Friday, July 25, 2008

The Uncarved Block

One of those key Daoist concepts that take a lifetime to understand is that of "pu". Usually, this is translated as "the uncarved block". The reference is to a piece of wood that has not yet been shaped by some craftsman into some image. Unlike other religions or philosophies that seek to mold the believer into some form or another, the ideal in Daoism is for a person to find him or herself in their innate, spontaneous reality.

Of course, it is a lot more difficult to do than to say. For example, no one comes to a specific place in their life without having had a wide range of influences already impressed upon them. Where do those old impressions leave off and where does the original nature begin? We can try to discern our original nature, but this doesn't just happen without some effort. How can one tell the difference between a process that is stripping away outside influences from one that is imposing a new one?

Indeed, the whole metaphor of the block of wood suggests something that is outside of the viewer. In actual fact, though, since the block is ourselves it means that whether or not one wants to be an uncarved block might come about because of a specific type of carving. Would someone who had not been exposed to Daoism really care about whether or not they are "carved" or "uncarved"?

I started thinking about this point because I was trying to understand why it is that I get so profoundly upset when someone tries to meddle with my writing. Normally this isn't an issue, because I work at a menial job and most of my writing is unpaid. But once in a while I get involved in a collective activity and then I often butt heads with someone who takes issue with the way I look at the world and express myself.

Usually these people are flabbergasted that I would take such issue to being told to change the way I write. And, on the face of it, it does seem unreasonable. But I am an unreasonable person and I get very upset and usually just walk away from the enterprise.

Why I do this has been somewhat of a mystery until today. It occurred to me, however, that the way I write has a great deal with the way I think. And if I start trying to censor the way I write, I will inevitably start to censor the way I think. Actually, I have no problem with trying to change the way I think. After all, that seems to me to be the purpose of meditation. But I do have a huge problem with other people trying to change the way I think, and especially if they are trying to change the way I think to make it conform to what I believe is a second-rate, merely conventional view of reality.

At the time of the ancient Daoists, China was filled with people who were trying to change the way people write. Indeed, that was the basis of the old bureaucratic exam system. People were tested for high government office on the basis of how well they could mimic the official Confucian essays. Indeed, Daoist stories are filled with characters who failed at the examinations yet went on to become Realized Men. The point of the Confucian examination system, you see, was to carve people's blocks with the knife of formal education. How one writes shows how well the personality has been carved.

So long to all that. I may spend the rest of my working life moving furniture and loading photocopiers. But at least I will not have some other person telling me how my thoughts should be organized!


brinticus said...

I think you write quite well, and it's rare that I actually read whole tracts of a person's blog. But your insights into Daoism are noticeably deeper than the vast majority of blogs I run across. Therefore, I suspect the people who evaluate your writing are themselves not proficient, or are seeing a project completely differently than you (which is not surprising, given your outlook on life.)

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I wasn't referring to anything I was writing about Daoism. It was a political blog that I was working on as part of a federal election. The campaign manager didn't understand what I was trying to do---which was engage people in political discourse through debate---and instead wanted me to simply follow the "party line". What was especially infuriating was that he maintained he was "too busy" to actually read what I had written and try to understand it, he simply wanted me to "take direction".

My experience has been that a great deal of censorship is like this. It isn't so much that an authority understands and disagrees, but rather that it doesn't want to spend any intellectual resources on even engaging with it. In a sense, this is a far worse crime because it makes obvious an implicit belief system that ranks the value of people's time and balances them against each other. In other words, the half hour of this man's time (the time he could have took to read what I had written and listen to my arguments) was worth much more than the hours I had spent writing it---.

I am a very senior person in my political party, which is what made the incident even more galling.

Thanks for your feedback. It means a lot for me to think that I exist in a world community of people. I've found that the internet allows amateurs like me to break through the class barriers that are intrinsic in the academic community.

solitudinus said...

I my self am in the midsts of writing a piece titled: "The Uncarved Block"

well...I am still working on the title especially now that you already have this lol

I personally prefer the 'T' over the 'D'.

But I'd like to ask...

Why follow a way when potentially the truth has no fixed address?

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but I have to ask...Do you think that the distress you felt at being told how you should write might have arisen from you having already "carved your block"?

In other words, your desire to remain true to what was your writing style/approach/etc. was the result of having developed that style/approach/etc. - having "carved your block". The, "No, no, I am this, or I am that" type of writer is a carving of the block of pure potential, no?. Likewise with the "I am Republican or Democrat" declarations that so many of us (myself included) make. It's a carving of blocks, a limiting of views and potential insights. Even further, "I am Daoist" might be a carving of our block.

All the same, sounds like your boss's block was carved for him long ago.

Thanks for the interesting read.
- Lorne

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Good points Lorne. No matter how you try with this stuff, you can always fool yourself into thinking that you are the opposite of what you really are, or, are doing.

The answer is to accept that a lot of what we do is simply unconscious. There is a Daoist text that gives the example of a centipede who was asked how he could keep track of walking when he had so many legs. Once he started thinking about it, he lost the ability to move and became incapacitated.

Anonymous said...

I like that proverb - thank you.