Notes on Chuang-Tzu

by DT Strain, 2005

I was recently looking into how the Taoist conception of the universe, the Tao, and Li "organic pattern" affected how it is believed a person should live his life. After asking about this on the Comparative Religion Forums, A poster by the screen name of Vajradhara responded, saying that I should check out the Taoist "Chuang-Tzu", a fairly brief writing which he said is often coupled along with the Tao Te Ching (the central work of Taoism). Many thanks to Vajradhara.

I found a translation (http://www.vl-site.org/taoism/cz-text2.html), and have recently completed my reading of it. I found it both astonishing and moving. Chuang-Tzu covers how knowledge of the Tao should guide the behavior of both the individual and the state. The following are my notes on Chuang-Tzu, a just-over 9 page document condensed from the 53 page original. Not knowing the original language, I unfortunately had to approach Chuang-Tzu through the filter of a translation rather than the original in its native form, so this may have tainted my understanding. My notes are therefore an even further step removed on top of that, and therefore should not be looked at as a substitute for reading the original, or even a translation of the original. Also, lacking the beautiful narrative and more full examples of the Chuang-Tzu itself, my notes will seem stark by comparison.

Below the notes I've included some excerpts in italics. These are not meant to be complete "proofs" that what I claim in the note is supported by the text of Chuang-Tzu. In many cases more of the surrounding context of Chuang-Tzu would need to be read to get the meaning I derived in the above note. The passage is provided only to give a reference for what general portion of the document I was referring to.

Furthermore, these notes do not necessarily include everything the Chuang-Tzu teaches, as I was reading with a narrow focus on information concerning specifically how knowledge of Tao relates to behavior and lifestyle. Lastly, I am not an expert or a scholar so my interpretations may be off in places, and are open to debate. Comments are welcome in the comments section to the right - thanks!

A general overview of wisdom and Nature.

• The wise person is not affected by flattery or blame, for he sees the world as it is.

If the whole world flattered him, he would not be affected thereby, nor if the whole world blamed him would he be dissuaded from what he was doing.

• The wise person knows the difference between essence and the superficial.

For Yung can distinguish between essence and superficialities.

• No one is outside Nature or independent of it.

Yet although Liehtse could dispense with walking, he would still have to depend upon something.

• Everything has its role in the universe and serves its purpose, all we have to do is see it.

Hueitse said... "Certainly [the gourd] was a huge thing, but I had no use for it and so broke it up."

"It was rather you did not know how to use large things," replied Chuangtse.

More detail on the universe as a dynamic and interconnected system, and how to approach and react to that. This seems to be Chuang-Tzu's central thesis.

• The universe is composed of the active and the inactive, throughout (see the western parallel of Heraclitus' description of the Divine Fire).

"The breath of the universe," continued Tsech'i, "is called wind. At times it is inactive. But when active, all crevices resound to its blast..."

• All things in the universe are interdependent and affect one another - all is One. This is obscured by our artificial distinctions and pigeonholes.

Tao is obscured by our inadequate understanding, and words are obscured by flowery expressions. Hence the affirmations and denials of the Confucian and Motsean schools, each denying what the other affirms and affirming what the other denies. [This] brings us only confusion.

There is nothing which is not this; there is nothing which is not that. What cannot be seen by what (the other person) can be known by myself. Hence I say, this emanates from that; that also derives from this. This is the theory of interdependence of this and that.

• The wise person rejects isolated concepts and acknowledges this Oneness of all things.

The true sage rejects all distinctions and takes his refuge in [Nature].

• To waste time on isolated concepts, blind of their dependence on outside factors, is called "three in the morning", which refers to a story, but the phrase's meaning is similar to "six of one, half a dozen of another". It means that a person who focuses on one part of the whole as though it were isolated doesn't realize that "it's all the same".

But to wear out one's intellect in an obstinate adherence to the individuality of things, not recognizing the fact that all things are One, --That is called "Three in the Morning."

• The wise person will look at the big picture and seek a balance of all the factors.

Wherefore the true sage brings all contraries together and rests in the natural Balance of Heaven (Nature). This is called (the principle of) following two courses (at once).

• Without looking existentially at life, our bias creates conflicts of subjectivity.

And with the decline of Tao, individual bias (subjectivity) arose.

[??? - There is a paragraph here which seems very interesting, but I don't know what it's trying to say. It ends, "Therefore the true sage discards the light that dazzles and takes refuge in the common and ordinary. Through this comes understanding."]

• We are most knowledgeable and wise when we acknowledge what we don't know (our ignorance) (see Socrates).

Therefore that knowledge which stops at what it does not know, is the highest knowledge.

• Life is full of indefinable boundaries, and to know these we must allow our perception of the world to "flow through" our minds, without being blocked by arbitrary preconceptions. This is the art of "concealing the light" - a refrain from judgment so that we may truly understand things without bias.

To be poured into without becoming full, and pour out without becoming empty, without knowing how this is brought about, --this is the art of "Concealing the Light."

• Simplistic and absolute dictates are limited and cannot account for the many variable circumstances surrounding an issue, and are therefore subjective.

Now I would ask you this, if a man sleeps in a damp place, he gets lumbago and dies. But how about an eel? And living up in a tree is precarious and trying to the nerves. But how about monkeys? Of the man, the eel, and the monkey, whose habitat is the right one, absolutely?

• To see beyond the subjective and perceive true absolutes (principles), we must understand the big picture and truly appreciate its many aspects and relationships. Through this we will enjoy longer life.

...if we wish to reach the absolute, we must harmonize them by means of the unity of God, and follow their natural evolution, so that we may complete our allotted span of life.

How to view death, in light of this Nature of the universe.

• The natural course of events (the workings of the universe) give us our lives and everything in them.

• We should accept death as part of this natural course of events.

• To not accept this is to not accept the very source of our lives and everything we love.

(To cry at one's death) is to evade the natural principles (of life and death) and increase human attachments... those who accept the natural course and sequence of things and live in obedience to it are beyond joy and sorrow.

The proper way to converse and deal with others with opposing views, beliefs, and ways.

• Rather than engage in rhetoric and dogma, we should have an opened mind.

"Why, then," (replied Yen Huei) "I can be inwardly straight and outwardly yielding, and I shall substantiate what I say by appeals to antiquity... Although I utter the words of warning and take [those I wish to influence for the better] to task, it is the Sages of old who speak, and not I. Thus I shall not receive the blame for my uprightness... Will this do?"

"No! How can it?" replied Confucius. "...However, you are only narrow minded... You will still be far from influencing him because your own opinions are still too rigid."

• To open our minds, we must first quiet our minds - this is called "fasting of the heart".

Let your spirit, however, be like a blank, passively responsive to externals. In such open receptivity only can Tao abide. And that open receptivity is the fasting of the heart.

• To convince the unknowing of virtue, you must not force things upon them, but approach them only when they are receptive and ready.

Talk when he is in a mood to listen, and stop when he is not... let things take their natural course.

• This is the same approach for influencing everything in Nature - let the natural dispositions of things work toward your goals, rather than brutishly going against the grain.

This is the method for the transformation (influencing) of all Creation.

There are several paragraphs dealing with the "utility of futility" or the value of "being useless". I did not fully understand what is being said by this, but a user on the forums over at www.comparative-religion.com called Kelcie has offered an explanation (thanks Kelcie)...

The mountain trees invite their own cutting down; lamp oil invites its own burning up. Cinnamon bark can be eaten; therefore the tree is cut down. Lacquer can be used, therefore the tree is scraped. All men know the utility of useful things; but they do not know the utility of futility.

In the stories of Chang Tzu, he highlights some very important insights in utility and futility.

For instance in the tree example to preserve his "treeness" and alloted life span the tree in its inherent wisdom chose to grow deformed. The tree understood the usefulness in growing this way. Man did not, he saw it as good for nothing. Because the tree had no use to man he was then able to live the allotted life span without mans interference.

When man attempts to control nature or abuse nature often his attempts are very futile as mother nature will fight back. And this is what the quote of Chang Tzu is pointing at. Man fails to see the usefulness in futility. This illustrates that although the attempts to control mother nature are futile the lesson learned is very useful to man in gaining the greater understanding of how nature works.

Learning how to live with nature is by far more useful to man but can he learn from his futility.


Facing the difficulties and circumstances of life stoically and with control.

• The virtuous man can recognize the inevitable and remain unmoved.

But only the virtuous man can recognize the inevitable and remain unmoved.

• The ultimate secrets of the universe are beyond our knowledge, so the Way of Nature must simply be faced and accepted, and these matters must not be allowed to affect our peace of mind.

Day and night they follow upon one another, and no man can say where they spring from. Therefore they must not be allowed to disturb the natural harmony, nor enter into the soul's domain.

• We should not be disturbed by external circumstances, but understand the flow of events beyond our control and maturely accept what is.

When standing still... the water is in the most perfect state of repose. Let that be your model. It remains quietly within and is not agitated without.

• The wise person lives as a human but without being consumed by passion. Because of this, the approval or disapproval of those who call his actions right or wrong does not concern him. Rather, he lives in accordance with Nature (to use a Stoic phrase).

He wears the human form without human passions... because he has not human passions the questions of [the approval of others] do not touch him... By a man without passions I mean one who does not permit the likes and dislikes to disturb his internal economy, but rather falls in line with nature...

Understanding true virtue and approaching it in our lives.

• Before we can obtain true understanding of things, we must live steadfastly to certain principles, despite transient temptations.

"We must... have true men before we can have true knowledge."

• Such people are freethinkers, who conduct themselves in a civil manner. They are in touch with the Nature of things.

Such men are free in mind and calm in demeanor... their joys and sorrows are... in harmony with all creation.

• Morality is a guide for working with others toward shared goals.

...morality, a guide that they might walk along with others to reach a hill.

• The Force of Nature has given us our life and our death both. To hate one is to hate the other, to love one is to love the other.

The Great (universe) gives me this form, this toil in manhood, this repose in old age, this rest in death. And surely that which is such a kind arbiter of my life is the best arbiter of my death.

• The wise person can remain calm and content amidst the chaos of life because he is in accord with Nature (the Way of things).

He was ever in accord with the exigencies of his environment... reaching security through chaos.

• By recognizing and adopting the natural sequence of complex events in life, we become more pure; more divine.

Resign yourself to the sequence of things, forgetting the changes of life, and you shall enter into the pure, the divine, the One.

The importance of inner character over appearances and rules.

• Like extra limbs and other deformities, overly elaborate systems of rules tend to emerge which actually hamper virtue.

Joined toes and extra fingers seem to come from nature, yet, functionally speaking they are superfluous... And (similarly) to have many extraneous doctrines of charity and duty and regard them in practice as parts of man's natural sentiments is not the true way of the Tao.

• Goodness of character is more important than simplistic obedience to rules and regulations given by others and society.

And what I call good is not the so-called charity and duty, but following the nature of life. What I call good at hearing is not hearing others but hearing oneself.

The dangers of an overly intrusive government, organized religion, and other social structures.

• It is better to let the people alone than have an overly intrusive government.

I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not do so. For the people have certain natural instincts -- to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves.

• Over-regulation and welfare (through government, organized religion, or other social systems) leads to a corrupt organization and a corrupt and oppressed people.

And then when Sages appeared, crawling for charity and limping with duty, doubt and confusion entered men's minds... Thus their minds and gestures become like those of thieves... The Sages came then to make them bow and bend with ceremonies and music, in order to regulate the external forms of intercourse, and dangled charity and duty before them, in order to keep their minds in submission.

How society is corrupted and how it corrupts.

• Spending too much energy to protect one's possessions is simply saving up for the strong thief. So it is the same for both individual life and all of society. There will always be something to cause harm. Becoming overly attached and expending great energy to avoid the inevitable is futile, and even helpful to opposing forces.

Therefore, does not what the world used to call wit simply amount to saving up for the strong thief?

• The corrupt in society use our popular conceptions of good and evil to rise to power.

So it is that those who follow the ways of brigandage are promoted to princes and dukes.

• The corrupt use the trappings of morality to persuade us into a bandwagon. But only those who avoid this mob mentality and think for themselves will escape confusion and be truly virtuous.

If each man keeps his own sense of sight, the world will escape being burned up. If each man keeps his own sense of hearing, the world will escape entanglements. If each man keeps his intelligence, the world will escape confusion. If each man keeps his own virtue, the world will avoid deviation from the true path.

How governments should be more tolerant and trust the natural proclivities of the people.

• Too much government is a sign of intolerance - intolerance of a people's natural proclivities and natures.

There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone and tolerance, there has never been such a thing as governing mankind.

• All the incentives of government are not enough to deter the worst criminals or induce them to goodness. At that point, further inducements and restrictions only serve to corrupt and oppress common people (good note of caution regarding security and terrorism).

Offer the entire world as rewards for the good or threaten the wicked with the dire punishments of the entire world, and it is still insufficient (to reform them)... From the Three Dynasties downwards, the world has lived in a helter-skelter of promotions and punishments. What chance have the people left for living the even tenor of their lives?

• In the name of "charity" governments that create a welfare state cause people to become greedy and corrupt. In the name of "duty" governments that create too many laws and statutes mislead the people as to what true morality is about.

They tortured the people's internal economy in order to conform to charity and duty. They exhausted the people's energies to live in accordance with the laws and statutes... the people's desires ever went beyond their possessions.

• Both of these harm the people's ability to live in accordance with Nature. We should abandon laws, codes, rules, and regulations as a substitute for morality of the heart.

Abandon (alleged) wisdom and discard (the commonly assumed) knowledge, and the empire will be at peace.

• The doctrine of a great person is adaptive and deliberative, and not based on rigid authoritarian commandments.

The doctrine of the great man is (fluid) as shadow to form, as echo to sound. Ask and it responds, fulfilling its abilities as the help-mate of humanity.

• Yet the great person conforms to standards which are fitting were they universal (see Kant's categorical imperative).

In respect of his bodily existence, he conforms to the universal standards.

• The wise person looks to the nature of things rather than seeking to impose control over them. He is a person of principle but does not expect it of others.

Therefore the Sage looks up to God, but does not offer to aid... He identifies himself with charity but does not rely on it. He performs his duties to his neighbors, but does not set score by them... He accommodates himself to matter and does not ignore it.

A return to the individual. How wisdom is connected to virtue, and a general recap of the thesis.

• We cannot comprehend great principles until we know enough about the world to see that we are not the center of it.

But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.

• A wise person does not complain about the fundamental facts of life, but sees and accepts the universe for what it is.

Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions.

• A great person's demeanor is one of seeking virtue without gloating over obtaining it or complaining about the lack of it in others.

[The great man] struggles not for wealth, but does not lay great value on his modesty. He asks for help from no man, but is not proud of his self-reliance, neither does he despise the greedy. He acts differently from the vulgar crowd, but does not place high value on being different or eccentric; nor because he acts with the majority does he despise those that flatter a few. The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace.

• When opposing features spring out of one single aspect of Nature, it is senseless to praise one and curse the other.

Thus, those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong; or good government without its correlate, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, not the nature of all creation... such people must be either fools or knaves.

• Those who understand the Way of things understand that if we live virtuously, then none of the incidental things that happen to us can be considered real "harm" by any truly meaningful use of the word.

The man of perfect virtue cannot be burnt by fire, nor drowned by water, nor hurt by the cold of winter or the heat of summer, nor torn by bird or beast.

• True virtue does not need to be consciously or procedurally followed, but in the virtuous of character, flows naturally and as unconsciously as walking.

So, too, does my natural mechanism move, without my knowing how I do it.

• Living virtuously is in harmony with our Nature, and doing what is in our Nature makes us happy.

See how the small fish are darting about! That is the happiness of the fish.

This concludes my notes. Stoic author Keith Seddon has made extensive comments on Chuang-Tzu HERE.