Why I am wrong on Art 370

I am a Kashmiri Pandit and a card-carrying Internally Displaced Person. I believe the recent annulment of Article 370 (and 35A) of the Indian Constitution, which gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the Union of India, is a good thing for all Indian citizens including the Kashmiri people.

However, I am also an epistemological fallibilist. I believe humans err not because we are humans but because to err is a physical law governing all knowledge generating systems. In the spirit of error-correction, therefore, I am going to sum up the argument – as fairly as I can – on why my belief in the “goodness” of Article 370 invalidation* is false.

Continue reading “Why I am wrong on Art 370”

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Chuang-tzu or Zhuangzi, it’s a laughing matter [review]

[ cross-posted at Zenpundit — Zhuangzi, a light-hearted philosopher dancing to his own laughter, illuminated by CC Tsai ]
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Zhuangzi: The Way of Nature
translated by Brian Bruya, illustrated by CC Tsai
Princeton University Press, 2019
US $ 22.95

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You may be acquainted with the yin-yang symbol — or as it’s more properly called, the Tai-chih or Taiji — but here’s CC Tsai‘s version, with dragon:

That’s the style of CC Tsai‘s illustrations, which — rather than Brian Bruya‘s translations — are the featured aspect of this version of the Zhuangzi: it also encapsulates the essence of Zhuangzi‘s thought.

Here’s the comic book version of a very comic work of profound, non-invasive philosophy.

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Zhuangzi is a Taoist, one who would allow the arising and fading away of things in their natural order, with as little thought-commentyary, let alone intervention, as piossible — given the human tendency to go round and round in circles even while sitting still — Laozi‘s Tao Te Ching is the simple and direct exposition of this way of approaching and appreciating life, while Zhuangzi presents the same appreciation in the formm of quizzical tales and (naturally, absent) morals..

Ah. Thus the seagull, Laozi tells Confucius, who came to discuss benevolence and righteousness, doesn’t get white by soaping yup and washing itself, nor does the crow get black by dipping itself in ink: benevolence, similarly, is not a matter of soap and water — it simply arises where it arises.

You get the feeling Laozi wouldn’t mind having left it at the seagulls doing what they do, and likewise with the crows — but Confucius dropped by and asked about benevolence and righteousness, and Laozi responded as was only benevolent and polite..

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My favorite story in all of Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi is the story of Lord Wen-hui’s cook Ting, who taught him the natural way of things while cutting up an ox. In Burton Watson‘s translation:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

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That’s a long-ish quote, but its rollicking good humor will have carried you through it, and I wanted to give you a sense of the Zhuangzi as I have known and loved it — to taste it in comparison with CC Tsai‘s vision / version of the same tale, as represented in a couple of frames from his telling:

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So now we have Burton Watson‘s “the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room” and Brian Bruya‘s “my knife glides in and out between the bone joints, moving as it pleases: the cow suffers no pain and, in the end, doesn’t even know it’s dead.”

Pretty remarkable, either way — but that’s in English, and who knows what contortions a translator must make to move from Chinese into English? Watson‘s Chuang-tsu is closer to Lao-tsu, if you compare the statement of principle to its embodiment in an anecdote:

Ursula Le Guin‘s translation of the Tao Te Ching is even more succinct:

The immaterial enters the impenetrable..

No wonder cook Ting’s vorpal blade went snicker-snack, to borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll‘s poem, Jabberwocky. And come to think of it, Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Christ Church, Oxford logician, may indeed be the English language’s native equivalent of the Chinese Zhuangzi.

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As I hope I have indicated, Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi, even in translation, is a writer of enormous charm and insight, and CC Tsai‘s presentation marries the conventions of the comic book with classical Chinese artistry to provide an exemplary introduction to one of the world’s great philosopher-humorists.

Delightful. Warmly recommended.

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The Ideal and the Practical — the Practice

I’d written a response to @AnAn and included a quote from the Chuang Tzu’s chapter on Lord Wen-hui and what he learned from his Cook Ting, and wanted to throw in the following DoubleQuote — but graphics seem to be discouraged in the Comment sections here, so I’ve opened this post for the purpose:

The thing is, Lao Tzu offers us the ideal statement, formulated in terms of an impenetrable absence of space, and an absence of substance to the point of non-existence — while Chuang Tzu, peering over Lord Wen-hui’s shoulder right there in Cook Ting’s kitchen, offers us the same insight, couched in terms of there being “spaces between the joints” and his knife having “really no thickness” — Chuang Tzu’s measureless insight penetrates Lao Tzu’s impenetrable absolutes to show us there’s room for play there — “room — more than enough for the blade to play about in”.

If we bear these two versions of the same idea — formulated ideally and in practical terms by the two principle philosopher-poets of the Taoist school — in mind when our thoughts run up against the impracticality of an ideal, we may find, like Cook Ting, that we too have room enough room to play in.

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I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.

There was a comment below which I am now reflecting on…that this “This blog pertains to South Asians.” The comment was sincerely made, and I take no deep issue with it.

Rather, I wonder what the purview of pertaining to South Asians is for each of us. Do we all see the same sky above us? Or does where we stand alter the constellations above? Both?

There are so many faces to this question. Some might echo Naipul and suggest that those of us from Muslim backgrounds are shorn from our Indian roots, that we are a people without a spirit. Others might assert a racial component, which in the Western context becomes cloying and exceedingly restrictive. Liminal populations are matters of dispute.

And yet I reflect on my own life, my own orientation, my own upbringing. I spent long enough in Bangladesh as a small child to remember the taste of jackfruit in my mouth…but below are the climatic conditions I grew up with as an elementary and secondary school child and teenager.

I wasn’t born in the cold and ice. But I was raised in it. I was moulded by it. I do not miss the seasons. I do not miss the ice. But the ice is part of who I am.

The cold of winter is deep in my experience, and that is almost one reason that I shudder to think of the cold, and I positively avoid it now that I have a choice as an adult.

And yet this is not typical of the South Asian, Indian, subcontinental, background. It is not part of our deep cultural memory, it is particular to many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, young children of hopeful immigrants fleeing countries of grinding poverty and deep sclerosis, embedding themselves in frozen landscapes where they traded warmth for hope.

Readers of my other weblog (which as of this current writing is undergoing some maintenance by yours truly) sometimes ask me when I choose to post here, and when I choose to the post there. To be honest that distinction is harder to make for the non-science content.

If there is an election in India. If there are tensions on the border between Pakistan and India. If someone wants to engage in a troll-fest on the Kashmir question. This blog will be a space where those issues are mooted.

But there are more things in heaven and earth, Harjeet, than are dreamt of in your Darśana. 

I think a reasonable position may be “this is a South Asian weblog, this is why we are talking about this.” But, I am very wary of the proposition, “this is a South Asian weblog, this is why we should not be talking about this.”

Seek illumination even if you have to go as far as China, for seeking knowledge is a duty on every human.

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