Guest writer: Barry Kavanagh.
I am informed that the Count O’Blather is currently “out to lunch” and
“clinically dead” or somesuch. Not being one of the pundits of
paranormality (or even quasinormality), I find myself ideally placed
to take on this sinister holiday role of agent-provocateur. More about
This issue of *Blather* is devoted to a book called *The Tao is
Silent* by a mathematical logician called Raymond M. Smullyan (Harper
San Francisco, 1977).
This is a “beguiling and whimsical” application of Chinese philosophy
(mainly Taoism) to modern life in the Western world. However, as
Smullyan makes clear in his preface, he came to Taoist writings
through Zen-Buddhism and there is much of Zen in *The Tao is Silent*.
Also, he writes that the book is a collection of “ideas inspired by
Chinese philosophy” so on top of the Taoism and Zen there is a great
big dollop of Smullyan himself. Don’t frown! It is actually quite fun.
The book is a good intro to the subject for the easy-going reader. For
those with a more involved interest in philosophy I would recommend
studying the subject first and then reading *The Tao is Silent* for
delight! Books to read would be Wing-tsit Chan’s encyclopediacal
*Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy* (Princeton University Press, 1963),
which contains a lucid and excellent translation of the *Tao-te
Ching*; Chan Chung-yuan’s *Creativity and Taoism, A Study in Chinese
Philosophy, Art and Poetry* (Harper & Row, 1970); and of course the
*Book of Chuang Tzu* (Penguin Arkana, 1996).
TAO & ZEN
Before I dip into Smullyan (not to be confused with Smolian – see
*Blather*, volume 2, issue 41), I ought to make clear the difference
between Taoism and Zen-Buddhism.
Taoism dates from between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC, evidence
pointing to the earlier date. *Tao*, which is pronounced *Dao*, to
rhyme with *cow*, means *the Way* and is “the beginning of all things
and the way in which all things pursue their course” (*Sourcebook in
Chinese Philosophy*, p.136). Taoism is embodied in two philosophical
works: the *Tao-te Ching* and the *Book of Chuang Tzu*. The former,
poetic, work is concerned with methods of reforming society which do
not involve Confucian social conformity or moralizing. The latter,
imagery-rich and humorous, book concentrates more on the development
of one’s innate character and one’s harmonious integration with
Zen-Buddhism should probably be better known as Ch’an-Buddhism – *Zen*
being the Japanese translation of the Chinese *Ch’an* (meditation) –
because the philosophy is wholly Chinese, even to the point of ousting
the Indian content from Buddhism. Zen, at least since the 9th century
AD, teaches sudden enlightenment of the mind. Because the “Buddha-mind
is everywhere… anything can be an occasion for its realization at
any moment… reading scriptures, making offerings to the Buddha,
reciting his name, joining the monastic order, are regarded as
unnecessary… The total effect is to… reduce Buddhism to a concern
with one’s mind alone” (*Sourcebook* p428).
That we can be enlightened to ultimate or true reality contrasts
sharply with Taoism. In the *Tao-te Ching* the Tao is indescribable
and “eluding and vague”, although it is immanent, having “evidences”
(see sections 1 & 21). Crucially, Taoism does not negate or reject the
Taoism advocates tranquillity and subtlety, which is quite different
to the bizarre methodology Zen uses to shock the mind out of its
habits: beatings, shouting and, famously, answering a question like
“Whenever there is any question, one’s mind is confused. What is
wrong?” with the answer “Kill! Kill!” (*Sourcebook* p429).
TAO & SMULLYAN
Raymond M. Smullyan introduces Taoist philosophy to his readers with
the chapters entitled *Yes, But Does The Tao Exist?*, *The Tao Is
Vague!* and *The Tao Has No Name*. The tricky thing about the Tao is
that “any precise notion of the Tao would be inaccurate by virtue of
its very precision!” (*The Tao is Silent*, p11). Anything specific
would imply division of the whole and the Tao is that which is
undivided into particular things, concepts or names.
EASTERNER: The Tao has no name.
WESTERNER: What has no name?
EASTERNER: The Tao.
WESTERNER: There! You have just named it!
Smullyan helpfully points out that although we say or write *Tao*
there is no *appropriate* name for it (p25). The first line of the
*Tao-te Ching* is, after all, “The Tao that can be told of is not the
Face it, it’s just unnameable (but it’s not a kind of horrible
*unnameable* as in Lovecraft’s and Beckett’s uses of the word). So
let’s not worry about it. Smullyan writes that the “situation reminds
me of those elves who come in the night and make shoes for the family
but if anyone ever turns on the light and sees them at work, they
vanish and never come back” (p27). I think I agree!
While on the subject of agreement, for what it’s worth I must inform
you that there are many passages in this book where Smullyan and I
would differ on the aspects of various Taoist sayings to be
emphasized. That said, I have but one philosophical quibble with him.
In chapter 27 he identifies Yang Chu as an early Taoist, following
Fung’s *History of Chinese Philosophy*. I am more convinced by
Wing-tsit Chan, who maintains that Yang Chu would make an unlikely
Taoist because he seems to contradict section 13 of the *Tao-te Ching*
(*Sourcebook* pp145-6). For those of you who don’t know what I’m on
about, Yang Chu once quipped that he would not sacrifice one hair on
his head to save the entire human race, whereas the 13th section of
the *Tao-te Ching* includes the lines “If I have no body, what trouble
could I have? Therefore he who values the world as his body may be
entrusted with the empire”. Think about it. Would Yang Chu get the
SMULLYAN & ZEN
He’s a bit of a Zen Master, is our Raymo. He’s a great man for writing
“imaginary Zen stories” like this one:
ZEN STUDENT: So, master, is the soul immortal or not? Do we survive
our bodily death or do we get annihilated? Do we really reincarnate?
Does our soul split up into component parts which get recycled, or do
we as a single unit enter the body of a biological organism? And do we
retain our memories or not? Or is the doctrine of reincarnation false?
Is perhaps the Christian notion of survival more correct? And if so,
do we get bodily resurrected, or does our soul enter a purely Platonic
MASTER: Your breakfast is getting cold.
(*The Tao is Silent*, p194).
SMULLYAN IN ACTION
But how, you may ask, does this kind of philosophy work out in
everyday life? Mr S is pleased to relate his successes in that
department. By *trusting his own nature* he has managed to eat what he
likes to eat, ignoring decades of health fads, while eminent friends
of his who didn’t – including a medical doctor – became emaciated and
even hospitalized! (pp143-4). Similarly, he makes some comments about
hypnotism on p211 which were quite astute for 1977.
MORALITY GETS THE ELBOW
TAOIST: And has it never once occurred to you that what in fact you
are doing is making people less humane rather than more humane?
MORALIST: Of course not, what a horrible thing to say! Don’t we
explicitly tell people that they should be *more* humane?
TAOIST: Exactly! And that is precisely the trouble. What makes you
think that telling one that one should be humane or that it is one’s
*duty* to be humane is likely to influence one to be more humane? It
seems to me, it would tend to have the opposite effect. What you are
trying to do is to command love. And love, like a precious flower,
will wither at any attempt to force it. My whole criticism of you is
to the effect that you are trying to force that which can thrive only
if it is not forced. That’s what I mean when I say that you moralists
are creating the very problems about which you complain.
RELIGION EXITS FROM THE REAR
A Taoist “never speaks of *obedience* to the Tao but only of *being in
harmony* with the Tao – which seems so much more attractive! And being
in harmony with the Tao is not something *commanded*, nor something
which is one’s *duty*, nor something sought for some future reward,
but is something which is its own reward; is it in itself a state of
spiritual tranquillity. In this respect it does resemble the
Judeo-Christian notion of *communion*.” (pp37-8)
Smullyan’s attitude to religion is perhaps influenced by Zen’s
attitude to mainstream Buddhism. On p46 he quotes a Haiku poem of
Out from the nostrils of the Great Buddha
Flew a pair of nesting swallows.
Reactions to this poem would illustrates the difference between the
statue-worshipper who deifies the Buddha and the Zen “follower of the
I must add that there is a sweet surprise on p86 of *The Tao is
Silent* – a Socratic dialogue between God and a mortal!
MORTAL: And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of
mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of *having* to have
GOD: You reject the greatest gift I have given thee?
Things are getting a little paranormal now! Smullyan is not a believer
in astrology but is whole-heartedly against intolerance of such
“In my simple opinion,” he writes, “those who are most intolerant of
irrationality are not those who are most rational, but those who
repress their irrationalities while at the same time *priding
themselves* on being so rational” (p174). But how *irrational* is
astrology? He speculates that there might be something to Jung’s
synchronicity as an explanation for astrology. He hypothesizes that
“the circumstances which gave rise to the universal configuration are
the very same circumstances which gave rise to the birth of the
individual at that particular time” (p176). Quite a Fortean chapter.
EVERYTHING ELSE – SLAMMED!
It’s not only the intolerant, the religious and the moralizing types
that get gently poked at (not really slammed) in this book. A whole
rogues gallery appears in a free-for-all Socratic dialogue in the
final chapter: a logical positivist (good grief!), a dissenter (always
welcome), a psychologist (whose patients are mischievously referred to
as *parishioners*), a mystic (Jakob Boehme given the green light!), a
metaphysician (handy to have around), a moralist (again) and
(believe-it-or-not) a practical man. It reminds me of these lines from
Nabokov’s *Pale Fire*
Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,
Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.
(Penguin edition, p56).
PLAY MYSTICALLY FOR ME
The mystic gets the last word. Certainly anyone influenced by Zen, as
Smullyan is, would think the ultimate realization of the truth a
possible thing. Personally, I think mysticism arises out of an
inability to accept that humans can only know so much. Who wouldn’t
like to have all metaphysical questions answered here and now?
Taoism is more realistic. Objective truth cannot be arrived at
subjectively. This is illustrated in the *Book of Chuang Tzu*, chapter
two: “Mao Chi’ang and Li Chi were considered by men to be beauties but
at the sight of them fish plunged deep down in the water, birds soared
high up in the air and deer dashed away. Which of the four knows the
right kind of beauty?”
Nevertheless, throwing aside the issue of truth, there is something to
be said for mysticism. Smullyan’s mystic speaks about the “subjective
approach” to metaphysical questions and values “direct insight”
Now, I would hazard that subjective investigation, when divorced from
its truth-value, might have a certain use! Applying it to the
paranormal, my proposition is that perhaps objective investigation is
now as tired as wide-eyed belief. I am suggesting that, just as
musicians play at their best when they forget everything outside the
piece of music, the paranormal investigator can be truly fulfilled by
actually *becoming* paranormal!
“The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of the
(*Book of Chuang Tzu*, chapter 17).
Ancient Taoist (or Daoist) texts are of course open to interpretation. Barry Kavanagh’s views on the subject continued to change and develop until he completed his novel, The Tao of Odds and Ends, in 2002.
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