Chuang Tzu (Master Chuang) was a witty and profound writer – and a bit of a curmudgeon sometimes. I love his parables, and his humor, and his mystical – yet very pragmatic – approach to attunement and freedom from conventional obsessions. He lived in China sometime around the 4th century B.C.E.
He’s my favorite.
You may run across different spellings of his name. This is how I saw it when I first started reading, but you will also see Zhuangzi, Chuang Tsu, Zhuang Tze, Chouang-Dsi, or Chuang Tse, depending on the conventions being used. (Traditional: 莊子; Simplified: 庄子, Pinyin: Zhuāng Zǐ, Wade-Giles: Chuang Tzŭ)
If you’ve never read Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton’s personal readings in Way of Chuang Tzu are a friendly gentle introductory bridge to some of the writings of one of the most important classical Taoists.
My copy is covered with underlining and notes from my thoughts from many (many – early 80′s) years ago. I reread it last night – what a treat! I would occasionally stumble across a comment that made me choke, trying not to laugh out loud (everyone else was asleep).
For example, in the introduction, Merton compares Chuang Tzu to St. Paul; that almost blew the whole thing for me right there at the time. I won’t tell you what I wrote in the margin. (hee-hee) How things have changed.
Now I can see a certain degree of similarity in the emphasis on inner virtue as a virtue above “virtue” (rules) and something a little like grace in the Tao – maybe. I still think the analogy to Paul is really stretching it.
Still, this was Thomas Merton, and one must make allowances for a Catholic monk who tried to bridge West and East, especially when this book was published (1965). Merton admits that it is a personal reading. He likes Chuang Tzu
“because he is what he is and I feel no need to justify this liking to myself or anyone else. He is far too great to need any apologies from me. If St. Augustine could read Plotinus, if St. Thomas could read Aristotle and Averroes (both of them certainly a long way further from Christianity than Chuang Tzu ever was!), and if Teilhard de Chardin could make copious use of Marx and Engels in his synthesis, I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse who shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and who is my own kind of person.”
It’s telling that he foresaw objections… and that he defends within the parenthesis of not-defending….
You cannot put a big load in a small bag,
Nor can you, with a short rope,
Draw water from a deep well.
You cannot talk to a power politician
As if he were a wise man.
If he seeks to understand you,
If he looks inside himself
To find the truth you have told him,
He cannot find it there.
Not finding, he doubts.
When a man doubts,
He will kill.
The man in whom Tao
Acts without impediment
Harms no other being
By his actions
Yet he does not know himself
To be “kind,” to be “gentle.”
My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it. My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness: and this, in the minds of most people, is the worst possible course.
… If you ask “what ought to be done?” and “What ought not to be done” on earth in order to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have an answer. There is no way of determining such things.
Yet at the same time, if I cease striving for happiness, the “right” and the “wrong” at once become apparent all by themselves.
And my personal favorite:
When Chuang Tzu was about to die, his disciples began planning a splendid funeral. But he said, “I shall have heaven and earth for my coffin; the sun and moon will be the jade symbols hanging by my side; planets and constellations will shine as jewels all around me, and all beings will be present as mourners at the wake. What more is needed? Everything is amply taken care of!”
But they said, “we fear that crows and kites will eat our Master.”
“Well,” said Chuang Tzu, “above ground I shall be eaten by crows and kites, below it by ants and worms. In either case I shall be eaten. Why are you so partial to birds?”
That’s a case where I wish I understood the original Chinese. I think the last line should probably be translated as something closer to “so why are birds in particular to be feared?” or even “what have you got against the birds?”.
I’m going to start rereading Burton Watson’s translation of Chuang Tzu – Basic Writings tonight. I remember that my favorite text was on the last page – I admired the placement.
The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?
I’ve got still another Chuang Tzu text around here somewhere… where could it be? I remember the cover is white, with light-blue text for the title. I think the translator was A. C. Graham. Hmmm. Well, it’ll turn up –