Monday, February 01, 2016


The Way of Chuang Tzu

After Lao-Tzu's Tao-te Ching, the second most well-known Taoist text is the       

Chuang-Tzu, written by a man named—you guessed it—Chuang Tzu. He was a Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC. Scholars think his text was derived from Lao Tzu because it too emphasizes the nature of life as ever changing.

          D.C. Lau, a contemporary Asian scholar, suggests there are two developments that separate Chuang Tzu’s approach from Lao-Tzu's. The first is a tendency toward moral relativism. The second is a Descartean struggle with sensory perception.

          Whatever that means is up to your understanding.

          To put it simply, it suggests that all natural life and all experiences are essentially interchangeable. A butterfly's existence is just as valuable and meaningful as a human one, and a dream is just as valuable and meaningful as an experience one has while awake.

          Chuang Tzu hinted at that when he wrote, “Once I dreamt I was a butterfly and was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly. When I awoke I was myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

          By all accounts Chuang Tzu was a person at peace with himself as well as with the world. His writings combine parables and conversations that point to deeper issues. He believed that life is fleeting, and the pursuit of wealth and fame were foolish endeavors that distracted from a true understanding of self and existence.

"The universe is the unity of all things,” he said. “If one recognizes his identity with this unity, the parts of his body mean no more to him than so much dirt, and death and life, and end and beginning disturb his tranquility no more than the succession of day and night."

He wondered: "Do the clouds make rain? Or is it the rain that makes the clouds? Who is it that has the leisure to devote himself, with such abandoned glee, to making these things happen?"

Chuang Tzu's notion of the Tao was similar to that of Lao Tzu. "The Tao has reality and evidence,” he wrote, “but no action or physical form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be obtained but cannot be seen.”

In either Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu there is no hint of a religious inclination of the kind which later adherents plagued Taoism with. Taoism evolved as a philosophy without the religious trappings that some followers felt they had to add to the movement.

Taoism is free of any trace of prophecy, pseudoscience, searches for an elixir of life, and all the other frills that later attached themselves.

Following are a few points about what Taoism is and is not, as excerpted from Responsible Non-action in a Natural World, by the contemporary scholar Russell Kirkland.


Immortality doesn't mean living for ever in the present physical body. As the Taoist draws closer and closer to nature throughout life, death is the final step in achieving complete unity with the universe.


Because the universe is always changing, so knowledge is always changing. Like the Tao, true knowledge cannot be known, but perhaps it can be understood or lived.


Taoist ethics are concerned less with doing good acts than becoming a person who lives in harmony with all things and people.


 Taoists tend not to initiate action but wait for events to make action necessary.


Taoism was adopted by the Hippy movement of the 1960s as teaching an alternative way of life that promoted the freedom and autonomy of the individual over the constraints of society and government.

Taoism does not teach this.

And a few words from Chuang Tzu himself:

We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence. Like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.

If you have grasped the purpose of life there is no point in trying to make life into something it is not or cannot be.

Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing.


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