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. There is a Chinese saying: A mountain is so many shovels of earth. A river is so many pails of water.
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.