Sidling up to Things

Monday November 2, 2009


The last few weeks have been fearsomely busy, and so I have not had the chance to update thinkBuddha very much of late. It is not that there are not any thoughts flying around that I want to explore here; it is only that they are still mid-air, and that I need a bit of time to wait for them to settle, rather than chasing after them with a butterfly net and risking knocking over all the furniture. So I’m going to content myself with just mentioning one of the things that is currently aloft, and that is providing me with a lot to reflect on, without attempting to pin it down and look at it too closely.

Over the last year or so, I have been increasingly immersing myself in Chinese philosophy, as well as doing my best to learn Chinese, and this has all been enormously enriching. I have the sense that there are possibilities of thinking in all of this that could be enormously fruitful, although at the moment I confess that my knowledge is still rudimentary at best. Anyway, I am currently in the middle of François Jullien’s fascinating Detour and Access, which explores the role of the indirect in Chinese thought – whether in philosophy, in literature or in military strategy. It is a book, that is to say, about the way in which the indirect, the oblique and the sidelong may prove efficacious when the direct and the frontal may fail. The implications that Jullien draws out of this are extensive, not least for the idea of what we are up to when we say we are up to philosophy: for if direction heads towards truth, then indirection doesn’t do so in the same way; it looks not so much for a kind of unchanging and final certainty, but for a kind of responsiveness that is always in motion. And so it is not surprising that the models for what philosophy is in the West and in China are – broadly speaking – correspondingly different: the frontal approach of argument and counter-argument familiar from the Western tradition (a form of argument about which I have grave concerns, and of which I am very slightly afraid) simply doesn’t exist in China in the same way. Instead there is something rather more subtle, rather more sidelong, and something that looks rather less like philosophy, when philosophy is considered in terms of its Western models.

As I have said, this is all very formative at the moment, but it occurs to me that there is something in this fluid, subtle, oblique approach to things. Of course, it is not the only way of going about things (Jullien points out that “Alongside the subtlety of detour, there is the jubliation of being explicit”, and reminds us that there is a benefit to direction as there is a benefit to indirection), but it is one that, in the West, we can tend to forget or to diminsh. And certainly my own sense of what is going on when I am trying to make sense of the world – whether through just getting on with my life, or through writing, or through meditating, or what have you – is that, very often, I’m not really directly orientating myself towards a particular goal (whilst I can see the value of near goals, I don’t really believe in big, metaphysical goals), but instead I’m more or less trying to sidle up to things. Or else I’m more or less trying to let things sidle up to me. When it comes to meditation, it has taken me years to realise the value of obliqueness, the way in which, if you sit for long enough, things eventually come and sit down next to you (unless it’s the cat, who just comes along and prods you continually with his paws and meows for breakfast). Sitting quietly doing nothing spring comes and the grass grows by itself. And, if you are lucky and you persist for long enough, even the cat eventually goes to sleep and leaves you in peace.

Anyway, this is just a brief update to let you know I haven’t gone away. When some of those various thoughts decide to alight, I’ll post again.

Tags: ,
#1 · Barry Briggs

3 November 2009

Indirect and oblique communications also play an important role in traditional Chan kung-an training, especially in those cases that build upon a “hidden word.”

A wonderful example of a hidden word kung-an is case 13 from the Wu Men Kuan, in which Te-shan enters the dining hall with his bows, before the bell has been rung and the drum struck.

Much complication ensues, almost all of it mysterious to those of us who grapple with this case today.

#2 · David Chapman

3 November 2009

“Most true it is that I have look’d on truth / Askance and strangely” (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110).

I have long been skeptical of truths that are both Big and hard-edged. By this point, in the condition of postmodernism, perhaps that skepticism can be taken for granted.

Someone — Einstein? — said that explanations should be made as simple as possible — but no simpler. Perhaps also philosophy should be made as clear as possible — but no clearer.

There is a danger in both premature commitment to precision or definiteness, and in indefinitely postponing it. Much of analytical philosophy seems to make the former mistake, and much of Continental philosophy the latter one.

When gestating an idea, I find there are times one one must be tentative and gentle and allow things to be. And there are also times when one must go for the jugular.

Best wishes,


#3 · marc

5 November 2009

ARRGH! once more! i dont know why so many people think it is a Basho’s haiku! it is chinese_-not japanase- it is not a haiku ,and it is much more ancient than Basho. ask to your chinese teacher.if you don’t find i’ll look exactly in my books(but ,in one month, because i fly to burma next sunday) assis paisiblement sans rien faire le printemps vient l’herbe pousse toute seule

#4 · Will

5 November 2009

Oops. Given the mis-attribution is so widespread, then it would be good to know if you can track down the right source. Anyway, I’ve removed the mistaken reference from the piece. Thanks for letting me know.

#5 · marc

5 November 2009

half and half:
true: in the zenrin kushu, compiled in chinese by Eicho(1429 - 1504) Basho was 1644 - 1699. WRONG!: 1/ this Eicho was a Japanese scholar writing in Chinese
2/ it is in a compilation of haikus , i apologize.
on the web, it is the 52nd haiku.
my source was“tao poetique” at moundarren ,a nice editor who was printing wonderfull little books of chinese poetry french + chineses calligraphy.

it is a pity i cannot send the text in chinese characters.

#6 · Will

5 November 2009

Thanks again, Marc, for the clarification – and good to know the source of this well-quoted line. I’ll see if I can track down “tao poetique”. My French is poor, my Chinese worse, but between the two of them, I should be able to make some headway.

I’ll also try to track down Eicho’s original in Chinese characters. That would be nice to see.

#7 · Pat

18 November 2009

I don’t know if you have looked into the cultural and social aspects of Asian cultures (Not only Chinese). If you haven’t it may be interesting for you to notice the difference in simple things as perception between “western” cultures and “asian” cultures (I am not sure whether that goes as far east as India).
In any case, Asian’s tend to view the world more hollistically taking the general relation of everything to another into account while the Western point of view (probably especially the anglo-saxon) tends to view the world more in a centric kind of way, with one defining object in the middle (capital spelling of “I” in English?). New Scientist had an interesting article on it a while back, I am afraid I can not reference, but it was this year or late last year.

I find this reflects the differences you point out in the philosophical approaches nicely.

Comments are turned off for this article.