The Book of Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu was a Chinese philosopher who lived during the 4th century B.C. before the introduction of Buddhism into China. He was a non-conformist in his own time and conveyed his ideas of the Tao in energetically poetic prose. Even in translation, the brilliance and compression of his language is evident. My discussion centers on Section 2 of The Book of Chuang Tzu. In this passage, Chuang Tzu communicates the structure of the differing levels, or spheres, of human experience and explains how the Tao functions and what its value is. In this analogy, the Tao is the Great Equalizer.

The first part of Section 2, Discussion On Making All Things Equal, begins with Tzu-ch'i of South Wall seated in apparent meditation. His friend Yen Ch'eng Tzu-yu asks him a cryptic question about how he has made his "...body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes?" (The reader soon learns that this refers to detachment.) Yen points out that Tzu-ch'i is not the same person he was before. Tzu-ch'i answers that he has "lost" himself, (referring to his personality-driven ego). He continues that Yen hears the piping of men, but not of the earth. Or if he has heard the piping of the earth, Yen hasn't heard the piping of Heaven. Chastened, Yen asks Tzu-ch'i what he means. Tzu-ch'i describes the wind as it blows through various places, through natural apertures which produce the range of sounds we associate with the wind. Yen replies that he understands: These sounds are the piping of the earth, and the piping of men is made by flutes and whistles. But, Yen asks, what is the piping of Heaven? Heaven is when everything is blown on in a different way, Tzu ch'i answers. This piping allows each thing or being to be itself, to express its essence or fulfill its potential. The real question, says Tzu-ch'i, is who does the blowing that causes the piping of Heaven?

Having established his central question, Chuang Tzu then leaves off with this dialogue and addresses the reader directly. He sets up a comparison between a broad, passive view of life and a fragmented, personal, active and desire-oriented view. For those who hold this second and more common view, "With everything they meet they become entangled." He describes the human condition, the lives of ordinary people, as being constantly tossed between opposing poles of experience, primarily pain and pleasure. They also tend to unthinkingly react to everything that happens to them. The result is that their efforts exhaust them, draining away thier life energy day by day. He says they drown in what they do, a metaphor for the numbing and cumulative effects of such prolonged, externally directed activity. At last, such people grow dark, unable to let in the light of truth, and they finally die.

Thus, Chuang Tzu debunks this view of life as futile. But, he reassures the reader, all of these things - the emotions and experiences that span the range of experiential duality, even birth and death, and the inevitable reactions to these conditions, are part of being human in the world. He admits we don't know why this is so, but peace begins by accepting it. "Let it be!" In fact, the relationship between Man and the world is an interdependent one, one cannot exist without the other. But, he asks, what oversees it?

Here, Chuang Tzu answers Yen's question, restating Tzu-ch'i's reply. Dualism is part and parcel of our world, but all opposites are related and dependent on each other. The piping of men and the piping of the earth are intertwined, each indispensible to the other's existence. Heaven oversees this, causing the piping to proceed in a different way that allows each thing to be its true self.

Chuang Tzu then elaborates on what Heaven, or the Tao, is. He begins by describing the body, marvelling at its complexity and the fact that it works without apparent conscious direction. But our attachments to our bodies is our first problem, he continues, because desires stimulated by the senses seem to drive us until the end of our lives. We often fail to pause and observe our accomplishments, or seek for rest. I think Chuang Tzu is using the word accomplishment here to describe a sense of appreciation for our existence, which necessarily involves reflection. Instead, we stay caught in the web of our desires until our deaths. Such a life is at most a muddle, if not a waste.

The proper use of the mind, however, can pave a way out of this muddle. But the mind is not the same as thinking in language. Chuang Tzu asks how can we trust the validity of words to properly describe reality when people use them to prove themselves right and others wrong? Obviously, words themselves are just representations of fragmented ideas that can be used any way we choose. He compares words to the meaningless peeping of birds. But clarity of mind can help us make sense of things. The Sage, or Wise Man, does not waste time in choosing sides between right and wrong, but looks on it all with "the light of Heaven." He sees every opposite as embodying the seed of its companion, (one thinks of the symbols of yin and yang), and mental clarity alone becomes "the hinge of the Way."

Things are "good" or "bad" because we choose to perceive them so. This is the central point in Chuang Tzu's argument. So much of the experience of our lives depends on our perception. If we see the wholeness of things rather than focusing on their fragmented opposites, we can achieve the broad, large and passive view of the world that the Sage has. The Sage, like us, sees that things are fragmented into opposites and these opposites constantly changing in their relation to each other, but for the Sage, these things are fluctuating in a closed, ultimately balanced system. This whole is what Chuang Tzu calls the Constant, and the Sage relates all things to the Constant.

Chuang Tzu then defines the Way, inasmuch as it can be defined: "The Constant is the useful, the useful is the passable, the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished." So judgments about events and experiences should be based on their usefullness and how they relate to the whole. This will enable one to "pass" through these experiences instead of becoming enmired in them. When we are then in control of how the external world affects us, this is success, or freedom.

But, Chuang Tzu cautions, one cannot come to this view or state of mind by effort. One cannot seek it but must instead become passive to allow it to arise. And one has to develop this passive view in parallel to the average view of life. He says the Sage harmonzies right and wrong and rests in Heaven the Equalizer. The Sage learns to live in the world of people and the world of the spirit simultaneously. Yet even many skilled philosophers who are "near perfection" can still forsake the experience of oneness by becoming embroiled in the analysis of it. This is simply another way one can become ensared by duality. But, Chuang Tzu concludes, when one uses clarity, one relegates all experience back to the Constant.

A striking quality of this passage, and indeed of this whole volume, is its beautifully compressed, poetic language. But the most noteworthy is how thoroughly Chuang Tzu's philosophy anticipates Buddhism, expecially the central tenet that true freedom can only be attained with the cessation of identifying with desire. Yet Chuang Tzu infuses a sense of intuitive immediacy to the task, whereas Buddhism is resolutely and thoroughly analytical. Though the essential message is the same, Chuang Tzu takes the poetic approach while Buddhist texts tend to prefer the prosaic.

I am convinced of the superior value of mystical experience in any spiritual inquiry. This kind of experience is what Chuang Tzu seems to advocate. In this passage, he argues that healing oneself in order to become whole is really a matter of healing one's perception of the world; to heal one's perception of life is the path to transcendence. Chuang Tzu locates the Tao within consciousness, the cultivation of clarity is the path. It is a vivid and imagistic way of relating how to connect with that seed of pure awareness every human being contains: this is the seat of peace, of freedom and of success. It is the closest we can get to Heaven.

© 1993 Shirley Galloway

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