BASHO AND THE DAO IV

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.

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