Images spring from their limits, or traces which are the inevitable signs of natural transformations and cultural stylization that lies at the heart of human practice.

In the world dissolved into the boundless network of co-being the individual, like Leibniz’s monad, exists in the world while the world exists in her. Here the subject appears with the recognition of rupture between different life-worlds. Yet contrary to Western transcendentalism, Chinese “awakening” is characterized by the opening of consciousness to the body which stands for an experience of limit and by virtue of this represents the medium of forming types out of experience’s raw data. In short, images in Chinese tradition have the nature of types. Chinese pictorial art has always been wavering between realistic representation and pure expressionism. Its glory is marked by the affirmation of the type’s synthetic nature. Its demise, especially in recent times, is the sign of the dissolution of this synthesis which produces crafty but uninspired academic realism on the one hand and expressionist abstractionism on the other.

Chinese thought does not privilege any one image over another. Generally speaking, the image in Chinese thought is fully justified by the act of transformation, its very capacity to transcend itself. Such a view, I believe, to a certain degree resembles the idea of Being as shadow elaborated by E. Levinas. According to Levinas, reality is in fact its own transparent double (i.e. a shadow) incapable to hold its own contents, perpetually “losing” it. As a result, “the sensible is being insofar as it resembles itself, insofar as… it casts a shadow, emits that obscure and elusive essence which cannot be identified with the essence revealed in truth”[8]. It is not by chance, then, that in Chinese thought the idea of image from the phenomenological point of view had the status of shadow. The latter can be viewed as a designation of the above mentioned “abysmal crack” which constitutes the structure of the iconic vision. It is no less noteworthy that the term image in Chinese is interchangeable with the idea of likeness. It is said in the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 4) that there is something apparent “before the supreme ancestor”. This sentence can also mean: “its likeness appears before the supreme ancestor”. Be as it may, Chinese tradition affirms the priority of similarity over image, or, for that matter, metaphor over truth.

So Chinese concept of image ascribes the reality of image to the power of creativity which makes possible the infinite duplication of images, the creation of world as the infinite and, therefore, living variety of being. One cannot fail to notice that the words “image” and “likeness”, “similarity” are almost indistinguishable in Chinese language. But this is true already of the concept zi ran which identifies the reality with likeness through the idea of “suchness” (ru, ru lai). Creation in Chinese thought is infinite modeling according to the absent model, the repetition of the absent norm. Chinese man, too, is made according to the “image and likeness” of the ultimate reality, though not a personal God but primary difference.

Making a general assessment of the traditional (iconic) image in China and the West we should point out two important issues:

1. The iconic image is basically different not only from the idol but also from all kinds of symbols and allegories. A noteworthy fact is that the icon painting in Christianity, according to the undisputed tradition, started as a direct offprint, as if in photography, of Christ’s face on a towel or a painting of Virgin Mary’s portrait. This idea of a painting as a pure material vestige of spiritual presence is akin to the Oriental status of image as a trace, a shadow of the invisible reality pointing at the latter’s absence. Mature icon painting in Orthodox tradition was destined to preserve the balance between physical and spiritual qualities of the sacred image and it fulfilled this task through the combination of rigidly normative symbolic traits which confirmed the type-formation and, therefore, the possibility of spiritual ascension of experience.

2. The iconic image revealed a definite hierarchy of pictorial qualities corresponding to certain stages of spiritual development. In China it was an hierarchy of natural form (xing), spirituality (shen) and the Void (xu). This stratification ran parallel to the division of artists into three groups: “the skilful”, “the subtle” and “the divine”. The iconic tradition in Christianity, to my knowledge, lacked an explicitly determined stages of iconic contemplation but it could easily be – and actually was – related to the stages of spiritual progress in prayer.

2.

Now what we are left with in defining the nature of the phenomenal world both in Christian and Chinese traditions is the notion of the “minutest gap”, a hairbreadth scission which makes possible the creation of the world through the continuity of being’s “suchness” with its endless renovation or, better say, eternal recurrence. The latter term reminds that that the essence of creative transformations is a “reversal”, a backward movements to the origin of every existence. Genuine event has a hidden dimension and that accounts for the esoteric nature of the Oriental wisdom though this esoterism can not be distinguished from the natural dynamism of life and thus constitutes no secret.

In Western thought the memory of this uncreated, always reached in a backward turn reality has been almost obliterated in traditional metaphysics. Taoist thought has preserved a keen understanding of this fundamental layer of experience primary because its freedom of self-cultivation was not obscured or limited by the logical requirements of established doctrine. It is the reality which is variously – but consistently and in fact systematically – named by such terms as “small” (xiao), “minute” or “subtle” (wei), “miraculous” (miao), “one” (yi), “centrality” (zhong) and, finally, “confidence” (xin). The supreme position of the latter concept makes clear that the “primal matter” for the Taoists in not some kind of substance or essence, but relation and co-relation between things or rather vector of virtual movement. This explains also the paramount importance attached by the Taoists to tradition as an act of transmission, passing over which precedes any substance. The Tao can be transmitted but not possessed; it is something given before everything else and grasped after everything else.

All terms mentioned above relate to the micro-world of original perceptions, petits perceptions to use Leibniz’s expression, which constitute the original matrix of experience[9]. It is the source of existence as described in the recently published “Song on Transmitting the Mystery” attributed to the famous Tang dynasty Taoist master Li Dao-zi, the legendary (one of several, in fact) founder of the Tai-chi chuan. It is written there:

No forms, no images, the whole body is suspended in the void”[10].

The absence of forms and images does not imply here absolute nothingness, but something quite the contrary: the fullness of Being’s potential reduced to the invisible semen of things. It is the symbolic matrix of experience, the foundation of life itself which precedes and, in a sense, anticipates all things. It is not an actual, but, strictly speaking, a virtual reality located, according to the classical Taoist formula, “between presence and absence”. It is the Vortex of Tao within which myriads of symbolic, would-be worlds come into being and pass away in one flash of time which is shorter than the shortest possible duration that can be detected by the senses. These events pass even before they acquire visible form. But they are embodiments of pure affection which is the driving force of life’s transformations. This hidden source of experience was called in Taoist literature “the minutest” (xiao) or “subtle” (wei, miao) form. It was equated also to the “impulse” (ji) of changes. Spiritual awareness in Taoism is precisely the ability to perceive and follow these impulses that trigger the activity of the non-objectified Will (yi). The Will, being a self-determining reality and, therefore, a radical finiteness, constitutes the “subtle principle” (miao li) of every thing, the inner limit of existence. Understandingly, it is a condition of inner awareness equal to the pure immanence of life and thus to the… constant obliterating of Being, letting everything be. Awareness in Taoism is literally living.

The deepest level of Taoist experience – as well as, notably, the first step in the Taoist apprenticeship – is an unconditional “confidence” in the workings of Tao and the teacher who stands as a witness to them. These workings require confidence or trust because they can not be objectified or defined. They are, to use Taoist language, ‘heavenly” in essence. The state of absolute confidence means complete opening of Mind to the flow of life’s transformations whatever they may be.

How can the Taoist vision of the kind described above contribute to the overcoming of modern civilization’s crisis? The answer, as I have already mentioned, may come from many and sometimes unexpected sides. One of the most illuminating lessons known to me is provided by a well-known Hollywood blockbuster “The Matrix” which has recently created a stir in the intellectual circles all over the world. Most critics in the West saw in it – quite rightfully, to be sure – a gloomy allegory of the epistemological dead-end peculiar to the Western civilization. The world of perfect simulation controlled by the Matrix means in fact the oblivion of the ontological depth of experience, the loss of the immanent awareness and thus the dehumanization of human beings. In phenomenological terms it means the substitution of the icon by the idol, i.e. the reduction of “primordial image” to its empty, purely visible likeness, a perfect imitation. Yet this situation has an amazing resemblance to the epistemological premises of Chinese thinking: “the void inside is mind and body; the void outside is the world of things”. Moreover, the film suggests the way out of the Matrix’s trap which obviously has connection with Taoism.

Let me remind here that the movie’s hero and the leader of resistance against the invisible yoke of the Matrix, a young man called Neo (i.e. New Man, an obvious Christian allusion), studies ardently the Oriental martial arts and finally acquires an amazing speed of physical movements and no less outstanding power of intellectual intuition (to put it in quasi-schellingian terms). This romance of self-cultivation is supposed to remind of course that in the world of all-pervasive illusion only ascetic experience, an effort of self-transcendence can confirm the reality of one’s existence. Indeed, the world of Zion inhabited by those who fight against Matrix is the land of scarcity and hardships. The world of Matrix, by contrast, is brightly illuminated by electric, i.e. artificial and deceptive, lights. We are present at the “inversion of Platonism” predicted by F. Nietzsche: the world of cave has changed places with the real world outside. Nowadays one has to descend into the cave of one’s consciousness to get to the truth of existence.

An old-fashioned, purely external division between “real” and “unreal” worlds will not do, however. It is too arbitrary. The Zion is unable to maintain its identity and is conquered by the machines. The merging of illusion and reality remains the unshaken foundation, the “stubborn fact” of the contemporary electronic media, its undisputable challenge. Yet the film, just like the world of media itself, offers opportunities to discover reality even within total illusionism. The eye of the camera and special effects are capable to tell more than the physical eyesight and even imagination can. The physical objects in the movie display an astonishing plasticity: human bodies can be suspended in the air, various things bend and curve in all directions disclosing, as it were, their illusionary nature. In fact, they look not so much as things but rather as phantoms or configurations of energy. Some decisive scenes are presented in a very slow motion, creating the world that is unfolding or, if you wish, folding up unto itself within just one passing moment; the world of what is often called “Bullet-Time”. This cinematographic trick unexpectedly draws us into the inner world of Neo. It is the condition of the extraordinary sensitive awareness or, as Taoists used to put it, “purity and calmness” of consciousness. The nature of such calmness is the infinitely small “spiritual transformations” (shen hua) which are much faster than even the flight of the bullet. The latter, as physical object, has a fixed trajectory consisting of mechanical repetition, while the spirit is capable of transforming, or “renovating” itself within the shortest possible interval of time. Spirit, in a word, is faster than any physical speed, even that of the bullet. But in order to be so fast it must be capable of “letting everything go” and first of all liberating itself from all things or, to be precise, its own dependence on its cognitive faculties. Pure spirit has no contents.

This continuum of “spiritual transformations” which exists before the division between subject and object must be conceived as a pure interaction without separate agents, an omnipresent medium and limit of everything. It is described in Taoist texts as “so big that nothing is outside of it and so small that nothing is inside of it”. This reality cannot be grasped by intellectual means, it requires an extremely heightened sensitivity inextricably related to one’s corporeal presence in the world or, better say, one’s active participation in what M. Merleau-Ponty used to call “the flesh of the world”. The capacity of our body to react to external influences even before they become the facts of consciousness has been occasionally noticed by Western philosophers, among them Spinoza who spoke of the “body’s reason” and Nietzsche who made even more favorable comments on the “great reason of the body”. Yet it is the Taoist tradition that provides us with the systematically explored experience of our primordial and impeccably intact being-in-the world.

Neo’s interest in self-cultivation by means of Chinese martial arts is well founded. Attaining or rather restoring one’s original presence in the world, i.e. a free and all-pervading but not reducible to abstract rules or norms, “renovating with every instant” communication was a real goal of the Taoist martial art’s masters in China. This is precisely the “transmission of the secret” that lies at the heart of living tradition. Already in classical Taoist texts we find statements that “stillness within the motion” is the sure sign of the Sage. This formula means in fact the living, dynamic unity of mind and body which creates a thoroughly conscious movements and allows the adept of Tao to really live his life. The enlightened life in Taoism, according to a popular saying, is nothing but a “stillness-movement, emptiness-fullness, opening-closing”. One of the recently published texts coming from the Yang school of T”ai-chi chuan contains the following description of such perfectly balanced and, therefore, integral existence:

With inner motion we have awareness, with external movement we have knowledge. When inner motion reaches its limit there is an external movement. When awareness attains its fullness knowledge appears. It is easy to master movements and knowledge but it is hard to understand motion and awareness”[11].

This passage is an attempt, rare in Chinese tradition, to explain relationship between two aspects of Tao: “Former Heaven” (xian tian ) and “Later Heaven” (hou tian ) or “No-Limit” (wu ji ) and “Great Limit” (tai ji ). This traditional non-duality is described here as continuity of inner “awareness” and objective “knowledge”. The perfection of sensitivity – fully natural in its own right – is named in T”ai-chi tradition “the understanding power” (dong jing)[12]. In the same collection of texts the meaning of the latter term is explained in the following words:

The understanding power of humans is the edge of sight and hearing, a capacity to transform through encounter with circumstances. It produces miraculous results all by itself. The body attains enlightenment without effort, inner motion and external movement are permeated by awareness and knowledge”[13].

Let us note that the goal of Taoist cultivation, no matter how fantastic it may seem to the superficial observer, is the return to the original, perfectly natural fullness of one’s existence. It is the relieving and effortless effort, the way of releasing oneself in the seamless “flesh” of primordial existence and thus “forgetting” one’s individual Ego. This perfect naturalness, or “original nature” (ben xing) coincides, though, with the “spiritual illumination” (shen ming). In the meta-logic of Tao the limit of corporality coincides with the pure spirituality. Forgetting or letting go one’s Self gives access to the most extraordinary level of awareness, i.e. the minutest perceptivity and sensitivity. Why? Precisely because this plenitude of Being is the principle of self-differentiating, boundless dispersion, the empty dynamism of the uncreated Chaos and the pause, the break that constitute every single rhythm and, consequently, all interconnections within the living wholeness or the “one body” of the world. Continuum of the One.

So reality as a constant and all-pervading Transformation (yi hua), is the infinitely fast circuit of the virtual and actual aspects of existence in fact an abysmal space of their interpenetration. Participating or rather co-existing with one’s alterity in this vortex of the Way amounts to returning, or rather “inheriting” the source of every existence. On the practical side it grants the ability to foresee the coming events, to recall imminent events . This means also that the man of Tao acts contrary to the apparent tendencies, he dwells at the edge of things and is being permanently lost for the world. He goes, as I have mentioned already, a “reverse path” according to the Taoist dictum:

Those who go contrary-wise will become Immortals. Those who follow suit will become ordinary people”.

The power of Matrix is derived from the capacity to make perfect machines, i.e. machines that perfectly imitate things by means of logical analysis and intellectual understanding. Basically it is the power of schematizing which reduces things to external objects and technical tools. Neo discards rational knowledge and acquires, or rather restores the capacity to encounter the world in a direct, unmediated and holistic way and thus set the world free. Indeed, only acting knowledge grants freedom. Neo even ceases to differentiate between perception and images, appearance and substance. Sophisticated technology of Matrix based on the logical oppositions of computer science simply cannot detect him.

Neo’s Taoist predecessor is the famous cook in the book of “Chuang-tzu” who cuts the ox without noticing it and even touching it with his knife. The butcher does his job simply by involving both himself and the ox into the irresistible, infinitely differentiated, perfectly musical, as it were, rhythm of life. His “pure” contact with the ox has no quantitative physical dimensions because the spot of this contact the all-pervasiveness of self-differentiating Void. Like the “marvelous images” of the Tao vortex it is simultaneously present and not-present, inside and outside. It embodies the irresistible power of life’s dynamism. This is why the ability of “understanding power” implies the so called absence of forms which is in fact a form-generating propensity, a virtual existence. In the same vein, in the Chinese political tradition which since ancient times was heavily influenced by Taoism the ruler radiates the all-pervading power of the universal dissolution, the power of the uncreated Chaos itself. He is really fantastic yet he is fantastically real. He is so frightening, to be sure, because he represents familiar images as something alien. In the words from “Chuang-tzu”,

Sitting like a corpse, he exposes the image of dragon.

In profound silence, he issues forth the deafening roar.

This is what the Taoist authors mean when they speak, as mystics all over the world do, about “miraculous matching” (miao qi) of the opposites. The Great Tao is the “spontaneous responding to influence” (zi ran gan ying). As “Song on the Transmission of Mystery” puts it,

“Be responsive to the other, be so by itself”.

The T’ai-chi chuan masters comment on this statement metaphorically: one should be “vast as the ocean and empty as the sky”[14].

What we are dealing with in this theme of non-contact touch is essentially a sort of differential relation between two kinds of duration: a physical and a spiritual. Neo is not evading bullets, for the simple reason that “spiritual illumination” knows not the objects. He is in some profound sense coexisting or rather co-relating with them while being impenetrable for the limited physical forces. He does not look for the “matrix” as a sort of transcendental intellectual model of existence. He returns to the “semen” of things, the immanent source of life and finds abode in the infinitely small middle space of “spiritual transformation”. He does follow something, surely not things (he does not have individual Ego anyway) but what the Taoists used to call “the mother of stillness and movement”, “the profound impulse” (xuan ji), “heavenly impulse” (tian ji) etc. of universal transformations. This impulse is precisely “without forms and images” yet all-embracing and generating all things. Another T’ai-chi chuan master, Li Ya-xuan, defines the T’ai-chi skill as the ability

To follow spontaneously the impulse and respond to changes”[15].

I find a rough Western correlate to this reality in Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the fold which is described as the relatedness of actualization (the spirit) and realization (the body), a relatedness that actualization cannot fully realize and realization cannot fully actualize. The “heavenly impulse” is precisely the force of actualizing the virtual and providing virtual depth to the actual. The “crack of being”, the abysmal reserve of things left out in this interaction correspond, as Deleuze himself affirms, to the circuit of Tao that stands for the ultimate reality in Chinese thought[16].

We can add now that living in the fold or the virtual mode of the ever-passing Bullet-Time means sinking ever deeply in the dynamic of existence which comprises and finally mixes up both virtual and actual aspects. This mode of living grants the experience of one’s “genuineness”: a sense of inner continuity beneath the visible changes. This awareness is brought from within and does not require the public recognition – a decisive break with the classical Western tradition from Aristotle to Hegel.

On the way from the seemingly real self (individual) to the real non-Self (the awakened Self) one passes through two main stages: first one should “forget oneself” and then self-forgetting should also be forgotten just like dispersal must also be dispersed and the will itself must be un-willed. The truth of this Taoist double un-doing transcends all images and concepts, even the concept of pure, or empty, interaction. The transition to the highest level of enlightenment through the unreserved “following the impulse” is described, for example, in the saying of Tai-chi chuan masters which is known to me only in oral transmission:

When there is a Will you are spiritual.

When there is no Will you are miraculous”.

This amounts to saying that the supreme achievement means leaving behind even one’s concentration. The primordial Spirit (yuan shen) opposed to the “cognizing spirit” (shi shen) has neither contents nor subject. It is the absolute Void which precedes and makes possible the operational, qualitative void of pure relatedness. Or vice versa: recovering natural sensibility reveals the miracle of life. Living by T’ai chi means exactly dwelling at the intersection of forms and formless, at the level of “semen of things” where, according to Lao-tzu, we can contemplate the rise of all things and their return to the root. It is the “would-be” mode of existence in which things “spring from the void” and go through transformations before they are given a fixed form in our representations; it is something existing “between presence and absence”.

Interesting to say, the combination of “awareness” and “knowledge” in the text on T’ai-chi chuan quoted above corresponds to the notion of “perception” (zhi jue) in modern Chinese language. Indeed, under conditions of informational civilization the faculty of perception has acquired a great importance to the extent that it is likely to overshadow the intellectual reflection that has furnished the basis for identity in the modern thought. Does not the digital world of electronics disclose to us those extremely evasive, ephemeral, full of vibrant dynamism, pre-reflective images that we encounter at the level of primal perception? Does it nor require from us the capacity to deal with these images directly, to go along, to be in exchange with them rather than “react” to them or reflect on them, in a word – to be existentially involved in the world of mediation and media, the space of omnipresent interaction with its slogan: “Media is the message”? And yet the media of telecommunication transcends intellectual mediation.

In previous times these images constituted the contents of prophetic dreams and spiritual visions of a few chosen persons. Now they are accessible to the general public. By giving priority to the material presence of image they stimulate the sharpening of our perceptive abilities and, in a wider sense, spiritual sensitivity. Precisely these qualities we admire in the heroes of today’s digital capitalism: businessmen, managers, brokers, showmen etc. From the philosophical point of view it is more important to note, however, that this new identity project based on perception opens a prospect of a new safe heaven for the subjectivity: the sphere of pure perception which precedes reflective faculty. This brings the social values of the information age even closer to the Taoist ideal of a sage who guides the world while remaining unnoticed by it. Taoist tradition is the powerful reminder that the principle of “letting everything go” is a paramount strategic device a condition of success that knows neither rewards nor even winners. A real triumph of Taoist wisdom is preserving life’s potential in its full power and encompassing unity.

Can’t we call it a providential twist of history if technological innovations generally assessed as detrimental to human spirituality and even natural sensitivity turn out to be the means of recovering that desperately wanted spirituality along new lines and in new forms? We are not yet ready to say what kind of identity can be nurtured by relying on perception and thus “forgetting”, un-doing our reflective ego. Perception is ambiguous because it discloses the non-availability of the world for the critical thinking. We can say only that this will be an identity of the Great Self whose very essence is a promise to come, a New Man as anonymous as he is real. In practice we will observe, probably, the delicate balance of reflective identity and the perceptive capacity culminating in the awareness of one’s opening to the world. This is precisely what is meant by the Taoist maxim: “Be responsive to others, be as you are by yourself”. Yet this task presupposes the profound change of the personality’s structure. The restoration of perceptive faculty will bring a better understanding of the maternal side of Ego’s genealogy. This is how personality is dealt with in Taoism which exalts the “Mother of all things” and “mother-child” relation.

The common ground of identity and perception is to be provided by the loss of their respective metaphysical foundations. For the reliance on perception implies the “acceleration in the void” beyond historical objectivity – a destiny of mankind predicted by J. Baudrillard and other contemporaries. Yet even this destiny has much in common with the Taoist reality as a circuit of pure interaction “suspended in the void”. Our choice is stark and demanding: to perish or “to go spiritual”.

So the Matrix – this truly apocalyptic revelation of modern crisis – is to be defeated not by confronting it but by the most sensitive perception of powers that are at work behind its dazzling imagery. The victories in the world and over the world are predetermined by the essentially inner and invisible effort. The triumph of technology, this epitome of mediation, is bound to create its counterweight – a “civilization of awakening” based on the immediate perception of the creative source, a non-grounding ground of existence. 

V. V. Maliavin

Tamkang University, Taiwan

 

  1. [1]See: V.V. Maliavin, Self-Forgetting and Its History: A Taoist Perspective on the Postmodern Phenomenology. – Papers of the 1st International Taoist Philosophical Studies Conference, Taipei: International Taoist Foundation, 2005, p. 217-254.
  2. [2]Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 9.
  3. [3]Ibid., p. 18.
  4. [4]See: Pavel Florensky. Ikonostasis.
  5. [5]L.A. Ouspensky, Bogoslovie Icony (Theology 0f the Icon), Kiev: Moscow Patriarchy, 1996. P. 97.
  6. [6]O.I. Genisaretsky. Navigator (Navigator).
  7. [7]J. Kristeva, Crisis of the European Consciousness. New York: Other Press, 2000. P. 153.
  8. [8]The Levinas Reader, ed. by Sean Hand. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. P. 135. This quotation is taken from the article “Reality and its Shadow” published in 1948.
  9. [9]See V.V. Maliavin, op.cit., for a short phenomenological analysis of these terms and their significance in the unfolding of Chinese tradition.
  10. [10]Taichi chuan pu (The Genealogy of Tai-chi chuan), Beijing: Renmin tiyu, 1995. P. 236. On the authorship of this important text see: Taichi neigung jiemi (The explanation of Tai-chi chuan’s secrets), Taipei: Dazhan, 2005. P. 48.
  11. [11]Taichi quan pu, p. 116. For a different English version of this text by Douglas Wile see: Douglas Wile, Lost T’ai-chi classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, Albany: SUNY, 1996. P. 66.
  12. [12]The term jing refers to a peculiar “strength of sensitivity” which is related to the inner living unity of mind and body. It can be released only at the moment of complete relaxation and constitutes a real foundation of Tai-chi chuan’s skill. This concept has no even approximate counterpart in Western languages and is translated most often as “inner” or “spiritual” force. D. Wile’s translation is “interpreting energy”.
  13. [13]Tai-chi pu. P. 137. Cf. D.Wile, op.cit. P. 71.
  14. [14]Taiji neigung jiemi. P. 50.
  15. [15]Li Ya-xuan, Yang-shi tai-ji quan jia quanzhen (An explaination of the genuine meaning of the Yang-style T’ai-chi chuan), Taipei: Iwen, 2003. P. 122.
  16. [16]G. Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1993. P. 125.
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