Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fragment 21022015

There are two places in the Chu Ci where the interaction between Confucianism and Taoism becomes most acute and obvious. The first is the poem called Bu Ju (Divination) the second is the poem called Yu Fu, (The Fisherman). They appear side by side in the middle of the anthology, and are the only pieces in the anthology that contain prose and dialogue. They both are anecdotes about Qu Yuan, and therefore cannot have been written by him. Authorship is unknown, but there are similar parables concerning encounters with Confucians and Taoists in the Zhuang Zi.

Bu Ju is interesting because it concerns the I Jing. It is, as far as I know, one of the earliest depictions in Chinese literature of the I Jing in use, and it gives us a picture of how to use the Oracle, or rather how not to use it.

Qu Yuan (Confucian ideal) consults a famous diviner (Taoist ideal). “I have an uncertainty in my mind which I should like you to resolve for me”, he says. The Diviner readies his yarrow stalks. “What are your instructions”, he says, when he is ready. Qu Yuen asks eight questions concerning his dilemma, seven of which are framed in the same way: ‘Is it better to X or to Y?’; and the eighth is a kind of summary of the previous seven: “Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened. Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?”
The Diviner’s reaction is to throw away his divining stalks and excuse himself, with a speech in which he says: “There are things to which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power. My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours, (…) the divining stalks are really unable to be of help.”  

Why does the Diviner react in this way?

The answer lies in the way the questions are framed, and in the last sentence spoken by the Diviner.

Commentaries of the I Jing, repeatedly note the importance of the way the question is framed, and this is arguably the most important part of the process of consulting the oracle. The Diviner usually works with the person consulting the Oracle to make sure the question is framed in the correct way. John Blofeld writes: Above all, the either/or type of question is to be avoided. Other commentators stress the same thing and also that the same question cannot be asked more than once. (Some who consult the Oracle as a game ask the same question more than once to ‘test’ the Oracle to see if it will give the ‘same’ answer.) Qu Yuan makes both these mistakes, with his string of either/ or questions all on the same problem: is it better to remain unsullied, or is it better to go with the things of the world?

In the comment the Diviner makes to Qu Yuan: My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours, the divining stalks are really unable to be of help.” The Diviner notes from Qu Yuan’s questions that his mind is already made up about the best course to follow: resolution such as yours. The question has been answered before it has been put. 

This is not the way to approach the Oracle, which requires an openness of mind for its power to work. In the Da Chuan commentary to the I Jing, it is written:

First take up the words
Ponder their meaning
Then the fixed rules reveal themselves.
But if you are not the right man,
The meaning will not manifest itself to you.

Qu Yuan is not the right man because he is not in a position mentally to be able to ponder  anything. He is obsessed with his either/or choices. This is why the Diviner cuts short the consultation.

But there is another deeper level to this encounter between Confucianism and Taoism. After he has framed his questions, Qu Yuan breaks into poetry, describing the times as out of joint: ‘The world is turbulent and impure,’ he begins. Turbulence is another word for change. But the I Jing, or the Book of Changes does not see change as turbulent, or impure, as the Confucian does. The Taoist sees change as the basis of life the universe and everything. For the Confucian, change is negative; for the Taoist, who abhors catgegories, it is neither positive nor negative, it simply is.

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