Some of you may have already seen this, but I wanted to mention it here as well: Natalie Ornell, a writer for China Digital Times did an interview with me that is posted over at their site. Thanks for the good questions and the interest in the book!
One query picked up on one of my favorite Zhuangzi stories, and the inspiration for this blog's title:
CDT: Early in your book, you explain the Zhuangzi story about the useless tree, which is also the name of your blog, in order to introduce what ancient Chinese philosophy can do for modern American life. You explain that there is a tree which everyone deems useless but it ends up providing a shade which becomes useful to all. By not seeing this trees’ utility, we fail in our aspirations. If the tree, and everything else in life, have always been useful, why continue to use the word “useless”?
SC: Zhuangzi here, as in so much of his writing, is giving us a meta-argument. He’s undermining our conventional notions of useless. Our minds are filled with all sorts of humanly-created understandings of utility, and those are very much the target of Zhuangzi’s stories: we have to let go of our preconceptions of useful or good or happy and open ourselves to the natural unfolding of things. If we do that, we will experience new expressions of all of these values, expressions that are neither forced nor artificial nor false.
More could be said about the "useless tree," so let me say a bit more here. Way back on July 1, 2005, the very first day of this blog, I put up a post, "Why 'Useless Tree?'," where I copy the Lin Yutang translation one version of the story and make a brief comment that it helped me in my understanding of Aidan's life. Indeed, on of the first things I wrote about Aidan, an op-ed in the New York Times, was originally supposed to have the title "Against Productivity," which in itself, I had hoped, would be an allusion to the "useless tree." Unfortunately, the editors changed the title to "Productive in his Own Way," deflecting the full force of the main point.
The useless tree story was central to my book, Aidan's Way. I use it as a preface and then return to it at the very end. There I suggest that there are three distinct messages that Zhuangzi derives from the useless tree metaphor:
- If you have no use, you have no grief.
- Everyone knows that to be useful is useful, but who knows how useful it is to be useless?
- Look, it isn't like the rest of us: it's harboring something utterly different. If we praise it for its practicality, we'll miss the point altogether, won't we?
The latter take is my preferred one. The other two are still using some notion of utility to justify uselessness. But in the third, Zhuangzi is asking us to let go of our understanding of usefulness and embrace the possibility of the useless on its own terms. We don't need to justify it, but just recognize and accept it. Instead of using the useful to understand the useless, we should use the useless to transform our understanding beyond the useful.
Otherwise: ...we'll miss the point altogether, won't we?