Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Vol.68 No.3 Summer 2017

Chuang Tzu

The sixth century BCE was marked by an unprecedented upheaval in the world of philosophy. Discarding the old and no longer suitable authoritarianism of the ancient writers, humanity made reason its sole guide and entered the realm of investigation with an open mind. It has been said that Socrates ‘brought down philosophy from the clouds to the earth,’ meaning that he freed the human mind from the fetters of orthodoxy and authority, ushering in a new era of scientific investigation. While Socrates was exposing the grandeur of morality and the beauties of justice and truth, the Buddha was inaugurating in India an era of revolt against the meaningless rites of the Vedas, and exposing the mischievousness of the caste system, preaching equality, mercy, benevolence and freedom of thought. In renouncing a position of the highest opulence for that of abject poverty, he was demonstrating the supreme value of love of truth and the unity of life.

At this time, China was in a state of disintegration and degeneracy. The lofty idealism of Yao and Shun, and the spirit of self-sacrifice of Yu the Great, had been completely forgotten. Dissensions, unbridled passions and ignorance ruled the hearts of the people. It was at this time that a great sage appeared in China who put morality above all worldly considerations, and enjoined the need for gentlemanly conduct under all circumstances. Such was Confucius. Observing reticence on the disputed questions of life after death and the mysteries of the human soul, he taught the simple principles of considerateness and propriety, filial piety and devotion to duty.‘ If our parents tell us to do what is obviously wrong, should we do it?’ asks a disciple. The sage bursts out: ‘What did you say? What did you say? Even if an august Prince commands his ministers to do what is not right, they must not obey him!’

While the sage of Lu was thus teaching politics and ethics, another great philosopher, Li or Lao Tzu, was teaching the philosophy of spiritual well-being. He believed in quietude, peace, retirement and absolute inaction, and laughed at the teacher of music and rites, Confucius. It is said that he was keeper of the Imperial archives at Loyang, and on record is an account of the interview Confucius had with him there, in the course of which the old philosopher smiled at the ignorance of the young Confucius and advised him to study Tao to realise the Truth. Apparently Confucius was deeply impressed by the wisdom of Lao Tzu, for on a subsequent occasion, though fundamentally in disagreement with him, Confucius compared himself to him in his fondness for antiquity and in disclaiming any originality or innovation in his teachings. In one of the ancient writings, Confucius is quoted as saying: ‘Transmitting but not inventing, believing in and loving antiquity, I venture to compare myself with Lao Ping.’ Lao is no other than Lao Tzu.

Lao Tzu loved obscurity. He lived and taught more by example than by precept, and after giving to the world his book, the Tao Te Ching, containing some five thousand words, he mysteriously disappeared. He entered the high valleys and did not return. His teachings left a mark on the thought of the China of his day, provoking speculation on mysticism and life, but it was left to Chuang Tzu, who came over two hundred years after him, to propagate the teachings of the old philosopher in his brilliant and dashing style, obtaining for them a permanent position in the history of Chinese philosophy.

Very little is known of the life of this philosopher. Ssu-ma Chi’en, the great Chinese historian of the Han dynasty, devotes one short paragraph to Chuang Tzu in his History. We learn from him that Chuang Tzu was a native of what is now Ho-nan, that he once held a petty office under the Duke, and that, collecting round him a few devoted philosophers, he retired to a beautiful spot where nature smiled in flowers and trees, and passed his life in contemplation of Tao.

Hearing of his profound scholarship and virtuous life, the Duke sent two officials, who presented the Duke’s respects to the sage and asked him, in the name of their master, to come to the capital and accept a high office. The following was Chuang Tzu’s reply: ‘I have heard that in Chu there is a sacred tortoise which has been dead for some three thousand years, and that the prince keeps this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest on the altar of his ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?’ ‘It would rather be alive’, replied the two officials, ‘and wagging its tail in the mud.’ ‘Begone!’ cried Chuang Tzu. ‘I too will wag my tail in the mud.’

Chuang lived in a hut constructed by himself in a beautiful spot on Mount Nan-hua, enjoying the singing of the birds and the play of rivulets, merged in the contemplation of the infinite, free from the cares of the world. When he was about to die, his disciples expressed a wish to give him a splendid funeral. But Chuang Tzu said: ‘With heaven and earth for my coffin and shell; with the sun, moon and stars as my burial regalia; with all creation to escort me to the grave—are not my funeral paraphernalia ready to hand?’ ‘We fear’, argued the disciples, ‘ lest the carrion kite should eat the body of our Master.’ To which Chuang Tzu replied: ‘Above ground I shall be food for kites; below I shall be food for mole-crickets and ants. Why rob the one to feed the other?’

To follow Chuang Tzu’s thought, it is necessary to understand his conception of Tao, which forms the pivot on which the whole of his philosophy hinges. Tao has been translated as ‘Way’ or ‘Path’. But this is misleading. Here is Chuang Tzu’s definition of Tao.

Tao has its reality and evidence, but no action or form. It is transmitted in all things, but nothing can be said to have and own it. It is obtained by all things but nothing can be said to have seen it. It exists by and through itself. It exists before heaven and earth, and indeed for all eternity. It causes the gods to be divine and the world to be produced. It is above the zenith, but it is not high; it is beneath the nadir, but is not low. It is prior to heaven and earth, but is not ancient; it is older than the most ancient, but is not old.

It would be a mistake to assume that Tao is the same as the God defined by Christian theologians. God loves as Tao loves, but the chief difference is that the Christian God is personal and the Creator of heaven and earth, while Tao is impersonal and far from being a Creator. Tao never incarnates as the Son, and is not partial to those who accept the divinity of His Son, having no son and no heaven and hell. Kuo Hsiang, one of Chuang Tzu’s recognised commentators, says:

How can Tao cause the gods to be divine and the world to be produced? Tao did not cause the gods to be divine, but they are divine themselves; this means that Tao causes them to be divine by not causing them. Tao did not produce the world, but the world produced itself: this means that Tao produced it by not producing it.

Fung Yu Lan says that Tao is the totality of the spontaneity of all things in the universe. Kuan Yin Tzu, a Mahayanist who was probably not a follower of Lao Tzu, says:

Tao is that which is above all thought and explanation. When this Tao is evolved, there appears heaven and earth and the ten thousand things. But Tao in itself does not fall under the categories of freedom and necessity, of mensuration or divisibility. It is all and each of these. Therefore it is called Heaven, Destiny, Spirit, or the Mysterious.

Tao appears very much like Shri Shankaracharya’s Brahman or the Upanishadic conception of Atman. In Yoga Vasishtha, a monumental work on Vedanta, the author speaks of Brahman more or less in the language of Lao Tzu.

Happiness has been the goal of the philosophy of India, China and Japan. ‘How can I go beyond the ocean of misery?’ is the starting point of Buddhism. The sage Kapila opens his Sankhya system of philosophy with the statement: ‘Elimination of the three kinds of sufferings is the supreme achievement.’ Even Confucius’s insistence on propriety and considerateness is dictated by a desire to enjoy the satisfaction of the discharge of one’s duty, and sincerity is lauded in The Book of Odes because it produces happiness in one’s mind as well as in that of others. Let us see what Chuang Tzu thinks of happiness.

Tao is in everything. Everything is in Tao. Everyone is happy by nature. It is an encroachment on one’s natural disposition and an imposition on one’s true nature which engenders unhappiness. In his chapter called ‘Happy Excursion’, Chuang Tzu says :

In the Records of Marvels we read that when the great bird Roc flies southwards, the water is smitten for a space of three thousand Li around, while the bird itself mounts a typhoon to a height of ninety thousand Li for a flight of six months’ duration. A cicada laughed and said to a dove: ‘Now when I fly with all my might, it is as much as I can do to get from tree to tree. What then can be the use of going up ninety thousand Li in order to start for the South?’ It is evident that the great Roc and the busy cicada are fully satisfied, each with its own excursion.

The commentator Kuo Hsiang sums up : ‘Although their size is different, their happiness is the same.’

Chuang Tzu holds that as long as human beings lived in their state of nature, content ‘to weave and clothe themselves, to till and feed themselves... men moved quietly and gazed steadily.’ ‘All things were produced, each for its own proper sphere. Birds and beasts multiplied ; trees and shrubs grew up. The former might be led by the hand; you could climb up and peep into the raven’s nest. For then man dwelt with birds and beasts, and all creation was one. There were no distinctions of good and bad men. Being all equally without knowledge, their virtue could not go astray. Being all equally without evil desires, they were in a state of natural integrity, the perfection of human existence.’ The fall of mankind began when the sages came with their theories of benevolence and justice, and disturbed human equilibrium by imposing music and rites on man, for in this way a desire for gain was produced and men began to strive one with another. ‘This was the error of the sages.’

In the chapter ‘The Way of Heaven’, Chuang Tzu says that we should make our spirit calm and reposeful like perfectly still water. ‘The heart being thus at rest, is the mirror of heaven and earth and reflects the entire universe.’ ‘Absolute inaction leads to happy contentment; neither sorrow nor distress can dwell with those who are in this happy state and they live to a good old age.’ Human joys (he says) accrue to those who are in harmony with men, but heavenly joy—natural, spontaneous, inner joy—accrues to those who are in harmony with heaven.

The same mystical thought is expressed in the Chandogya Upanishad by the seer who, in the fullness of his ecstasy cries: ‘Verily, true happiness belongs to those who live at one with the Infinite; those limited by the joy of finite things are ever miserable.’ Swami Rama Tirtha, the great Indian saint of the last century, confirms the statement of the Upanishadic seer: ‘When I ran after worldly objects, expecting to find happiness therein, it receded like my own shadow; but when I gave up the pursuit, and put myself in at-one-ment with the Infinite, I found an ocean of happiness surging within me.’

Speaking of happiness in another passage, Chuang Tzu says :

For my part, I find happiness in absolute inaction, which people commonly look upon as the height of misery. The man who possesses perfect happiness experiences no pleasure, and he who possesses perfect fame is never eulogised... The absolute inaction of heaven results in purity; that of earth, in repose. By the blending of these two inactions, the entire universe was created, gradually and daily emerging from nothing, without an external form. The innumerable forms of nature glow and flourish in the virtue of inaction. The inaction of heaven and earth is positive activity. What man is there who can attain to this inaction?’

Chuang Tzu’s inaction, like Shankaracharya’s nishkarma, does not mean physical inaction or slothfulness. The mystic acts, but the motive of the action is not selfish desire, but the impulse of the intuition, the outflow of the divine Energy through the channel of the body, without letting oneself be affected by the process or consequence of such action. In the language of a layman, it amounts to what Abraham Lincoln once said of himself: ‘I am an instrument in the hands of God.’ ‘Action is prayer’, says Carlyle, but it is clear that selfish action or that which is undertaken to satisfy the animal instincts in man, cannot be called prayer. Action becomes prayer and leads to perfect happiness when it is performed in the spirit of Chuang Tzu, free from all desire for selfish gain. In the Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna says to Arjuna, his beloved disciple and friend: ‘He who sees inaction in action, and who sees action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is the performer of all action.’

At the same time that Chuang Tzu started the propagation of his mystical philosophy, Mencius, pupil of the grandson of Confucius, was popularising the thought of his great master. His wonderful eloquence, great controversial ability and dignified behaviour silenced his opponents, and established the efficacy of music and rites. Confucius had said : ‘The strongest desires of man are (for) food and sex. The strongest aversion of man is to death and poverty. Desire and aversion are the fundamental elements of man's mind. If it is to be wished to give a uniform measure to these elements there is no other way besides rites.’ ‘Music establishes union and harmony; rites maintain difference and distinction. From union comes mutual affection; from distinction, mutual respect.’ ‘Therefore the ancient philosopher-kings instituted rites and music to give measure to everybody.’

In the Confucian pragmatism there was no mystic element. Speculation on life after death, the origin of the universe, the nature of the First Cause, and the destiny of the human soul, were not only discouraged, but eliminated. A vague conception of virtue and the ideal of the superior man were all that Confucius thought necessary for social welfare and the perfecting of the individual character.

Chuang Tzu looked at the universe from a different standpoint. He said: ‘Virtue is the connecting link between man and God.’ Not only virtue but spirituality also was essential to perfection. He condemned music and rites, and recommended the emptying of the heart to enable the light of the spirit to shine forth. He insisted that one should find true spirituality in order to be able to maintain virtue, and to understand the meaning of life. The following passage illustrates his point of view well:

The Yellow Emperor travelled to the north of the Red Lake and ascended the K’un-lun Mountains. Returning south he lost his magic pearl (his spiritual part, his soul). He employed Intelligence to find it, but without success. He employed Sight (dialectics) to find it, but without success. Finally he employed Nothing, and Nothing got it. (He did not employ Nothing to find it. He only employed Nothing.) ‘Strange indeed’, reflected the Emperor, ‘that Nothing should have been able to get it!’

Empirical knowledge, speech and sight tend to obscure rather than illuminate the spiritual nature of man. Only in a state of negation can true spirituality be found. The author of the Vedanta classic, the Avadhut Gita, comes to the same conclusion: ‘Some search for non-duality, and others seek after duality. Neither of them knows the mystery of Shiva (the Absolute) Who is above duality and non-duality.’

Like his master, Chuang Tzu advocates anarchism and exposes the futility of all restrictions imposed by others. He is so confident of the innate purity and goodness of human nature that he refuses to tolerate any imposition of law on man. For the evolution of Tao, it is necessary that man should live according to nature. Tao controls the evolution of man and society, and what man should do in order to receive the highest blessings of Tao, is not to put any artificial barriers in the way of its unfoldment. Moral, social and political obligations imposed on men are called fetters by this brilliant thinker. There was once a seabird which alighted outside the capital of Lu. The Prince of Lu was delighted, and ordered the best meal to be served and the best music to be played at a banquet in its honour. The bird, however, was dazed and dared not eat or drink, and in three days it was dead. This was treating the bird as the Prince would treat himself, not treating the bird as a bird. Chuang Tzu holds that what is good and useful to sages and politicians, cannot be good and useful to all men. It is therefore best to let mankind alone, so that Tao will be its sole guide and will lead it to perfection.

In short, Chuang Tzu is as much against government as he is against culture. As birds, imprisoned in a cage, cannot realise true happiness, so mankind, under the artificial restrictions of kings and governments, cannot attain the summum bonum.

Chuang Tzu did not recognise the validity of the institution of private property. In fact, no anarchy is possible unless private property is abolished. Chuang Tzu’s life in a forest on the top of a high hill, was free from any civic obligations, and he possessed virtually nothing which could be called exclusively his own.

Chuang Tzu does not believe in the perfection of man after death. In fact, he does not give any consideration to the question of whether the soul after death enters heaven or hell. Being Chinese, he was practical, and taught that perfection in this life consists in rising above the operations of matter, above heat and cold, gain and loss, love and aversion, honour and contumely—in establishing oneself in a state of perfect equilibrium. This teaching resembles that of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Arjuna is taught to be above all the ‘pairs of opposites’ and to find peace within himself. The idea is crystallised in a sentence of the Upanishad : ‘He who is established in his Infinite Self is happy.’ Heraclitus touches the same note when speaking of perfect happiness.

The following incident from the life of Chuang Tzu illustrates the point :

When Hui Tzu went to condole with Chuang Tzu on the death of his wife, he found Chuang Tzu squatting on the ground, singing and drumming upon a basin. He said : ‘When a man has been living with his wife who has borne him sons, grown old and finally died, and he does not weep for her death, is there no defect in his conduct? And when he sings into the bargain, is not this a great deal worse?’ ‘Certainly not’, replied Chuang Tzu, ‘When she first died I was a little depressed, but when I came to ponder, I saw that in the beginning she had originally been lifeless, originally formless, originally lacking all substance. A transformation took place and a vital principle came into existence; this in turn underwent transformation and a corporeal form was developed; this form undergoing transformation, it was born. Now, transformed once more, it has died. The whole process is like the sequence of the four seasons.’

Many great Indian and Greek philosophers, and those of other countries also, have been noted for their powers of inner concentration. Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu dwell at length on the virtue of introspection. They state that by going within, one discovers great spiritual laws, by virtue of which one can command the forces of nature. This process may be said to be the foundation of occultism and Yoga. It was misunderstanding of this teaching of Chuang Tzu which was responsible for the degeneration of his system of thought into black magic and the search for the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone, bringing many brilliant lives to ruin. It seems to be a fact that a large number of people, in order to develop occult powers, are willing to give up their comforts, the rational frame of mind, and even their moral standards. Such men are too preoccupied with magic to care for moral teachings. It is noteworthy that the Indian Vedantists reject all such occult practices and powers. The following passage from Chuang Tzu gives a clear conception of his ideal of the perfect man:

The Perfect Man is spirit-like. Great lakes may be boiled about him and he would not feel their heat; the great rivers might be frozen up, and he would not feel the cold; the hurrying thunderbolts might split the mountains and the wind shake the ocean, without being able to make him afraid. Being such, he mounts on the clouds, rides on the sun and moon, and rambles at ease beyond the four seas. Neither death nor life makes any change in him, and how much less should considerations of advantage or injury do so? No one will take these expressions literally. What the philosopher seems to mean is that a spiritual man is indifferent to the pairs of opposites, remaining undisturbed by mental or physical changes. It is interesting to note that the same idea is expressed in the Yoga Vasishtha: ‘Mountains may melt, winds may dry up oceans, the sun may become a lump of ice, and the moon a blazing ball. Still a Self-realised one is unmoved.’

Chuang Tzu believed in the perfection of the nature of man. As to Shankara, a life in God, a life of active realisation of God in all and all in God, was everything—the summum bonum—so to Chuang Tzu the discovery of Tao within, meant perfection in life. He says: ‘The Yellow Emperor obtained it (Tao) and soared upon the clouds to heaven... Nan Po Tzu said to Nu Nu: ‘You are old, Sir, and yet your complexion is like a child. How is this?’ Nu Nu replied: ‘I have learnt Tao.’ A striking point of resemblance between the teachings of the Upanishads and of Chuang Tzui is the unattainability of Tao or Brahman through study alone. As the sage Bharadwaj says: ‘The Self cannot be obtained by study or discussion.’

The philosophy of this brilliant thinker of China does not start with pessimism like that of the Upanishads or of Shakyamuni Buddha. Chuang Tzu does not find the world a net to imprison the soul, or think human life to be a soul dragging a corpse along with it. He finds harmony, beauty and order in the universe, and delights not only in its contemplation, but also in an active life therein. He does not ask his disciples to kill out desires or to retire to solitary caves for contemplation, nor does he believe in a Nirvana which implies the extinction of consciousness. His goal is the same as that pointed out in the Upanishads—the union of the individual with the whole; but the Whole of Chuang Tzu is not abstract, nor is it the Absolute of Shankara.

If you conceal the whole universe in the whole universe, there will be no room left for it to be lost. This is an eternal fact. Men consider that attainment of a human form is a source of joy. But the human form is only one of the countless forms in the universe. If one identifies one’s own self with the universe, one will undergo all transitions and attain all forms, with only the infinite and eternity to look forward, to. What incomparable bliss is that! Therefore the supreme man makes excursions in that which can never be lost, and which endures always. Those who can deal with death, old age, beginning and end, are already considered as teachers of mankind. How greatly superior to this is he who identifies himself with that which is the supporter of all things and conditions all evolution. Such a man will bury gold on the hillside and cast pearls into the sea. He will not struggle for wealth, nor strive for fame. He will not rejoice at old age, nor grieve over early death. He will find neither pleasure in success, nor chagrin in failure. He will not account a throne as his own private gain, nor the empire of the world as glory personal to himself. His glory is to know that all things are one, and that life and death are but phases of the same existence.

‘That which is Infinite is happiness,’ says the Upanishad, ‘the finite can never lead to true happiness.’ The Vedanta Sutras clearly point out that limitations are fetters and that one desiring true happiness must dwell in the consciousness of Eternity. Chuang Tzu says that the state of being at one with the universe is a psychological development which any man can attain in this very life, and so live in perpetual happiness.

Hari Prasad Shastri