Zhuangzi glossary


piping of heaven

tiānlài. For a long time, I thought listening to the music of heaven meant forgetting the meaning and hearing everything as just sound. Note: this is very difficult to do, if not impossible. Try it. But there are other problems. If this is what Mr. Dapple is doing, it is not entirely clear what he means by saying 'he lost himself.' Also, if the argument that different meanings come out of different minds just as different sounds come from the wind in different trees, then he is not asking us to pretend the meanings aren't there, but to treat them indifferently as we do sounds. 

What would this mean--not to pretend there are no meanings, only sounds, but to treat meanings as we do sounds? I finally came up with an analogy. I drive an old car. As I drive, I am aware of the sounds it is making: the whirs, the whines, the pings. I don't always act on them but am always aware of them, regarding them as symptomatic. Similarly, when I had a kid in the car, I was aware of the sounds it was making: the cries, the snores, the songs, the requests, the complaints. I wouldn't always act on them, it wasn't an issue of whether they were right or wrong, but I regarded them as symptomatic. I recognized they had meaning but I treat the meanings--the things he said--like sounds. It was not a question of their being right or wrong; they were parts of the world I had to deal with. I wonder if this is similar to what he means by 'listening to heaven's music'? Now, if one is doing this consistently and thoroughly, it stands to reason that one would listen to one's own thoughts this way, as well: not as right or wrong, necessarily, but simply as expressions of what is going on in the world. I wonder if this is what it means 'to lose yourself.'



  • Picture of Ann KjellbergAnn Kjellberg - Tue, 26 Jul 2022, 5:30 PM
    This passage made we wonder how many civilizations had the idea of the “music of the spheres”: like the Greeks, and I think also the neoplatonists, and after that, like, the poets of Elizabethan England, had an idea that there were mathematical relationships in the heavens that were echoed in music, a sense that emptiness, or air, or breath, or spirit, moves through the physical world and creates sound or music or meaning. Doesn’t Zhuangzi himself talk about words as just wind passing through people? It reminds me how Mr. Teichgraeber told us in tenth-grade English that the “aeolian harp” was one of the most important metaphors of English Romanticism. I feel like there is something about this “piping” metaphor that gets at how a very large whole becomes particular by passing through individual things; it seems like a very old intuition about the relationship between presence/absence and the creation of meaning, that meaning emerges as a movement of absence through presence. What you think the “absence” is—well, that’s the nut