The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Tao Te Ching 76 (Feng/English)

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.

— Samuel Butler, Note-Books

Life teaches us who we are.

— Salman Rushdie (quoted in Ledoux 2002)

My life has a superb cast but I can’t figure out the plot.

— Ashleigh Brilliant

All the charictures in the drame!

Finnegans Wake, 302

Who knows whether the present speaker is awake or dreaming?

Chuang-tzu 6 (Cleary)

How bootifull and how truetowife of her, when strengly forebidden, to steal our historic presents from the past postpropheticals so as will make us all lordyheirs and ladymaidesses of a pretty nice kettle of fruit. She is livving in our midst of debt and laffing through all plores for us (her birth is uncontrollable!), with a naperon made to mask and her sabboes hikkikking arias (so sair! so solly!) if yous ask me and I saack you. Hou! Hou! Gricks may rise and Troysirs fall (there being two sights for ever a picture) for in the byways of high improvidence that’s what makes lifework leaving and the world’s a cell for citters to cit in.

True science

Genuine science is the expression of a ‘will to learn’ driven by curiosity about how Nature works, and not by curiosity about how the newly gained knowledge will serve our practical purposes as presently conceived.

Some would say that inquiry is not “pragmatic” if we have no idea of the practical applications that might result from it.

Now to this, to be sure, one can reply that no curiosity is more disadvantageous to the expansion of our knowledge than that which would always know its utility in advance, before one has entered into the investigations, and before one could have the least concept of this utility even if it were placed before one’s eyes.

— Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B296-7

The deeper the inquiry, the more it may cause us to revise our concept of “utility.” As Peirce put it (CP 1.76), ‘True science is distinctively the study of useless things.’


A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

— Paul Valéry, “Recollection”, Collected Works, vol. 1 (1972), tr. David Paul

Higher than existence

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.

Tao Te Ching 8 (Feng/English)

The same text translated by Red Pine:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing

A comment on this text by Wang Pi (included in Red Pine’s edition, p. 17):

The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.

Charles S. Peirce would agree that the highest good does not exist, although it is real. In this he differed from most Western philosophers of his time.

The modern philosophers — one and all, unless Schelling be an exception — recognize but one mode of being, the being of an individual thing or fact, the being which consists in the object’s crowding out a place for itself in the universe, so to speak, and reacting by brute force of fact, against all other things. I call that existence.

— Peirce, CP 1.21 (from the “Lowell Lectures of 1903,” Lecture IIIa)

Beyond the Golden Rule

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:32-6 (RSV); likewise Thomas 95, etc.

Many Christians, if not most, would say that Jesus was the only son of God. But here, Jesus calls upon all his followers to be sons of the Most High (υἱοὶ ὑψίστου) by practicing his mercy. This compassion is impartial, not based on one’s love for, or judgement of, the other. A Zen text takes this non-judgement even further:

People who really practice the Way
Do not see the faults of the world;
If you see the errors of others,
Your own error abets them.
If others err but you do not,
Your own error’s still faulty.

— Hui-neng (Cleary 1998, 23)

The other side of this coin is detachment from the results of your own actions, as the Bhagavad-Gita teaches:

The world is in the bonds of action, unless the action is consecration. Let thy actions then be pure, free from the bonds of desire.

Bhagavad-Gita 3:9 (Mascaró)

Actions do not cling to me because I am not attached to their results. Those who understand this and practice it live in freedom.

Bhagavad-Gita 4:14 (Easwaran)

Gandhi, in commenting on the Gita, says ‘If we wish to give up sin, we should give up virtue too. There is possessiveness in clinging even to virtue.’ The practice of detachment comes highly recommended in scriptures ranging from the Vedic to the Bahá’í:

Well may he be content to live a hundred years who acts without attachment—who works his work with earnestness, but without desire, not yearning for its fruits—he, and he alone.

Isha Upanishad (Prabhavananda)

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never upon its reward.

Bhagavad-Gita 2:47 (Mascaró)

Make not your deeds as snares wherewith to entrap the object of your aspiration …

Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas ¶36

How do you set your heart upon your work – which, almost by definition, has a purpose – without being attached to its results? It could be compared to a pure scientist (according to the Peircean ideal of scientific inquiry) impartially testing her hypothesis while remaining free of any desire to prove it true. Or you might think of it as ‘controlled folly,’ as Castaneda’s Don Juan calls it:

Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.

— Castaneda 1971

Perhaps we can sum it all up with this precept attributed to Zengetsu:

Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe.

Tenants and guests

Gospel of Thomas 65 (Lambdin):

He said, ‘There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, “Perhaps he did not recognize them.” He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, “Perhaps they will show respect to my son.” Because the tenants knew that it was he who was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.’

Perhaps the most startling thing about this story is the abrupt ending, or rather lack of the ending we find in other versions of the same parable: in Mark 12:9, Matthew 21:40-41, and Luke 20:15-16, we are assured that the wicked tenants will receive their just punishment. All three synoptic gospels place the story in a context which invites a specific reading: the vineyard owner represents God, the tenants represent the religious establishment, and of course Jesus is the son of God, soon to be killed by the powers that be. But such an interpretation is not really at home in Thomas, where Jesus is not said to be God’s only son. The omission of the ending in Thomas could be written off as accidental or careless, but this seems unlikely, considering that the very next saying in Thomas is the same one that follows up this parable in the other three Gospels:

Jesus said, ‘Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone.’

Thomas 66 (Lambdin)

To make sense of Thomas 65, then, we need a different context and reading from what we find in the other Gospels. The problem is that if we think of the vineyard’s owner as a human (rather than an inscrutable God), then he appears to be a rather slow learner, not to mention ineffectual (as Davies 2002 points out). But perhaps this fallibility is itself the point of the parable; perhaps we can learn from the owner’s error, which was to absent himself from production of the fruits of the vineyard.

Suppose you think of the vineyard as your everyday practice, which should be guided by the meaning of scripture (which Thomas from the beginning challenges you to find). According to Thomas 2, the authentic seeker eventually finds himself ‘king over the All.’ This happens when you realize that this world is your world (Chapter 4) – as Thomas Traherne put it,

You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.

— (The First Century, 29)

Later on, though, you may become complacent or absent-minded, and turn over your guidance system to habits or projects uninformed by actual experience or living semiosis. Then your habits are not really your own any more; they are like tenants of your body, and of course the ego is the worst tenant of them all. In this context, Thomas 65 would be warning you that habits are greedy and addictive, so if you turn your life over to them, you will have a hard time getting it back. These ghosts do not realize that they are ‘heirs of the whole world’ and are therefore jealous of the ‘children of the living Father’ (Thomas 3), who do realize it. So they are grimly (even lethally) determined to hold on to whatever part of your life they can get a grip on. Put your life on automatic pilot, turn it over to your ego-self, and you may lose your wholeness, just as the son in the parable lost his life. Punishing the wicked tenants won’t redeem the situation, either; the only solution is to quit acting like an absentee landlord – inhabit the living body, live the time.

The preceding parable in Thomas, Saying 64 (which also has its parallels in the synoptic Gospels), could be taken as a warning that business – being occupied all the time with buying and selling, profit and loss, or even with social obligations – is no substitute for living the time:

Jesus said, ‘A person was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant to invite the guests.
The servant went to the first and said to that one, “My master invites you.”
That person said, “Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I must go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.”
The servant went to another and said to that one, “My master has invited you.”
That person said to the servant, “I have just bought a house and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.”
The servant went to another and said to that one, “My master invites you.” He said to him, “My friend is to be married and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.”
The servant went to another and said to that one, “My master invites you.”
That person said to the servant, “I have bought an estate and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.”
The servant returned and said to his master, “The people whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.”
The master said to his servant, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”
Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my father.’

Thomas 64 (Meyer)

Practical alchemy

Conscious observance of explicit laws or teachings is only the beginning of practice, or of transformation. The Sufi sage Rumi explains this in the prose introduction to the fifth book of his Masnavi, summarized thus by Franklin Lewis (2000, 37):

Rumi uses alchemy as an analogy. The theories behind the transmutation of metal as learned from a teacher or a book are like the laws of religion. One needs to know these before one can begin walking down the path, but one only comes to see how the theory applies to real life as one walks the Sufi path. It is in the experience of the spiritual path that we actually apply the chemical agents to the metal, as it were. Only by following the path to the end can we turn the actual copper into gold and attain the truth.

The turning signs here begin as alchemical symbols but end in a transformation of practice. A similar point, perhaps, is made in Matthew 19.16-17:

And, behold, one came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?’ And he said unto him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’


There is one life that is good, not one deed that buys you eternal life. To make that one life yours takes continuous practice, incorporating many ‘commandments’ at once for the sake of that life itself and not for some future reward. This passage in Matthew subtly diverts the seeker’s attention from the “teacher” as representative of eternal life to the seeker’s own enactment of it. The Gospel of Thomas is much more emphatic on this point.

A woman from the crowd said to him, ‘Blessed are the womb which bore you and the breasts which nourished you.’ He said to her, ‘Blessed are those who have heard the word of the father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, “Blessed are the womb which has not conceived and the breasts which have not given milk.”’

Thomas 79 (Lambdin)

The first two verses here are almost identical to Luke 11:27-8. What does it mean to keep the word (logos)? Both the English ‘keep’ and the Greek word for ‘those who keep’ (phylassontes) might suggest guarding it, defending it, keeping it safe. But for a pragmatist, the blessed are those who practice the word, not those who treat it like a possession or a “creed.” It is only through practice that the word as precept can be kept alive, because that is its only means of modifying itself to maintain its intimacy with current situations. Those whose first priority is to guard the logos often end up guarding it against any change, i.e. guarding the text against its own meaning.

The final verse in Thomas 79 throws cold water on the worshipful euphoria of the woman from the crowd, as if to say that persistent practice, and not the fleeting feeling that “life is good,” is the presence of real life.