Zuangzi’s problem of the koi
Zuangzi famously argued with a friend (Hueitse) over whether we could know the mind of another being. He noticed some fish swimming in the river under the bridge they were crossing, and said the fish must be happy. His friend argued it was impossible to know how the fish felt, as he was not a fish. Zuangzi argued that Hueitse could not know whether he knew because his friend was not him. And Zuangzi ended the argument by stating Hueitse’s argument proved the point: I know the fish are happy because of my own feelings on the bridge.
This is a confusing story about more than it seems to be about. The surer you are that you understand the story, the less likely it is you really understand it. The most obvious point seems to be one of empathy: I know fish are happy because I feel happy. Therapists use this principle every day, comparing their feelings to what they think they should be feeling to ascertain what is going on with the client that the client might be unaware of.
The day started out poorly.
I left my bag on the bus. My camera, my writing kit, and my lunch ticket were in the bag. My camera was not working in any event: an annoyance, as I was 10,000 miles from home, counting on seeing some things worth photographing, and in a place where the camera broke a lot of ice.
Lunchtime came, and I was feeling left out. People were taking photos, and I was not invited. Then we missed the bus to lunch. No problem: it was a nice walk. So, I started the walk, then remembered I had no meal ticket. It was on the bus, which I had missed.
So, I went back to the conference center and stood around feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t even really hungry, just wrestling with my expectations and how reality was not quite matching up.
Then a nice woman asked if I was eating. I said I wasn’t, and she said I should not stand around in front of the building. I thought I was breaking a rule, but this was a misperception on my part. She was taking care of me, not pointing out my faults. Come around back, she said: there is a beautiful garden.
She was right.
A huge garden oasis, complete with bamboo groves, koi ponds, and inexplicable rustic fishermen (we were in the middle of Shanghai, after all).
The city was close enough to hear faintly, to see in the mist, just enough contact to know it was there but on the outside. Somehow that was more peaceful than pure silence, like the comfort of hearing the rain on the roof and knowing you are safe inside. In the meantime, the koi were more vivid and the birdsong louder and more compelling.
I walked for a while, enjoying a peaceful moment, then climbed a path to the top of the conference center.
The roof overlooked the koi pond. There I read Zuangzi’s problem of the koi, and I was content. Something about being in a place he might have been, seeing something very close to what he might have seen, was beautiful. Silly, perhaps, like looking through photographs of the people who are currently around you, but beautiful.
Zuangzi was a man who lived by his stomach. He was a scamp, a tramp, who wandered the countryside living on the generosity of strangers. He told stories for his supper. If not for his hunger, might he not have retreated from the world completely, hiding out in some beautiful place where he could just think? If not for hunger, what would we know about him and those thoughts he thought?
I am as glad for my hunger as for his. Sitting up there experiencing this nice duality of time and place, I noticed I was no longer hungry. Beauty is better than food. The strangers who fed Zuangzi got the better end of their bargain.
Part of his story might be that it is possible to know one’s own mind through observation. This is not the mere mindfulness of modern Western practice, stripped of its philosophic lineage, but the immersion in experience of a human doing human things, thinking human thoughts. I know what I know because I know it. I can see myself knowing it.
This is not just Eastern philosophy but some of the foundations of existential thinking. In many ways, taking existentialism to China is like bringing salt to the ocean. Mindfulness is watching our selves like the fish in the river below us. Being is engaging with those feelings, for better or worse, and becoming the fish.
— Jason Dias