The Way of Chuang Tzu
By Thomas Merton
Publisher: New York: New Directions, 2010.
Chuang Tzu was a Chinese mystic who is believed to have lived in the third and fourth century BCE, and was probably a contemporary of the legendary mystic Lao-Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching. The writings attributed to Chuang Tzu – traditionally referred to as ‘the Chuang Tzu’ – reveal a perspective similar to that of Lao-Tzu’s mystic teachings of the Tao (the Way). For both mystics, the Tao is the ultimate abstract source or root of the entire creation – the motive power that underlies everything and to which all must return.
A short collection of the most accessible and provocative writings from the Chuang Tzu was created by Thomas Merton, the late Jesuit priest, entitled The Way of Chuang Tzu. Working from various translations by others, Merton expressed them in his own words; yet, according to Burton Watson, a noted scholar of Chinese mystical literature, Merton’s versions remained “almost as close to the original as the translations upon which they are based.”
The Chuang Tzu tells short anecdotes about animals, characters of Chinese legend and history, even his contemporaries. His anecdotes are paradoxical, humorous, or may even seem nonsensical, but have the power to turn the reader’s mind towards truths beyond ordinary logic, culminating in an “aha” moment of self-realization. It was mainly due to the influence of Chuang Tzu that Ch’an Buddhism, usually called by its Japanese name Zen Buddhism, evolved in China from Indian Buddhism.
The most significant themes of the Chuang Tzu are: What is the Tao and where can we find it? How can we live in harmony with the Tao? He advocates an attitude of wu-wei, the principle of non-action or non-doing, acting without effort or desire, acting without attachment to the results, but simply going with the flow of nature. He urges us to remove our mind from the extremes of passion and come in tune with the stillness of the Tao, which is at the pivot of all being, the pivot around which all opposites converge. “He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point from which all movements and oppositions can be seen in their right relationship.” The Tao is not a thing and cannot be described in words. It embodies the principle of reversal, in which everything contains its opposite and is perpetually in motion towards its opposite (the principle of yin and yang).
In responding to the question “Show me where the Tao is found,” Chuang Tzu replies, “There is nowhere it is not to be found.” He gives examples of how it is present in even the least of things, but it cannot be measured because even in the least of things it is great. It has no limits. He says:
When I look beyond the beginning I find no measure.
When I look beyond the end I find also no measure …
To name Tao is to name no-thing.
Tao is not the name of “an existent.”
“Cause” and “chance” have no bearing on Tao.
Tao is a name that indicates without defining.
Many lines from the Chuang Tzu concern the true or perfect man. For example, the true man is one who knows, through a higher wisdom and union with the Tao, that conventional opinions about the purposes and values of human life are meaningless. Chuang Tzu says:
What is meant by a “true man”?
The true men of old were not afraid
When they stood alone in their views.
No great exploits. No plans.
If they failed, no sorrow.
No self-congratulation in success…
The true men of old knew no lust for life,
No dread of death …
They did not forget where from, nor ask where to,
Nor drive grimly forward
Fighting their way through life.
They took life as it came, gladly;
Took death as it came, without care;
And went away, yonder, yonder.
The Taoist concept of “fasting of the heart” expresses the need to empty the mind of all thoughts and desires in order to merge with the Tao and perform one’s duties without attachment. On this subject, Chuang Tzu quotes Confucius:
The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind. Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation. Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom…
Look at this window: it is nothing but a hole in the wall, but because of it the whole room is full of light. So when the faculties are empty, the heart is full of light.
It is a Taoist principle that whoever distinguishes himself from others is liable to be attacked, while one who cultivates humility and simplicity crosses the ocean of life.
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff …
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat …
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.
About the perfect man, Chuang Tzu says,
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home …
Since he judges no one,
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.
Readers interested in the complete works of Chuang Tzu may benefit from Burton Watson’s The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968). Watson has also released an abbreviated collection in Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, 1996).
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