Chinese Philosophy – Daoism
In this lecture we will study ethical ideas found in the Daodejing of Laozi, the Book of Zhuangzi, the Book of Liezi, and other Daoist sources. Please read the Daodejing and as much of the Zhuangzi as you can.
Confucius said the central thread throughout his thinking, the one underlying idea that ties all his thinking together, is compassion, being humane to be a better human. The central thread throughout the thinking of Laozi, Zhuangzi and other Daoist masters is doing more with less, what the Daoists call non-action, wu-wei in Chinese (and in Chinese calligraphy here to the left). Daoists think 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. If we simplify and calm the mind, heart, stomach and senses, we think, speak, care and feel less, but also think, speak, care and feel clearly and easily, so we can do much more with much less with great ease.
Daoist teachings and examples show us many ways that don’t easily add up to a single way in words or pictures, which the texts themselves tell us many times, but we can use words and images to point to many things we and others often ignore when we think, feel and do too much. We are told in many ways that most, which includes each of us much, do not see what is hidden, but the wise see what most can’t with ease, as if anyone can.
Laozi, Zhuangzi & Liezi
According to tradition and legend, the founder of Daoism, Laozi, whose name simply means ‘Old Master’, also known as Lao Dan, lived sometime around 600 BCE and had a reputation for unsurpassed wisdom when Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) was just starting down the path of lifelong learning. Daoists claim Confucius went to see Laozi, the archivist of the imperial library, and asked to be his student, but Laozi rejected him, recognizing that Confucius wanted to separate right from wrong rather than see the two as inseparable.
The legend says Laozi gave up on civilization as China continued to fall apart, and rode a water buffalo west to live as a hermit, but 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 agreed and in the dirt road wrote the 81 passages of the Daodejing before disappearing forever.
The Daodejing is possibly the most reprinted work in all of Chinese literature and possibly the most popular and printed work of philosophy in world history. While the legend says it was written by Laozi, several discoveries in recent years have shown that the text may have several authors, such as two copies of the complete Daodejing in the tomb of Xin Zhui, wife of a local magistrate, discovered in 1973 near Mawangdui, and then 31 of the 81 verses, called the Bamboo Laozi, were discovered in 1993 near Guodian. Confusingly, Laozi’s name does not appear on either text, so the earliest text should be called the Bamboo Daodejing, but scholars thought otherwise. The texts shows us which verses and teachings came first, and how the text was adapted over several generations.
The final text was put together by Wang Bi (226 – 249 CE) just after the Han Dynasty collapsed. Wang Bi, who died at only 23, studied the Daodejing, which he believed was the work of Laozi, the Analects of Confucius and other classics, and Wang Bi’s version became the standard for everyone. The later text increasingly refers to the way of things as the One, the cosmos as a whole, and it also increasingly preaches stability and no war rather than less war, which reflects the growing environment of empire and stability that rose out of local warring states.
Zhuang Zhou (370 – 290 BCE), known by his simple name Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang, pronounced “Zshoo-ang-tsuh”), was likely from the Sung region of ancient China, torn apart by political conflicts from within and conquered repeatedly by neighboring states at war with each other. 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 in a chaotic and close-minded world.
Zhuangzi may have been the author of the inner seven chapters of the text known by his name, with the other “outer” chapters written by followers and figures from several Daoist schools who followed the work of Laozi, such as the primitivists, as scholars call them, who taught a very simple life, and the syncretists who merged Daoism with many other various ideas and practices. Not much is known about Zhuangzi’s life, but it is said he also gave up on civilization, but rather than ride west he lived simply in nature, rejecting appeals of officials and others for him to come help them rule their kingdoms.
The Zhuangzi text we have today is the work of Guo Xiang, (d. 312 CE) who lived just after Wang Bi. Guo Xiang collated and commented on the work, rearranged, altered and deleted parts, and inserting his own understandings into the work, as was common practice. The later Song Dynasty Chan (Zen) 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.” If Zhuangzi had the deeper understanding, then his words would better explain everything, including Guo Xiang and Guo Xiang’s explanations of Zhuangzi.
The Zhuangzi text does speak of Laozi in several places, which ties the two central philosophical works of Daoism together, just as it speaks of several other sages and masters, including their teachings together with Zhuangzi’s. One passage 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?” but when Nan-jung spun around, there was no one behind him, as Laozi was referring to the attachments and memories Nan-jung carried with him.
The Zhuangzi was a major influence on Zen Buddhism, which unlike other Buddhist schools was native to China, where it was originally called Chan and blended with Daoism much. Many koan cases, the sorts of puzzles such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if no one is around?” contain quotes from Zhuangzi, such as “Ships cannot sail where the water is too shallow,” quoted by Zhaozhou, and “If dust settles on a mirror, it isn’t very bright,” which is read and then reversed by Hui Neng.
Liezi (~350 BCE) is the third patriarch of Daoism, and his text, known by his name just like the Zhuangzi, is the third philosophical 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 between Laozi and Zhuangzi, but it has been known in China for some time that much of the Liezi text was written far later, likely between 200 and 300 CE, the time of Wang Bi and Guo Xiang.
During 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 meant something like wizened 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 of nature, such as secret caves, the sorts of places that Daoist alchemists many have invented gunpowder. Some of these wizards venerated Laozi and the Yellow Emperor and practiced fasting, gymnastics, medicine, alchemy, and tantric sex.
Rather than any of that, we turn to the philosophical teachings of Daoism, as they are found in the early Bamboo Laozi, Wang Bi’s Daodejing, the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, and other texts and stories. First, we will consider the cosmos, the Way or Dao of all things, which we are told the wise take as a model and teacher. Second, we will consider the differences between most people, who try hard to stand out and get what they want, and the wise, who don’t try to stand out or get anything other than what comes and goes.
The Way of Things
In the Daodejing, chaos, nothing, stillness and silence, what isn’t, non-being and nothingness, gave birth to form, something, stirring and sound, what is, but is and isn’t also make all things together. (25) The text is unclear in several places as to whether non-being is primary or whether being and non-being are equal. (2) This makes sense, as nothingness would not be particularly being nor not-being. We are told to be like what simply is, which is also chaos, the unchanging formlessness and isn’t that makes all changing forms, each thing that is. (25)
Nothing, not a single particular thing, can change the way things change. (32) You can’t get with it, you can’t get away from it, you can’t help it, harm it, prize it, nor cheapen it, but it is more valuable and useful than anything (56) because the isn’t between things is like fuel for fire, the space that fills with life and doesn’t stop, change or run out. (5B) Wang Bi’s final arrangement of the Daodejing puts later-added verses that emphasize non-being and not being able to judge the whole in one way or another up front, such as the famous opening:
The endless way of all things isn’t a particular way. The endless naming of things can’t be particularly named... Always hidden, we see mystery. Always found, we see form. One and the same, but different names. Both are called mysteries. Mysteries within mysteries, the door to all mysteries. (1)
A wheel can have many parts, but the hole in the center makes it work. Jars are made out of clay, but the space in the center makes it a jar. Doors and windows are for walls, but without these holes walls can’t hold a room. Things are good, but space gets things done. (11)
The cosmology text found with the Bamboo Laozi, The Great One Gave Birth To Water (Taiyi shengshui), says the Great One (Taiyi), a title that doesn’t appear in the Bamboo Laozi but is featured up front in later versions and favored by Wang Bi, can’t be named or understood, but we name it and use it whenever we do anything. (TS1) In ancient thought, names are often used to mean understandings, what we would call concepts or conceptions, such that naming a thing is heavily associated with understanding it, as we still do. The Taiyi text tells us:
Like sky and earth, name and thing, meaning and form, mental and physical, stand together. Beyond this, no name (or understanding) will fit. (TS1)
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 few know that the symbol originally comes from the Yin Yang school, one of the schools from the Warring States and Hundred Schools period of Chinese philosophy. The Daoists became associated with the symbol, which 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.
The manifest, what appears and what is for our senses, is the material, the lower, the female, the dark, emotional and chaotic, according to the Yi Jing and Yin Yang cosmology of ancient China. The hidden is what doesn’t appear physically and materially, the mental, heavily associated with words, names and concepts, what we can’t see or hear but is beneath or above material appearances. Again, Is and Isn’t seem mixed up as far as we can judge things, such that the material, chaotic and emotional are primary and basic, but also that chaos and order, emotion and reason, the material and mental, work together. The Bamboo Laozi says:
The whole isn’t anything in particular. Many like travelers stop for prized goods like food and music, but talking about the way lacks any flavor in the mouth because there is too much of it to see, too much of it to hear, and too much of it to use up. (35)
We look at what is, but can’t understand it, listen to it but can’t hear it, undefined and unimaginable. Meet it and can’t see its face (as it appears and as it begins). Follow it and can’t see its back (as it truly is and as it ends). (14)
The Mother Of All
One striking thing about Daoism compared to most philosophies, religions and popular cultures is the emphasis on taking the female perspective and comparing the cosmos to a mother which shares and includes the perspectives of all things as its perspective. Comparing early and late versions of the text, some scholars say that a playful trickster female valley water spirit, which takes perspectives however she likes, was increasingly blended and balanced with a stabilizing, heavenly, bright force which takes all perspectives like a monistic god, which is not named as male nor emperor but which is quite evident in the final 15 verses of Wang Bi’s canonized final version, none of which are in the earliest Bamboo Laozi.
These two together, the early trickster female increasingly associated with the mental, order, and male, gives us the final effect of an all-knowing yet tricky cosmos which is quite female and motherly, but which takes and uses the female and male, the non-being and being, the manifest and hidden, the emotional and rational, the incomprehensible and conceptual, together to do everything.
If we say that looking at things from the perspective of being and male is one-sided, such that what is is and what isn’t isn’t, what some call the Principle of Non-contradiction, and we say that looking at things from the perspective of non-being and female is two-sided, such that what is also isn’t and what isn’t also is, contradictory-wise, then the female perspective takes both the female and male perspectives rather than just the female perspective, taking the contradictory and non-contradictory together, and is thus superior to the simple male perspective that can’t take in the female perspective, capable of using the female and male perspectives to do everything from both sides.
This is quite remarkable, but is not simply feminist egalitarianism, as women and men lived in rather patriarchal structures in ancient China, though there is evidence in parts of China of older matriarchal culture that is still hanging on from preliterate times. There is a joke in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which the crazy aunt tells the bride-to-be that the man is the head of the house, but, “De woman is de neck, and de neck can turn de head to look at whatever she wants de head to look at.” This suggests that men, and women, who pay attention can see that woman and men actually run the show together, and women actually understand this in patriarchal cultures where men are given authority over women.
The Bamboo Laozi and Great One both refer to the way and One as a “mother” (BL2, TS1), the All-Mom, the mother of all mothers, and the Great One says it gave birth to water first, water helped birth all other things, and the One hides in water as it runs through all things. In the Yi Jing cosmology, water is two female lines with an inner male line, and fire is two male lines with an inner female line, such that both are gender-fluids, but water is the earthly female element and fire is the heavenly male element.
The Bamboo Laozi says that we should rule like a mother for others, which is what endures and gives us solid seeing. (59) The One starts empty, and finishes full, female to male, like pregnancy in which a woman bears a son, matriarchy secretly and silently supporting patriarchy. In one of the famed verses Wang Bi put up front, the highest is compared to water, and the lowest of the low:
The highest good is like lowly water. Water feeds everything without trying, and settles everywhere everyone hates. In this way it is almost the way of all things. (8)
Love, Strength & Wisdom
There is a consistent theme of starting with non-being, the female, the emotional, the lowly and weak, and then, as a second step, complimenting and balancing it with being, the male, the rational, the high and strong, which is the superior, wider way, compared to starting with being, the male, and having problems seeing things from both sides. This is like the cosmos, that starts and continues as a fluid nothing that supports and nourishes all solid somethings, and is the model the wise follow, who remain open even if they have to judge with closure.
The text says, “We know harmony as stability, and stability as brilliant.” (55) Love leads to strength, which leads to wisdom, perspective and insight, in a way that strength first doesn’t lead to love, and thus doesn’t lead to wisdom and perspective. If we start dogmatically and one-sidedly, we have trouble with perspective, but if we start skeptically and two-sidedly, we have perspective before we begin taking sides one-sidedly, which leads to greater wisdom and ability in taking sides. As Zhuangzi says, the wise also have a this and a that, but their that has a this, and their this has a that, with right and wrong as a continuous circular spectrum.
To become enlightened, and immortal according to some, Liezi first forgot right and wrong, then thought of right and wrong, and then finally thought without distinction between judging and not judging, forgetting and thinking of right and wrong fluidly together. Sima Chengzhen (647-735 CE), who wrote the Daoist Treatise on Sitting and Forgetting (Zuowang lun), says open hope is the root of the way, and serious devotion is the stem, starting with being open, and then developing discipline. The Bamboo Laozi says that the open and moving are put in balance with the closed and set, which leads to greater awareness, that “Those who love life more than ruling the world can be trusted to rule the world,” (13) and, “Hold the large picture and the world will follow.” (35)
The mother’s larger perspective of perspectives shows us we should, “Look at a family to see like a family, look at a village to see like a village, and look at the world to see like the world,” which is how to see like the world, which looks at things as individuals, families, villages, states and all other sorts of things together. (54) Like a mother who lives for herself and others equally, if we live for others we thrive and live, and if we live for ourselves we wither and die. (7) The text asks its many male, literate readers, “Can playing the female part open and close the cosmic gate?” (10) as if taking the other’s perspective is the source of all creativity.
Several verses added later say that the soft and weak are stronger and last longer than the hard and strong, which maps onto female and male, open and closed, fluid and solid. The Daodejing says, “The softest thing on earth overtakes the hardest thing… From this one recognizes the value of non-action (wu-wei).” (43) In the final 15 verses, which emphasize the bright and unidentified male, also emphasize the weak though they speak of neither female nor male.
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. (76)
In the Zhuangzi, twice there appears the example of a gnarled old tree which outlives other trees because it grows crooked and gnarled rather than straight and strong, and so it is the perfect spot to take a nap and rest because it can’t be used to do any activity. When Zhuangzi is asked by Dung Kuo where the way of heaven is, Zhuangzi says it is everywhere (like water running through all things in nature). 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 with each step. The Zhuangzi continuously suggests that if we see the lowest things as beautiful, and avoid striving for and hoarding the things people desire, we are happy and free.
Weak and strong, earth and heaven, hidden and manifest, like the cosmos, and women, work in cycles, (25) much like the full moon once a month, a bright white dot on a black background, much like Yin in the symbol, and the menstrual cycle. According to straight-edged, one-sided human reasoning and thinking, A leads to B, which isn’t A, and then it stays there, but if we think two-sidedly, and we think in cycles, A goes to not-A (B), and then back to A again, returning to the beginning while taking the long way around, contradicting itself in its motions, like arguing things two-sidedly and looking at things both ways.
The earth is high and firm. The sky is low and soft. When above is not enough, There is much below. When below is not enough, There is much above. (TS2)
The Zhuangzi has many impressive stories that show opposite perspectives and how we can be limited by how we live and what we see if we don’t see things oppositely. A sage named Zichi says that when the wind blows you can hear many sounds made by many things, including the whistling of trees and the wailing of hollow logs, but there is only one wind, suggesting that there is one living thing that makes different sounds when it moves out of different mouths, minds thinking different things as equally living beings. He then says:
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?
Baby bird chirps likely mean something to mother birds, but they don’t mean anything to us, unless we take the perspective of the mother bird, and then we can understand what they are saying easily. Similarly, in Wonderland, for the mother bird’s purposes Alice and all humans are simply some sort of serpent that eats her eggs, and nothing in her life contradicts the logic. When asked what we can all agree to, a sage named Wang Ni in the Zhuangzi replies:
If people sleep in damp places, their backs ache and they end up half paralyzed, but is this true of fish? If people live in trees, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of monkeys? 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?
Another strange sage called Jo of the North Sea tells us that from the point of view of the way of all things, things are not good or bad, but from the point of view of each thing, each thing is itself good, others are bad, and this is the view of all, when it isn’t, as each thing simply thinks it is good and this is what should be true for everyone, which is true, but not in the way each thing thinks. Jo tells us that all things are big if big means bigger than something, and so all things are big and small (significant and insignificant) as well as useful and useless. It is here that Jo tells us the example of the well frog, which has become a common way of calling someone ignorant in Chinese culture.
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 greater way.
The Dream & The Butterfly
Another central metaphor that teaches perspective found in the Zhuangzi is the dream of being a butterfly, and the dream theme comes up often in many Daoist texts and tales. The original dream of Zhuangzi is that he fell asleep and dreamed he was a butterfly, and when he woke he said he no longer knows if he is a man who was dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he is a butterfly who now dreams he is a man. Zhuangzi is often painted taking a siesta, often under a tree, and often with a butterfly or two fluttering nearby.
In the Liezi, Yin of Chou is a rich master who works his servants hard, including an old slave who falls asleep each night and dreams he is a rich king without a care in the world. When asked if his life is hard, the slave says he can’t complain. Yin of Chou, however, constantly worries about losing his fortune, and every night dreams he is a slave who has lost everything and worked hard as he works others hard. When he asks a friend about this, his wiser friend tells him he has too much more than others, and Yin decides to demand far less of his servants.
In The Dream of Lu Dongbin, the story of how the most popular of the Eight Daoist Immortals met an Immortal and became one, Lu was a brilliant student who had dreams of power and position in the imperial court. The immortal Han Zhang Li, who had been a general in the army before leaving common life behind, saw the student and recognized his true potential beyond worldly power, so he offered him wine, began to heat it, and Lu 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 died and the new emperor, threatened by Lu, had him exiled and his whole family put to death. As Lu cried over his family in exile, he woke and found he was still sitting in the inn with Han, and the wine was not yet hot. Lu realized the way of earthly power is not the true way, and he left everything to join Han in the mountains and become immortal.
Tan Qiao (860 – 940 CE) says in his Book of Transformations (930 CE) that 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. People do not have a constant state of mind. Things do not have permanent forms. He also says we can use sound to make trained bears dance.
Tan says 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, terror turns into defeat and destruction.
Tan says 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.
Tan says our senses are like four lenses, one shaped like a rod (a jade scepter, which is likely a penis) that makes things look small and insignificant, the second lens is shaped like a pearl (which is shaped like something female) that it makes things look large and important, the third like a whetstone that makes things look upright, and the fourth like a bowl that makes things look upsidedown. We look at things as unimportant, easy and calm, important, difficult and tense, upright, familiar and good, and upsidedown, unfamiliar and bad. This suggests we look at things as if we are insignificant and things are upsidedown first, which most don’t do.
Tan says if we test and use these we can find that there are no things that are simply large, small, desirable or hateful. Tan uses animal perspectives, like Zhuangzi, and says for the owl the day is dark and the night is bright, but for us and the chicken, it is the other way around. Which is normal, and which is not? You can’t say daytime is more fit for animal perceptions, as it depends on their organs. Some evolutionary biologists have argued that the eye was originally created for helping creatures avoid the light and hide rather than seek the light of day as we do.
Most Try Too Hard
The main difference between the wise and most people, who are tense, ignorant fools, is the wise take things slow and easy, not as if they don’t matter, but as if everything matters equally. Most people think some things are important, other things are unimportant, and the things that are important are either good or bad, not both, and unimportant things are neither good nor bad. In the Islamic tradition, Jesus says that he can perform miracles because mud and gold are equal in his eyes, and aren’t in the eyes of others.
In the early Bamboo Laozi says that trying for the good life tempts fate, and the mind can’t control without violence. If we get strong it ages us, but getting flexible makes us young. (55) It says, “Which is loved more, a famous name or a healthy self? Which is worth more, yourself or your wealth?” (44) We prize health over fame, and fame over wealth, but people seek wealth, and seek fame, and become infamous seeking wealth, and unhealthy seeking fame. If we try to make ourselves, others and other things more than what they are, we often ruin or lose them. (64C) The later verses in the Daodejing add, “The strong do not die a natural death”, (42) or the violent die a violent death, which is quite similar to Jesus saying, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Too many try too hard to be strong, and make themselves weak.
One later verse says, “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance is a noble insight, but to regard our ignorance as knowledge is mental sickness”. (72) The Zhuangzi says Pang of Qin had a son who saw white as black, tasted sweet as bitter and smelled the fragrant as foul. Pang found Laozi and asked him what he should do, and Laozi replied 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.
A sage in the Zhuangzi asks if we have heard of the praying mantis that waved its arms angrily in front of an approaching carriage, unaware that it was incapable of stopping it. It suggests that we move in response to life rather than hold our ground taking pride in our own abilities.
In the Liezi there is a pair of stories that show us how love and hate, desire and fear, shape our reality in absurd and foolish ways. In the first story about desire, 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.
In the second story about fear, 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. Unfortunately, there are psychology experiments that clearly show racial prejudice causing people to swear they see a gun when there is no gun, which kills innocent people.
Sima Chengzhen says that the way is like water to a fish for us, but a fish in a ditch will seek a bucketful of water while we often don’t have sense to seek the way even though we are surrounded by it in everything, hardly in a dry ditch. Sima says 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, and when the drunk carry the drunk and the sick carry the sick there is even more stumbling and sickness, with no turning back.
What The Wise Don’t
When it comes to doing things, the wise don’t, if they can. When the wise have to do things, they do just enough. The wise know that things come and go in cycles, bringing and taking everything to and from us. The Bamboo Laozi says, “Try to be almost empty and keep quiet care,” (16A) and “The best image has no form,” (41) suggesting we empty both our bodies and minds. We should watch things rise and fall (16A), being and not-being. “Soften the glare, settle the dust. Cut the cords, and untie the knots. This is deep unity. (56) The well-built can’t be lifted. The fully embraced can’t be lost. (54)
We are told the ancient sages were simple and strong, but also deep and hard to see, so it is hard to see who they are or say what they were like compared to others, but we can say they were, “Patient as if wading into a winter stream, careful as if threatened on all sides, calm as guests, giving as ice melting, plain as uncarved wood, and muddy as a puddle. Who’s muddy enough to calm and clarify? Who’s still enough to stir things up?” (15)
In the Liezi, 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. He was better off forgetting.
Tan Qiao says 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. The wise can’t be moved by emotions.
Ma Danyang (Cinnabar Sunlight, 1123 – 1184 CE), a famous Song Dynasty Daoist wizard said no one can master any state of mind without 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.
There is a Japanese story that illustrates non-action (wu-wei) and awareness very well. A samurai has three sons and must decide who is best to take his place and rule after him. 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. 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. The youngest son is simply aware, empty of thoughts such that he can pay more attention to everything around him.
Skill & Swimming
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. (Zhuangzi)
Tan Qiao says that it is easy to stand on a board on the ground, but hard to sit on the same-size board on the top of a pole, and that 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.
These passages 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.
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!” Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher I admire very much, said that when we do philosophy, we are really clearing ground.
Feng Youlan, student of the American Pragmatist John Dewey and author of the famous History of Chinese Philosophy (1934), was well acquainted with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which ends with silence, translated into Chinese in 1927 and discussed by Chinese intellectuals in the 1930’s. Feng writes in his autobiography that while he was giving guest lectures at Oxford on Chinese philosophy in 1933, Wittgenstein invited him to his rooms for tea, and Feng does not give much detail to their conversation but concludes, “I found there was quite an affinity for our views.” Feng thought he and Wittgenstein could help resolve the crisis of metaphysics, the problem of establishing fundamental elements of logic and meaning, by constructing different versions of a new Daoist philosophy of silence.
Judge Less To Judge More
The wise don’t judge, or judge less. There are many passages in the Zhuangzi that show the difference between the wise judging less with an open and easy mind and the foolish judging more with a closed and difficult mind.
Those who divide fail to divide. Those who judge fail to judge. What does this mean, you ask? The wise embraces things. Ordinary people judge among things and parade their discriminations in front of others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.
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.
When our ways rely on little accomplishments and words rely on vain show, then we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Moists (the two most popular philosophical schools competing with the Daoists). 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.
So the wise don’t work in such ways, but illuminate all in the light of day. The wise do have a ‘this’ and a ‘that’, but their ‘that’ has a ‘this’, and their ‘this’ has a ‘that’. The wise’s ‘that’ has both right and a wrong in it, and their ‘this’ too has both right and a wrong in it, so: Do the wise still have a ‘this’ or a ‘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 and its wrong are a single endlessness, so I say: The best thing to use is clarity.
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 the human to help out the heavens.
Chuchuehzi said, “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? What’s 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 block-headed. 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.
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.
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.
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 someone who has forgotten words so that I can have a word with them?
Knowing When Enough Is Enough
Confucius said outer form without inner meaning is the worst thing there is. The Bamboo Laozi says, “There is no mistake worse than not knowing when you have enough. Only those who know they have enough can have enough,” (46C) and this is the lesson the earliest text teaches over and over, more than any other. If we know enough, we know no shame or harm, mental or physical. (44) Taking slow and easy care of each thing and not rushing to the end is unbeatable. (64C) Doing without overdoing is what can’t be undone. (30) Be strong and wide so you won’t be broken and scattered. (64A)
Don’t hunger to be full. (15) “See plainly and embrace simply.” (19) Do enough and then leave. (40) Don’t force all you can out of things, don’t boast, don’t seek more, as this is overdoing. (30) The wise care without caring, teach without talking, and grow without saving or claiming. If you’re not choosy, you always have everything. (2) The wise return again and again to what most rush past, because they don’t desire the rare more than the common. (64C)
Taste the tasteless, enjoy formlessness and freedom in things. “Treat the small like it’s big and the easy like it’s hard. The wise see all as difficult, and have no difficulties.” (63AC) The difficult is easy if you take it with slow care, like a tree from a sprout, or a tower from a pile of dirt, or a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep right in front of you. (64A) The way gets easier, unlike control/knowledge/power/positioning, brings problems. (48A)
Just as slower things are easier to catch, life, including ourselves and all things, is easier to understand when we understand things slowly and simply. If you prepare for everything by being attached to nothing in particular, you are planning for everything before there is a sign of any particular thing. (64A) Treating everyone the same calm, easy way, prepares for every sort of situation with others. (45)
You can do without harm, even though doing can’t fully do anything forever. (45) “Five colors blind eyes. Five notes deafen ears. Five tastes wither tongues. Races and hunts madden the mind. Rare treasures lead us off. The wise feed the belly, not the eye.” (12) It is good to name and order things, but also good to know when to stop. (32) Understanding means speaking less. Speaking much is trying too hard. (56) “Use few words, if you don’t stand with all of your words, others won’t stand with you.” (17) “If things grow and desire thrives, I’ll cool them with unnamed simplicity.” (37)
The later verses of the Daodejing add many additional insights: “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.” (60) “Whoever knows others is clever. Whoever knows himself is wise. Whoever conquers others has force. Whoever conquers themselves is truly strong.” (33) “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.” (68) The wise are free from themselves, such that they can become themselves. (7) “Words keep trying to dive to its depths. Best to live in the middle of it.” (5)
In the Zhuangzi, we are told 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, and there are always spaces between things, just enough to make a cut. We are also told of the monkey trainer who told the monkeys that they get three acorns in the morning and four at night, which made them angry, so he told them they get four in the morning instead, which made them delighted, even though they get 7 acorns each day either way. “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 wise harmonize with both right and wrong and rests in space, the equalizer.” We are told the monkeys are wearing out their minds by trying to get more and keep things ordered without looking at the larger, unified picture.
Sima Chengzhen says 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. Sima says 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, 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.
Seeing The Cycles
The Bamboo Laozi says the ways of things circle and bend, so things that circle & bend last longer. (40) We can’t stay in place or stay full, or keep a knife sharp by sharpening it, and we can’t guard a room full of priceless treasures. (9) Opposites such as is and isn’t, good and bad, love and hate, beautiful and ugly, easy and hard, short and long, small and big, chaos and harmony, leader and follower lead to each other. (2) The text asks us, “Which is worse, winning or losing?” (44) If we see that we win and lose again and again, both are two sides of the same flipping coin. Saying yes or no are often much the same, and good and evil work nearby each other. (20A)
Work to overcome the cold and calm and rest to overcome the hot and tense, and in balance these can rule the world. (45) Don’t seek or fix self, things, knowing, caring, profit, wise, rank, justice, and everyone gains, feels for others, and jerks are gone. (19) The texts says robbers and thieves will go missing, like things do when there are robbers and thieves. “We have problems because we have lives. If we had no lives, what cares would we have?” (13)
There is a famous Daoist story known as Sai Weng loses his horse, which Sai says isn’t bad, as we have to wait and see. Then Sai’s horse comes back with another free horse, which Sai says isn’t good, as we have to wait and see. Then Sai’s son breaks his leg after riding the free horse. Then war comes and Sai’s son has to stay home, and isn’t killed along with all the other sons of his village. The loss of the horse eventually, after a few cycles, saved Sai’s son.
In the later verses of the Daodejing it says, “What you want to weaken you must first allow to grow strong. What you want to destroy, you must first allow to flourish. From whom you want to take, to him you must first give,” (36) and, “The more the sages do for others, the more they possess. The more they give to others, the more they have.” (81)
In the Liezi, there are several stories that show us wisdom can see farther if we see in cycles. 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.
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.
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.
Acting Like A Fool
In a single verse of the Bamboo Laozi (41) we are told that the bright way is dim, the way forward seems backward, true power seems lowly, the pure seems poisoned, the steady seems lazy, the easy seems difficult, and the straight seems crooked, so the wise work on the way, most try the way and lose it, and the bad hear the way and laugh at it. The text tells us that if no one laughs, you’re not with the way.
The Daoists often act like fools to conceal that they are wise, sometimes to not be bothered by fools who want things, and other times to test others and see if they are wise or fools. This foolery became famous in Zen Buddhism, which borrowed the very un-Buddhist but very Daoist strategies of using lies and foolishness to teach us how to be wise rather than foolish. In Chinese literature, and movies such as Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, and even Star Wars, wise masters live obscurely and teach those who are wise by pretending to be jerks.
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.
In 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. Are we to question the Yellow Emperor’s sincerity, thus lowering him to our level in humor? The text can and could be read this way by many.
The great Eight Immortals don’t care about rank, act like immoral fools, and take down stupid and greedy nobles, officials and merchants, first and foremost the Jade Emperor, the administrator of the cosmos himself, who had the Immortals thrown out of his birthday party and demoted in the Book of Record for bringing him simple gifts. The Immortals, who don’t care about lying or stealing to do what is right in the long run, steal the Jade Emperor’s best gifts before he can open them, regift them to him along with fireflies and crickets, which the Emperor hasn’t been down to earth to see before, and he invites them in to feed and promotes them in the Book. The Immortals eat food, leave, and don’t care about the promotion or keeping to a position.
Lu Dongbin, the most popular immortal, a doctor to the poor and master of evil spirits, tricks Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess, into marrying a mortal man, as if they want her to not simply use beauty as a ruse, but to have sex herself. Lu is himself tricked by two other of the Eight Immortals into getting a beautiful Daoist hermit he has sex with pregnant. Li Tai Guai, one of the two who tricked Lu, is tricked by Laozi himself, who tempts him to stray from his practices with a beautiful daughter who seems to seriously want Li but is actually an enchanted piece of wood.
Hold No Rank
The wise, like water, take the lowest of positions and seek no pride, and so they can do so much more for others, without anyone thinking there is anything particular happening at all.
Oceans and rivers rule small valley streams because they swim below them. The wise lead in front by putting themselves last. They’re above others but speak lowly of themselves. They’re on top but others don’t feel weighed down. They’re in front of others but no one feels threatened. Everyone in the world is happy to support them without getting tired of it. Because they don’t compete, no one can compete with them. (66)
Later verses add the wise 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. If you desire nothing, “everything will flock to you,” (22) and that the wise don’t care for themselves and are safe. (7)
Laozi says that only he has obtained the high rank of newborn baby that has not yet learned how to smile. Disturbingly, according to legend Laozi’s mother was pregnant for years, and then gave birth to a tiny grey-bearded old sage baby. The Bamboo Laozi says:
True power is like a newborn baby… Their bones are weak, their muscles are soft, but their grip is strong. They don’t know about sex but are always excited, with more energy than anyone. They scream all day and keep their voice, and are most in harmony with everyone. (55)
The Liezi says, “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 active, others are passive. These are the circling ways of things that the wise accept easily and the rest can’t.
No Rank – Anarchism
In suggesting simplicity and nature as the way to properly live, some have called Laozi and other Daoists early Chinese anarchists. In the Zhuangzi, the wise are often common people, woodcutters, fishermen, butchers, carpenters, ex-cons, and others of low status. In two places, Zhuangzi mocks Confucius, who praises two sages who have had their legs cut off for committing crimes but have flocks of followers. The Liezi 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. Kropotkin, a founder of modern anarchism, and Ursula K. LeGuin, the famed science fiction author, both argued that Laozi was an anarchist like themselves.
The Bamboo Laozi says that, “Work is best when it works for everyone equally and everyone thinks that they equally did the work,” and so, “The best rulers are unknown, the next best are loved, the next are feared, and the worst are fought.” (17) More laws, knowledge and control lead to more outlaws, unknowns and chaos. (57) We cannot make others fear wrong without being feared and fearing ourselves, which is why, “Pride and shame are scary, and don’t work well.” (13)
Strength and order are for war, funerals and bad times. When we must use war and violence, use surprise, (57) as Sunzi says again and again using very Daoist metaphors like water, saying stay fluid and unknown to your enemy. Less war is ruling best. (30) The wise use weapons quietly when they have no choice but to take life. (31C) The warlike can never have what they want. (31C) To cut at what’s complete to add to life is waging war with force. (TS2)
Aikido, the Japanese martial art that uses the force of the opponent to defeat the opponent, 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.
“Raise everyone. Feed everyone. Be a leader, not a butcher.” (10) When we follow the way, there is no loyalty, justice or good leaders. When we don’t follow the way, there is loyalty and disloyalty, justice and injustice, and good and bad leaders. (18) “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.” (46) If you seek rank, you hand yourself a trial and punishment. (9)
Be cheap to rule and serve, prepared for all, always gaining in all things, and have a self without limits. (59) Seek and save less for less loss. (44) Don’t worry about holding on to things, as, “Your ancestors will keep up the sacrifices.” (54) If you give to others, others will follow you in giving to others, and continuing the ancient ways of doing things for all and everyone.
Tan Qiao says there are seven rip-offs, ways we are all cheated, since food is the most important thing, but kings take one part, aristocrats take another, and the army, war, artists, merchants and clergy take part, naming both the Daoists and Buddhists, from rich and lean harvests. People wear burlap just after completing silk, and eat chestnuts when the harvest just ended. Tan says more punishment and police lead to more anger and crime. How can those who take the people’s food repay them by fussing over love and duty? This suggests we start with love, balance it with duty, and you don’t need politics or ranks to fuss over either.
In the Zhuangzi, Chien Wu tells Lien Shu that he has heard talk of a holy sage living on a mountain top, possibly Liezi but not named, 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 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. I highly recommend all of his works on the classics of Chinese philosophy, and he has created television programs for teaching philosophy to young children in Taiwan.