Self-forgetting and its history: a Taoist perspective on the postmodern phenomenology

Malyavin, Vladimir Malyavin


Tamkang University, Taiwan, R.O.C.


Self-forgetting and its history: a Taoist perspective on the postmodern phenomenology



Taoist thought calls for a new hermeneutics of the Self that dispenses with the metaphysics of self-identity. A key concept of this hermeneutics is a pure, or non-dividing, difference which constitutes both consciousness and sociality.

For the Taoists actualization comes through self-forgetting. This kind of non-transcendental thinking can change comparative philosophy into philosophy of universal com-parity. Western notion of hacceity and the Chinese term p’in bear testimony to this ontology of multiplicity where the Being of beings is the ultimate (W)hole-ness, a focus of the symbolic Vortex antecedent to space and time yet fully co-responding to its own projections. The presence of this in-determinate circuit of inter-being-ness is written by the gaps in the substantiated history and the attempts to objectify it led to periodical crises and finally caused the collapse of tradition,

Comparative philosophical studies have met recently with a rising discontent and, perhaps, not without reason. It is quite obvious by now that there is no compelling practical necessity still less a logical possibility for formal comparisons between various philosophical systems. A speculative system must be either universal or has no right to exist. And yet there is a vital need for a comparative perspective in the humanities for the simple reason that understanding is achieved only through experience of the Other’s presence and that, therefore, only the knowledge of differences can make man a human being.

Contemporary or, rather, Postmodern Western thought is taking this task seriously. It has created a new concept of subjectivity whose essence is neither rational nor empirical self-identity but a process, a change, i.e. self-differentiation and difference itself. This approach seems unavoidable when we turn to Chinese philosophy. For example, D.L. Hall and R.T, Ames argue that the Western philosophical inventory related to the idea of Self is irrelevant for Sinological studies. According to them, Chinese thought operates with a concept of “the Focus-Field Self” which reduces self-consciousness to the “awareness of one’s role as a locus of observation by others” while acknowledging that such a Self has the quality of deference, or self-elusiveness 1. The deferential Self is able to transform its individuating capacity (embodied in one’s «virtue» or de) into integrating power and to extend oneself to the point of being able to embrace the indeterminate field of its context. The Taoist version of this idea stresses the «non-subjective» (wu-wo) nature of authentic Selfhood. It does not negate subjectivity as such but, as Hall and Ames are careful to point out, proscribes the non-assertive, responsive and creative mode of its existence 2.

Malyavin, self-forgetting, taoist monk, daosi

Taoist monk

The concept of the “Focus-Field Self” obviously aims at avoiding the pitfalls of rationalistic self-identities but, unfortunately, it does so almost to the point of neglecting the problem of Self’s authenticity altogether. Can there be a Self without at least a minimal degree of self-relatedness? In a stronger sense of this argument the concept of Self cannot be constructed — it is a reality immediately given in the experience of one’s uniqueness. Should the movement of deference mentioned by Ames and Hall be conceived then as a sort of ek-sistence taking us over the abyss of the absolute Finitude which, as Heidegger would insist, bears the stamp of authentic existence? Must we conceive the Self in the manner of gorgon’s face — something too terrifying to look at and yet, through the very effort of this impossible looking or rather anticipation, giving us the strength to sustain? Perhaps, here lies the answer to the central question of Chinese tradition: how can elusive Self be reunited with the    compelling self-awareness? Indeed, we find in Confucianism a strong sense of the inner reality of Self which runs from Confucius’s obscure remark on the «single thread»(yi guan) in his teachings to the theme of the persistent «common Mind» or just «the Mind» (yi ge xin) in the so called «idealistic» trend of Neo-Confucianism. The movement of deference alone can hardly produce this bold commitment. And although the Self in Taoism seems to defy all sorts of self-identity yet it was precisely the Taoist thinkers who emphasized coming to grips with one’s «genuineness» (zhen). This paradox of self-realization through «self-forgetting», still only vaguely understood, has also a historical aspect. What kind of history, if any, can such subjectivity have and how does this history account for the actual historical movement of Chinese thinking?

The key to solving these questions is contained, I believe, in the fundamental notion of Chinese thought — a notion of change. It is the idea of change and of its logical outcome — the inner continuity of change (because the change must change self and thus arrive at the unchangeable) that led Chinese thinkers to postulate as the ground of their thinking the very limit of the existential Self where purified transformations of temporal, and thus embodied, Self merge with the pure dynamism of the primal act of consciousness. This perspective on subjectivity creates the need  for the new hermeneutics that must dispense with the metaphysics of self-identity while presuming the possibility of integral Self. Such hermeneutics emerges as a response to the call of tradition. The latter, of course, has nothing to do with the mere continuation of the past. Its real essence is the creative event or, to be precise, the self-effacing power of time, the irresistible force of forgetfulness that affirms the ever-present but essentially a-temporal reality under the cover of permanent renovation. The supreme value of tradition is neither objective knowledge nor creation, but the non-subjective sincerity, an ontic exactness I would say,  of expression which transforms the finite act into a consummating event and makes it a precise non-expression, a spontaneous appropriation of being’s temporality and thus — an act of going along with the world. Tradition is the highest form of social reality though it presupposes undoing of institutionalized social forms.

If acquiring knowledge in Chinese thought means not coming out into the light of objective presence but, on the contrary, immersing in the all-embracing presence (which, as Chuabg-tzu reminds us, also issues forth a bright light, then authentic subjectivity and its external correlates — the visible signs of tradition — must have a very peculiar kind of history: the latter is justified by the eternal and thus non-historical Otherness. This history remains unwritten — precisely because it is being written out by the lacunae in all sorts of representations of  existence.

This paper aims at elucidating the hermeneutics of the Taoist concept of subjectivity being essentially a subjectivity reunited with the creative power of life itself. Such a project must probe into the symbolic realm of primordial co-being-ness where a community of minds acquires the nature of co-mutiny. In other words, it is due to discover in history a meta-historical continuity. This meta-historical implosion of Self maintained by tradition can not coincide with the visible historical changes. As we shall see, it (un)folds in consequent circles, a spiral-like movement rooted in the experience of being’s appropriation. It cuts across every individual history while being reflected more or less vaguely in every individual teaching of China. Perhaps, this new kind of hermeneutics will prove to be a decisive step from comparative philosophy to what it is destined to become — a philosophy of com-parity.




I would like to start with the cryptic passage in the medieval Taoist treatise “Guan Yin-tzu” which says:

“One spark of fire would burn  all the trees in a forest, but when the  trees are destroyed, where will the fire abide?

The minutest stillness (xi) of the Way would bring into nothingness all things in the world. But when the things are no more, where will the Way abide?»

These words aptly lay out the conditions for the traditional thinking of China. The conjunction of two parallel sayings is in itself fairly traditional for the Chinese «wisdom literature» with its strings of allusions pointing to the affinity between different planes of being. The form of a sacred riddle confirms that the unspeakable depth of experience is the common point of departure for all statements about the world

The same aphorism of’ “Guan Yin-tzu” informs of the nature of being in Taoist philosophy: it is being as becoming. At least three stages of the latter are presented here. Firstly, the «moment of Tao» and finite things belong to each other in the difference that separates them: they are held together by their incompatibility. Secondly, the disjoining convergence of things and the Tao creates a sort of an openness, a crackle in existence, a space for change. Thirdly, in this intermediary space charged with inner tension being is transformed into becoming, a constant change or flight where things are constantly being brought to destruction and yet are not extinguished. To see the world under the sign of becoming would mean, in the words of Chuang-tzu, «to see all things simultaneously emerging and perishing».

According to the «Guan Yin-tzu», Tao is not a transcendental principle of existence. It cedes to becoming and cannot serve as a ground for theoretical knowledge. No wonder, reasoning in Chinese tradition is a built-in part of the words’ semantics but to the extent that it can produce the effect of meaning’s reversal. That is what the key terms of Chinese philosophy are: the change in order to be true to itself must change and arrive at something changeless; the void must empty itself and become the fullness etc. To affirm one’s true Self one must forget oneself. The being of things is reduced to its limit that constitutes both their innermost nature and their external boundary. It would be wrong to say that Chinese thought negates any notion of reality that transcends the world of appearances. Chinese tradition does postulate the existence of reality that can be lived and referred to but cannot be known, not even grasped in intuition. It is being-becoming, self-concealing in its very openness, which is designated by the semantics of the main philosophical terms of China. I prefer to call this reality symbolic from the following considerations: firstly, this reality cannot be described in terms of the parallelism between thought and being and, therefore, can be expressed only symbolically; secondly, this reality precedes or rather anticipates the being of all things and does not pass after these beings reach their limit, i.e. after they are realized to the full; thirdly, this reality corresponds to the integrity of human .praxis which can only be hinted at.

Recent developments in philosophy and natural sciences encourage us to see in the idea of symbolic reality not just the failures of immature thinking, as, for example, Hegel would like us to believe, but a specific mode of thinking, fairly coherent and efficient in its own way, whose task is not the construction of knowledge but probing in the depth of experience. One of the philosophers who has made especially valuable contribution to these developments is Gilles Deleuze whose views have some striking similarities with the legacy of the Taoism. To outline these similarities would be helpful for understanding better the task of modern research on the Self in a comparative context.

Deleuze’s project in philosophy is to skip all kinds of ontological reductionism and to explore the possibilities of being conceived as an assemblage of multiplicities without «subject as a preliminary unity». This project calls into question even the singularities themselves as long as they are identified with entities, ideas, forms or facts. Instead of things or entities Deleuze, following scholastics, prefers to speak of hacceities — certain qualities of life that «consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and to be affected» 3. There is no Being in Deleuze’s world, only co-being, infinitely complex network of coordinates, variations of a theme, series of events. This picture of endless dispersal without causation would seem quite similar to the world of  Chuang-tzu who asserted that «all things are like a net without beginning or end».

There is a close analogy to Deleuze’s notion of hacceity in Chinese thought which rarely attracts Western sinologists’ attention because it does not fit well the habitual schemes of the Western thinking. These are the terms p‘in and ge which are usually translated as «categories» or «types» of things but in fact refer to those qualities of experience that traverse various planes of being and constitute their non-transcendent unity. These terms were systematically used since early medieval times and gradually became the main elements in Chinese classification systems, especially of a didactic kind. Suffice is to recall the sets of fixed chords in Chinese music, the sequences of normative gestures in ritual practice as well as in Chinese martial arts or theatre, catalogues of esthetic objects in various spheres of life or lists of artistic forms and their elements in painting, calligraphy, architecture etc. What the notion of p ‘in signifies is not substances, forms, ideas or even facts but dynamic configurations, potentially even infinitely complex clusters of events, hierarchies of forces, contingencies of shadows and echoes, forms of becoming which exist «between presence and absence», in proximity of every place. Serving predominantly the purpose of learning and self-cultivation they were used in China as the expedient mnemonic signs, not unlike those words, in Chuang-tzu’s memorable phrase, that should be forgotten once their meaning is grasped. No wonder then that the p’in-endowed things are described usually by means of the situational metaphors such as: ‘the dragon soaring up to the sky», “eight immortals crossing the sea”, “the snake creeping down the valley”, “the gadfly touching the water” etc. The obvious stress on the dynamism of movement and the no less apparent metaphorical nature of these didactic devices remind the reader that they are evoked and contemplated in order to stimulate the kinesthetic powers of one’s organic being and in this way to release the Self into the flow of becoming.

The canon of each Taoist school of spiritual cultivation was precisely a certain set of types corresponding to the (symbolic) perfection of being. Learning how to embody these types in one’s practice was a process of heightening one’s awareness, a way of self-cultivation. Yet there is always a limit to our sensitivity. So the symbolic types come out, as it were, from the undifferentiated, non-thematic wholeness of primal affection, or No-Limit (wu ji) and, having been elaborated to the finest nuances through men’s spiritual effort (corresponding to a realization of culture), finally dissolve once again in the seamless web of all-too-subtle differences. Yet this time they melt into a Chaos of another sort: sublimated by human effort and esthetically perceived Chaos of the Great Limit (t’ai ji), a cultural creation par excellence. Moreover, both types of Chaos – primordial and forged by creativity –  are related to different aspects of corporeal experience: the former referring to the original presence of the body as the very possibility of things and the latter – to the transcendent body as the terminus of sensations amounting, in Chinese thought, to experience of something «tasteless» (dan).                                  •

This theory of types explained fairly well the continuity of nature and culture but it did create difficulties for cultural theory. There can be no objective criteria for the selections of types which emerge spontaneously and at random from the Tao’s «absent presence». The types are articulated and held together solely by the force of the personality’s kinesthetic unity, or «virtue», of the school’s founder. It is remarkable that both Deleuze and the Taoists celebrate the boundless pure joy granted by the pure game of the Aeon — the game of the unconditional change. Like a throw of dice, any set of symbolic types, constituting the canon of a school, was as natural and inevitable as it was accidental. No school devoted to the “transmission of Tao” could afford public discussions or «objective reflection» on its truths. Each of them kept its own «secret». But the real secret of the Chinese tradition carefully guarded through the centuries was the ghostly nature of symbolic types that served as a building material for Chinese culture.

The most peculiar feature of both Deleuzian and Taoist ontology is a double-layered structure of being, what Deleuze calls simply «the fold» and Taoists call «double concealment» (chungxuan) and sometimes also «the fold» (zhe die). For both Deleuze and Taoists being has no spatial or temporal extension but endlessly folds back into itself. All change here has the character of ever deepening transformation, an implosion, a reversal within one continuous movement. The real meaning of getting to «the double bottom» of being is to release oneself into the openness of the absolute Other, to turn one’s inside out, to reach the stillness of Aeon that abides with-out measured time. This alterity is not anthropomorphic but, because it delimits the human world and represents the very possibility of human existence, is rather anthropo-genetic. Deleuze calls it «something=x» or «the body without organs» and Chuang-tzu names it «a real ruler without form», «my primordial image before I stepped out of my Supreme Ancestor», «Heaven» or just «the great body». As the story about the Master Hu-tzu (“Chuang-tzu”, Ch. 7) shows, this “primordial image” is perceived as a radical alterity which can horrify those who are dependent on some kind of technical knowledge like a local specialist in physiognomy Li Xian, Hu-tzu’s challenger. The same story confirms that the movement of Tao is in fact a sort of recoiling into abyss of life itself. Taoist vision, then, is a phenomenology of the invisible, a self-concealment. Yet this concealment, I must argue, has nothing to do with nothingness. On the contrary, it is presented as a super-abundant  visibility, a presence incessantly overflowing itself.  It is the very essence of manifestation.

We should bear in mind that the origin of consciousness remains an enigmatic issue in modern phenomenology. To explain it in terms of the immanent self-affection or, on the contrary, a hetero-affection related to the inner temporality of Ego raises enormous logical difficulties 4. The most common tactics for avoiding these pitfalls seems to be positing the double-layered structure of consciousness already familiar to us. Suffice is to recall the concept of tacit knowledge in modern social science or the co-occurrence of «phenomenal mind» and «psychological mind» advocated by D.J. Chalmers or the convergence of consciousness (Bewusstsein) and “awareness” (Bewusstheit) in W.Marx’s theory of consciousness 5. Toru Tani speaks of  the primal world-form as “the primal unity of natural donation”, “a flowing-and-standing present”, a kind of absolute donations prior to all divisions between subject and object 6.

Taoists also speak about “something chaotically complete existing before Heaven and Earth silent and empty”. To perceive it amounts to the spiritual “illumination” (ming) which means perhaps the ability to transcend oppositions, including that notorious opposition between Self and Other. This reality in the final account presupposes just “credibility” or “trust”. In other words, it is not substantial but relational. And Chuang-tzu adds to these definitions perhaps the most illuminating one: to get to it one must “step back” or recoil unto oneself in a sort of centripetal movement. It is the movement of involution, the return of a child to his mother’s womb.

This recoiling of Being is a true condition of the emergence of consciousness in Taoist thought because it combines in a unique way donating and receiving. Once again, Taoist thinking is akin to some recent phenomenological descriptions of the nature of self-awareness. According to M. Merleau-Ponty, the consciousness is born out of the primal self-affection contaminated from the start by alterity: it is the “relation of itself to itself” which precedes individual Ego. The prevailing opinion now is that this primal affection has no actual duration and thus represents an ever absent yet all-pervading vortex of pure dynamism of life. In Taoist literature this unconditional continuum of Being-Becoming is called “transformation” (hua). The concept refers in fact to the minutest, invisible transformations that are perceived internally. This kind of transformation, as the very “suchness” of Being is both multiple and unitary, it affirms identity precisely in difference. Chuang-tzu says that “transformation of all voices” makes everything simultaneously “related and not related to each other”. A 17th century scholar Wang Fuzhi in his commentary to this passage notes that “the transformation is originally a non-being (wu) but “it is being followed by what is present (you)”, i.e. all representations are projections of the original self-affections. None of these projections is more privileged than others. Moreover, transformations themselves do not exist apart from things and cannot be grasped intellectually. Wang concludes:

“All voices undergo transformations which are never fixed. But in fact transformations produce voices. It is like blowing in the bamboo pipe: the various notes produced thereby do not compete with each other but fuse into one magnificent sound. Our notions of right and wrong are not contained in the sound but are born from our reliance on form… There are no fixed opinions in the sound that we can take as our teacher. Treat them as one on the whetstone of Heaven – can voices in transformation be not equalized then?” 7

In the Taoist tradition the relation between subjectivity and its symbolic source is reproduced in the relation between types of events and the «force of circumstances» mentioned above. This force is but an infinitely efficient activity within every finite action. Since it is recognized as the drive towards equilibrium it always represents a movement opposite to the actual tendency, a «reverse movement» (dian dao), a «counter current» (ni liu), a «deep impulse» (shen ji) of the situation. By virtue of this force things with every new transformation secretly return to their symbolic origin existing «prior to Heaven» (xian tian), in the non-form of the Great Void. This impossible non-movement, very much like «the action adequate to the whole of time» that fascinates Deleuze so much, corresponds to the state of spiritual perfection now popularized in the West under the catchy word Kung-fu. The term is closely related to the notion of «leisure time» which is in fact a time of both self-sufficiency and «self-forgetting» equal to Aeon. The symbolic «movement of reversal» bears within it the infinity of memory and anticipation. As a condition of boundless efficiency it justifies the durability of the Self as well as the persuasiveness of style. Being a consummation of practice, a virtuosity combining skill and spontaneity, experience and renewal, Kung-fu represents the fullest realization of the corporeal existence as, according M. Henry’s definition, ‘the ontological habit’ 8.

In the world dissolved into the boundless network of co-being the individual, like Leibniz’s monad, exists in the world while the world exists in her. Here the subject appears with the recognition of rupture between different life-worlds. Yet contrary to Western transcendentalism, Chinese «awakening» is characterized by the opening of consciousness to the body as an experience of limit and hence the medium of types-formation. The Heart-Mind was understood as «a body of ritual» and «an image of the Great Void», so it stood out as the highest embodiment of human sociality. This resistant continuum of the corporeal existence, likened to the «one long stump» or «ever-lasting thread», served as a real prototype of «the one mind». And the Self”s vocation was supposed to be spontaneous «transmission of the Heart-Mind» (chuan xin) through the immediate environment of subjectivity, its spontaneous projections without resorting to the transcendental notions.

Through the creative moment linking temporality with the Aeon the individual Heart-Mind, or consciousness, realizes in itself the essence of communication. A closer look at this act of Self’s transformation reveals a kind of double movement of spirit. On the one hand, things engaged in becoming compose ever widening series of phenomena and finally merge into esthetical plenitude of experience which stimulates spiritual sublimation. Creativity is equated in China to “dispersion” (san). On the other hand, the same process draws attention to the ever more subtle nuances of experience thus bringing awareness down to the smallest details of perception and rooting consciousness in the plethora of lived experience. This «down to earth» movement of spirit accounts for the tendency among Chinese thinkers to identify one’s individuality or one’s «genuine existence» with a one’s physical body.

Later Taoist thinkers often describe the nature of consciousness in terms of opposition between being «antecedent to heaven» (xian tian)  i.e. the original unity of pre-reflexive affection, and being «posterior to heaven» (hou tian) or the world of things. In fact we should distinguish between three layers of being: an absolute Me/Other, i. e. a resistant continuum of the absolute subjectivity postulated in each act of awareness, a virtual world of total fusion and the world of forms. Projected on the plane of corporeal experience this scheme corresponds to the three dimensions of the Self: the original Heart-Mind (the realm of the absolute subjectivity), the subject’s intentionality (yi) and the somatic substrate of the body (qi). This structure is described in Chuang-tzu’s famous parable on the Heavenly flute: first comes «The Great Clod» which embodies the absolute calmness and «is not up to anything» (Wang Fuzhi identifies it with hua); then comes the Wind, the pure movement of Life. In Taoist literature the original (W)holeness is equated to the core of the Heart-Mind which transforms itself into the peculiar Intentionality (yi). Just like the Wind brings into existence all worldly sounds, this Intentionality creates visivle world out of its projections. The difference between these levels of being is existential, not ontological, the principle of their continuity being the self-transcending nature of consciousness as the limit of virtuality, an abyss of metamorphoses. In the 17th century book on military strategy by Jie Xuan the oneness of being is explained precisely as an extra element in any existence like a one added to any given number. The wise strategist, according to Jie Xuan, must incorporate, or rather «safeguard» and «return to» this ever-absent though intimately accessible dimension of practice 9.

The task of thinking for both Deleuze and the Taoists is to face up the One as the absolute Other and to let one’s innermost being spring forth into the pure outside – an act that would amount, in Chuang-tzu’s words, to «hiding the world within the world». Instead of securing the intellect’s grasp of consciousness, Deleuze’s «nomadic subject» and the Taoist «genuine man of antiquity» (referring to the very possibility of experience that has never been objectified) open themselves to the (W)hole-ness of Being and thus withdraw to the eternal Beginning. This ever-recurrent turn of thought, as determined as it is free or, so to say, perfectly

in-determined, encompasses both the world and the ego consciousness. Its driving force is «self-emptying» realized through the parallel movements of expanding-sublimating and contracting as em-bodying.

So the Taoist Heart-Mind is double-layered without dissolving into two separate entities. Its structure is determined by the homology between the external, «posterior to Heaven» aspect of awareness and the latter’s symbolic matrix, «antecedent to Heaven». The same is true for the Deleuze’s “nomadic subject”. Deleuze speaks of the parallelism between  Mind’s actuality and the body as the medium of realization 10.  Chuang-tzu’s story on the skillful Cook (Ch. 3) also brings to light the co-presence of two planes of experience: the physical/intelligible plane and the plane of transformations, or inter-being-ness regulated (or rather deregulated) by the extremely subtle rhythm of life producing “spiritual encounter” (shen hui) beyond physical touch. The body of the ox is transformed into something like rhizome or Body without Organs whose infinitely subtle web of (co)occurences might very well represent the real meaning of “the Heavenly Principle” (tian li) mentioned in the story. B. Watson’s translation of this term as “the natural grain” seems quite appropriate here. The cook and the ox are freely interpenetrating in that intermediary “empty space” (jian) which, while being infinitely small, embraces both subject and object, in fact is the seed of the whole world. The 17th century commentary by Wang Yu  (son of Wang Fuzhi) links the idea of intermediary “empty space” here with the notion of the “Central meridian” (du) in the human body or the Middle Way mentioned by Chuang-tzu in the passage immediately preceding the parable of the cook 11. To enter this elusive, essentially symbolic distance between identical qualities of existence actually means, as Chuang-tzu was never tired of repeating, “to wander in the ever-lasting”.  The cook is right: it is impossible to master this unconditioned habit, one can only de-learn and trust it.

What about the nature of the music that this fantastic cook is dancing to? It is evidently the supreme harmony that supersedes or rather makes possible the world of entities – be it finite things or the void that penetrates and embraces them. Yet this harmony is indistinguishable from each and every individual voice, presumably because things must transform themselves into their voices (make a type of itself) and the essence of the absolute harmony is nothing but the transformation itself. It is the supreme Oneness identical to an actual infinity and, therefore, transcending itself. It cannot be reduced neither to manifestations nor to the principle of manifestations.

The act of undoing the ox is endowed in this context with brilliant ambiguity. To cut is essentially to divide, to expose the finiteness of things. Yet Chuang-tzu speaks here of “releasing” (jie) the body as if a tiny piece of soil regains its original integrity through merging with the totality of the Earth. In describing this reunion of infinitely small with infinitely great Chuang-tzu uses the term wei which has the meaning of “letting oneself go” and at the same time “folding upon itself”. In other important contexts, including a story on Master Hu-tzu, it is used in the obscure expression wei yi which, according to M. Fykunaga, refers to the image of the coiled snake 12. The genuine transformation, therefore, can be defined as the anaphoric transfiguration: it is an implosion, an act of self-concealment (self-dispersing) which confirms the fullness of one’s being and is marked by the ascending intensity of existence.

The supreme harmony is designated in Taoist texts as Oneness having nothing outside of it. It is a “perfect” or “subtle” unity (zhi yi, miao yi) – not a pure entity of formal reasoning but a oneness of “one body” (yi ti) infinitely complex in organization within which its spontaneous live pulsation spots a resistant continuum of Great Void. Transformation’s main qualities, according to Chuang-tzu, are traversing (tung) and thus “assembling” (ho) multiple planes of being.  It operates on the level of “subtleties” or “semen” (jing) of things through the universal alchemy of Chaosmos capable to turn everything into everything else. Its abode is the “dark valley” (“Tao-te jing”) of pulverized and thus spiritualized “dust” (i.e. Earth) or, in Chuang-tzu’s words, a “Treasure house”, a “Magic Tower” of being. Chuang-tzu describes this world as “bits of dust, creatures permeating each other with breath”.

Later Chinese thinkers developed the notion of «original Heart-Mind» (ben xin) – the symbolic locus of the Great Void and the pre-condition of all thoughts and sensations. To get to the original Heart-Mind one has to abandon self-reflection. Late Ming scholar Hung Zicheng, the author of the collection of aphorisms «Grass-root Talk» (Cai gen tan} formulated well the result of such an approach to the problem of consciousness, when he observed: «Consciousness (lit. Heart-Mind) is not what it appears to be. What is there to contemplate?»

The nature of Heart-Mind in China is not to make itself known, but to escape reflection and that means: to stand out as the essence of manifestation, «the brightness of light». As the essence of creative transformation this consciousness bears within itself a reverse movement — a return of being to its source. This original subjectivity corresponds to the margins of the individual Self. It is absolutely free in its total in-determination prior to space and time. An act of forgetting turns one’s life-world inside out and makes familiar what can not be remembered, gives access to what Deleuze calls a «forgotten future».

Now we can understand better the meaning of the key Chinese metaphor for consciousness — the image of a clear mirror. The all-embracing Self of a Chinese sage is the mirror of being’s infinite multiplicity that constitutes the world. It provides the only means to see at all but it has no cognitive value. The mirror’s metaphore conveys the experience of subjectivity’s original being as absolute self-evidence, an immanent revelation which presents itself as an elusive depth in every change, a «moment of stillness» in the duration of awareness. «I am asleep but my heart is awake»: these words from ‘The Song of Songs» point to the most profound message of tradition. The awakened Heart is meaningfully absent in the «cultural heritage». It is in this sense that the Taoists used to speak about «the Heart’s stamp» in human experience.

What makes it possible for consciousness to disavow itself? The answer is easy to find: the way being is, the being of being. Deleuze calls this condition of every existence a «crack» (fissure), the Taoists – the «minutest stillness». It is the fleeting pause, an infinitely small interval in the continuous succession of anterior and posterior moments, a non-localizable projection of Heavenly depth on the horizontal plane of Earth, an ever absent awakening amidst endless dreams. It is fully concrete but essentially timeless. The esthetic ideal or, one can even say, deeply-rooted esthetic habits of the Chinese provide amazingly eloquent evidence of this symbolic pre-space pregnant with the infinite variety of forms — suffice is to recall the art of miniature gardens and the idea of structure-generating lacunae in Chinese literature, painting and landscape design, a motif of the «Heaven in the gourd» in Taoist folklore, wonders of Chinese craftsmanship like concentric balls carved in a single piece of ivory etc. The crack and the fold are the means to connect the inside and the outside, the virtual and the actual in a monad of being. This connection is fulfilled, as we already know, through a spiral movement that precedes but also delineates spatial/temporal distinctions. Deleuze proposes the notion of symbol quite in accord with the symbolism of Tao when he defines it as «the sign in as much as it interiorizes the conditions of its own repetition» 13.

The circuit of symbolism can perpetuate itself because it represents essentially a two-way movement with a complex stereometry composed of three pairs of opposite movements: fusion and fission, going out and going in, evolution and involution. Psychologically it corresponds to the act of in-determination in freedom with its double effect of «absorbing one’s mind» (shou xin) and «giving rein to one’s thoughts» (sui nian). In fact, both attitudes constitute two aspects of the initial stages of Taoist meditation.

Since the symbolic Vortex of Becoming transcends all entities and is inaccessible to the rationalistic mind Chuang-tzu denies the possibility og knowing the Tao and defines the limit of knowledge as “being near” (ji) – a version of truth that reminds the concept of “nearness” in Heidegger’s usage of Gellassenheit. It is important to point out that in ancient times Chuang-tzu’s term used to be interchangeable with the similar character ji which meant the inner imulse of Tao’s circuit.

To recapitulate: the circuit of Tao equals distinctions in one symbolic (W)hole-ness of the world where virtual «fullness» and actual «emptiness» are mutually complimenting perspectives of existence. The relation between what Taoists called «the seeds» and «the flowers» of the Tao’s circuit is similar to what Deleuze following Leibniz says about the relations between petits perceptions, or micro-perceptions belonging to the virtual experience, and the macroimages that constitute the visible world. The process of cognition according to Leibniz and Deleuze is an outcome of selection on the basis of differential relations in a given set of micro-perceptions so that the images «perceived» consciously (in the mind-mirror, let us note) only resemble certain objects but have no «objective» reality behind them 14. In Chinese terms these objects are «empty», i.e. fictional and hallucinatory in their appearance, but quite real («solid», or «full») in their source.

The notion of Tao’ s symbolic circuit, just like the mirror metaphor, evokes the memory of what is forgotten in objective knowledge — an «absent» distance between things and their virtual «semen» or the very possibility of their existence. This accounts for a remarkable ambiguity of Taoist terms and, not least, for the curious willingness on the part of the Taoist authors to argue for a hidden continuity between dreaming and awakening, where the dream means in fact the medium for converting virtual qualities into the actual macroimages – a transformation that preserves the identity of the (Greater) Self and thus the integrity of tradition. The attempts of modern scholars to ignore this ambiguity and to construct purely technical language of Chinese philosophy and science on the basis of «positive knowledge» would make tradition’s message utterly unintelligible.

The reason why Deleuze and Taoists put so much emphasis on «multiplicity without preliminary unity» is that for them Different-ness is really a mark of .extraordinary intensity of experience, a heightened sensitivity, a magnitude of existence. The «instance of stillness» is, as Taoists used to say, something «more alive than life,» «more spiritual than things spiritual».  Consequently, the symbolic matrix of spontaneous transformations by the sheer intensity of its working creates the above mentioned super-abundance of manifestation, a virtual (in both real and figurative sense) inflation of images. It is, as Wang Fuzhi  puts it, inevitably and immediately  “followed by forms”, or, in Deleuze’s words, creates “a mental vision, almost a hallucination” 15.



Both Deleuze and the Taoists propose a philosophical project that precedes all formal constructs in thinking. Such a project is relatively new and marginal “nomadic” in Deleuzian terms) for the West. But the Chinese tradition provides an example of its unfolding in actual history and this development seems to be determined by the principle of homology between virtual and actual aspects of being and the recurrence of their symbolic circuit. Interestingly enough, in the history of Chinese philosophy we can observe similar circuit pattern reproduced on different scale beginning with the individual thinkers (what might be called a micro-historical scale) to epochal movements that lasted for several centuries and encompassed different systems of thought (mega-historical scale). In fact, there are only two such mega-periods in Chinese history: the first began after the fall of the Han empire and lasted to the end of the Tang dynasty, the second roughly coincided with the age of Neo-Confucianism. Each mega-historical pattern comprises shorter stages of development (these can be named meso-historical rounds).

A noteworthy fact is that the beginning of each mega-historical period in the history of Chinese philosophy was marked by the strong affirmation of subjectivity’s absolute value. For instance, Chuang-tzu’s classical commentator and the most authoritative contributor to the early medieval philosophical synthesis Guo Xiang declared by the end of the 3rd century that one’s genuine existenc is a “solitary transformation” (du hua), i.e. pure becoming without duration beyond visible changes. Guo Xiang equated it with the immediate and unconditional presence of Self^ one’s self-awareness, he argued, is something that “spiritual beings of the world, worthies of the land and people of supreme strength or perfect knowledge cannot violate”. And because this absolute knowledge cannot be detached from the concrete nature of our experience, this human world is completely natural and allows for complete freedom.

Twelve centuries after Guo Xiang Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming  gave a new impetus to China’s philosophical thought by declaring that the Heart-Mind is identical with Heavenly principle and, therefore, everybody should search for the truth only in himself. So, the sage and the ordinary man are identical in being completely natural. At the turn of the 17th century Wang Yang-ming’s follower Chou Judeng observed that Wang’s tremendous success was due to the fact that his teaching “pointed directly at the original spirituality of human Heart-Mind and everybody could see for himself this self-evident spiritual power — that is all there was to it” 16.

For Wang Yangming’s radical followers the newly discovered pure consciousness, or original subjectivity, served as a source of cultural creations inaccessible to the intellect. It has neither rational nor empirical. But, being spontaneous, it could apparently coincide with non-reflexive practices of everyday life and, as an affective force of transformation, it presupposed one’s openness to sensory perception and justified emotions. By exalting ever more resolutely the immanence of absolute subjectivity the radical yangmingists created ever more room for interpreting their life ideal in naturalistic and empirical terms. Perhaps the most impressive evidence of this development is the unprecedented spread in Later Ming society of the feeling of guilt and the need for repentance — a sure sign of the newly discovered finitude of human existence related to the naturalistic concept of the body. The new literature of conversations (huiyu), produced by Wang Yangming’s school and unsurpassed in quantity and sheer repetitiveness of its contents, is but one unending answer to the perplexing paradox: why are the people incapable of doing the easiest thing on earth – discovering the innate knowledge in their habitual awareness? So, the attempt to justify unconditional unity of subjectivity triggered the irrevocable slide of Chinese thought to the threshold beyond which the Sage, his demiurgical pretensions notwithstanding, would find no place for himself in the world where only natural laws existed and where no idea of the «life-impulse» was needed. By the same token, the attempt of Wang Yangming’s radical followers to equate subjectivity with tradition resulted in the dissociation of individuality from tradition and the exaltation of the strong feelings – a sure sign of passionate personality –  as a gate to ‘supreme enlightenment” 17. This trend directed the search for the authentic Self right down to the seeds of psychic life in the symbolic realm of «spontaneous responding» or «following suit» conceived as a virtual world of fantasies, dreaming, visions etc. The very feeling of estrangement enhanced by such experiences strengthened the inner awareness of the «genuineness» of pre-Self’s existence. Self- realization was achieved by «letting oneself go» and plunging into the plenitude of the Void. Consequently, human freedom coincided here with chance, a creative event that endowed one’s life with the significance of fate.

Such were the conditions for the appearance of that great Taoist novel “The Journey to the West”.  The novel’s hero, a magic monkey Sun Wukung, who was born at the beginning of time and could acquire by will any appearance, could have served as a classical example of schizophrenia if he did not remind Chinese readers of a dragon —  he embodiment of the creative transformations. Sun Wukung’s fantastic adventures expose the essence of the traditional ideal of «self-emptying» as a flight into the outside, into one’s own double through demonstrating the phantom-like nature of symbolic types; they signify the passage to undoing tradition. While on the surface of the plot Sun Wukung never ceases to create masks for himself, his life in fact follows the symbolic vortex of reality mediating between virtual pre-existence and its actual correlates. To be precise, the visible image of life here is created by a spontaneous «fall» of symbolic wholeness into the world of external forms, i.e. on the plane of continuing dispersion. The novel’s plot represents, as it were, a projection of the empty/full «body of Tao» on physical bodies — a projection quite illusory in its external appearance and yet perfectly real in its inner determination. Hence the humoristic tone of the story. It indicates above all else that the story of the magic monkey appeals not so much to the reader’s erudition as to his imagination and, therefore, it has a hidden dimension. Not satisfied with humor alone Chinese readers from the start associated this hidden meaning of the novel with an idea of self-cultivation, the process of «bringing to submission the licentious Heart- Mind».

We know already that the images in the novel on Sun Wukung are products of the life-impulse’s «spontaneous issuing-forth in response to things.» This event signifies the passage from experience’s «hidden subtleties» or micro-perceptions to the objective images (macro-images) of cultural public space. These macro-images, as was stated above, have neither intrinsic reality nor real continuity; they are essentially quasi-real. No wonder, the narration in the «Journey to the West» jumps from one episode to another like a string of aphorisms that won especially big popularity at that time. In a word, such prose is ruled by a pause, a pathetic silence, one lasting Intermezzo. And the images of the novel are like spontaneous crystallizations of desire that occur in the border region «between presence and absence», in the symbolic vortex of «inter-being-ness».

The historical outcome of this cultural situation was bringing into public space the awareness of the phantom-like nature of external images — a novelty that gave the artist almost unlimited freedom to create and popularize imaginary worlds, to test one’s own identity by means of imagination. This bold step was not without its price: it gave rise to the feelings of anxiety and insecurity among the intellectual elite. It was not without its contradictions either: the eccentricity of experience has now become the measure of the latter’s normative value. The remarkable ambiguity of the Chinese notion of dreaming encompassing both sleep, daydreaming and insight indicates that the world of dream served as a paradigmatic space for the mediation between virtual and actual qualities of experience. At this point the artist’s creative activity for the first time in Chinese history ran into the danger of losing its ties with the foundation of tradition – the steadfastness of the moral Will which moulds symbolic types and artistic taste through the process of self-differentiating. Under new circumstances it would be enough to accept these fantastic images as deliberately deformed copies or reflections of the objective world to let the symbolism of tradition fall into oblivion.

What we have just traced is, in fact, a history of that paradigmatic Taoist story about Chuang-tzu dreaming of butterfly. Like the story itself it has a somewhat sad end. The «culture of fantasies» proved to be too fragile and sophisticated a challenge to the harsh reality of public life.  Despotic government could not tolerate the eccentric freedom of the artist even if the artist claimed, like radical late Ming scholars did, that he embodied in his person the whole tradition. In any case, to become socially acceptable the phantasm had to be downgraded to the status of «reality.» In a short while naive realism superseded the former quest for inner truth and most of the novels of dreams were suppressed under the pretext of defending morality. In other words, the flight of imagination was interpreted as a statement about reality. The type of culture that emerged under Ch’ing dynasty was characterized by the ever deepening gap between fantasy (reduced to demonic nightmare) and reality (bogged down to life’s trivia). Yet this change produced almost no open protest. The main reason, I believe, was not political oppression. As a matter of fact, this turn marked the fulfillment of tradition because creation itself was conceived in China in terms of the «fall» of holistic experience into its fragments or, in other words, the spirit’s em-bodiment. However, this time it was a kind of

“mis-fall” – falling into a naturalistically conceived reality.

In the final account, the circuit of the Way has produced two different patterns, or myths, of history. One of them presents history in the form of the “paradise lost’ story which, curiously enough, corresponds both to the native Chinese conception of history and the actual historical development within the general circular framework of Chinese cultural history. This development is marked by progressive decomposition of the original Heart-Mind’s wholeness. What used to be just the «actual» chain of the overall symbolic vision finally transformed into the naturalistic conception of the world. The memory of the «virtual» chain of Tao’s circuit has been preserved till these days in the closed sects and schools of Kung-fu, mostly affiliated with Taoism, which prescribe a return, «an inverted movement» from «posterior to heaven» existence to a «life-giving Void» existing «prior to heaven.»

There exists also a sort of the intermediary historical pattern related to what can be called regional versions of Far Eastern civilization, such as the cultures of Korea and especially Japan. This pattern is distinguished by the conceptualization of tradition’s premises, notably the idea of the Void, symbolic non-duality etc., and projecting them on social reality – a projection that creates an objectified cultural self-identity and favorable conditions for modernizing society.

The innate deficiency of naturalist tendencies in Chinese culture and the suppressed but not dispelled presence of tradition in China account for the fact that the totalitarian ideologies of Modem Times, as we can see more clearly now, have proved to be a transitory stage on China’s way beyond Modernity. In fact, Chinese civilization was opened only to the passive, directed mostly by practical considerations reception of Western modernity. China’s «modern face» is beginning to look like a mask of yet unrecognized «postmodern China». If Postmodemity means the deconstruction of the autonomous subject while attuning culture to the virtual/symbolic dimension of experience related to the notions of self-differentiating and the absolute inside, then we must admit that the «Postmodern situation» helps to recover the life attitudes and values upheld in Chinese tradition. Above all it creates the possibility of reconstituting traditional unity of symbolic and actual worlds. This is not just an idle wish. The history of Tao’s circuit movement, though bound to remain unwritten, is being written out by the lacunae in observable history. Actual and virtual chains of Tao’s circuit complement and support each other. In the axis of this universal vortex we are able, in Deleuze’s words, “to constitute a continuum with fragments of different ages” 18.  In the manner of Sun Wu-kung, we can actualize the Great Body (da ti) of Tao that gathers itself by making happen the infinite number of life-worlds. This abyss of human intimacy is due to be reopened in the global community.

Does not the real meaning of the “end of history” amount to recognizing the priority of ruptures in experience and discovering a mode of (symbolic) temporality capable of accumulating history through contingency of events ? Will this return to tradition lead to the recovery of the inner fullness of existence that makes possible the free interchange, as was suggested in China, between the consciousness (xin) and unconscious (wu-xin), knowledge and no-knowledge, fictitious and genuine, dream and awakening? Perhaps these questions do not call for answers and their real message is to safeguard the profound existential

in-determinacy and, therefore, the unity of freedom and fate in human life.










     1  Hall D.L., Ames R.T. Thinking from the Han. Self, Truth and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture. State University of New York Press. Albany, 1998. p. 26.


2  Ibid., p. 52 ff.

       3 Cf. J.Deleuze., F. Guattari. A Thousand Plateau: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Minnesota University Press, 1987.


4  For a recent account of these difficulties see: Dan Zahavi, The Fracture in Self-Awareness, in: D. Zahavi ed. Self-Awareness, Temporality and Alterity, The Hague: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998.

5 D.J. Chambers, The Conscious Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p.  11, 22; W. Marx, Bewusstsein-Welten, T?bingen: Mohr, 1994, S.17.

6  Toru Tani, The physus of Consciousness and Metaphysics, in: D. Zahavi ed.    Self-Awareness, Temporality and Alterity, p.104-105.

7  Wang Fuzhi, Chuang-tzu jie, Taipei: Heluo tushu, 1974, p. 28-29.

8 Henry M. Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body. The Hague: Martinus Nijhof,  1975, p. 190.


9 Jie Xuan. Bingjing baipian, Luchou: Guangxi minzu chubanshe, 1996,  p.    157.


10  J., Deleuze, Le pli. Leibniz et Ie baroque, Paris: Minuit. 1988. P. 178.

11  Chuang-tzu jie, p. 31.


12 Fukunaga Mitsuji. So sho, vol 2. Tokyo: Asahi shimbun, 1969, p. 498.



13 J. Deleuze, Difference et repetition. Paris : P. U.F. 1968, p. 198.

14  J., Deleuze, Le pli, p.178

15  J.Deleuze, L ‘image-temps. Paris: Minuit, 1985, p.. 65.


16  Chou Judeng. Wangmen zungzhi — in: Siku quanshu cunmu cungshu, Zi       bu., vol.13. Taipei: Chuangyan wenhua shiye, 1995, p. 554.

17  For more details see: Wai-Yee Li, The Collector, the Connoisseur and Late-Ming

Sensibility, – T»oungPao, vol. 84, 1998; Maliavin V.V. Love unto Death. Passion

and Reason in Late Ming China, – Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 26, no 3,



18 J.Deleuze, L ‘image-temps, p. 161.