In an effort to decide how I wanted to approach this paper, I decided to search the Internet to see what today’s world held for me on the matters of Chinese Philosophy. One quote describing Chuang Tzu, the topic of my research paper, stuck out. In describing what this person thought was the overlying teachings of Chuang Tzu he stated, “The individual could attain mystical unity with this One by achieving complete emptiness or hs -a timeless state free of worries or selfish desires, open to impressions but transcending all individual material objects.” This is what truly made the biggest impression on me from our seminar class. Now, I know that in the beginning of the class we were lead to believe that none of these philosophies should change our life because for one, they where written a very long time ago, where being in a “timeless state free of worries,” could be possible. I have to say though that some of the material, especially Chuang Tzu really changed my outlook on many things.My parents could say that this philosophy has made me lazy, believing that I can go through life, living peacefully and harmoniously, in nature, with out a care in the world. I don’t really believe this, but some of Chuang Tzu’s arguments have either made me strongly agree with what he was teaching, or go into the opposing view and really make me want to seek out more to life, than just my surroundings.
As a philosopher, Chuang Tzu has been under attack from the beginning. It has been said that “scholars at the time could neither figure out what to do with him nor overlook his caustic attack on their root assumptions.”(Wu, 2) He has been misunderstood from the beginning. Critics are always condemning him, and not fully understanding what he is trying to hear. His critics can be often heard describing him as a “skeptic, nihilist, fatalist, relativist, and even an evolutionist…In other words, Chuang Tzu is a queer mystical negativist, an obscure prankster, who is not worth taking seriously.” (Wu, 2)
Chuang Tzu from the beginning effected me greatly and made the world around me seem different. His teachings helped me understand a lot of the emotions that I had been filed with as a child and through my many stages of maturing. In Section one “Free and Easy Wandering,” Chuang Tzu proclaims, “If you go off into the green woods nearby, you can take along food for three meals and come back with your stomach full as ever.” (24) In essence he is saying that food is not the only necessary means of filling a person. There is so much more out there in this world. A person’s soul also needs nourishment. Being at peace can fulfill this need, and nature can bring you a feeling of relaxation and peacefulness. The truth is that it is easier to figure out what is going on around you while surrounded by god’s gifts to the earth. The pureness of nature can satisfy more than any actual substance or material.
“The little quail laughs at him, saying, ‘Where does he think he’s going? I give a great leap and fly up, but I never get more than ten or twelve yards before I come fluttering down among the weeds and brambles. And that’s the best kind of flying anyway!…’ Such is the difference between big and little.”(25) Now this is something that Chuang Tzu discusses that I disagree with. In his writings he believes that a person is given their talents by god or nature, and that it is the foolish person that tries to defy nature and experience and accomplish things that is beyond them. This quote about the little quail states that the quail is perfectly happy in his own world, content in his belief that he lives the best possible way, and that anyone who reaches outside of that realm is foolish, that nothing could possibly be better than what he knows. This seems ignorant to me. Why should people stay within what they know, why shouldn’t they strive like Peng to fly as high as they can, and travel to distant lands, nothing should seem unconquerable? This is where I find some weakness in his teachings. He sees this pride of not trying to go further as a positive thing, as in his quote “Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to fill one office effectively, good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures.” (25) I actually received a kind of re-enforcement from this quote, but it came from the opposite conclusion. That this statement was unsatisfactory for me, and why should I be constrained to my surroundings? This class and Chuang Tzu, and also the book Iron Silk, are some of the reasons that I decided to take Chinese and I decided to study in China. I wanted to defy what was expected of me, I wanted to break out of the Western World. It was fascinating when my fellow students in class spoke Chinese and I wanted to understand and be able to speak the tongue that sounded so foreign to my ears.
Another quote that seemed fascinating to me was the quote from Section one, “He drew a clear line between the internal and the external and recognized the boundaries of true glory and disgrace. But that was all. As far as the world went. He didn’t fret and worry, but there was still ground he left unturned.” Now I got two things out of this quote,One, that you should be free, recognize the obvious, but don’t stress. Realize your surroundings, your boundaries, your limitations, but don’t go beyond that. Just by being observant and understanding the atmosphere that you are in, you will be content. You should not waste your time trying to discover everything, because one, not everything was meant to be discovered, and two at this point you should just be content with yourself, and with this contentment, you will find peace and happiness. By discovering too much, you will discover things that you don’t understand and that will make you unhappy. Basically, he is saying, the less you know, the happier you are, to just be happy with what you are given and taught. I don’t really agree with this train of thought. How can you be content when there is so much out there to discover, how do you curb curiosity?
Lastly the final quote from Section one that I found fascinating was,
“I have a big tree called a shu. It’s trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, it’s branches to bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurs them!” “Chuang Tzu said, ‘ Now you have this big tree, and your distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by it’s side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten it’s life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief o pain.”
This is one of my favorite quotes because it shows the purpose for what others see as useless. It reminds me of the story of the Giving Tree, where the tree can not act out an activity, it is always there to provide something, and does not hurt a thing. This is what Chuang Tzu is saying. Why should people spurn what Chuang Tzu says, or criticize him? If what they are saying is true, that he provides nothing, but uselessness, than how can he be hurting anything, and if he is not causing any pain, why should he be stopped from what he is doing? But in actuality if there can be any good coming out of his lessons, than they should be taught freely and not shunned. Like the tree, he provides comfort in a world which always expects something back, like the tree which provides shade and a place to lie down and rest, he to shows people only good things in the world, and how to find peace with themselves, how can this be bad, when he expects nothing back?
Section two, “Discussion on Making All Things Equal” criticizes society and what effects it has on people. Chuang Tzu believes that society can be detrimental to the human spirit. There is so much that drains the everyday person, so much that conquers them. So many expectations drag people away from an easy, spiritual life.
“Great understanding is broad and unturned; little understanding is cramped and busy. Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome….With everything they men meet they become entangled. Day after day they use their minds in strife, sometimes grandiose, sometimes sly, sometimes petty. Their little fears are mean and trembly; their great fears are stunned and overwhelming…They cling to their position as though they have sworn before the gods, sure that they are holding on to victory. They fade like fall and winter- such is the way that dwindle day by day. They drown in what they do – you cannot make them turn back.” (32)
This quote is so symbolic of the way Chuang Tzu feels about the world around him. Simple men, who keep to the constraints of their life and what is expected of them by society become “petty.” They have no real understanding of the earth and of nature. They don’t understand themselves or their purpose of survival on earth. They believe that survival includes competition for little mindless things. These things will not make men better humans, just ignorant to everything around them. They waste their minds and their talents. Men who are constrained don’t even find their talents, let alone use them to their full potential. They hold onto meaningless things, that in the end will not help them better themselves. Becoming consumed makes these men fear things they should not, and worship things that symbolize nothingness.
Chuang Tzu continues on to state that,
“Joy, anger, grief, delight, worry, regret, fickleness, inflexibility, modesty, willfulness, candor, insolence – music from empty holes…Let it be! Let it be! It is enough that morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live. Without them we would not exist, without us they would have nothing to take hold of.” (32-33)
This emphasis on acceptance of nature is a trend throughout his entire writings. All of these emotions that people let overtake their spirit and attitude are useless. They do not help man, they only hinder him. Chunag Tzu teaches that people can be at peace if they live life without these annoying personality traits. Emotions like “anger”, “worry”, and “regret” get the better of man, they control his actions and his view of the world around him. Whether it makes him insecure or overconfident, these emotions he describes as “empty.” We should just accept what is given to us by the gods and live with what is naturally bestowed upon us.
Another concept Chuang Tzu discusses in “Making All Things Equal” is “The Way”. This is one of the most talked about conceptions in Taoism. He believes that to be one with “The Way” you must accept all things. No division is needed. When a person judges things, he bases it on right and wrong. If there was no right or wrong, then no judgment would need to be made. With “this” and “that”, in the manner in one describes something, a separation is devised. Once all is accepted the opposites that people conceive really no longer exist. Everything is turned into one with “the Way”, there is no division. “Chuang Tzu accepts things as they are, though to the ordinary person attempting to establish values they appear chaotic and doubtful and in need of clarification.” (38) He goes on to use many wordy theories to prove the point that there is no use in overanalyzing, just accept life and try not to understand it because there are so many things out there that we can not possibly understand.
The only possible way to describe “The Way” is to quote Chunag Tzu himself because the concept is so hard to grasp.
“‘The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy.’ Let me tell you what the boundaries are, there is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions. These are called the Eight Virtues.
As to what is beyond the Six Realms heaven, earth, and the four directions, i.e., the universe the sage admits it exists, but does not theorize….So I say, those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate, fail to discriminate…Their sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them…So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.” (39)
The basic concept in this that I can devise, which according to Chuang Tzu, I shouldn’t even be analyzing at all, is that the sage tells us not to probe into matters that are beyond us. The person that “divides” fails. He examines life in to much detail and does not just embrace what is given to him. Those who do “discriminate” can not comprehend “The Way”, they over-“theorize”, which is why the “fail to see.”
Those who “fail to see” seem to think that the only way to exist on earth is to strive for meaningless things, by Chuang Tzu’s standards. Interesting enough, he explains that people really don’t know what we are here for. He states, “How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?”(43) This one statement seems almost profound. Why do people believe that this is the only life there is to lead, that they must achieve so much by society’s standards, when they do not know what else lies ahead after death? So many people go through life fearing death, and this is one of the things that Chuang Tzu pities most of humankind for. This fear that is instilled in us seems worthless. People are afraid of the unknown, which is almost pointless because if you are never going to know, what is the point of wasting time being scared?
It is fascinating that he believes, or at least presents us with the idea that everything around us could be a dream. “Someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake….assuming they understand things…how dense.” (44) This is linked to the above quote by the means that people presume to know all about the earth. People assume that this life is the only life to lead, and the way in which they are living it is correct. He shows an interesting perspective with this theory. That everything we, as humans, believe to be reality, could be a “great dream.” He explains that “stupid people” take the world for granted. They don’t question other possibilities, or other trains of thought because they are “dense.” Chuang Tzu tells us to “Forget the years; forget the distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home.” (44)
Section three continues along this train of thought of “forget(ting) the years.” The Secret of Caring for Life exhibits what Chuang Tzu really feels about how people should approach their lives. He believes that “knowledge” is endless, and there is such an abundance of it, and such a small span of the human life, that there is no point to strive for something we can never attain. He states, “Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years.” (46) This is what can make a person content and happy with their life.
In the World of Men is section four. This quote exemplifies what he was trying to portray in this chapter:
“The future you cannot wait for; the past you cannot pursue. When the world has the Way, the sage succeeds; Good fortune is light as a feather, but nobody knows how to pick it up. Misfortune is heavy as earth, but nobody know how to stay out of it’s way. Leave off, leave off,” (63)
There is nothing that anyone can do in this world to change their fate. Fate is predestined and to try to change it or defy it is useless. If a person waits for the inevitable then they have wasted their life. Chuang Tzu advises to just enjoy what life gives you, and to try to stay at of harms way. That is the way to lead a successful life.
The discussion of how a person should live their life is a great discussion topic in Chuang Tzu. He asserts that “Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are the alternatives of the world, the workings of fate…Therefore, they should not be enough to destroy your harmony… If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy…creating the moment within your own mind – this is what I call being whole in power.”
The central theme of the Chuang Tzu may be summed up in a single word: freedom. How is man to live in a world dominated by chaos, suffering, and absurdity. Baggage of old ideas, the conventional concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, life and death, that he lugged about with him wherever he went. It is this baggage of conventional values that man must first of all discard before he can be free. If man would once forsake his habit of labeling things good or bad, desirable, then the man-made ills, which are the product of man’s purposeful and value-ridden actions,
In Chuang Tzu’s view, the man who has freed himself from conventional standards of judgment can no longer be made to suffer…He does not in any literal sense withdraw and hide from the world……He remains in society but refrains from acting out of the motives that lead ordinary men to struggle for wealth, fame, success, or safety….In such a state, all human actions become spontaneous and mindless as those of the natural world. Man becomes one with Nature, or Heaven.