Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the ground, and a mustard seed can float there like a little ship. Place the cup in it, and it will not move, because the water is shallow and the boat is large.

These lines are from the book Chuang Tsu. Don’t ask me what they mean.


“Chuang Tsu” is also the name of the man who may have written the so-called inner chapters of the book. These seven inner chapters are readily available in English. The book’s other twenty-six chapters are referred to as outer chapters and are thought to be interpretations of the basic teachings. The outer chapters are hard to find in English.


          Chuang Tsu the book is far from what we Westerners think of as a printed and bound work containing ideas that follow some sort of progression. The Chinese Taoist title for this book, which dates back to 742 A.D., is “True Classic of Southern Cultural Florescence.”


          Florescence. That’s a term my high school English teacher would call a fifty-cent word. It refers to a condition of vigor, freshness, and beauty. It alludes to the originality of the thoughts expressed in the book and to Taoism itself. Original though the book Chuang Tso may be, it is fearfully difficult to comprehend.


A modern day scholar has noted that Chuang Tsu (the man) may have been a Taoist, but he never knew he was a Taoist. That is, if you be whatever you are, there is no need to let others know what you are.


          I said that. Feel free to quote me.


       After much research and much reading, I have to admit I don’t understand much of Chuang Tsu, either the book or the man. Maybe I’d be better off if I were a Chinese instead of a Scot. If I were Chinese I might be able to find copies of the outer chapters. Maybe they would be enlightening.

          The inner chapters are loaded with figures of speech, allegories, symbolisms, and other sorts of metaphor. Their language has been called poetic, but as is characteristic of poetry, you have to discover the meaning for yourself.

          Chuang Tzu the man served, like his predecessor Lao Tzu, as a government official. Perhaps, in those pre-computer and pre-typewriter days, he was a hand-scribe book keeper or a recorder of public documents. According to legend, Chuang Tzu was once offered a higher posting, but he turned down the suggestion because he said it would limit his freedom.

          Like Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu saw spontaneity and change in nature. To him spontaneity and change were not just constant ebb and flow but an ongoing close relationship. That is, a change here resulted in a change there. Life was something that led to death.

            According to one scholar,This is in accordance with Buddhist thought that flower blossoms come about because of a series of conditions that lead to their blooming. Leaves are blown away because a series of conditions lead up to it. Blossoms do not appear independently, nor does a leaf fall of itself out of its season. So everything has its coming forth and passing away; nothing can be independent without any change.”

          Another scholar noted, “It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world that everything is created by a series of causes and conditions and everything disappears by the same rule; everything changes, nothing remains constant.”

          Chuang Tsu may have believed in reincarnation.

            He wrote, I once dreamed I was a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Then I woke and was myself again. However, I do not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I was a butterfly dreaming I was a man. Between man and butterfly there is a barrier. This barrier is called reincarnation.

          Another of Chuang Tzu’s stories is called “Three in the Morning.”

          A keeper of monkeys declared that each of his monkeys was to have three chestnuts in the morning and four chestnuts at night. This seemed fair, but the monkeys didn’t like the idea and raised a big ruckus. So the keeper said okay, how about four chestnuts in the morning and three at night? The monkeys were satisfied.

          That reminds me of a similar story in the Western world called “Two Bits at Night and Two Bits in the Morning.”

It involves a thrifty Scotsman and his children. Every evening the Scot would give each of his kids twenty-five cents to go to bed without supper. Then, in the morning, he would charge each of them a quarter for breakfast.

What’s the point of this, you ask? Well, the actual number of quarters, or chestnuts, remained the same, but there was an adjustment to meet the likes and dislikes of those concerned. And this forms the basis of adjusting to externals.

In other words, you should fine-tune yourself to your surroundings, not the other way around.

          To quote one more passage from Chuang Tsu:

“Therefore, the truly great man, although he does not injure others, does not credit himself with charity and mercy. He seeks not gain, but does not despise his followers who do. He struggles not for wealth, but does not take credit for letting it alone.”

          I apologize if my talk has confused the issue, but the issue is confusing. As one scholar wrote, “We don't even know that Chuang Tsu composed the book that bears his name. Some of the book is brilliant; some is dreadfully dreary. The book may be the work of several hands, or one person with off days, and a fondness for speaking about himself in the third person.”

          Remember how my talk began:

Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the ground, and a mustard seed can float there like a little ship. Place the cup in it, and it will not move, because the water is shallow and the boat is large.


          That seems insightful. Does it have any meaning to any of you?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.

These lines are from verse 33 of Tao-Te-Ching.

Tao-Te-Ching is not a religious book, such as the Bible or the Koran. It is not inspired by God. It does not contain miracles, or holy declarations, or promises of life hereafter.

Tao-Te-Ching is a collection of the views of a Chinese man named Lao-tsu. He was not a priest, or a saint, or an angel. He was an accountant in the royal archives in the 6th Century court of the Zhou Dynasty.

But Lao-tsu did not deal only with day-to-day financial reports and records. He was also a home-spun truth-seeker, an individual who was not afraid to think his own thoughts. He lived around 600 B.C. and was a contemporary of the teacher and politician Confucius.

          Confucius was a Chinese teacher who promoted family ties, ancestor worship, and political morality. Or is political morality a contradiction in terms, such as the living dead? According to legend, Confucius advocated the ethic of reciprocity, which is a fancy way of saying the Golden Rule. You know: one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

          Confucius and Lao-tsu lived around the same time, and they may have known each other. I like to think of the two of them playing Chinese checkers, stroking their beards, and sharing a jug of rice wine.

They may have been buddies, but they didn’t agree on everything.

Lao-tsu thought Confucius had pretty good ideas but put too much importance on rules and rituals. Lao-tsu believed regulations got in the way of natural behavior. He likened the natural way to water running downhill.  

Normally a downward stream tends to follow a straight line unless it encounters a hefty obstacle. Say, a rock, or a dead sheep. In that event, the stream will not hang around and sulk but will simply flow around the obstruction, and then continue on its downward path.

That is the way of water.

          And that is what Lao-tsu termed the Tao. The way, the path, the road.

          His notion was that a human should live like running water. Or like the bamboo, which doesn’t fight against the wind but bends with it, and then returns upright to its natural state.

          Nature is the spirit of Taoism.

          “The Tao” translates as the way. The way of nature and of humanity.

          Lao-tzu spelled out his ideas in a collection called Tao-Te-Ching, which roughly translates as “The Way and its Power.”

          The collection is sometimes referred to as the book of 5,000 characters since this is the number of Chinese pictographs it contains.

          Of course, no two scholars agree on whether Lao-tsu was the author of Tao-Te-Ching, or even if the guy existed, or even when the book was written. That is not surprising. Two people have at least two different viewpoints, three people have three different outlooks, and so on.

          You probably know the definition of a giraffe. A giraffe is a horse that was designed by a committee.

          And speaking of opposing points of view, in China there are two varieties of Taoism. Tao Chia is philosophical Taoism; Tao Chiao is magical Taoism. It seems the philosophical strain was the original form, and the occult type was tacked on later because humans like to imagine they need a bit of hocus pocus to confirm what they think.

          To quote Jay Stevenson, author of Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eastern Philosophy: “Tao Chia is contemplative, or philosophical, Taoism, studied and practiced as a down-to-earth yet mystic way of life. Tao Chiao is magic, or religious Taoism, practiced in hopes of attaining immortality and divine blessing. “

          Leave it to the religious right to complicate something simple.

          The Tao-Te-Ching may be written in simple words, but it’s not easy to understand, even after several re-readings. Probably Lao-tsu naively thought human adults were as intelligent as they claimed to be. Therefore they did not need to be led by the hand and have everything explained to them.

Remember that other sage, Louie Armstrong. When someone asked him to explain jazz, Louie did not say, “It’s a style of music, native to America, characterized by a strong but flexible rhythmic understructure with solo and ensemble improvisations on basic tunes and chord patterns and, more recently, a highly sophisticated harmonic idiom.

          Instead, Louie said, “Man, if I gotta explain it, you’ll never understand.”

          One more quote, this from the back cover of the Tao-Te-Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:

          “The philosophy of Lao Tsu is simple: Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it.”