by Vered Arnon
Forgetting and knowing are usually considered opposites. But certain knowledge necessitates forgetting. While forgetting is antithetical to gaining intellectual knowledge, intellectual knowledge is in its own turn antithetical to cosmic spiritual knowledge. To know that which is transcendent, one must do away with intellectual interference. This is the view of most mystical traditions, and the concept is exemplified in the Chuang Tzu and The Cloud of Unknowing.
The Chuang Tzu is a mystical Taoist text, and the Cloud of Unknowing is a mystical Christian text. Naturally, due to the polarity of their eastern and western origins, they take very different approaches. But the fundamental mysticism is still the same. Both are about individual attainment of the cosmic force, becoming one with the ultimate. The most significant difference in these texts lies in the monism of Taoism and the dualism of Christianity. This creates a contrast both between the method of “attainment” or “knowing” that each seeks, as well as what exactly each seeks to know.
The Taoist approach, as portrayed in the Chuang Tzu, seeks to “know” the Tao. One does so by being true to one’s own nature. The Tao is a universal force that both is everything and transcends everything. Knowing the Tao and being at one with it results in harmony. Since the Tao is in one’s true nature, the process of attainment is internal. There is no concept of an “other” entity that one is interacting with. As Chuang Tzu writes, “Just go along with things and let your mind move freely. Resign yourself to what cannot be avoided and nourish what is within you — this is best” (Chuang Tzu, 58). Knowing and nourishing one’s inner nature is knowing the Tao.
The Christian approach, as portrayed in The Cloud of Unknowing, seeks to “know” God. God is an external entity, omniscient and incomprehensible. One seeks to know God through love. One must focus intensely on God, and focus only on this external entity. The sinful nature of humans prevents them from getting closer to God, so the process of attainment in this case is to repress and deny one’s original nature. This way, one might prepare oneself to receive God’s grace, and be able to get closer to him. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “It is by this [God’s grace] that man shall be restored. And it is because he does not heed that a man falls ever more deeply into sin, becoming ever more estranged from God. Yet on the other hand, it is by constantly heeding and attending to this very thing and nothing else that a man gets more free from sin, and nearer to God” (The Cloud of Unknowing, 63). Sin is the original nature of humans, and this original nature prevents humans on their own from knowing God. The process which the Christian author advocates is just the opposite of the path Chuang Tzu proposes.
Although the methods they advocate are opposing, they both rely on the principle of forgetting. In both cases, there are barriers preventing an individual from attaining this knowledge. Forgetting is the process of removing or overcoming these barriers. According to Taoism, intellectual concepts are pragmatic, not revelatory. Distinctions get us too caught up in appearances. Chuang Tzu writes, “The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see” (Chuang Tzu, 39). By forgetting boundaries, one is letting go of distinctions and returning to the Tao. According to The Cloud of Unknowing, it is impossible to intellectually grasp God. The intellect is bounded and finite. “So for the love of God be careful, and do not attempt to achieve this experience intellectually. I tell you truly it cannot come this way. So leave it alone” (The Cloud of Unknowing, 66). Intellectual processes only come between the individual and God, making one farther away rather than drawing one closer. Chuang Tzu mentions the same principle as well. “If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger” (Chuang Tzu, 46). Although the two texts come from such different backgrounds and take very divergent approaches, they still share immense common ground. The Tao and God can be seen as analogous. The mystical process of forgetting in order to know then remains the same in both of them. Through different means they seek the same end.
Forgetting is essential in The Cloud of Unknowing because anything that is not God, comes between the individual and God. The text explains,
- “For though it is sometimes helpful to think of particular creatures, what they are and do, in this case it is virtually useless. For the act of remembering or thinking about what a thing is or does has a spiritual effect. Your soul’s eye concentrates upon it, just as the marksman fixes his eye on his target. Let me say this: everything you think about, all the time you think about it, is ‘above’ you, between you and God. And you are that much farther from God if anything but God is in your mind” (The Cloud of Unknowing, 67).
There is a hierarchy between God and humans. God is a distinctly external entity, far far above his creations. In order to get closer to God, humans must rise up on this hierarchy. One must forget, and thus move above, the things that would come in one’s way. One must leave behind God’s created world if one wants to know the creator himself. Due to this hierarchy, a living human can never actually know God, but one can continually strive to get closer. One must focus intensely and completely on God, and on nothing else. The text admonishes,
- “Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular. Let them go, and pay no attention to them. It is the work of the soul that pleases God most” (The Cloud of Unknowing, 61).
The work of the soul, and not the work of the intellect, is what pleases God and enables one to know God. Therefore everything else must be forgotten.
This emphasis in The Cloud of Unknowing on God over God’s creation is due to Christian dualism. According to this method of attainment, God is an external entity. God is separate from the individual, and in order to know him, the individual must really be transformed and leave the world behind. The individual must withdraw and get away from the world completely. The perspective of Taoism is very different. One who follows the Taoist path, is forgetting in order to regain a clear pure understanding of the world. The monistic philosophy states that the Tao is universal. It is all-pervading. One who knows the Tao doesn’t go anywhere or leave anything behind. Rather, one recognises the true nature and source of everything. By forgetting all ordinary external understanding, inner truth and oneness is able to be attained.
According to Chuang Tzu, forgetting returns one to harmony with the world. He writes,
- “You forget your feet when shoes are comfortable. You forget your waist when the belt is comfortable. Understanding forgets right and wrong when the mind is comfortable. There is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside, when the adjustment to events is comfortable. You begin with what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable” (Chuang Tzu, 128).
Here he describes the harmonious oneness that results from forgetting. Things as they are perceived in the world are pragmatic. They are distractions, and unimportant. To know the ultimate, they are unnecessary. Again Chuang Tzu writes,
- “The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” (Chuang Tzu, 140).
To continue on in this vein, to know one’s true nature and be one with the ultimate, one must even forget one’s own self. “Therefore,” writes Chuang Tzu, “the Perfect Man has no self” (Chuang Tzu, 26). This is echoed in The Cloud of Unknowing, where the author writes, “So crush all knowledge and experience of all forms of created things, and of yourself above all” (The Cloud of Unknowing, 111). For both of these mystical paths, the actual forgetting is equivalent.
Though the conceptualisation of attainment differs between Taoism and the mysticism presented in The Cloud of Unknowing, both are pursuing a similar end with similar means. While certain aspects are very different, and even opposing, other aspects are analogous. Regardless of what path one follows, mystical paths share common ground.
- Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tzu – Basic Writings. New York, Columbia University Press, 1996.
- The Cloud of Unknowing. England, Penguin Books, 1978.