‘All Things Counter, Original, Spare, Strange…’
In a well-known Taoist story, retold from Chuang Tzu by N. Kathleen Hayles in her book Chaos and Order, “Shu (Brief) and Hu (Sudden) go to visit Hun-dun (Chaos), who graciously offers them his hospitality. Observing that Hun-dun lacks the seven openings through which men see, hear, eat and breathe, Shu and Hu determine to create them. Each day they bore a new hole. On the seventh day, Hun-dun dies.”1
Although surely unintentional, it’s a beautiful inversion of the Biblical creation story, where on the seventh day God rests from his labors of dividing light from dark and in this way imposing order on chaos. Not surprisingly, in the west this “defeat” of Hun-dun has frequently been understood as a triumph of good over evil.
In Chuang Tzu, however, the story has a different moral.
Hun-dun has no openings; he cannot be penetrated. Shu and Hu see this as a problem in Hun-Dun, whom they cannot understand according to their old categories. How, after all, do you make sense of that which has no senses when it’s through the senses that we learn to make sense? But Hun-dun is not to be grasped. As N.J.Girardot says, he “is not so much a word but a way, or ways, of viewing the world.”2
Scholars suggest that the word Hun-dun resembles the words tao and wu—usually translated as “nothingness.” But rather than being void of substance and without creative potential, this emptiness contains all plenitude. “Chaos” is implicit in creation just as all creativity involves chaos—as both artist and scientist know. Creation emerged out of chaos, Eugene Eoyang concludes;
In this vision the relationship between chaos and creation is profoundly intimate; one flows from the other and is generated by the other continually, a dance reflected in the onomatopoetic name of Hun-dun, which “involves two words with the water radical: the rhymed compound conveys the sense of the turbulence, the whirling action of water currents, the turbid flowing, yet unfathomable rhythms of swirling action.”4
We find this same relationship everywhere in nature and in art. Consider the idea of syncopation: it’s a brief break in rhythm, a weak beat between two strong beats creating a new rhythm through its relationship to the order surrounding it—a musical version of the relationship between yin and yang, visually expressed in the strong and weak lines in the I Ching.
“We are here because of the broken symmetries,” science writer George Johnson similarly suggests:
“In a perfect, undifferentiated world,” Johnson concludes, “we wouldn’t exist.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon in March as I sit at the B&O Espresso in Seattle and follow these tracks. The Beatles play in the background.
And why you lied to me
I glance outside and see a young woman standing at the corner waiting for the flow of traffic to break. The wind blows back her hair; one hand is in the pocket of her jeans as she twirls her keys with the other. She watches the cars go by, her eyes following the curve of the road down a hill created millennia ago by glaciers, a hill recently walked by the Duwamish on their way to what we now call Puget Sound.
The song plays on. Clouds move slowly across the sky.
I randomly open Joseph Heller’s Bodywise and read about balance, how most of us achieve it only through effort: our balance, he says, is really “a resistance to falling over.” But this is not balance. This is “a state of contraction, of holding things together so they will not fall apart.”6
We think of justice as balance, Heller writes, as in a set of scales “poised and standing still between two extremes.” But this too gives a false image: “In reality, equally weighted and balanced scales sway constantly, gently, and gracefully about their middle point.” Balance is found in motion, as we understand when we learn to ride a bike. “Balance is not a static condition, but a process of constant flux, a fluid expression of wholeness and ease.”
Balance is Hun-dun, that “turbid flowing, yet unfathomable rhythm of swirling action.”
I imagine a tennis player poised to return a serve, rocking gently from side to side exactly as I’ve seen chi gung masters rock, breathing softly between movements, reminding me that there is no such thing as between. It’s not chaos and then creation; instead that beautiful space is within every act of creation, just as stillness is found within movement. In fact this is what we seek in creation, whether in nature or in art: it’s that emptiness we’re always after.
I put down my pen and sit for a moment inside this sense I suddenly have of arriving at some kind of strange and hilarious joy. It’s a clown’s creation, this universe, all of us balanced on some beautiful round ball, turning and falling, turning and falling. It’s nothing really; at the next table two friends share a joke, laughing aloud, their forks briefly poised in the air. I hear the sound of the espresso machine and look outside in time to see the woman cross the street, climb into her truck and pull into the flow of traffic.
Tell me what and I’ll apologize
It’s all clouds and coffee, curve and rhythm. The word chaos doesn’t even begin to get it. Call it mercy, chesed, the love that moves the sun and other stars. Call it Tao—even then it will take the sublime poetry of the Taoteching to give us a glimpse of what this way really is – of its power and grace, and of its delight, as Hopkins said, in “all things counter, original, spare, strange . . . ”
1 Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, edited by N. Kathleen Hayles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 2-3. The story can also be found in Victor Mair’s Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (New York: Bantam, 1994), p. 71. Here “Hun-dun” is spelled “Wonton,” identified by Mair as “the undifferentiated soup of primordial chaos.” He adds that “Wonton soup probably came first as a type of simple early fare. With the evolution of human consciousness and reflection, the soup was adopted as a suitable metaphor for chaos” (p. 386).
2 See Eugene Eoyang’s essay, “Chaos Misread: Or, There’s Wonton in my Soup!” Comparative Literature Studies 29 (1989), p. 275. He is quoting from Girardot’s Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (hun-tun).
3 Eoyang, p. 281. While we’re not accustomed to seeing Christianity in these terms, we might also recognize this relationship between chaos and cosmos in the paradoxical relationship of Mary and Jesus. In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu famously calls the Tao “the emptiness that makes the wheel work.” May we not also see Mary as that “empty bowl” or vessel whose very surrender – her self-emptying – makes possible the birth of the Son who in turn is the One who fathers forth all matter (mater)? Mary’s emptiness mirrors that of the Logos, whose own self-emptying makes possible all of creation. Mary’s yes and Christ’s yes in the incarnation and on the cross are exactly the same act, exactly the same moment: creation emerging out of chaos, and chaos – a “fecund and progenerative nothingness” – emerging from this apparent destruction of creation.
We might also call this chaos “resurrection.”
4 Eoyang, p. 275.
5 George Johnson, Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order (New York: Knopf, 1995), p. 59.
6 Joseph Heller & William A. Henkin, Bodywise (Oakland, CA: Wingbow Press, 1991), p. 45.
Doug Thorpe is the editor of Work and the Life of the Spirit and the author of A New Earth and the forthcoming Rapture of the Deep: Reflections on Wilderness, Art and the Sacred. He professes literature and writing at Seattle Pacific University.