Tzu-jan (“Self-so”)

Philosophies of nature, most pointedly Taoism, describe large universal cycles as the “Great Transformation.”

The multiple transformations we describe, observe,and experience are grand planetary cycles but also the small circumscribed cycles of earth, water, elements, and living beings. Our identification of and with these cycles represent tzu-jan or “self-so,” meaning that which transpires naturally, of itself, without arrogant imposition or call for subjective interpretation. Adopting a philosophy of life that accords with tzu-jan is to embrace tranquility, simplicity, and wisdom.

Embracing tzu-jan in every sphere of life — especially in the heart of the mundane, in occupation, dwelling-place, routines, or the writing of poetry and submersion in spiritual mindset — minimizes mental struggle. We adopt a body of wisdom from a high source of wisdom without ever suppressing our own caution or sense of observation. We do not need to understand, interpret, or justify what is given by nature. We do not need to justify a contrived philosophy of life based on a human-made authority or projection.

Indeed, we do not even need to understand the fullness of tzu-jan as simplicity or its life-style as “idleness,” as the ancient Chinese poet Tao Chien’s modern editor David Hinton notes. This idleness, he notes, is “profound serenity and quietness,” not the artificial busyness embraced as productive and vital by the world.

The Chinese pictographs representing hsien or “idleness” are two: a tree standing alone in a courtyard or moonlight through an open door. Tzu-jan is the revelling in nature, the meditative view that became what Hinton calls “the essence of spiritual practice” adopted by Zen.

Tzu-jan was not popular among the system-builders in the East, and in the West would only influence a few figures, romantic and nature-oriented. Tzu-jan in the Taoit and Zen traditions is worth comparing is Yoshida Kenko’s 14th-century Essays in Idleness, where, however, the Great Transformation takes a great subjective turn.

In the Western world is found Henry David Thoreau’s limited adventures in solitude beside Walden Pond, the latter viewed as nature’s crystallization of the subtle transformation. Thoreau is a novice introducing Eastern works like the Bhagavad-Gita, and a mature notion of tzu-jan is not to be expected here. But his recommendations about solitude, nature, and the pace of life are nevertheless instructive. In contrast, misunderstanding the notion of “idleness,” is the Western world’s inevitable bungling of the concept in the exhausted decadence of Marcel Proust.