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.


Discovery or awakening can happen instantaneously, but can have no meaning outside of a pragmatic context, a domain of continuous practice which is living the time. Maybe you ‘come to’ and suddenly realize that you’ve been absent-minded or preoccupied, and in the moment it seems that the summit of all wisdom is “Be here now.” Can you commit yourself to (lose yourself in) living by that precept? To be committed is to be preoccupied. Without the continuity between memory and anticipation, how can you be here in time?

Consider for instance the mindfulness which is central to Buddhist practice. First, a couple of definitions:

Over the years and throughout various cultures, many techniques and systems of Buddhist practice have been developed … but the essence of awakening is always the same: to see clearly and directly the truth of our experience in each moment, to be aware, to be mindful. This practice is a systematic development and opening of awareness called by the Buddha the four foundations of mindfulness: awareness of the body, awareness of feelings, awareness of mental phenomena, and awareness of truths, of the laws of experience.

— Jack Kornfield (Smith 1999, 32)

The only truths you can be aware of are general truths, which express themselves in many specific ways. Laws of experience, or of nature, are legisigns (Peirce), and have their being in futuro, since they continue to govern the unfolding of experience as of phenomenal events. Awareness in each moment takes time because each moment takes time, just as time takes mind. You don’t get in the way.

Mindfulness is best described as ‘a non-reactive, non-interfering awareness.’ It is pure knowing, without any of the projections of our ego or personality added to the knowing.

— Wes Nisker (1998, 25)

Right mindfulness accepts everything without judging or reacting. It is inclusive and loving. The Sanskrit word for mindfulness, smriti, means ‘remember.’ Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. The character the Chinese use for ‘mindfulness’ has two parts: the upper part means ‘now,’ and the lower part means ‘mind’ or ‘heart.’

— Thich Nhat Hanh (1998, 64)

Mindfulness is re-membering what has been dismembered. The Arabic term dhikr, often translated ‘remembrance,’ is an Islamic equivalent to smriti, and a Christian version is the Greek metanoia (often translated ‘repentance’) (Frye 1982, 130). All refer to a kind of resurrection, a coming back to life, a return to presence.

In the ‘kingdom’ the eternal and infinite are not time and space made endless (they are endless already) but are the now and here made real, an actual present and an actual presence. Time vanishes in Jesus’ ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58); space vanishes when we are told … that the kingdom is entos hymon (Luke 17:21), which may mean among you or in you, but in either case means here, not there.

— Frye (1982, 130)

How could you remember to come back to presence if memory were not already a mode of presence? But then – felix culpa! – how could we return if we had never left? In order to remember we must first forget.

The train that can be expressed is not the express train. You cannot be trained to express it. You express it only in your continuous practice.

You can’t catch up with time. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t need to catch up with time, because it’s carried you all along, and it doesn’t run ahead of living. The impression of lagging behind is caused by your reluctance to let go of permanence in the act of remembrance.

Walking the waking

For thousands of years you’ve banged your head against a problem, or against a world that refuses to answer your best questions. Then you go to sleep, or into a trance, or on a spirit journey – dropping body and mind, dropping your routines, or at least dropping the problem. Then you return, and there’s the answer! You may have learned to say that it came from the spirit world, or the Muses, or God, or that your body knew it. What difference does it make what you say about it? It’s what you do with the answer that counts. A ‘religious experience’ may startle you out of your slumber, but it doesn’t take hold until you begin to live by it.

To really believe it is to belive it.

In practice-enlightenment (Dogen), the whole mind is physically realized, and the whole body psychically realized. Now realization continues by dropping off mind and body.

There goes the judge

A guidance system composed of explicit precepts would be an artificial one. Understanding someone’s ethos requires much more than knowledge of their expressed beliefs. To read a precept pragmatically is to form the concept of living by this precept. When you compare your concept with the actual practice you observe among professed believers in the precept, you may observe discrepancies. You could easily leap to the conclusion that those who profess to follow the precept are hypocritical. But it’s also possible, given the fact of polyversity, that their reading of it differs from yours. To understand how they read it, you would have to study their guidance system as a whole and observe how the specific precept fits into that system.

Values are part of the modeling process. Anything we can evaluate – approach or avoid, save or condemn, worship or despise – can only be a feature of a model, valued according to its role as a functional part of that model which is its context. We can only evaluate people’s conduct in relation to a common (communal) guidance system. To evaluate someone else’s model, then, you would have to reduce it to a feature in your own concept of the universal guidance system. But what if each of us sentient beings is a single bodymind doing one’s best to make sense of a unique body of experience? Judge not, lest you be judged.

Meaning and pragmatism

The meaning of a question is the method of answering it: then what is the meaning of ‘Do two men really mean the same by the word “white”?’
Tell me how you are searching, and I will tell you what you are searching for.

— Wittgenstein (1930, III.27)

Suppose we want to know what’s meant by the term pragmatism. How would we investigate that?

What the true definition of Pragmatism may be, I find it very hard to say; but in my nature it is a sort of instinctive attraction for living facts.

— Peirce, CP 5.64

What makes these facts living is that they can surprise us, and this can happen because we are modellers whose models are made of our own substance. As a theory of meaning, pragmatism is well grounded in biological reality, as a living system like yourself ‘emulates its own behavioral space’ (Metzinger 2003, 264). In other words, its Innenwelt models its possibilities of interaction with its Umwelt.

William James, in Lecture VI of his Pragmatism, defines truth in terms of its functionality in a guidance system:

When a moment in our experience, of any kind whatever, inspires us with a thought that is true, that means that sooner or later we dip by that thought’s guidance into the particulars of experience again and make advantageous connexion with them.

— James (1907, 575)

To ‘agree’ in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed. Better either intellectually or practically! And often agreement will only mean the negative fact that nothing contradictory from the quarter of that reality comes to interfere with the way in which our ideas guide us elsewhere. To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. The essential thing is the process of being guided. Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. It will hold true of that reality.

— James (1907, 579)

As an alternative to his ‘classic’ statement of the ‘pragmatic maxim,’ Peirce offered this alternative in the first of his Harvard lectures:

Pragmatism is the principle that every theoretical judgment expressible in a sentence in the indicative mood is a confused form of thought whose only meaning, if it has any, lies in its tendency to enforce a corresponding practical maxim expressible as a conditional sentence having its apodosis in the imperative mood.

— EP2:134-5

According to this principle, then, the ‘practical maxim’ corresponding to a ‘theoretical judgment’ would say “If the situation is thus, do this.”

For the pragmatist there is no point in a belief but to organize a life, to guide its actions. Peirce (more than James) emphasized the point that the meaning of a genuine belief is in futuro and can never be exhausted by any number of applications to past or present situations. Whatever really guides your conduct is real, whether or not the actual occasion ever arises where it would determine specific actions.