December 16th, 2009


God has created
your wings not to be dormant
as long as you are alive
you must try more and more
to use your wings to show you're alive,

these wings of yours
are filled with quests and hopes
if they are not used
they will wither away
they will soon decay

you may not like
what i'm going to tell you
you are stuck
now you must seek
nothing but the source --Rumi

Lin Yutang calls the first chapter of the Chuang-tzu "A Happy Excursion." Thomas Cleary titles it "Freedom." This brief chapter is full of stories about how it is better to be creative, open minded, "outside the box." in one's thinking and action, but ends with a story about how it is better to be "useless" than "useful."

Two stories dominate the chapter. One is so utterly down to earth that it sounds factual. A traveler comes upon a clan of cloth bleachers who have invented a remarkable salve to prevent their skin from breaking down under the rigors of cloth bleaching during winter. The Traveler offers 100 gold pieces, more than the clan can earn in a decade, for the formula. It is sold on the promise that it will not be given to other cloth bleachers. The traveler shares the salve with his lord who uses it to defeat an opposing kingdom by giving his army a small but vital edge. The traveler is rewarded with land, titles, and riches. The salve (the Tao) does not change though its uses do depending on the user. Like the Christian "parable of the talents" I can appreciate this story, and at the same time dislike it.

The other story focuses on an enormous bird (which morphs from an enormous fish) so huge that when it takes off it creates storms. It must rise ninety miles in the air to begin its flight of thousands of miles from the northern sea to the pool of heaven. Lesser birds mock it, doubting that any bird should have any need to rise so high and fly so far. These birds are small minded, unable to comprehend greatness.

The point seems to be that freedom consists of not acknowledging limitations that are not real limitations. The same Tao that enables the quail to fly to a nearby bush allows the p'eng (which is the giant bird's name)to fly between earth and heaven. (There are in fact real birds (arctic terns) with normal wings and hearts smaller than raisins which can almost emulate the accomplishments of the p'eng)

But I could not do a commentary on the first chapter of the Chuang-tzu until I came across Rumi's poem "seek the source" Because the use of wings so dominated the chapter, I immediately thought of it when I read Rumi's poem.

The word freedom in the English language is derived from a proto-indo-european word meaning "to be loved" That is why the word "free" looks so much like the word "friend."
Sufi mystics often refer to God as "the Friend"* Rumi suggests that the only proper use of our "wings" is to fly to God; as indeed the p'eng flies to heaven in the Chuang-tzu.

As for the story of the bleachers and the salve and the military victory? Its metaphor, Bob. Nobody wants you to use the Tao to take over the world; in fact, Lao Tzu explicitly warns against it. Unfortunately, I'm way to prosaic to deal well with metaphor.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi: Seeking the Source

*Persian is also a proto-indo-european language, Arabic is not. I wonder if
Sufis who spoke only Arabic used Friend to denote God. Is friend among the 99 names of God? No, although, #47, Al-Wahdud (The Loving One) comes close.