The Ancient Modern
Interpreting Asian Poetry: Passivity or Conservation? / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I am slowly reading through the Chinese classic Journey to the West, and I’m at a section where a monk is giving advice to a monkey about how to achieve immortality. Whenever the monkey asks for wisdom, the monk recites a poem to him. Here is the poem I read yesterday:
This bold, sure saying is wondrous and true: Be gentle; nurse nature and life—there's nothing else. All power resides in the semen, breath and spirit; treasure these securely! Let them not escape! Let them not escape! Keep them in the body. Heed this teaching, and the Tao will thrive. Hold fast the teachings so effective to purge desire and to reach pure coolness—pure coolness where the light is bright...
The poem goes on to describe various symbols of the moon and the northern sky, and ends by saying that the practitioner of these things can become a Buddha or an Immortal at will.
So I was struck, in quick succession, by three things:
First, the placing of semen, breath and spirit into one category seemed jarring. Second, I could see a kind of fundamentalist or gnostic reading—something like “the body is a machine” or “sex is evil.” But finally, I considered that semen, breath and spirit are signs/aspects/products of and producers of life. Semen is connected to procreation, breath to talking and spirit to contemplation.
This last idea seems very consonant with everything I know about Taoism. It isn’t that sex is evil. The ancient Chinese didn’t have either the stigma or obsession with sex the way Western Europeans do. The idea in the poem seems to be: whatever a man releases into the world—his semen, his breath or his thought—becomes irretrievably lost to him, and dissipates his inner life. More specifically, a man is joined to whatever/wherever receives his semen, breath and thought. When he becomes joined to something that fails, fades or falls, then he, too, disappears.
The idea continues on a personal level: if I am always chatting about unimportant things or obsessing about inconsequential things (as our culture encourages us to do), than this is the same as promiscuity or pornography—each on its respective level. Whereas we would assume that talking about the weather is a benign occupation, the poem suggests that it is a dissipation of the soul.
As I’m thinking through this, it also seems that the goal of becoming a Buddha or an Immortal is lost to us. Perhaps if this was still a goal, we would not want to talk idle, or watch so much television or pornography, or become intensely focused news, or outward appearances. As it is, I find myself caught up in these things. Especially television.
There is also this fascinating phrase “to reach pure coolness.” What does this mean? I assume it refers to a state of contemplation or equilibrium. The poem connects “pure coolness” with the moon. In Chinese thought, the moon’s light is the most sublime, because it reveals the essences rather than the appearances of things, and because it does not interfere with the light of the stars. The moon’s light is a light which allows other light.
What interests me most about my three-part reaction to the poem is that I am currently trying to use my studies to re-orient my heart toward a non-legalist relationship to the world. I want to be in a place of conservation. This is frightening to me, because it looks a lot like passivity—which is something I fall into too often. A legalist, passive approach to the world is passive because it relies on direction or limitation from outside. Conservation, on the other hand, is active, because it is self-directed.
It’s the difference between not littering because there’s a fine, and not littering because you want the world to remain in its most pristine (and therefore most transcendent) state. Here is a vast difference, though both instances involve the same refraining from action.
What is self-selected conservation as described by the poem? How do I get there from the “impotent passivity” I experience in my own life? The culture encourages me to explore sexuality, and rattle about any subject on which I have an opinion. The culture has almost no help for my spirit—except perhaps “self-esteem.”
The place where the light is bright sounds like combination of religious and philosophical aspirations. Part of me doesn’t believe there is such a place. Should I dare to exercise spiritual/bodily Conservation on the hope that, in fact, Immortality is real?