Buddhist Philosophy 7: Daoism
For this lecture, please read the 31 verses of the first version of the Daodejing, known as the Bamboo Laozi, read the 81 verses of the Dao De Jing, and I recommend reading as much of the inner chapters of Zhuangzi as you can as well. In this lecture we will study the three central Daoist texts, the Dao De Jing of Laozi, the Book of Zhuangzi, and the Book of Liezi, as well as Daoist ideas found in later stories and texts.
Before we study Zen Buddhism, it is important to cover the Chinese philosophical and religious tradition of Daoism, as the Zen tradition draws much on Daoism. This week, we will be studying the three most central texts of Chinese Daoism: the Dao De Jing of Laozi, the book of the ‘second patriarch’, Zhuangzi, and the book of Liezi. Daoism has always been dear to my heart, as I have an old printing of the Dao (on the book, the Tao Te Ching, now typically and more accurately written Dao De Jing) which I loved when I was a kid with black and white photos of beaches and sea gulls in fog accompanying the text. It was only later in my studies that I was able to have a real love of the text, which at first seemed simply mysterious poetry.
Daoism is often opposed to Confucianism as a skeptical and mystical school of thought versus Confucianism which is a more traditionalist and dogmatic school. Indeed, Daoism is one of the most powerful skeptical schools of thought in history, and during the later years of the Han dynasty peasants and scholars turned from Confucianism to Daoism in support of innovation and revolution (such as the famous Yellow turban rebellions of 184 and 187 CE). Daoist sages are often ordinary men and women. However it is also clear that Confucius was critical of tradition, politics, knowledge and judgement, and Daoism became an orthodox religious system that was used by the Han and later dynasties to control and pacify the people.
While Confucianism advocates city life, study, and the structure of the family and state, Daoism advocates returning to nature and the natural (ziran), simplicity, meditation, and questioning all human understanding. Confucianism argues that we should cultivate and civilize ourselves through education and tradition, while Daoism argues that we should return to our natural state and let nature run its course, thus reaching a state of completion. Rather than study harder to understand more distinctions between things, Daoism argues we should work hard to forget the understandings and distinctions we have stored up in ourselves already. Daoists would agree with Confucius that, “A noble person is not a pot”, but rather than add and stir they would have us empty it out often.
Confucius said the central thread running through his thinking was compassion. The central thread that runs throughout the thinking of Laozi, the Old Master, and the early proto-Daoist sages is thinking and doing more by thinking and doing less. The Jains of India are famous for fasting, such that the Buddha tried being like the Jains and found it was unbalanced. For the Daoists, the less you do, the more balanced you become in all things, such that you can think by barely thinking, feel by barely feeling, eat by barely eating, talk by barely talking, sleep by barely sleeping, and interact with others by barely interacting.
Rather than waste away, the Daoists believe this allows us to simplify, balance, and thrive, and some are even said to live immortal in this physical body, drinking dew by breathing to survive, hidden away from common mortals up in the mountains. This is why the Chinese character for immortal comes from combining the early characters for mountain and human. Zhuangzi says that all things and situations are equally desirable to the wisest and best, who are impervious to fire, ice, thunderstorms and death. However, the idea of achieving immortality can’t be found in the Zhuangzi or earlier Laozi, the two core Daoist philosophical texts, but rather freedom from fear through simplicity and tranquility.
A key concept for Daoism is wu-wei, ‘non-action’. The idea is to get what you want by being patient and doing less, not more, to see results. This increases one’s ability to perceive changing circumstances and opportunities in the situation that one would miss if hurried or over-acting. The idea is to act less but still act, not to simply not act at all. Acting with moderation and simplicity in mind conserves energy and prevents mistakes that can be avoided. Patience and awareness are valued over speed and focus.
There is a medieval Japanese story that illustrates wu-wei well. A local lord has three sons, and must decide who should inherit his position. He tests them by placing a pillow on the sliding door to his room and calling them one at a time. The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes. The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in midair and catches it. The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father. Notice that the youngest son, not the oldest, inherits his father’s title, which is a reversal of traditional practice as well as the Confucian idea of younger son deferring to older.
Those familiar with Aikido, the Japanese martial art, will recognize the concept of wu-wei as it is physically used: One defeats one’s opponent by moving out of their way and allowing the situation to take its course, not by directly striking them. If your opponent wants to punch in a particular direction, you allow them to do so, and use their momentum to throw them rather than waste your own energy striking with a fist or foot.
Many are familiar with the Daoist image of the Yin and Yang intertwining female earth energy of darkness and male sky energy of light, however only few know that the symbol originally comes from the Yin Yang school, one of the hundred schools of thought from the warring states and hundred schools period of Chinese philosophy. The Daoists got the symbol from this school, and followed similar ideas about things being constituted by opposing forces.
The symbol has also been identified as a solar calendar that charts daylight hours over the course of a year, important for farmers who were supporters and sources of both the Yin Yang and Daoist schools of thought. When the Han unified China, they patronized Confucianism and Daoism but not the Yin Yang school. For Daoists, Yin is air, mind and heart going down into earth, emotion and stomach, and yang is the other way around. Clearing out the mind and clearing out the stomach is opening up thought and emotions by doing more with less thought and emotions. We can tame and enjoy thought and emotions more if they think and feel less.
It is traditionally held that Laozi, whose name simply means ‘Old Master’, lived sometime around 600 BCE, and Zhuangzi, the second patriarch of Daoism, lived from 370-290 BCE. Not much is known about either patriarch. Laozi, also known as was traditionally held to have been an archivist of the Imperial library who Confucius wanted to study under but was rejected. Modern scholarship considers Laozi to be a combination of at least three old masters whose life stories were mixed together as the tradition settled.
Laozi is said to have given up on life in politically turbulent China and rode a water buffalo west to live as a hermit. As he was about to leave the state, he was recognized by the border guard Yin Xi who pleaded with him to leave his teachings for the people before leaving society. Laozi consented and in the dirt road wrote the 81 passages of the Dao De Jing (a sacred number, 9 times 9, each of which is 3 times 3) before disappearing forever. Because no one witnessed his death, he is considered an immortal like other Daoist sages.
Laozi, who is revered as an immortal and is highest, higher than the great Eight Immortals of Daoist legends, supposedly lived in the Spring and Autumn period like Confucius, and he wrote the 81 verses of the Daodejing, possibly the most reprinted work in Chinese in all of history. However, today scholars know the final text, famous in ancient China and the modern world, was put together by Wang Bi (226 – 249 CE) just after the Han Dynasty collapsed. Wang Bi died at 23, studied the work, the Analects and other Chinese texts, and his version became the standard, formed in the third century CE.
Wangbi thinks the Dao is nothing, Wu, and puts metaphors of wheel hub, valley, space etc. at center of his philosophy, of how the being of beings is nothingness. The sage is above all contradiction, and in being empty responds to things spontaneously without acting. Wang Bi is the first to distinguish philosophical and religious Daoism (Daojia and Daojiao, School of the Dao and Following of the Dao). Wang’s work allowed Buddhists to gain philosophical foothold in China by making it easy for Buddhists to identify the emptiness of Mahayana Buddhism with the nothingness of Wang Bi’s Daodejing.
It was unknown how much the original was like Wang Bi’s until 1973, when the tomb of Xin Zhui, wife of the local magistrate, was opened on the hill known as Mawangdui in Hunan, China, where two copies of the Laozi on silk dated at 200 BCE were found that both are very similar to Wang Bi’s, but they do not have a title or author, are not divided into separate chapters.
Most importantly, the Laozi or Daodejing of Wang Bi is divided into two sections, nearly halves, Dao (Way, chapters 1-37) and De (Power, chapters 38-81), such that the text is the Dao De Jing, the Text of the Way of Power or Way and Power. In the silk texts found near Mawangdui, the halves are reversed, with De coming first Dao second. This means Wangbi, or someone he followed, put the famous line The way (dao) that can be spoken of is not the eternal way up front, putting political and social considerations after cosmic and mental mysteries and metaphors.
Along with the two copies of the text, there were diagrams of gymnastic postures, possibly Tai Chi exercises, and a fasting guide called The Guide to Getting Rid of Grains and Eating Air. While texts often mention avoiding grains, many scholars think Daoists simply shunned all food in general, preferring to eat as little as possible. Much seems to hinge on breathing and drinking more than eating, consuming more air and water than solid food, which gives great energy (qi). Teas and soups are sometimes recommended. In later Daoist texts of the Tang and Song, it is said that you can gain immortality if you eat nothing other than three chicken-egg sized balls of seeds a day and don’t have sex, but if you do have sex, you can only live for 200 years.
Then in 1993 the so-called “Bamboo Laozi” was found near Guodian village, with 31 of the 81 verses of the Mawangdui and Wangbi versions in a very different order, with some small but significant and telling differences. First, there are no verses from the final 15 of Wangbi’s Daodejing, what was the first half of the Mawangdui, which suggests the final 15 verses were added before Wangbi or by him. There is also another text included with the 31 verses that is not found in the later versions of the text, cosmological verses known as The Great One Gave Birth To Water (Taiyi Shengshui)
While Wangbi’s Daodejing begins with the One and Dao, and the earlier Mawangdui version refers to it with reverence eight times in the 81 verses and identifies it with the Great One five times, there is only one reference to such a great Way of All in the Guodian, and it does not identify it with a Great One even once. Those who seek a universal philosophy underneath the world’s religions and philosophies with or after Aldous Huxley often point to the One of the Neo-Platonists and point to it in the opening of the Daodejing to find this in China.
The Mawangdui Daodejing and so Wangbi’s is also more critical of war and more supportive of a stable state than Guodian Bamboo Laozi, as the text and tradition had come into more stable times of larger empires that brought both stability and predictable problems. While the Guodian tells us to be sad in war and use war less, the Mawangdui tells us to hate war and weapons, changing a few words and adding a line here and there. While the earlier Guodian refers to stability (chang) once, the later Mawangdui refers to it constantly.
Scholars suspect that the early text is left open to local rulers and their actions for themselves and their kingdoms. The final 15 verses of the Daodejing, added by Wangbi or someone else later, consistently speaks of heaven and say it does not harm, the model for us all to follow in our actions. While the early dao is spontaneous and playful, heaven is thoughtful and calm.
One of the remarkable aspects of Daoism, notable in ancient philosophy, is the emphasis on taking the female perspective, playing the female part, and being in touch with the great mother of all things, identified with the One and Dao in the Mawangdui and expanded upon but present in the earlier Guodian. Because the final 15 verses do not have this feminine emphasis, it seems that the final version of Wangbi capped the text off with assurance of masculine, heavenly stability and support downward from the greats in the skies to us mere mortals of the earth. The last 15 make no reference to self-cultivation, emptiness, reducing desire or being uncarved, even though much of the earlier Mawangdui are centered on these.
The Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, Sima Tan (165 – 110 BCE), grouped thinkers of the previous Warring states period into 6 houses, families or schools (jia), the Yinyangjia, the Ruijia (Ruists, the Confucians, with ru meaning tame and refine), Mojia (Moists), Fajia (Legalists), Mingia (Linguists, such as Hui Shih and Gongsun Long), and Daojia, The House or School of Yinyang, of Rui, of Mo, of Fa, of Ming, and of Dao. Sima Tan describes the strengths and faults of the first five schools, but lists no faults of Daoism alone, the last school on his list and the school he follows. Thus, the schools are the House of Physics, the House of Education, the House of Mo, the House of Law, the House of Language, and the House of the Way. Only Mozi’s house bears his name, which might best be called the House of Love, as Mozi taught universal compassion beyond the boundaries of Confucianism.
A bit later in the Han dynasty, Sima Qian (145-86 BCE) tells us in his Shiji, the Historical Chronicle, that court wizards (fangshi, recipe experts, medicine doctors or “distinguished pharmacists,” like the old English word wizard meaning something like wise expert) who serve emperors and ministers in many ways, advising affairs of state, ritual, and even expeditions to find Daoist immortals in remote hiding places. Some of these wizards formed the Huang-Lao school in the warring state Qi, reaching their peak in the early Han Dynasty around 200 BCE, who venerated Laozi and the Yellow Emperor and practiced fasting, gymnastics, medicine, alchemy, and tantric sex.
The Dao De Jing of Laozi
The opening verse, of the Dao De Jing, famously reads:
The Dao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Dao. Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name. As the origin of heaven and earth, it is nameless.
The All, or the One, includes everything. Thus, there is no proper or particular name. The All does not need a particular name, because there is nothing in particular that one can judge about it. It is the source of all things, so it could be called ‘green’, ‘not green’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘both’ or ‘neither’, with equal but equally incomplete meaning. The same, of course, goes for any adjective. Just as any particular thing has its opposite (hot and cold, good and evil), the One is the source of all opposites, and thus is neither and both of each particular thing. Notice the duality of heaven and earth, of open sky and closed ground.
Sometimes we think being solid and limited is good, other times we feel that being open and free is good. In fact, the All is all solidity (order) and freedom (chaos), so it is the source of all closure and openness. In the first three lines, we have much of Daoist thought already.
In chapter 8 of the Dao, we learn that the Dao is like water. This is a common metaphor that Daoism employs to describe how the way and nature of things is fluid, like water, getting down into the lowest and tightest cracks and divisions. The Dao has no status or pride, and so like the Daoist sage the Way is down amongst the poor and the common, together as one with the things people avoid and despise as well as the things people exalt and desire.
Chapter 9 of the Dao is a classic example of Daoist reasoning by contradiction. All things have contradictory properties, but this is hard for our one sided judgments and views to see. Thus, we are told that if we continue to sharpen a sword it goes dull, and if we store up enough valuables they will surely attract thieves, and so no one can fully protect a palace of gold and diamonds. “When you have done your work, retire” means to do just enough for the present situation, but not build up merit or riches, for they will bring you trouble.
Chapter 11 of the Dao is my favorite. I find it very important for understanding the duality of positive and negative, the solid and empty we saw in heaven-and-earth of chapter 1. We are told that a wheel is only useful because of the emptiness at the center. When you first look at a wheel, you see it as a simply solid thing. Then, if you look again, you will see that the emptiness, not just the substance, is important too. Imagine if a house was not mostly empty, but was solid through and through. You would not be able to get inside it! May as well build the house in outer space. Solid and empty get their meanings, their uses, from a mutual relationship, not from one being the only thing and the other merely false. I love this verse, as it is very close to Hegel’s idea of positive, negative, and synthesis. The synthesis would be not just the solid wheel, nor simply the emptiness, but both working together.
In Chapter 22, we read that the sage does not boast, and is thus admired by everyone, that he does not want to shine, and is thus will be enlightened, that he does not seek excellence, and is thus exalted, that because he does not argue, no one can argue with him. Most people assume that they know what is simply good, and what is simply bad, and they are not afraid to tell you so. Only the sage, the wise person, knows not to boast about anything but to enjoy and appreciate things just as they are, and thus the sage is far less annoying than the average person. This takes practice and patience, something the average person does not have the patience for before making a quick and certain judgment leading to action. If you desire nothing, “everything will flock to you”, and you have whatever you need right at hand in any situation. This is opposite the common understanding, which says that you must want something and relentlessly seek it in order to have it. Patient action is often more fruitful then strenuous action.
In Chapter 25, we read that there is only one thing that is complete and turns in a perfect circle without endangering itself, the “Mother of All”. The texts says, “I call the Dao…Painfully giving it a name, I call it great”.
Chapter 33 reads, “Whoever knows others is clever. Whoever knows himself is wise. Whoever conquers others has force. Whoever conquers themselves is truly strong.”
Chapter 36 reads, “What you want to weaken you must first allow to grow strong. What you want to destroy, you must first allow to flourish. From whomever you want to take away, to him you must first give.”
In Chapter 42 we read, “The strong do not die a natural death”, or the violent die a violent death. This is quite similar to Jesus saying, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword”. Try to gain for yourself, and the great balance of all things will cut you down, doing to you what you do to others. In the Zhuangzi, twice there appears the example of a gnarled old tree which outlives other trees because it does not grow powerful and strong and is thus not cut down and used to build other things by woodcutters and carpenters.
In Chapter 43, we read, “The softest thing on earth overtakes the hardest thing…From this one recognizes the value of non-action (wu-wei).” This calls to mind a seashore, with the waves of soft fluid water battering the hard rock cliffs to make sand where the water and land meet.
Chapter 46 reads, “When the Dao rules on earth, racehorses are used to pull dung carts. When the Dao has been lost on earth, warhorses are raised on green fields. There is no greater defect than many desires. There is no greater evil than to not know sufficiency…Therefore, the sufficiency of sufficiency is lasting sufficiency.”
Chapter 56 reads, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
Chapter 60 reads, “A great nation must be led the way one fries a small fish. If one administers the world according to the Dao, then the ancestors do not swarm about as spirits. Not that the ancestors are not spirits, but their spirits do not harm humanity.”
Chapter 63 reads, “Whoever practices non-action occupies themselves with not being occupied, finds taste in what is tasteless, sees the great in the small and the much in the little…Plan what is difficult while it is still easy. Do the hard thing while it is still small. Everything heavy on earth begins as something light. Everything on earth begins as something small.”
Chapter 64 reads, “The tallest tree trunk grows from a sprout as thin as a hair. A tower nine stories high is built from a small pile of earth. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep in front of your feet.”
Chapter 68 reads, “Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike. Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry. Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them. Whoever knows how to use men well keeps themselves low.”
Chapter 71 reads “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness”. Knowledge is always focusing on one thing. When you focus on one thing, you ignore everything else. This is crucial to seeing how our knowledge is always human perspective, and how it can always be improved and extended. Socrates said that his awareness of his own ignorance was the greatest wisdom of Athens, and was revered by many for it.
Chapter 76 reads, “When we enter life we are soft and weak. When we die we are hard and strong. Plants when they enter life are soft and tender. When they die they are dry and stiff. Therefore the hard and strong are companions of death, and the soft and weak are companions of life. Therefore, when weapons are strong they are not victorious. When trees are strong they are cut down.”
The last Chapter, 81, reads, “True words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not true…The more the sages do for others, the more they possess. The more they give to others, the more they have.”
The Book of Zhuangzi
While Laozi’s Dao De Jing is concerned with how to properly live as a community and sounds like political advice to rulers and officials in many places, Zhuangzi’s text, known under his name as the Zhuangzi, is concerned with the individual mind, with human judgements and attitude. It argues that individuals should seek freedom and happiness through simplicity and open-mindedness. Zhuangzi may have been from the Sung region of ancient China, a place torn apart by political conflicts from within and conquered repeatedly by neighboring regions. Zhuangzi repeatedly suggests that if one takes the long view over many lifetimes, the bad comes with the good and it is all part of one process and whole. While other Chinese masters suggested various ways one could structure the state, as Laozi does in places, Zhuangzi is entirely concerned with liberating the individual mind in a chaotic and close-minded world.
Zhuang Zhou, more popularly known by his simple and masterly name Zhuangzi, may have been the author of the first seven chapters of the 33, the “inner chapters”, followed by fifteen outer and eleven mixed chapters composed by followers and others of Daoist groups and schools, including the “primitivists”, as scholars call them, who taught a very simple life, the “syncretists” who merged Daoism with many other various ideas and practices, and also the independent Yang Zhu, who worried primarily about self-preservation of one’s own body.
The version of the Zhuangzi have today is the work of Guo Xiang, (d. 312 CE) who collated and commented on the work, rearranging, altering and deleting parts as he thought fit, inserting his own understandings into the work, which was common practice. The later Song Dynasty Chan Buddhist Zonggao (1089-1163 CE) said “It is always assumed Guo Xiang explained Zhuangzi, but those who know say it is Zhuangzi who explained Guo Xiang.”
Huang Lao Daoism, differing from Zhuangzi, focused on political theory, on ruling most by ruling less. Many early Han rulers embraced this form of Daoism and gave it official support. Huang-di is the Yellow Emperor, the ideal ruler of the ancient golden age, and so Huang Lao Daoism is a term scholars use to refer to the identification and systemization of Laozi’s thought with the Yellow Emperor’s history to create a political philosophy in the early Han Dynasty. It soon lost favor, replaced with growing, central support of Confucianism, with other strains of Daoism thriving in the wings of the court and the common people.
Xuan Xue (hsew-ahn hsew-ae), The Dim Teaching, as in dark or hidden, sometimes called Dark Learning, is a mystical school of Daoism which rose in the later Han just before Buddhism arrived in China. The term was used to translate “metaphysics”, the strange ways of all ways that lies beneath, within or above physics. This Daoist revival included Wang Bi and Guo Xiang as its two most prominent thinkers, who gave us the versions of the Laozi and Zhuangzi that the Chinese and we read today.
Zhuangzi does speak of Laozi in several places in the text, as he does of many other sages and masters drawing from their teachings as well as being critical of some. In one passage, he tells us that Nan-jung Chu went to see Laozi for advice, who asked him as he entered, “Why have you brought this crowd of people with you?”. Nan-jung spun around, to find no one behind him, as Laozi was referring to the attachments and memories Nan-jung carried with him.
Many assumed along with the Daoist tradition that Zhuangzi was familiar with Laozi’s Dao De Jing because both are considered the patriarchs of Daoism and Zhuangzi seems to quote the Dao De Jing in places, however modern scholarship does not know whether Zhuangzi had ever read Laozi’s work or whether both texts are drawing from the same sources. Both patriarch’s books were likely added to by other authors, and it was only by the time of the Han dynasty around 200 BCE that the two texts were set as they remain today.
The Zhuangzi was a major influence on Zen Buddhism, which unlike other Buddhist schools was a native Chinese tradition that was cross-pollinated with Daoism from its beginning. Many Zen koan stories contain lines that are similar if not identical to the Zhuangzi. Zhaozhou, my favorite Zen master who lived about 700 CE, quotes the Zhuangzi to a monk in training, “Ships can not sail where the water is too shallow”. Like Zhaozhou and Zen, Zhuangzi enjoyed using humor (as did Heraclitus) much more than other philosophers, using it to shock and free people from their judgements, understandings and limitations.
In several places of the Zhuangzi, we see the idea of perspective presented the same way as we see with Heraclitus of ancient Greece, my favorite Greek philosopher. We are told that Mao Quiang and Lady Li were legendary beautiful women, but minnows were frightened of them when they gazed into a stream, and birds and deer were frightened by them when they walked through the forest. Heraclitus said that all human beauty and achievement is nothing but apes to the gods. Who knows what is beautiful, humans, birds, fish, or deer? Zhuangzi asks which of them knows what tastes good.
Often, the heroes of Zhuangzi are common people, woodcutters, fishermen, butchers, carpenters, ex-cons, and others of low status. In two places, Zhuangzi seems to exalt while mock Confucius who praises two sages who have had their legs cut off for committing crimes but have flocks of followers. Confucius is made to say that his own teachings are the lowly ways of humans, but these sages know the way of heaven, the Dao, and he would become their student if he only had the time. Confucius says to Wang Dai, who asks about one of the legless sages, “If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then there is liver and gall (two organs in the body), Ch’u and Yueh (two warring kingdoms in China), but if you look at them from the point of view of their sameness, then the ten thousand things are all one.”
We are told that the emperor learns how to rule his kingdom by listening to Cook Ting, who tells the emperor that he has learned over a lifetime how to cut up oxen with his knife that never dulls because he knows instinctively where the spaces are. We hear about the woodcutter scolding his apprentice for saying that an old gnarled tree is useless, replying that what is useless in some ways is useful in others, such as a tree no one will cut down providing a shady spot for centuries.
When Zhuangzi is asked by Dung Kuo where the way of heaven is, Zhuangzi says it is everywhere. Dung Kuo asks him to be more specific, so Zhuangzi says it is in the ant, in grass, in tile shards, in piss and in shit, horrifying Dung Kuo progressively. Like the Laozi text, the Zhuangzi continuously suggests that we see the lowest things as beautiful, and avoid striving for and hoarding the things people desire to be happy and free.
In the first passage of the Zhuangzi, the mythical Peng bird is mocked by the dove and the cicada (a large grasshopper-like insect) for flying high and far in the sky. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act, as they die every winter and do not survive by migrating south. Several times Zhuangzi is told by other sages that his wisdom is foolish and useless, but Zhuangzi replies, much like the Dao text, that there are no things which are not foolish or useless, but this does not stop them from also being serious and useful.
In another passage, Chien Wu tells Lien Shu that he has heard talk of a holy sage living on a mountain top who is gentle and shy like a young girl, does not eat anything but drinks dew, rides a dragon through they sky and can protect people and animals from illness. Chien Wu says this is clearly insane and he refuses to believe it. Lien Shu replies:
We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums, and blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone. The understanding has them too, as your words have just now shown. This man, with his virtue, is about to embrace the ten thousand things and roll them all into one.
The philosopher and logician Hui Shi tells Zhuangzi that a king gave him seeds of a huge gourd, but when he planted the seeds and grew huge gourds they were so large that he could not use them as containers so he smashed them. Zhuangzi tells him he should have used them as boats, and “Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!” Hui Shi tells Zhuangzi that he has a large gnarled tree, which is as useless as Zhuangzi’s reasoning. Zhuangzi replies that if no ax will cut it down, it makes a great shaded place for taking a nap. Notice the reversals of perspective that are possible when we clear out our mental underbrush. Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher I admire very much, said that when we do philosophy, we are really clearing ground.
Words are not just wind. Words have something to say, but if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something, or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there? What does the Way rely upon, such that we have true and false? What do words rely upon, such that we have right and wrong?
When the Way relies on little accomplishments and words rely on vain show, then we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Moists. What one calls right the other calls wrong, and what one calls wrong the other calls right, but if we want to right their wrongs and wrong their rights, then the best thing to use is clarity. Everything has its ‘that’, and everything has its ‘this’. From the point of view of ‘that’, you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it, so I say, ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’, which is to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other.
Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of heaven. A sage too has a ‘this’ and a ‘that’, but a sage’s ‘that’ has a ‘this’, and a sage’s ‘this’ has a ‘that’. A sage’s ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it, and a sage’s ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it, so does a sage still have a ‘this’ and ‘that’? A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness, so I say the best thing to use is clarity.
To wear out your brain trying to make things into one without realizing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning”. What do I mean by “three in the morning”? When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.” This made all the monkeys furious. “Well then,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were all delighted. There was no change in the reality behind the words, and yet the monkeys responded with joy and anger. Let them, if they want to. The sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in heaven, the equalizer.
Those who divide fail to divide. Those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary people discriminate among things and parade their discriminations in front of others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.
Nieh Ch’ueh asks Wang Ni about something everyone can agree to. Wang Ni replies:
If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and he ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp? If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey? Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live? We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice. Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste? Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish. Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?
Chuchuehzi said to Changwuzi, “I have heard Confucius say that the sage does not work at anything, does not pursue profit, does not dodge harm, does not enjoy being sought after, does not follow the Way, says nothing yet says something, says something yet says nothing, and wanders beyond the dust and grime. Confucius himself regarded these as wild and flippant words, though I believe they describe the working of the mysterious Way. What do you think of them?” Changwuzi said, “Even the Yellow Emperor would be confused if he heard such words, so how could you expect Confucius to understand them? Whats more, you’re too hasty in your own appraisal. You see an egg and demand a crowing rooster, see a crossbow pellet and demand a roast dove. I’m going to try speaking some reckless words and I want you to listen to them recklessly. How will that be? The sage leans on the sun and the moon, tucks the universe under his arm, merges himself with things, leaves the confusion and muddle as it is, and looks on slaves as exalted. Ordinary people strain and struggle. The sage is stupid and blockish. The sage takes part in ten thousand ages and achieves simplicity in oneness…Confucius and you are both dreaming, and when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming too. Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle.
In the most famous passage of the book, Zhuangzi dreams that he was a butterfly and forgot that he was Zhuangzi. When he woke, he no longer knew whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi. There are many paintings of this, typically showing a napping Zhuangzi with a butterfly or two fluttering overhead.
Another famous metaphor used is that of the praying mantis that waved its arms angrily in front of an approaching carriage, unaware that it is incapable of stopping it. It suggests that we move in response to life rather than hold our ground taking pride in our own abilities.
We read in one passage about the True Man, who sounds quite similar to Nietzsche’s Super Man (Ubermensch) who understands the world and himself to be beyond good and evil:
What do I mean by a True Man? The True Man of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his affairs. A man like this could commit and error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show. A man like this could climb the high places and not be frightened…He didn’t forget where he began. He didn’t try to find out where he would end. He received something and took pleasure in it. he forgot about it and handed it back again. This is what I call not using the mind to repel the Way, not using man to help out Heaven.
You hide your boat in the ravine and your fish net in the swamp and tell yourself that they will be safe, but in the middle of the night a strong man shoulders them and carries them off, and in your stupidity you don’t know why it happened. You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you, but if you were to hide the world in the world, so that nothing could get away, this would be the final reality of the constancy of things.
That which kills life does not die. That which gives life does not live. This is the kind of thing it is. There’s nothing it doesn’t send off, nothing it doesn’t welcome, nothing it doesn’t destroy, nothing it doesn’t complete.
Jo of the North Sea said, “You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog. He’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect. He’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar. He’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, so you realize your own insignificance. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle.
Jo of the North Sea said, “From the point of view of the Way, things have no nobility or meanness. From the point of view of things themselves, each regards itself as noble and other things as mean. From the point of view of common opinion, nobility and meanness are not determined by the individual himself.
From the point of view of differences, if we regard a thing as big because there is a certain bigness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not big. If we regard a thing as small because there is a certain smallness to it, then among the ten thousand things there are none that are not small. If we know that heaven and earth are tiny grains and the tip of a hair is a range of mountains, then we have perceived the law of difference. From the point of view of function, if we regard a thing as useful because there is a certain usefulness to it, then among all the ten thousand things there are none that are not useful. If we regard a thing as useless because there is a certain uselessness to it, then among the ten thousand things none that are not useless. If we know that east and west are mutually opposed but that one cannot do without the other, then we can estimate degree of use.
If someone can swim underwater, they may never have seen a boat before and still they’ll know how to handle it. That’s because they see the water as so much dry land, and regards the capsizing of a boat as they would the overturning of a cart. The ten thousand things may all be capsizing and turning over at the same time right in front of them and it can’t get at them and affect what’s inside, so where could they go and not be at ease? When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill. When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck. Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind. They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.
This passage reminds me of a metaphor used by the psychotherapist Milton Erickson. If you put a board on the ground, everyone can walk across it with confidence. If you put the same board three hundred feet up in the air, most people would be terrified, even though walking across the board is the same set of physical motions. Erickson is thinking of clients petrified by fear, such as codependents who can’t leave their abusive partner by taking several steps to the door and then several more out it.
Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “Your words are useless!” Zhuangzi replied, “A man has to understand the useless before you can talk to him about the useful. The earth is certainly vast and broad, though a man uses no more of it than the area he puts his feet on. If, however, you were to dig away all the earth from around his feet until you reach the Yellow Springs, then would the man still be able to make use of it?” “No, it would be useless,” said Hui Shi. “It is obvious, then,” said Zhuangzi, that the useless has its use.”
The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so that I can have a word with him?
The author and artist Tsai Chih Chung has created comic book forms of the great Chinese and Buddhist classics of philosophy, including a three part cartoon of the Zhuangzi on YouTube.
The Book of Liezi
Liezi is the third patriarch of Daoism, and his text, known by his name just like the Zhuangzi, is the third classic of the Daoist tradition. In the Zhuangzi, Liezi is mentioned as a powerful sage who could travel by riding the wind. Liezi likely lived around 400 BCE, putting him between Laozi and Zhuangzi. While Zhuangzi mentions Liezi in the Zhuangzi text, establishing that there was a Master Lie who was active earlier than the Zhuangzi was written and compiled, it has long been known to Chinese scholars that much of the Liezi text was written far later than the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, likely some time between 200 and 300 CE.
Because it was written much later, the Liezi may very well be the only one of the three Daoist classics written by an author or authors who identified with an official Daoist tradition. Some of the Liezi text may indeed be from the earlier period when Liezi and Zhuangzi were alive, and many passages are identical to some and likely borrowed from the Zhuangzi, but it is still disputed and unknown as to which sections were written when. There are some scholars who argue a Buddhist influence on some passages certainly pushes these back to a later date when Buddhism was flourishing, competing and mixing with Daoism.
In suggesting simplicity and nature as the way to properly live, some have called Laozi and other Daoists early Chinese anarchists. The Liezi cautiously suggests that when things are properly working, there is no need for the distinction of ruler and subject and each individual can pursue what they want for themselves without harming or crossing anyone else.
In addition, while Daoism later became a religion transfixed on the idea of immortality, and in the Liezi there are references to immortals in the heavens, the text argues several times that to accept death is to accept the fullness of life, as one must accept both sides of oppositions to be in balance with the way of things that is never entirely one-sided. Liezi says, “to wish to live forever, and have no more of ending, is to be deluded about our lot”.
Liezi teaches that all things are interdependent with their opposites, like Yin and Yang working with each other while opposing one another. From this, “Consequently, there are ways in which earth excels heaven, and ways in which each thing is more intelligent than the sage” (p. 19). Heaven shapes but can not support. When the sage is kind, other things must be strong, and when the sage is just, other things must be passive. Let us examine several passages of the Liezi.
The Yellow Emperor is said to have spent fifteen years pleasing only himself, and the next fifteen years trying to please everyone in the empire, but both wore him out and his health deteriorated. After meditating for three years, he fell asleep and in a dreamed of a land where there were no rulers or subjects, where everything naturally followed its course and did not try for anything else. After he wakes, he calls his ministers and tells them that he has found the way, but he can not tell them about it.
Liang Yang, a slave and royal tamer of wild beasts, says that to tame a tiger you must neither please it with a live rabbit nor anger it by withholding food, but rather feed it bits at a time so it neither gets overly excited nor wrathful. Because he neither gives them what they want nor withholds what they want, they regard him as one of their own.
Yin of Chou is a rich man who works his servants hard, including an old slave who every night falls deep asleep and dreams he is a rich king without a care in the world. When asked if his life is hard, he says he can’t complain. Yin of Chou, however, constantly worries about losing his fortune, and every night dreams he is a slave. When he asks a friend about this, the friend tells him he has too much more than others, and Yin decides to demand far less of his servants. This is an interesting variant on Zhuangzi dreaming about being a butterfly.
Huazi completely loses his long term memory in middle age, forgetting everything at night by morning and everything in the morning by nightfall. His family hires many to cure him, and all fail except a Confucian who locks himself in a room with Huazi for seven days. When he wakes up, Huazi chases the Confucian off with a spear. When asked why by his family, he says that he now remembers his past.
Pang of Qin had a son who saw white as black, tasted sweet as bitter and smelled the fragrant as foul. Seeking a doctor for a cure, Pang happens upon Laozi and asks him what he should do. Laozi replies that the world and all its inhabitants are just as deluded, that he himself does not know whether these words he speaks are meaningful or nonsense, and that Pang should keep his money.
Liezi had many students who he argued with day and night, but lived next to Nan Guozi, whom he never spoke with. His students asked him if he was an enemy, to which Liezi replies that there is simply no speaking with him. Liezi suggests they all go to see what he is about. When they enter, Nan Guozi is like a statue with no recognition of Liezi, but then suddenly he points at the last student in the back of the crowd and begins heckling him, “like a bigot who is always determined to be in the right”. They return to Liezi’s house perplexed, but Liezi tells them that this is a man who truly knows how to say nothing. This story is much like a Zen koan encounter, and predates these.
After Liezi had studied with Old Shang (Liezi’s original master) for three years, he ceased to think of right and wrong and Shang gave him a passing glance for the first time. After five years, Liezi began thinking of right and wrong, benefit and harm, and Shang smiled at him. After seven years, Liezi thought without distinction, and Shang had Liezi sit with him on the same mat. This story is much like the Zen story of ‘rock is a rock’, ‘not a rock’, ‘is a rock’, but it begins in the negative.
Prince Mou is an enthusiastic follower of Gongsun Long, and he is ridiculed for this by Ziyu. The two go back and forth with Ziyu stating the paradoxes and Prince Mou explaining the answers. Included is ‘A white horse is not a horse’. Ziyu ridicules Gongsun Long for saying, “An orphan calf never had a mother”, to which Prince Mou replies, “When it had a mother, it was not an orphan calf”. In the end Ziyu says if Gongsun Long blew it all out another hole the Prince would still believe all this nonsense, and the Prince goes silent, saying he will speak of this another day. This is in some way a recognition, and in another a condemnation of Gongsun Long. The Prince seems beaten in the end, even though he gives what seem to be the answers to each riddle. Like the Zhuangzi, the Liezi seems to acknowledge Gongsun Long’s skill but suggest that there is an understanding beyond it that is not mere play with opposites.
An old man wishes to move a seven thousand foot tall set of mountains, and begins digging with his sons. His wife ridicules him, saying that he will clearly die before he puts a small dent in even one of them. He replies that this is true, but his sons will have sons, and they will have sons, and the mountain isn’t getting any bigger.
The Duke of Qi was looking down from Ox Mountain on his capital city, when he began to weep, wondering why if his land was so beautiful he must one day leave it in death. His servants began to cry, replying that they had far less than the duke but they also feared death. Yenzi alone was smiling, and the duke asked him why. Yenzi replied that if we could hold on to life by merit, then the duke’s great ancestors would be immortal, they would still be sitting on the throne, and the duke would be wading in a rice paddy with a bamboo hat on. The duke was ashamed of himself.
A man lost his ax, and suspected a boy who lived next door of stealing it. Everything about the boy’s behavior, the way he talked, his expressions, betrayed that he had stolen the ax. Then the man found the ax buried in his cellar. When he saw the boy again, nothing in his behavior suggested that he would ever steal an ax.
A man wanted gold more than anything else. One morning, he walked to the market, found a gold dealer, grabbed much of his gold and fled. When the police caught him, they asked him why he had stolen in front of so many people. He replied that at the time he had not seen the people, only the gold.
Daoist Religious Practice
In addition to its philosophy, Daoism is practiced as a religion which worships Laozi and other patriarchs as sages who acquired the immortality of gods through wisdom and discipline. The religious tradition was founded by Zhang Daoling in 142 CE, 750 years after Laozi was to have lived and 500 years after Zhuangzi and Liezi. This was right around the time when Buddhism was settling into China, and just before the Yellow Turban rebellion and other popular rebellions that were mobilized by growing Daoist temples and communities.
Zhang Daoling, who is pictured riding a tiger much like Laozi is pictured riding a water buffalo, was a local magistrate near the end of the Han dynasty. Although he studied Confucianism to obtain his position, he is said to have studied the Dao De Jing from a very young age and later wrote a twenty four volume commentary on the work after founding the first Daoist community.
According to tradition, Laozi appeared to Zhang Daoling in 142 CE, telling him that the Han dynasty would come to an end but a Daoist community must be founded to help human beings through the crisis and to immortality beyond this world. Zhang Daoling became one of the four celestial masters in the tradition, ascending from a mountaintop to immortality at the age of 123 (a nice auspicious number). The Daoist community rapidly expanded through the leadership of Zhang Daoling’s son and grandson.
The Tales of Great Immortals
With Zhang Daoling, religious Daoism brought devotion to immortals, Daoist sages who attained great powers and live secretly in nature or up in the heavens. There are many more than eight immortals that Daoists tell stories about, the eight great immortals hold a special place. While Confucians taught piety and loyalty, the Daoist immortals are tricksters, imperfect and chaotic. The classic versions of these stories formed in the Tang Dynasty, the early Chinese Renaissance during which several emperors claimed descent from Laozi himself.
Daoist immortals perfect and retain their physical bodies, transmuting them into higher forms via alchemical processes rather than leave their bodies and reincarnate as spirits, such that Daoists, like Egyptians long before them, sought immortality through the preservation of the body, as if the loss of the body would be the simple end of the self and spirit. The immortals continue to exist because they master the ebb and flow of yin and yang, of the forces of earth and heaven that support all life, the material and spiritual, the body and mind together. At first, Daoists would have been quite startled by the Buddhist idea that your grandfather could be a goat right now, as goats do not need to be revered as great ancestors. Like Egyptians, Daoists hoped to transmute the physical body into gold, which does not rust, the pinnacle of minerals.
Lu Dongbin, the most popular immortal, a doctor to the poor and master of evil spirits, can be found in statue in most towns and on sacred mountains, associated with healing and the elixir of immortality, and carries a large sword, his symbol. Li Tieguai is the next most popular, a clown and beggar who carries an iron crutch and fights for the rights of the poor, unpredictable and undefeatable. Zhang Guolao is the third-most popular, who rides a donkey, often backwards, playing a bamboo flute and bringing children to hopeful couples.
The five others are less popular, but included in the pantheon and display Daoist teachings. Cao Guojiu is a reformed murderer who carries a pair of castanets. Han Xiangzi is a musician who carries a jade flute and plays it in the mountains. Han Zhuang Li is a general who carries a fan. Lan Caihe (Ts’ai-hee) is a hermaphrodite who carries a basket of flowers. Lastly He Xiangu, the only fully-female, is an ascetic who carries a lotus flower. In the Yijing, each of the eight is associated with one of the eight trigrams, with heaven as musician, earth as hermaphrodite, fire as doctor, water as beggar, thunder as murderer, child-bringer as mountain, lake as general and wind as ascetic.
In the stories of the immortals, the rich nobles and merchants are often greedy, ignorant and cruel, who take labor and pretty daughters from the poor and starving. While Confucian exams were dominated by families wealthy enough to give their children the best education, villages sometimes constructed scholar’s towers that still stand today where the brightest children of the village could study uninterrupted, then take the exams and gain a position that could bring fortune and favors to the village. When many of these students failed the exams, there were few jobs that required such a philosophical and historical education, so many went underground and became revered as independent Daoist masters.
In the Story of the Jade Emperor’s Birthday, the Eight Immortals were rowing a boat across a lake, when they see many gifts and officials coming out of the lake and going up into the sky, and when they ask, they are told it is the Jade Emperor’s birthday and everybody is bringing him gifts, such as the Dragon King, who lives in the lake, as everybody wants the Jade Emperor to promote them and give them a better position in life. Beggar Tieguai says he has no need of favors or position, and neither do the Immortals, and they agree, as they have tended to the sick and poor for years with no thought of position. Nevertheless, they decide to join the party, eat the free food and offer gifts, as it can’t hurt, but their gifts insult the Jade Emperor, who has them thrown out and demoted in the cosmic record book.
Beggar Tieguai says if the Monkey King tricked the Jade Emperor, so can we, and we should to teach the strong to honor the weak, so he takes a flower from the hermaphrodite Caihe and used it as a hat to hide his identity as he sneaks back into the party, steals the best gifts from the growing pile, then the eight rejoin the party, apologize to the Jade Emperor, and present him with the most expensive gifts, as well as fireflies and crickets. The Jade Emperor, who has never been to earth, believes all the gifts are priceless treasures, welcomes them to the banquet, and has them promoted to the highest possible level of title for immortals, though the eight never used the title afterwards, as they have no need for it.
The Dream of Lu Dongbin is an adaptation of the dream reversal of form and fortune theme found in the Zhuangzi and the Liezi. Before Lu Dongbin became an immortal, he was a brilliant student who had dreams of power and position in the imperial court. The immortal general Han Zhang Li saw the student and recognized his true potential beyond worldly power, so he offered him wine, began to heat it, and Lu Dongbin fell asleep from the fumes and dreamed that he was fantastically successful in the court beyond his wildest dreams, with foreign emperors hanging on his every word. Unfortunately, the emperor he served died and the new emperor, threatened by Lu Dongbin, had him exiled and his whole family put to death. As Lu Dongbin cried over his family in exile, he woke and found he was still sitting in the inn with Han Zhang Li, and the wine was not yet hot. Lu Dongbin realized the way of earthly power is not the true way, and he left everything to join Han Zhang Li in the mountains and become immortal.
In Baishih’s Drama, Doctor Lu Dongbin and the other Immortals met on Mount Tai, the eastmost of the five sacred mountains of China and thus linked to sunrise and birth where emperors have offered sacrifices in the oldest records. One day Lu Dongbin saw an incredibly beautiful woman, Bai Mudan, meditating outside a cave, and after a week of watching her he spoke to her, the two fell in love, and Lu Dongbin started using Daoist techniques with her that should have been quite safe, but Beggar Tieguai and female ascetic He Xiangu teach Bai Mudan how to tickle Lu Dongbin in a way such that she gets pregnant.
According to a Buddhist version, a Buddhist monk teaches her the tickle, to stop Lu Dongbin from using evil Daoist sex magic on her, and after Lu Dongbin tries to kill the monk, the chief Daoist immortal converts to Buddhism. Both lovers were ashamed, and Bai Mudan left Mount Tai, her Daoist practices and her hometown to raise her son Baishih by herself. Later, Baishih uses his jade voice to command and trap the gods in his gourd, but after his gourd was smashed the gods fled into the Thousand Buddha Caves, which is how they get the name, in spite of the fact that they are technically gods, not immortals nor Buddhas, which are different.
In the story A Matchmaker For Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess and Bodhisattva of mercy to build a bridge, so she turned into a beautiful woman and stood on a boat, saying she would marry the man who could land a coin on her body or in her outstretched hands. Lu Dongbin stood watching disguised as an old man as rich men threw handfuls of coins at her that all seemed to miss somehow and children dove after the coins that didn’t land in the boat. Lu knew Guanyin would not marry a mortal man, so he decided to trick her.
Lu saw a poor sandal seller gazing at Guanyin and felt his desire, so he whispered to him to try. The sandal seller said the last time he donated to a bridge the governor misused the funds, but Lu tells him to throw his coins, which turn into silver and all land on Guanyin and stay there. The crowd goes wild, and Guanyin realizes that Lu has tricked her but she must keep her promise, so she builds the bridge and takes the sandal seller up to her pure land paradise realm, where he gets to live forever, in a marriage that unfortunately can’t involve any physical contact.
In Li Tai Guai and the Woodcutter’s Daughter, Li the clown beggar immortal was living in a mountain cave and planting seeds in a small plot of land when a woodcutter happened by, who Li fed and talked to and who told Li that he would one day be wise, happy and bring comfort to others as one of the great Eight Immortals. The woodcutter asked if Li would take his daughter as a student, but Li says no, as he is a student himself and no master. The woodcutter leaves, but returns days later with his beautiful daughter, whom he leaves with Li without asking for Li’s approval. As Li studies Daoist texts, the daughter begins sweeping the floor, then gazes longingly at Li and asks if he likes her and wants a family, as she really doesn’t want to study Daoism, but doesn’t want to marry the guy her dad has picked out, but she thinks Li is cute. She cuddles up to him as a storm rages outside all night, but Li refuses to speak to her or act.
In the morning, she was gone, and the woodcutter returned and began yelling at Li, asking what he did with his daughter. Li says he didn’t do anything, and the woodcutter laughs and turns into Laozi in a dark red robe, who tells Li he made the girl out of wood to trick Li, and that Li is like him. He gave Li a pill and told him to take it and ask no questions, and Li never got hungry or sick again. Li left his cave to care for the poor and sick, returning to it to study now and then. In a similar story, Laozi gives Li a pill that allows him to fly, and then a pill that makes him immortal, but he must live in the body of an ugly beggar with a broken leg, which is why he carries an iron crutch. Since the Immortals can shape-shift, this isn’t such a problem.
In the Lives of Divine Immortals (Shenxian zhuan) of Ge Hong the famed alchemist (283-364 CE) we are told that Penzu was 767 years old, outlived 49 wives and 54 children, master of all Daoist immortality techniques, who tells his female student Cainu that some have turned into beasts to avoid people, but those who know enjoy food, clothes, sex and society without excess, saying celibates are confused. This shows tensions between moderates and extremists in Daoist groups. Ge Hong tells us the 100 diseases and demons gather in food, and the less you eat, the more your mind will open and your life will lengthen. Daoists say the Yellow Emperor lay with twelve hundred women and became immortal, while ordinary guys have one wife and ruin their lives, such that it is not the size of the sex you have, but how you use it.
The same text says Jiao Xian was 170, lived alone in a grass hut on the banks of the Yellow River, ate only boiled white rocks and secretly left chopped firewood on doorsteps. Some would see him, and invite him in for a meal, which he accepted in silence. The governor came to visit him and learn wisdom, but Jiao Xian wouldn’t speak to him, which the governor found impressive. Once his hut burned down, and he was found sitting calmly in the middle of the ashes, untouched. Then his hut was buried in snow, and he was found sleeping soundly in the snow bank. He refused to teach anyone, saying he did not have the Dao himself. We are also told of Sun Deng, who lived in the mountains in a hole he dug in the ground, played the lute and read The Book of Changes (Yijing), and would wrap himself in his six feet of hair when it got cold. No one ever saw him eat.
Philosophical Daoism in the Tang & Song
The Treatise on Sitting and Forgetting (Zuowang lun) by Sima Chengzhen (647-735 CE) was a Tang Dynasty Daoist meditation manual that was acceptable to Buddhists and Confucians quoted often by later Daoists. Sima tells us that having the way is like a fish having water, but a fish in a ditch will seek a bucketful of water while we often don’t have sense to seek the way. Faithful hope is the root of the way, and serious devotion is the stem. The confused mind acts like a king presented with a gem who has the feet of the presenter cut off to take the gem for himself, not seeing that the value of the gem is in the whole situation surrounding it. The way transcends form and flavor, and has no image, which confuses our minds.
If we close our eyes and shut our doors, we do not need to work all our lives. If we do not get entangled with things, things don’t get entangled with us, such that social conventions and seeking opportunities fall from our shoulders, which is the only way of reaching the way. Agitated, the mind is dimmed. Just as we choose our friends carefully, we should carefully choose what we live with. Just as a bird that nests alone on a branch would be lost in a flock, and an animal that drinks from a stream has no need to seek the ocean, if we are content with little, we have most of what we need within ourselves. See if things are serious, essential, or needless. If we use a jewel to shoot a sparrow, people will laugh, but most people waste their lives on needless expenses of time, energy and money.
Sima uses Buddha’s metaphor of the raft, without mentioning Buddha, to refer to everything in life, such as clothes and fine food, as boats that we can abandon once they are needless. He also tells us sex addiction is empty, and beautiful women are more dangerous than evil spirits. He says that Zhuangzi was right, whom he quotes several times, quoting Laozi only once, that beautiful women are not attractive to fish and birds, which is how true wizards see them. When we see others do wrong and hate them or what they do, it is like taking the knife from the suicidal and killing ourselves with it instead. The wise wield the mind bravely like a warrior wields a sword, and all forces against them scatter in fright. Do not dwell on things while doing things, and the mind will stabilize.
The Huashu of Tan Qiao (860 – 940 CE), the Book of Transformations (930 CE) is a Daoist classic that focuses on metaphors that involve epistemology. Needham said it was an important text of “subjective realism”. Among the five original chapters and many titled entries are:
No Constant Mind: It is easy to stand on a board on the ground, but hard to sit on a board on the top of a pole. It is not whether or not the board is big enough, but whether the mind is empty enough. Those who complain about the heat feel hotter, and those who fear the pain of disease get sicker. People do not have a constant state of mind. Things do not have permanent forms.
Madness: Children playing with shadows don’t see the shadows are playing with them. Crazy people who hate the way things look don’t see the way things look is makes them hated. Those who run households don’t see that the households run them. Those who rule countries don’t see the countries rule them. The wise leaders of ancient times didn’t know their wisdom would turn into the glory of later leaders. The glorious leaders didn’t know their glory would turn into the love and justice of later leaders. The loving and just leaders didn’t know their love and justice would turn into the war of empires. When the drunk carry the drunk and the sick carry the sick there is even more stumbling and sickness, with no turning back.
Emotion: Enjoying the kindness of parents isn’t duty. Rejoicing at the luck of your boss is not loyalty. Enjoying begins by not enjoying, and rejoicing begins by not rejoicing. Much enjoyment means resentment, and much rejoicing means much anger. Emotion in the heart is like poison in food, like a fire in the reeds. We should know this. Better people work and don’t feel pride when given status, don’t feel grand when honored, don’t pay attention when treated familiarly, don’t get suspicious when devalued, and can’t be debased. They can’t be moved by emotions.
The Seven Rip-Offs: If you don’t eat for a day, you feel tired. If you don’t eat for two, you get sick. If you don’t eat for three days, you’ll die. Of everything that interests us, nothing is more important than food. But kings take one part of food away, and aristocrats another. The army takes one part, and war yet another. Artists take part, merchants take part, Daoist clergy and Buddhist clergy each take part. When the harvest is good they take part, and they take part in lean years too. People wear burlap just after completing silk, and eat chestnuts when the harvest just ended. When rulers control anger with punishment it leads to more anger. In the way of the greats, trying to solve crime with law leads to more crimes. How can those who take the people’s food repay them by fussing over love and duty?
The Energy of Sound: The sound of a harp makes us feel calm. Romantic music makes us feel joy and freedom. Scraping bricks sends shivers up the spine. Drums make the hair on the back of the neck stand up. This is how feelings are produced. Harmony is a positive force which calms and enlivens everything. Discord is a negative force which is harsh and degrading. The energy depends on the sound, and the sound depends on the energy. When feeling moves, sound is produced. When sound is produced, feeling moves. Thus it is possible to command wind and clouds, frost and hail, make phoenixes sing, get bears to dance, and make friends with spirits. The science of music is very useful indeed.
When emptiness turns into spirit, spirit turns into energy, energy turns into form, form turns into life, life turns into attention, attention turns into social gestures, social gestures turn into elevation and humiliation, these turn into high and low positions, these turn into judgement. Judgement turns into status, status turns into cars, cars turn into mansions, mansions turn into palaces, palaces turn into banquet halls, banquet halls turn into luxury, luxury turns into hoarding, hoarding turns into fraud, fraud turns into punishment, punishment turns into rebellion, rebellion turns into armies, armies turn into terror and loss, terror and loss turn into defeat and destruction. When this comes, its momentum can’t be stopped. When it goes, its power can’t be removed. Beings do not wish to be born, but have no choice but to be born. Beings don’t wish to die, but have no choice but to die. Those who see this way empty themselves and feel for others. In this way their minds can avoid change and their forms can be unborn.
Ma Danyang (Cinnabar Sunlight, 1123 – 1184 CE) was a famous Daoist wizard of the Song Dynasty, a student of Wang Chongyang, founder of the Northern Branch of Complete Reality Daoist sect, which resembled Chan Buddhism in simplicity, developing during the Tang. In The Sayings of Danyang we hear no one can master any state of mind without the state of mindlessness. Energy is swift as a horse and hard to master, but calm makes it easy. When the mind doesn’t race, nature is stable. Start controlling emotions while young, and don’t wait until you’re old. Clean the mind to self-enlighten yourself as an individual to free yourself of ignorance, and this is the way. Eat plainly, get rid of anger and pride, and keep clear, clean and calm to cultivate the way and shed the human shell. The heart of it is seeing the hubbub in front of your eyes as if it is deep in the unscalable mountains.