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?


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