Ethics 9 – Chinese Ethics: Zhuangzi
Daoism, Laozi & Zhuangzi
Daoism is one of the great 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.
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 and others that disappeared without their support.
The most important concept for Daoism (and, interestingly, the mystics of most religions) is the Great One, the All. In the Middle East and Europe, Neoplatonists similarly spoke of the One, which encompasses all dualistic opposites. Like Confucius and Confucianism, Daoism followed the Zhou Dynasty before the Han in speaking about the Way (Dao) of heaven and the mandate of heaven but less about the ‘Lord of Heaven’, showing us the same abstraction and evolution from polytheism to monotheism to philosophical monism we find in ancient Egypt, India and Greece. Like in ancient Egypt and India, but unlike ancient Greece after the spread of Christianity, ancient China kept traditional polytheism as their philosophers moved toward monism. In Daoism, you can find many gods and the Dao, the Way, being praised and venerated beyond all particular beings.
Daoism argues that one should remove one-sided judgments and desires from the mind such that harmony with the whole, with the One, is achieved. This is similar in many ways to the Indian Jain idea of anekantavada, ‘non-one-sidedness’. My favorite quote from the Zhuangzi, which can serve as a great slogan for skepticism and relativism around the world in general, is:
Sages too have a this and a that, but their that has a this, and their this has a that.
With regard to the Confucians and the Moists, what one calls right the other calls wrong, but if we want to right their wrongs and wrong their rights, the best thing to use is clarity.
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. We will see when we study Sunzi’s Art of War that he makes much use of this, as well as the Daoist idea of being fluid like water.
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. Also,
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.
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. Zhuangzi’s life and dates are better known. He worked as a overseer of a lacquer warehouse, a place for mass-producing boxes, vases and plates with glazes. According to his text, written by his students and followers, he was a friend of many philosophers including the Logicians Hui Shi and Gongsun Long. Laozi 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.
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.
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. Joshu, 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 Joshu 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.
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.
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.