I had a dream last night in which a newly minted dictator told me that the only miracles are the ones we ourselves create. I replied that if everything is not a miracle, then nothing is. I have no other pertinent contextualizing memory of what this dream was about, but somehow it strikes me as a good way to conclude this series on Basho and his dao.-

At the heart of Basho’s poetry is this appreciation of the miraculous in everything. Very much like what we see in Daoism, the best way to convey this sense is to focus on what is typically dismissed or over-looked. If we are helped to find the wonder in the most mundane and particular in things we discover the wonder in all things.

Absent from this series with a single exception has been the actual poetry of Basho. For that one will have to want to go elsewhere. It’s worth the journey.

If I were to make one criticism of Peipei Qiu’s Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, it would be that even though many poems are shared, still the scholarly and analytical context is not entirely conducive to their full appreciation. But this is clearly a purely subjective experience.

In any event, Basho’s haiku do invite an experience of the wondrous mystery of all things.


Something rarely addressed when discussing classical Chinese philosophy (and that of the Neo-Daoists) is the question of class. Who read this stuff? What was its applicability to vast unread and “unwashed”? If Zhuangzi, Mencius and Song Xiang, and the Neo-Daoists were not part of the 1%, they were likely members of a class significantly smaller than the 99%. They were educated men who had leisure enough to think about more than how to feed and shelter themselves and their families. They had servants. And if they did not choose to have concubines, their peers frequently did. And yes, they were men.

I’m currently reading Yin Yutang’s “The Importance of Living” in which we are told (among many other more helpful things) of the importance of having cheerful and non-quarrelsome servants. How does this apply to the servants? Are they excluded from a similarly happy life?

I’m not well-versed in class-theory and can’t really apply its principles here, which may be just as well. It does not suffice to simply dismiss these philosophies as elitist and therefore counter-productive. I do, however, question the validity of any philosophy that lacks some degree of universal applicability.

I really have no definitive statements to make here; I do, however, have a few general observations. First, we can expand our point of view so as to return the philosophy of Zhuangzi (for example) to its broader context—a feudal society populated by a vast number of uneducated and impoverished peasants. Was his philosophy germane to their experience and needs? I think it was; their vicissitudes presented the same opportunity for soaring. But it is also the case that they were unlikely to have heard it. And that, it seems to me, is simply a raw fact of life. Fortunately, no one needs to be saved.

Secondly, we see that there is a leading edge to our cultural evolution. There are those who lead the way, for good or ill. Our cultural operating systems, our shared world-views, are to no small degree the product of the cumulative ponderings of an intellectual and “spiritual” elite.

Thirdly, this having been said, it is equally important to consider how these world-views are also very much the product of our shared human experience. The ponderings of the philosophers, to be truly applicable to us all, must therefore have that shared experience as their primary focus. And this, I believe, is precisely what Zhuangzi is all about.

Fourthly, though Zhuangzi’s philosophizing was facilitated by the advantages of class, it is such that it embraces and honors the experience of those who live a more immediate and uncomplicated existence. If taking one’s mind as one’s teacher is a problem, those who have never done so are already in some sense where we want to go.

Finally, whatever the class dynamics and rights and wrongs of the human hive, this is how humanity presently is—and it is affirmable as such—even as we help it to evolve.


The third and final story I will relate about a Neo-Daoist’s display of fengliu (eccentricity) is my favorite. A couple of Confucians come to visit a Neo-Daoist and he graciously receives them—stark naked. Needless to say the proper Confucians are scandalized and protest. The gentleman replies: “The world is my home, and this house is my clothing—why are you in my pants?”

Apart from providing us with a chuckle, it is not altogether clear how this story is meant to edify and instruct us. But once again, why do we think that it should? At its heart fengliu stands alone, incomprehensible—not susceptible to explanation. In this sense it is a bit like a koan—not a puzzle to solve, but an occasion for experiencing the unsolvable. The point is not to universalize this story by way of a moral, but to learn to let it be by way of transcending our inclination to discriminate and judge between things.

Still, there’s content here to consider. If he truly understands the world as his home, then he has successfully recontextualized his identity. He has realized a broader point of view. That’s the general trajectory of Zhuangzi’s vision—the realization of ever broader vistas by which to recontextualize our otherwise insular sense of self. But we soon reach our limits; we quickly encounter Mystery, the limitless. And that’s where we lose ourselves. The broadest possible point of view, the view from Dao, is an identification with utter and complete Openness. That’s where Ziqi lost his “me”.

One senses that this gentleman has not gone that far, however. The world is home to his “me”. When I have complained about the habits of people in a country other than my own, I have been told, “It’s their country.” My reply has been, “Yes, but it’s my world.” This serves to silence them, but also demonstrates that I too have not gone far enough.

There is also the more specific context of this story. This is also about discomforting Confucians—the purveyors (to Neo-Daoist thinking) of moral and cultural straight-jackets. There’s only one way to behave—their way. And who knows, perhaps this served as a good knock on their heads as one might expect from a Zen master as part of his instruction. (You might consider a similar reception the next time some religious types come-a-knocking.)


I promised two more stories that further illustrate the nonchalance per death seen in this Neo-Daoist having a servant carry a shovel with which to bury him wherever he might drop. At the moment, I can remember but one, but that should suffice.-

Qin Shi went to the wake of his friend Laozi only to find his disciples engaged in excessive weeping and wailing. Having therefore left precipitously, he is accosted by one of these disciples who questions his love for the departed. Qin replies that he had hoped Laozi’s disciples would have grasped his message well enough to view death as a natural transition, as affirmable as life itself. He feared that he too might be caught up in such folly. (3:8)

Mourning excessively would be to “flee from the Heavenly and to turn away from how things are . . .” Sorrow there is at the loss of someone loved, but in identifying with “the vastest arrangement” through the unification of  life and death it is also informed by a broader perspective which tempers one’s grief.

As for Laozi, “When it came time to arrive, the master did just what the time required. When it came time to go, he followed along with the flow. Resting content in the time and finding his place in the flow, joy and sorrow had no way to seep in.” Joy and sorrow there are; only having been decoupled from their opposites they do not disturb his deeper peace; his joy in life depends on no circumstance, good or ill.

“The ancients called that ‘Liberation from the Lord’s Dangle’”. What is this dangle? Death and the uncertainties of its meaning and consequences. [I have applied it more generally to refer to the human condition generally—our “existential dangle”.] What is the liberation? Is it death itself, or the possibility of losing our fear of it? It is probably both. It is likely that death cures all ills, but we want to be careful not to think we can ever be fully liberated from our essential dangle. It is our being a-dangle that motivates and allows our soaring.

I have remembered the second story—that of Zhuangzi mourning for his wife. Huizi finds him making music on an improvised drum in the presence of her corpse and questions the propriety of such behavior. Zhuangzi replies that of course he cried at her departure, but then he imagined the larger context in which there was a time when she was not just as there is now a time when is no longer. She has returned to the Transforming Openness—and this too is good. (18)


Another anecdote thought to exemplify fengliu has a gentleman designate two servants to accompany him on his wanderings here and there. One servant is to carry a flagon of wine so it’s always at the ready. The other is to carry a shovel with which to bury the gentleman if and wherever he drops dead.

What are we to do with this? It certainly qualifies as eccentric, but is there anything in it that we would want to emulate? But why does that matter? I have fallen back into universalizing the particular rather than letting the particular just be right in itself. And that’s the whole point relative to Basho’s poetry—“splash”, a frog leapt into a pond. However this affects us, whatever mood it stimulates in us, is by way of its inviolably unique and momentary particularity.

If this is the case, then any and every happening is itself fengliu and invites us to experience fengliu in our experience of it. Eccentricity is uniqueness. The nuttiness of this gentleman’s particular expression can be helpful in that it calls us out of our everyday stupor and requires of us a movement into either acceptance (inclusion) or exclusion.

As for the excessive preoccupation with wine, it can only also be ultimately acceptable, though to the extent that it negatively affects one’s own life-enjoyment and that of others it is unacceptable.

The openness to the possibility of one’s dying at any moment and the willingness to be buried wherever one drops speaks to both the Daoist acceptance of death as inseparable from life and the eschewal of all conventions intended to make it seem otherwise. This last was a special feature of the Confucianism to which the Neo-Daoists were in revolt.

The wonderful story of Zhuangzi on his death bed comes to mind; he is surrounded by disciples discussing the lavish funeral arrangements by which to honor him in death. But Zhuangzi interrupts: “I have heaven and earth as my coffin and crypt, the sun and moon as my paired jades, the stars and constellations for my round and oblong gems, all creatures for my tomb gifts and pallbearers. My funeral accoutrements are fully prepared! What could possibly be added?”

And when the disciples reply that they fear that the crows and vultures will eat him, he replies that the crickets and ants will have him in any case: “Now you want to rob the one to feed the other. Why such favoritism?” (32; p 117)

This story metaphorically illustrates “hiding the world in the world where nothing can be lost”, the identification with the Totality in the equalization of all things.

Two other stories speak to this, and I will discuss them in the post to follow.


In addition to providing us with the opportunity to exercise our own fengliu—in this case the freedom to “roam outside the lines” of acceptable and unacceptable by way of their unification—the story related in the previous post also speaks to spontaneity, however imperfectly. We could say the protagonist acts spontaneously when he precipitously takes off into a blizzard to help his friend and then again when he similarly turns about and returns home. Or, we could say that he acted impulsively, which, I think, is something altogether different.

How are they different? Spontaneity, it seems to me, is somehow informed of a sensibility that impulsiveness does not share. The spontaneity of the cook who butchers an ox as if performing a dance is quite the opposite of impulsive—erratic. He is thoughtful—meditative—especially when confronted with an especially difficult tangle. When no special preparation is necessary, still his spontaneity emerges from a deep know-how—a knack. The novice cook “hacks”, and so too do we suspect would this gentleman if he were to stoop to such a lowly task.

Would his choices have been different if he were truly acting out of spontaneity? I think they would. If his caring about his friend had been genuine, he would have followed through in giving him assistance. What originally moved him (caring) would not have dissipated so easily; it would have emerged from who he was—a caring person—and this would have been sustained. Spontaneity is being who we are, not acting willy-nilly in response to immediate urges.

In the end we see that he did not in fact truly care for the welfare of his friend. It was merely a momentary impulse, soon lost. Would a sage truly care for her friend in this way (bringing him assistance in the midst of a blizzard) given that she had “forgotten” him in mutual forgetfulness and expresses her caring as a kind of not-caring (“helping by not helping”)? She would—or at least could. Caring informed by not-caring is not not caring. Not-caring is not indifference, but caring informed of the unavoidable wellness of the “vastest arrangement wherein nothing can be lost”. Were she to arrive too late, or herself be lost in the river-crossing, that too would have been acceptable. Her caring would not depend on specific outcomes and neither therefore would her peace of mind.

Contributing to the material well-being of this friend in need is not an attempt to change him or his opinions—the focus of non-being the change—but rather a simple expression of caring-for-another which is but an extension of one’s innate caring-for-oneself.


I will relate by way of a faulty memory these stories of the antics of some Neo-Daoists which demonstrate something of fengliu (eccentricity). Given that they are likely at least in part fabrications, this shouldn’t impact the truth overmuch.

After several days of a blizzard, one gentleman was suddenly struck by concern for his recluse friend living some distance away in the forest. Packing up a few essentials that his friend might need he set off for his forest hut. After wading through snow and ice and crossing a treacherously swollen river he was in sight of the hut, when the desire to check on his friend left him. So, without taking those last few steps he turned around and went back home.

When his servant inquired as to why he did not complete his mission, he replied, “I went because I was moved to go; when I was no longer moved, I returned home.”

Such behavior strikes us as rather nutty, and I won’t waste time trying to make it seem otherwise. What we are after is the sense of fengliu that is to be found here. Nor should we think that to exercise something of fengliu we have to behave similarly.

I feel inclined to immediately break my promise above—there is a sense in which this behavior is not nutty—it is not nutty to he whose behavior it was. And saying so requires us to turn our minds around and look at things in an altogether different way. We judge on the basis of our own discriminations which we in turn universalize. I have no difficulty in assuming that you too find this behavior nutty. We can turn and smile at each other over such silliness.

But this leaves out the opinion and experience of this unique individual. It fails of all-inclusiveness. It is equivalent to taking one tree’s “whooo” as better than another’s “wheee” in Ziqi’s forest. It fails to transcend right and wrong. It fails in total affirmation of a one in the midst of the many. It fails of the oneness that obtains from affirming everything in its uniqueness.

This gentleman’s behavior was completely acceptable and un-nutty to himself. We do not have to imitate or even agree with him in order to let him also “bask in the broad daylight of heaven”.

Fengliu, eccentricity, in us on this occasion would be to be able to include him in our mutual smiling—let’s face it, we’re all nutty in some sense or another. In this sense the Zhuangzian sage is the paramount eccentric—unlike most of us she is able to transcend her relative judgements in the formation of a oneness—she experiences the sameness of things as well as their differences and is able to walk two roads thereby.

Basho’s fengliu was expressed in part through his ability to see the flower and moon in everything—however mundane—and this was a break from convention.


Qiu (Basho and the Dao) demonstrates how much the concept of fengliu (Jap. furyu; English “eccentricity”?) played a role in the shaping of Basho’s poetry. Being as she is most scholarly both the meaning of the term and its applicability to Basho’s work are very complicated considerations. And, for a mind less entangled by the need for truth such as mine, too complicated. What I mean to say is that the meaning is sufficiently elusive as to require a bit of a leap to make use of it at all. I will take that leap.

I will pretend to understand fengliu. And this, I think, might enable a bit of the experience of fengliu. For it is first and foremost an experience.

So what the hell is fengliu? Eccentricity. Unconventionality. The fruit of spontaneity. Weirdness.

The classic examples of those who exercised fengliu are seen in the antics (and poetry) of the “Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove” These were gentlemen scholars who chose to eschew the physical and psychological perils of their expected political involvement and to ignore the social conventions of their time. This was during the turbulent Wei-Jin period (220-420) after the collapse of the Han Dynasty. Confucianism had been the official state philosophy and had proven incapable of ensuring its promise of stability. Daoism was given a second look. Neo-Daoism was born. Xiang Xiu (ca. 227-272), whose lost commentary on the Zhuangzi inspired Guo Xiang (d 312) to write his own, was among them.

Thus, they retired to a bamboo grove to talk philosophy, play music, drink and generally make merry. This was part of their fengliu.

This philosophy was called xuanxue—abstruse learning, dark learning—by reason of its rediscovery of the Dao of Daoism—a way of not-knowing rather than that of knowing as in Confucianism.

There are many stories associated with these gentlemen and these too illustrate something of the spirit of fengliu. They inspired my suggestion that fengliu is a kind of weirdness.  I once related these to a friend of practical bent who asked how I could find them positively inspiring, and I could not reply. Nor will I be able to do so here. The behaviors themselves are not just unconventional—they are also ridiculous. But it isn’t the behaviors that are of greatest interest, but rather the spirit of fengliu that inspired them.

These stories will have to wait for the next post.


“Follow zoke and return to zoke.” (Qiu, p 81) This was Basho’s most fundamental principle for the creation of “sincere” poetry. Zoke translates Zhuangzi’s zaohua—creation/transformation.

Zaohua is at the heart of the Daoist response to the world. (Yes, I say that of nearly everything—but then everything explains everything else.) “Creation” is an unfortunate word here because it is actually quite the opposite of what that typically means for us—that things are made to happen. Rather, it speaks of the inexplicable spontaneous (self-so) arising of things without causation or intention. “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.” That says it all.

I like to speak of the Great Happening because, for me at least, it conveys this sense of the uncaused spontaneity of this world-experience. It also envelopes every single real or imagined happening—it is a oneness that is also a not-oneness. It is also a ceaseless transformation—and only that.

Still, there is a sense of its arising out of. Out of what? Utter Mystery. Psychological Dao is the appreciation of this Mystery even as we live the happening. It informs the manner of our own zaohua—our act of living.

Daoist spontaneity is this—living in the manner of the arising of all things—not creating, but happening.

Authentic poetry (for Basho) then is not a creation but a happening. And it reflects the happening of the world in one’s immediate experience.

What’s the point? To the extent that a poem is a communication with others, it is an invitation to experience that same moment of wonder at the zaohua of a particular moment.

Can it be the same wonder, given its being mediated? I cannot say for sure, but I think that since at best what we experience is an inkling of Mystery, this inkling has its merits.

The experience of an inkling through a poem that can only be experienced through a reflection of the original inkling is, I think, in part a training exercise. We learn to have our very own joyous inklings of the wonder in the happenings of the Great Happening.

Zhuangzi’s appreciation of zaohua is much more than an idea about the arising and continuous transformation of the world; it is participation in it. It is “following along” with it and “soaring upon” it. It is experiencing ourselves as that same spontaneous happening and seeing it everywhere and in everything.

And from whence this reported joy? It too self-arises. That’s the way of it. That’s the human life-experience. Joy must of necessity be unmediated and non-dependent—there is no “reason” for joy—just as there is no reason for the world—there is just the happening of joy.


Classical Japanese poetry requires a certain formal relationship with established themes taken from classical documents. The adoption of Zhuangzian themes so as to transform haikai poetry from a comedic parlor-game to serious poetry fulfilled this need, albeit unorthodoxically. But was this more than a mere utilitarian usage, or did Basho in fact identify with the deeper significance of these themes? His poems and prose both make clear that he did the latter.

Japanese poetry is full of formal code words whose mention evoke certain concepts and psychological responses which have long and deep precedent in the historical body of previous expressions. Mention of “cherry blossoms” serves to speak of beauty and the experience of beauty. Mention of the “moon” evokes both beauty and the experience of mystery. Yet for Basho, everything is a flower and the moon:

“Those who pursue art through zoka [creation/transformation] have the four seasons as their companion. Nothing they see is not a flower and nothing they imagine is not the moon. If one sees no flower, he is the same as a barbarian; if one has no moon in mind, he is no different than the birds and beasts.” (Qiu, p 81)

As a barbarian I might take offense at this, but will instead give Basho the benefit of doubt and trust he was only speaking figuratively and on a lower plane. Similarly, I will assume he also understood that being a bird is so being a flower that no seeing is necessary.

The real point is that he understood the Daoist perspective that in the equalization of things all things partake of the same wonder, the same beauty and mystery. Everything is a gate into wonder and mystery. Everything can be joyously wandered in.

Basho’s most famous haiku portrays this:

The old pond
a frog leaps

A frog symbolizes summer. But the most poignant element here is the immediate, momentary, and non-symbolic “splash”. No grand theme is required when the most mundane happening is the gate to mystery. Indeed, because it does not allude to a prescribed symbolism with attendant responses, we are more able to realize its mystery.