The Usefulness of Uselessness

One of my favorite persons of all times is a Chinese philosopher called Chuang Tzu (or Zhuangzi) who lived at around the same time as the Greek philosopher Plato (around 300 BC). Chuang Tzu is the “Dude” of the old days in China, a sort of counter-culture sage. While at his time the “good life” was all about duty, morals and charity (as postulated by Confucianism), his teachings were all about simplicity, naturalness and, first and foremost, uselessness.
One of the metaphors he often used to convey the point of the usefulness of uselessness is the “useless tree”. A tree, he says, that is all straight, perfect and standardized is usually the first one to be cut down by a carpenter. So, its usefulness sooner or later proves to be fatal as it attracts those who are looking to take advantage of its utility.
On the other hand, the crooked, wayward, capricious or outlandish tree is useless and will be overlooked. And because it will be left alone it will have the chance to grow. As it grows, it will provide ever more shade and tired travellers will start seeking it out to relax at its feet. And over time it will turn into a stunning example of natures abundant glory. It is thus that quite often a “useless tree” eventually becomes an object of sincere devotion.

What a beautiful simile for the spiritual life…

And to sum it up, here’s a Chuang Tzu quote I like:
“I cannot tell if what the world considers ‘happiness’ is happiness or not. All I know is that when I consider the way they go about attaining it, I see them carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction. All the while they claim to be just on the point of attaining happiness.”
~Chuang Tzu


Question & Answer (5)

This is the last Q&A part (for the time being)…

What do you mean when you say “we are enlightened by nature”?
When there is fear we see the world through the veils of Maya, the great illusion of separateness. When fear is absent, the veil is lifted, and we see the (same) world through our Buddha-eyes as it really is. So, enlightenment is nothing that can be achieved. It is the falling away of fear.

How to untrap myself from the ego?
You see, the trap and what is trapped are basically one and the same thing. It’s called the self or ego. That’s why “we” can never untrap ourselves. To try to untrap ourselves is to trap ourselves by believing in a trap from which we can be untrapped. The only thing that will help, is to realize that the self, the trap, only “seems” to exist separately but in reality it is a hallucination. This undermines any urge to do or to not do anything to untrap ourselves and, voilá, we will realize that we were never trapped. It was all an illusion.

What is the Buddha’s method to gain enlightenment?
Buddhism is a dialectic process. That means, one does not need to believe in dogmatic statements or follow any rules. The method is a dialogue between student and teacher. The process starts with a departure point, usually a problem. Now, the master will try to make the student intuitively grasp that there is no solution to the problem, because it is illusory. There are several techniques to do that but all have one thing in common: that the student is encouraged to persist in trying to resolve the problem intellectually or experientially until (s)he knows by himself that it can’t be resolved because it never existed.

Is humanity crazy?
Humanity is not crazy but ignore-ant of its oneness with what is and, thus, irrationally fearful of itself and its environment. That’s why Western man seems to keep getting busier and busier. The more he tries to escapes what is, the busier he gets escaping. The faster he hurries, the slower he goes.

If nothing can be done to enlighten oneself, what is your teaching?
The teaching is to undermine the illusion of “something to get” because the urge to seek it is what keeps us in bondage.

Tantra or renunciation, which method is better?
Both methods work because neither renunciation nor indulgence will bring you peace. But if followed to their respective extremes, you may realize just that and consequently be free.

What’s the problem with self-consciousness?
Self-consciousness is a feedback mechanism. It is the self being conscious about itself. The idea of self and consciousness, experiencer and experience, is the foundation of duality. Duality means that there is an (apparent) entity and there is what this (apparent) entity experiences. The more self-conscious we are, the more we feel to be a separate entity “having” experiences. Any feedback loop works like an amplifier. In this case it amplifies our illusory separateness and thus our fears.
Alan Watts once said that being conscious of oneself is like hearing your own ears due to a Tinnitus. Any organ ceases to work smoothly when it gets in its own way. It then becomes the potential source of all kinds of problems and hang-ups.
If that example does not make sense, think of a situation when you just seemed to “flow” with life, even if it was just for a short time, when there was no “you” being conscious about yourself. There was no duality, just what is, moment by moment, a sort of oneness of experience and experiencer. Or in the words of Zen-master Dogen: “to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things”.
From what has been said it could be argued that the development of self-consciousness marks the “fall of man” as portrayed in the bible (knowledge of good and evil, introduction of shame, etc.). Does that mean, though, that we should strive to perpetually go with the “Truth” of “flow” experiences and “forget” about ourselves? Even if we could (which I doubt), my answer is no. Just as self-consciousness is the source of suffering, it is also the source of great joy, gratitude and appreciation for life. How would you know that you are happy, if you ceased to be self-conscious? Could you be grateful for life if you ceased to know you existed? To wholeheartedly stay with one leg in the “dream”-world of separateness is what makes life worth living. This is the teaching of the middle way. Separateness is samsara is nirvana. If we dropped out of the “dream” completely, we would cease to have a genuine human experience. That’s hardly what we want. Wouldn’t you agree?

Many Yogi’s are saying we should stop thinking. You say we shouldn’t mind our thinking…
When the Yogi’s refer to thinking they mean the conceptual, evaluative, judgmental function of the mind under the spell of Maya (the illusion of separation invoking fear). This sort of thinking is the source of the duality of “right” vs. “wrong”, “me” and “other”. By realizing non-duality, this comes to a halt, and there is no more minding of anything, not even our “ordinary” thinking.
Often the Yogi’s are misunderstood, though. We think they suggest to stop thinking altogether. That would be like trying to stop our blood from flowing; it can’t be done and it mustn’t be done.

“The goodie-goodies are the thieves of virtue”. What’s that supposed to mean?
The quote is from Confucius. It means that prescribed virtue is never genuine virtue. It is a form of hypocrisy which leads to inner conflict if not acknowledged. It also often brings about a “must-save-the-world”-attitude in people as the inner conflict is projected onto the outside world.
History tells us that “righteous” wars are always the longest and most brutal one’s (think of religious wars, or ideological wars like WW1 and WW2, etc). If one fights for the “good” it is easier to mobilize people and justify the means of war. The road to hell is indeed often paved with good intentions.

Is money “bad”?
Money is stored energy. You do something and as a compensation for the efforts you get this thing called money that can be exchanged for other people’s efforts.
Money is not something that can be experienced. You cannot touch, smell, see, taste or hear it. You can only see a number on a screen or a sheet of paper or cloth representing money. Money is not real, it is a symbol.
Symbols have the power to impoverish peoples lives. Symbols are lifeless, have no “soul” (because they have no experiential value). Thus, if we worship a symbol, turn it into our “God”, we, ourselves turn into lifeless zombies.
Wealth is appreciating what money can be exchanged for. If we don’t trade money for experiences, we have no wealth. To worship the symbol is to miss what it stands for (that’s what Buddha meant when he said that “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon”). Money stands for wealth and wealth is (the experience of) being alive. So, money is not bad per se. But it is often mistaken for what it is not: a source of life in itself.

Ok, I am not doing anything anymore. I stopped seeking. Why am I not enlightened?
You still want to get it by trying to not get it. You are still seeking. Seeking means expecting results for your actions. You are deceiving yourself.

I am a mess. Will enlightenment settle things for me?
So, you’ve found out you’re a mess. Congratulations! You’ve already come a long way. Now, there’s an important last step to make. Ask yourself: what’s the problem with being a mess? Is there really a problem with being a mess or could it be that you only think it is a problem? Who says what is normal and what is messy? Have you ever seen a messy arrangement in nature? Or is nature beautiful exactly because it is not orderly and not all similar? You see “enlightenment” is not getting anywhere else or being anyone else than where and what you already are. There is nothing to be gotten out of it but the abandonment of our illusions.

How does non-objection and activism go together? They seem contradictory…
Non-objection is not becoming irresponsible or stop caring about the world. Non-objection is an internal alignment with what “is”. This alignment bestows peace. From this place of peace, activism is actually much more effective because it comes from the heart as opposed to from the mind. What does that mean? Activism which tries to change the world is usually ideological and, thus, from the mind. It purports ideas which are supposed to make the world a “better” place to live. But all ideologies create winners and losers, just as there is no action which is purely “good” or purely “bad”, ever. Activism from the heart is concerned with action to alleviate suffering of those who can’t handle it (anymore). It is not concerned with ideas on how to make suffering go away altogether. That’s a subtle but very important difference. If you want to make suffering go away, you are trying to do the impossible, to find a way of “winning” without “losing”. Thus, you keep yourself and all your followers in the wheel of samsara, the endless struggle to always stay up without ever going down.

Which level is real: the relative (personal) or the absolute (impersonal)?
There are no two levels of reality! This separation never took place other than in our minds. The only reality is “this” that you are now experiencing. What you can think of is conceptual and never real. That’s the whole teaching of non-duality in a nutshell.

What do you mean by “unknowing”?
Imagine you knew you were so intimately and seamlessly connected with the universe that you were in fact no different from it. And imagine you knew that the universe is the totality of all there is (without exception). How could you know anything about the fundamental nature of the world for certain? That which is everything cannot be identified, classified, observed, measured, etc, because there is no other, outside this totality, who could perform these tasks on it. It is the primordial and eternal (non-dual) subject-object. So, it completely defies logical analysis.
The universe as a whole will forever be ungraspable, just like the eye can’t see the eye. Whatever is said about it is speculation. What is it? Where does it come from? Where does it go? Does it have a purpose? Since we are the universe, there is nothing we definitively know about ourselves (our Selves!) either. This is the final frontier, the end of knowledge (“veda” = knowledge; “anta” = end) short-circuiting all seeking.

Your teaching implies an autonomous “I”. But there is no “I” who is doing anything!
What do you mean there is no I? IT is I, and I am IT. That’s why we talk of “non-duality”: no difference between I and other. To say there is no “I” would suggest there is only “other”. Everything is “other” is only one side of the coin of “Truth”. The other side is everything is “I”.
To realize that the “I” is not as real as we used to think is a good starting point, though. The great sage Ramana Maharshi outlined a three-step approach to non-dual realization:
The world is unreal (~the “I” is unreal)
Only Brahman is real (~awakening to the Absolute)
The world is Brahman (~the “I” and the Absolute are one and the same)
All seekers get stuck at level 1 and level 2 for some time. First we need to leave the relative level of reality to be open to awaken to its opposite, the absolute level. Finally, the journey after awakening takes us to consolidate these polar concepts. Non-dual realization is to know that these levels are not different. Never have, never will be. They are one and the same, because there is nothing apart from the totality of “this” reality. Separation never took place other than in our minds. Even to speak of “non-duality” is delusional because there never was a “real” duality ever! Wake up!
By the way, the “there is nobody home” and the “nobody is doing anything” kind of talk is sometimes called the “Lucknow disease” (named after the place in India where modern advaita “guru” Papaji used to teach) or the “advaita shuffle” (jumping to the absolute level at odd times).

What’s your opinion on “direct pointing” exercises? Do you think they are futile?
The direct pointing approach tries to facilitate the intuitive experience of a very simple point: there is no individual person separate from the stream of consciousness. The sense of personality is a function of consciousness just as hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, feeling and thinking is. At the same time the approach tries to clarify who “you” actually are. The “real” you is something which can’t be experienced or pinned down for the same reason the eye can’t see itself: the source of measurement can never measure itself (in the absence of a reflecting device like a mirror that feeds the measurement back to its source). The fact that there is measurement, that there is seeing, implies a measuring source, an eye. So, the “real” you can never be experienced (or known) because it is that which makes experiencing possible. But the fact that there is experience implies that a “real” you (whatever it is) exists. So, all you can ever know is that you exist because you exist. I am that I am. Full stop.
All “pointing” then ultimately points to this: you are fundamentally that unknown thing which enables/ activates/ vitalizes everything. The social role you are playing in the game of life is not you, it is a mask (that by biological default cannot be removed but only glimpsed through occasionally). This insight is what “individuation” (as understood by C.G. Jung) is all about: you are not your social role, your mask, so don’t take it so damned seriously. An individuated person takes himself lightly and thus has an elevated sense of being. Or as D.T. Suzuki said “Satori is like an everyday experience, only two inches above the ground”.
Now, whether the pointing approach actually works or not, I have my doubts. As you try to realize the absence of a “you”, all you accomplish is a strengthening of the sense of you. Have you ever managed to relax by willingly trying to relax? All your trying will ever do is to prevent relaxation from happening by itself. You are getting in your own way. Thus, in my experience finding the trust to give up control is key to realization, not intellectual exercises in finding nobody (which in a way, though, could be seen as a method to get into your own way so consistently that you eventually give up and finally let “you” go).

What is your take on quantum mechanics, matrix, evolution of consciousness, etc.?
If you like to play around with these things, go ahead, entertain yourself. They won’t get you any peace, though. I am always amazed by all these complicated new-age theories. The “Truth” is so simple and yet everybody comes up with so much complicated stuff about it. Instead of reading about these things or watch endless Youtube videos, go out for a walk. It’s all always there in front of us. There is nothing “hidden”. Fact is that we can’t acknowledge reality as it is, as long as our selves feel threatened by it. You see, seeking “more” or “different”, is always an expression of fear, of not “good/ safe enough yet”.
Even if they claim otherwise, new-age theories are based on ignoring the unity of all things. What’s there to improve, develop, enhance, practice, etc. if we knew that we were that which is everything, which by definition is immaculate (because it has no opposite)? The benefit of traditional spiritual practice (like meditation) is that once we shut up for a while, be on our own and make our fears conscious, these new-age theories become completely obsolete. I guarantee you that if you actually had the guts to sit on your own for a few weeks or months, you would come to the same conclusion, that new-age is seeking for the sake of avoiding. Why eat candy when you can get a good meal?

What’s your message in a nutshell?
All is well, but our fears and insecurities suggest otherwise. The way to deal with our fears and insecurities is to look at them and to realize that a) they are ok, and eventually, b) they are based on an illusion.

Any last words?
Once you know you are god incarnate, you can relax and finally allow yourself to be a genuine human being. And once you allow yourself to be a genuine human being, you stop struggling to become a god.

End of Question & Answer