Chuang Tzu

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Go side by side with the sun and moon,
Do the rounds of Space and Time.
Act out their neat conjunctions,
Stay aloof from their convulsions.
Dependents each on each, let us honour one another.
Common people fuss and fret,
The Sage is dull and a sluggard.
Be aligned along a myriad years,
in oneness, wholeness, simplicity.
All the myriad things are as they are,
And as what they are make up totality.


Make your will one. Don't listen with your ears, listen with
your mind. Don't listen with your mind, but with your


While Mencius was giving the teachings of Confucius the philosophical foundations they retained for centuries, Taoist thinkers felt the same spiritual, moral and political forces that affected the followers of Confucius. Unlike the Confucians and Mohists, who saw themselves as privileged participants in traditions which needed to be defined, preserved and carefully transmitted to subsequent generations, the Taoists constituted less a tradition than a cluster of viewpoints broadly characterized by a rejection of social conformity and an affirmation of spontaneity born of insight and meditation. Mencius sought to elucidate the core of human nature and set forth the basis of wise action. The Taoists challenged clearly defined conceptions of human nature, the social order and the purpose of life. They summoned all the powers of dialectical thought to uncover fundamental weaknesses in the rational conventionalism of the Legalists and the social propriety of the Confucians, and they remained sceptical of Mohist generalizations regarding man and society. What Mencius did for Confucian tradition, Chuang Tzu did for Taoist thought, and just as Mencius was called 'the second Sage' after Confucius, so Chuang Tzu could be called the second Founder of the Taoist lineage.

Paradoxically, more is known about the character and temperament of Chuang Tzu than about any other ancient Chinese philosopher, owing to his style of expression. But even less is known of his life than the meagre details which give clues to the lives of others before him. Ssu-ma Ch'ien, in his famous Historical Records, reported that Chuang Tzu was contemporaneous with King Hui of Liang and King Hsuan of Ch'i, which, taken with a few additional oblique references, suggests that Chuang Tzu lived from about 369 to 286 B.C.E. He was born Chuang Chou, and his freely flowing debates with adherents of a variety of schools indicate that he was a man of broad knowledge and penetrating insight. He combined a devastating sense of humour with an unqualified fearlessness of everyone and everything, and he vigorously discussed important topics with anyone who wished to consult or dispute with him. He was born in the state of Meng (in present-day Honan province) and for a brief period was an official in Ch'i-yuan, the Lacquer Garden, which was perhaps a natural preserve or part of the royal palace. He firmly rejected public life, however, and withdrew into a long solitude punctuated by the visits of disciples and followers of other schools.

All the stories about Chuang Tzu come from the book attributed to him, and they centre around three themes. A number of anecdotes show him mocking the claims of logic and rationality, always when in discussion with Hui Shih, a long-time friend. Others depict him rejecting offers of high office and involvement in public affairs, preferring private life and its humble pleasures. He was heedless of the discomforts that accompany poverty, and he was careless of his clothing and appearance. He did not see himself as miserable, though he readily admitted that he was poor. A third aggregate of stories point to his joyful contemplation of death as part of the universal process of dissolution and renewal. When he and his disciples knew that he was nearing the time of his own death, they began to discuss plans for a funeral and burial befitting a Sage. Chuang Tzu intervened and said that he needed no services or paraphernalia, for Nature would constitute his inner and outer coffin, the sun and moon his jade rings, the stars and planets his jewellery, and all creation would make offerings and escort him. Shocked, his disciples expressed fear that if his body were laid out under the canopy of heaven, crows and buzzards would eat it. Chuckling, Chuang Tzu replied:

Above ground, crows and kites will devour me. Below ground, worms and ants will do the same. What prejudice is this, that you wish to take from the one to give to the other?

Chuang Tzu wrote no systematic treatises, but he sometimes noted down fragments of discussions which illustrated some vital aspect of his thinking. His disciples apparently did the same, and a collection of scrolls, consisting of bamboo strips tied together in sheets, accumulated. Liu Hsiang (77-76 B.C.E.) edited them for the Imperial Library of the Han Dynasty, and his work consisted of fifty-two chapters. Eventually, Kuo Hsiang (d. 312 C.E.) condensed this work into a volume of thirty-three chapters, and this is the text known as the Chuang Tzu. It is traditionally divided into three parts, only one of which was written by Chuang Tzu. This is the first part, known as the Inner Chapters, seven sections reflecting homogeneity of style and consistency of theme. The second part, called the Outer Chapters, is a collection of fifteen essays on interrelated topics, some of which reflect the spirit of Chuang Tzu's thought and others which seem to embody the teachings of other Taoist standpoints. The eleven Mixed Chapters, which bring the work to a conclusion, are a miscellany consisting of unrelated fragments, some perhaps by Chuang Tzu, some essays of the non-Taoist school of Yang Chu, and a brief account of philosophers who lived before Chuang Tzu.

Chuang Tzu, as the Inner Chapters make clear, rooted his thinking in one architectonic principle: the relativity of all experience which dichotomizes and fragments the unity of invisible and visible Nature.

Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamt that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Chou. Between Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is called the transformation of things.

Chuang Tzu's rejection of systems and proprieties was not an attack on the mind or on sociality, but on the tendency to take a specific perspective – represented by philosophical presuppositions, on the one hand, and by ritual and ceremony, on the other – and to absolutize it. For him, systematic thought risks consolidating a tentative view into a fixed dogma. When speaking of Tao, the Way, he used words like 'tenuous' and even 'nothing' to indicate its elusive nature.

Like all classical Chinese philosophers, Chuang Tzu thought that the activating principle of all things – the motion of the celestial vault, the growth of plants, the beating of the heart, the undulation of the ocean – is ch'i, breath or energy. The term originally meant air and in very ancient times had come to mean 'the energy of the universe'. In the human body it is breath, but in the human being as a whole it is spirit. Ch'i can also be thought of as the material force, and in its most torpid condition it is matter. For Chuang Tzu especially, ch'i is the essence of Heaven and earth. "The ten thousand things", he said, "are really one . . . . All things in the world are pervaded by a single ch'i." In a sense, ch'i bears much the same range of meaning as the Sanskrit prana. In another sense, the term is close to the 'air' of Anaximenes, who held that air is the origin of all things which emerge and are transformed through condensation and rarefaction, the arche or first principle of things.

Chuang Tzu illustrated the operation of ch'i by telling a story about Tzu-ch'i of Nan-kuo. When asked about change and changelessness, Tzu-ch'i said:

You hear the pipes of men, don't you, but not yet the pipes of earth, the pipes of earth, but not yet the pipes of Heaven? . . .

That most enormous of clumps of soil blows out breath, which is called 'wind'. Better if it were never to start up, for whenever it does ten thousand hollow places burst out howling, and don't tell me you have never heard how the hubbub swells. The recesses in mountain forests, the hollows that pit great trees a hundred spans round, are like nostrils, like mouths and ears, like sockets, like bowls and mortars, like pools and puddles. Hooting, hissing, sniffing, sucking, mumbling, moaning, whistling, wailing, the winds ahead sing out 'Aaah!', the winds behind answer 'Eeeh!', breezes strike up a tiny chorus, the whirlwind a mighty chorus. When the gale has passed, all the hollows empty, and don't tell me you have never seen how the quivering slows and settles.

Tzu-ch'i's questioner responded that the pipes of earth are the hollows, and the pipes of men are rows of tubes, but, he wondered, what about the pipes of Heaven? Tzu-ch'i answered:

Who is it that puffs out the myriads which are never the same, who in their self-ending is sealing them up, in their self-choosing is impelling the force into them?

Heaven turns circles, yes!
Earth sits firm, yes!
Sun and moon vie for a place, yes!
Whose is the bow that shoots them?
Whose is the net that holds them?
Who sits with nothing to do and gives
them the push that sends them?

The vital fluidity of ch'i appears throughout Nature as universal dissolution and ceaseless re-formation, and in distinct objects as te, power or virtue. Te is virtue in the sense of the word found in expressions like "The virtue of aspirin is to relieve pain", and is similar to the Sanskrit dharma as found in statements like "The dharma of fire is to burn." In man, te is that which, when nurtured, enables a human being to follow Tao, the Way. For Chuang Tzu, the fundamentality of Chi'i is best expressed in an individual as spontaneity which is inevitable. This spontaneity is not an impulsive reaction to some set of circumstances, but a carefully cultivated freedom from the negative oppression of rules, rituals and conventions of thought and action. Rather than being a habit, which binds one into routinized lines of thought and chains of deeds, it is a knack which gets something right. In the Chuang Tzu, a carpenter was asked by Duke Huan how he carves a wheel out of wood. The carpenter replied:

When I chisel a wheel, if the stroke is too slow it slides and does not grip; if too fast it jams and catches in the wood. Not too slow and not too fast. I feel it in the hand and respond from the heart; the tongue cannot put it into words: there is a knack in it somewhere which I cannot convey to my son and which my son cannot learn from me.

This knack is the unobstructed flow of ch'i and the secret of te. It has to be cultivated, but one can neither formulate it in words nor capture it in a technique. It cannot be forced. When a swimmer was asked how he stayed afloat in a whirlpool, he said, "I enter with the inflow and emerge with the outflow. I follow the Way of the water and do not impose my selfishness upon it." Whilst the mind is tempted to name, formulate and categorize, Chuang Tzu pointed to just that spontaneity or knack which eludes the embrace of thought, yet involves one's whole nature. He was interested less in forms and formulae than in the interstices in things, reminiscent of Patanjali's attention to the spaces between mental impressions. There, both thought, was the gateway to the Real.

As for the man who rides a true course between Heaven and earth, with the changes of the Six Energies for his chariot, to travel into the infinite, is there anything on which he depends?

Chuang Tzu's emphasis on tutored spontaneity is reflected in his frequent use of yu, 'roam', 'wander', especially in conjunction with thinking and living. But his "rambling without a destination" – the title of the first chapter of the Chuang Tzu – was not purposeless. He rejected the invented purposes and contrived goals of so-called rational men because he thought they conflicted with ming, the decree of Heaven. Mencius brought Man and Heaven together by teaching that each human being has his ming and that Heaven visits good or ill on those who obey or resist the will of Heaven. Chuang Tzu, whose distrust of dichotomies led him to suspect all distinctions, attempted to erase any gap between Heaven and Man. Even mentally attempting to live according to the will of Heaven, he thought, involves one in so much rationalizing that one invariably obstructs one's own efforts. To conceive of the will of Heaven is to place it apart from oneself. Then one struggles to formulate principles which embody Heaven's will, followed by an even riskier effort to specify rules of conduct, and finally, techniques for their application to specific circumstances. The distinguishing characteristic of human beings, according to Chuang Tzu, is the inclination to make the judgements shih and fei, right and wrong (but literally more like 'that's it' and 'that's not it'), and these expressions mask likes and dislikes, attractions and repulsions. A person who is the slave of his likes and dislikes cannot apprehend the spontaneous course of Heaven, and instead creates an elaborate superstructure of distinctions and dichotomies which hide a root failure to understand Heaven. Once when explaining this point to Hui Shih, the sophist asked, "Can a man really be without the essentials of man?"

"He can", Chuang Tzu assured him.

"If a man is without the essentials of man," Hui Shih persisted, "how can we call him a man?"

"The Way gives him the guise, and Heaven gives him shape, so how can we refuse to call him a man?"

"But since we do call him a man, how can he be without the essentials of man?"

"Judging shih, fei is what I mean by 'the essentials of man'. What I mean by being without the essentials is that the man does not inwardly wound his person by likes and dislikes, and that he constantly follows the spontaneous and does not add anything to the process of life."

Chuang Tzu elucidated the full implications of such a view by depicting the Sage:

Since the Sage does not plan, what use has he for knowledge? Since he does not chop in pieces, what use has he for glue? Since he loses nothing, what use has he for repayments? Since he does not treat things as commodities, what use has he for peddling? For these four things, he buys at the market of Heaven. . . . Unutterably vast is the Heaven within him which he perfects in solitude.

Chuang Tzu believed that one is born with characteristics common to all human beings, and this is why one can understand others. What makes a difference in human life, however, is the nurturing of te in oneself. In negative terms, this means removing every form of egotism and selfishness from one's acts, because they cannot be part of Heaven, which embraces everyone without reserve. In positive language, it means ceasing to scheme, plan and secondguess Heaven. Chuang Tzu does not hold that one should become passive or that one should mindlessly surrender oneself to Heaven. Rather, the distinction between Heaven and Man is suspect, because Heaven is in Man and expresses itself as te. Even more, he asked, "How do I know that the doer I call 'Heaven' is not the man? How do I know that the doer I call 'Man' is not Heaven?"

What, for Chuang Tzu, is Heaven? Although he frequently used the word t'ien ('heaven'), the term favoured by the Chou Dynasty, he sometimes talked of ti ('god'), the older idea prevalent in the hoary Shang Dynasty. Firmly rejecting the idea of ti, the divine, as a person or an agent to whom personal attributes might be given, he just as strongly rejected the idea of an impersonal cause. Once again, he doubted the value of the dichotomy, and felt free to speak in whatever way suited the context. The highest forces are, he believed, inscrutable or shen, daemonic. Rather than pretend to understand them, one should allow them to flow through oneself. Clear the thinking heart of obfuscations, and an infusion of shen will raise one above one's limited conceptions. Then one will become a spontaneous, daemonic man, active yet selfless, naturally attuned to the great current of Heaven.

The True Men of old used what is Heaven's to await what comes, did not let man intrude on Heaven. The True Men of old used the eye to look at the eye, the ear to look at the ear, the heart to recover the heart. Such men as that, when they were level, were true to the carpenter's line, and when they were altering stayed on course. Hence they were one with what they liked and one with what they disliked, one when they were one and one when they were not one. When one they were of Heaven's party, when not one they were of man's party. Someone in whom neither Heaven nor Man is victor over the other, this is what is meant by the True Man.

According to the Chuang Tzu, Hui Shih was a sophist in that he delighted in posing a series of linguistic paradoxes – like "simultaneous with being alive a thing dies" – which showed that dichotomies lead to self-contradictions. For him, such reasoning draws one inexorably to a moral conclusion: "Let your love spread to all the myriad things, heaven and earth are one unit." Chuang Tzu found this kind of logical difficulty strong enough to doubt the efficacy of reasoning. If sequences of logical statements can lead to contradictions, and if anything can be made to follow from a contradiction, then logic and the rationality predicated upon it are virtually worthless. Chuang Tzu accepted Hui Shih's moral conclusion, but not because it followed from a series of logical steps. Rather, he affirmed the ultimate ineffable unity of all things as a mystical realization and elicited moral correlates from it. He saw in the contradictions implicit in sophistic discourse proof of the relativity of all perspectives. Where there is a difference of perspective, as there always is in beings who do not have the mystical insight of the Sage, logic succeeds only within a shared perspective, but can never illuminate rival perspectives.

Hence, Chuang Tzu rejected pien, disputation, as a waste of effort, in favour of lun, sorting things out, in which everything is put in its proper place. This process, whilst it may benefit from mutual discussion and sharing of relative insights, is essentially a turning within – where t'ien, tao and te are found – and a rectification of one's own understanding. This process grades or evaluates in the way an apple sorter grades apples into superior, good, average and unacceptable, but it does not judge anything (since, in the analogy, every kind of apple has some use). He intimated the subtlety of the process when he said:

What is outside the cosmos the Sage locates as there but does not sort out. What is within the cosmos the Sage sorts out but does not assess. The records of the former kings in the successive reigns in the annals the Sage assesses, but he does not argue over alternatives.

The purpose of this activity is to bring about the greatest possible clarity in the heart, which is the thinking faculty. The pseudo-spontaneity of impulse and slavery to the passions muddies the heart, so distorting one's perceptions and awareness that one cannot follow Tao. The spontaneity of the pellucid heart fuses the 'is' of circumstance with the 'ought' of action.

Chuang Tzu did not try to derive 'ought' from 'is'. Rather, his mystical recognition of the unity of all things, reflecting the starting point of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, is replicated in sorting things out. In other words, where the heart is clear, ultimate unity is mirrored as the coincidence of 'is' and 'ought', fact and value, circumstance and imperative. The Sage does not stand beyond morality, though he may reject many conventions that pass for morality. The Sage is so spontaneously moral that for him to see a set of conditions is to know how to respond unerringly. His words and deeds are one with the course of Heaven, such a perfect manifestation of te that they cannot adequately be described in the dichotomous language of ordinary moral discourse. "The utmost man", Chuang Tzu taught, uses the heart like a mirror; he does not escort things as they go or welcome them as they come: he responds but does not store." Even in treading the Way, Tao, it is as if the Sage does nothing. Since the Way abides beyond distinctions, Chuang Tzu called it tenuous, invisible, nothing at all, but this is the invisibility of perfect mirroring which draws attention only to what is reflected.

Chuang Tzu delighted in the fact of death, not because he disliked life or thought it evil, but because he saw death as a vital part of the process of universal dissolution, which is also the process of ceaseless re-creation. When a friend went to Chuang Tzu to console him upon the death of his wife, he was horrified to find Chuang Tzu beating on a bowl and singing. Asked how he could be carefree in the face of such a loss, he replied:

When she first died, how could I help not being affected? But, reflecting on the matter, I saw that in the Beginning she had originally been lifeless. More, she had originally been formless. Even more, she had originally lacked all substance. Chaos was transformed into substance, and substance assumed form, and then form underwent modification and came alive. Now it has changed again in death. It is like the passing of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter. Whilst she sleeps in the universe, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show myself ignorant of ming.

There is, as the phrase implies, no triumph over universal dissolution; but there is victory over death. Death is the termination of a sense of self – ego – which has been deposited by the turbid heart. If death is the end of ego, freedom from the ego is transcendence of death. It is the recognition that what one was in the beginning, one always is and always will be. And what one was originally cannot be separated from all that is, since everything constitutes a transcendent unity beyond the pairs of opposites, including life and death. When the heart is as pellucid as crystal, when it mirrors the unitary whole and not the part, one has already transcended the opposites and regained one's original nature. One has attained immortality in life, which embraces universal dissolution and entirely escapes death.

The test that one holds fast to the Beginning is the fact that one is not afraid.