The Tao of Odds and Ends
Part three: Zhuangzi and the Book of Zhuangzi
Although there is more certainty of the existence of Zhuangzi than there
is of Laozi, he remains mysterious. He was born in the region of China
that is now the provinces of Henan and Anhui. He lived sometime between
the years 399 and 295 BC. He worked as a minor official in a place called
the 'Lacquer Garden' (what this means is anyone's guess). Not much else
is known of him, other than that he had contact with the philosophy and
philosophers of the fourth century, of which there is evidence in the
very erudite and fascinating book ascribed to him.
The Book of Zhuangzi is a beguiling text, full of stories, magnificent
characters, animals, strange creatures, the majesty of nature and the
poetics of the everyday, and it is probably the only philosophical work
in human history that is actually humorous. Only the seven so-called 'Inner
Chapters', and a few other fragments of the book, are believed to have
been written by Zhuangzi himself. The rest is a miscellany, presumed to
have been written by his followers.
The core of Zhuangzi's philosophy is contained in the second chapter
of the book. This chapter begins with a character called Nanguo Ziqi,
who is in a trance. We are told he sat with "reclined elbow on armrest,
looked up at the sky and exhaled." His friend said to him, "The
reclining man here now is not the reclining man of yesterday," and
Nanguo Ziqi replied, "This time I had lost my own self" .
The point of this story is that through the trance, Nanguo Ziqi has observed
himself, objectively, as another person would. That's why his friend can
quip that he is no longer the man who had his elbow on the armrest before.
What he has done is engage in an exercise, to see from a different perspective
(he has not had an out-of-body experience; that is a concept from Indo-European
mystical traditions, and presupposes a mind-body dichotomy ). This,
in turn, is Zhuangzi's philosophical exercise. He considered all the different
philosophers' daos, but saw none of them as a dao to endorse.
They were all merely different points of view. His attempt to see all
the myriad daos from a higher perspective was like Nanguo Ziqi's
trance, when he temporarily escaped his own point of view and saw himself
as an 'other'.
The Nanguo Ziqi character then makes the next important philosophical
point in the chapter. He says to his friend, "You know the pipes
of men, but not those of earth; know the pipes of earth, but not those
of tian?" . Tian means 'nature' (or 'sky' - some
translators decide to use 'heaven'). His friend wishes to understand,
and he hints:
ten thousand hollow places burst out howling, and don't tell
me you have never heard how the hubbub swells! The recesses in mountain
forests, the hollows that pit great trees a hundred spans round, are like
nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like sockets, like bowls, like mortars,
like pools, like puddles. Hooting, hissing, sniffing, sucking, mumbling,
moaning, whistling, wailing, the winds ahead sing out AAAH!, the winds
behind answer EEEH!, breezes strike up a tiny chorus, the whirlwind a
mighty chorus. When the gale has passed, all the hollows empty, and don't
tell me you have never seen how the quivering slows and settles!"
He has described the wind, making diverse sounds as it blows through
all kinds of different recesses and hollows, and then the silence when
there is no more sound. His friend understands, "the pipes of men,
these are rows of tubes" . Nanguo Ziqi has compared human speech,
and by extension, all the conflicting philosophies (each promoting a different
dao as the correct dao to guide society), to the different
lengths of tube that musicians blow into on the panpipes. "The pipes
of earth, these are the various hollows
" . He has then
compared the human blowing of panpipes to the wind blowing on the earth.
His friend asks about the pipes of tian. Nanguo Ziqi answers with
a rhetorical question:
"Who is it that puffs out the myriads which are never the same
Tian itself is 'blowing out' the myriad philosophies. What this
means is that all the daos, and the language that transmits them,
are not, as Laozi had it, unnatural. There is no single, correct dao
that is natural, but all the competing daos are equally natural. As points
of view, all daos are natural, because it is natural for us to
have points of view. Different kinds of people, like different lengths
of tube on the panpipes, inevitably think differently.
Chapter two progresses along, Zhuangzi refuting the theories of various
other Classical philosophers, including Kongfuzi, Mozi, and their followers.
Then there is a passage making the point that all human points of view
exist in a wider context, in a world where they are continuous with non-human
perspectives, such as animals, and nature itself:
"Mao Ch'iang and Li Chi were considered by men to be beauties, but
at the sight of them fish plunged deep down in the water, birds soared
high up in the air, and deer dashed away. Which of the four knows the
right kind of beauty?" 
Even if every human being agreed upon a dao to follow, it could
not be an absolute dao, an absolute system of guidance. A counter-argument
to that would have been Mozi's. He conceived of a pragmatic standard dao
that at least all humans could (theoretically) follow, the preference
of li (benefit) over hai (harm) . However, the succeeding
passage in Zhuangzi refutes this standard:
who knows what the ultimate human may take as beneficial
and harmful? He may not be burned by fire, ride in a chariot in the sky,
cross the seas and find ways into and out of death so they no longer mean
anything to him" 
Mozi's standard was not as pragmatic as it seemed. What might be beneficial
or harmful to human beings can change, and has changed, over the course
of history. The character speaking in this part of the chapter says he
is "confused" about how to "discriminate between... the
paths" . This is confusion about how to discriminate between
right action and wrong action, about which dao is the best dao
to adopt. Knowing the way to do the things that help life and survival
seems pragmatic, but "How do I know that love of life is not a delusion?"
 - if it is a delusion, this way is not at all pragmatic.
Discriminating between dreaming and waking is no less of a problem than
discriminating between life and death:
"While we dream we do not know that we are dreaming, and in the
middle of a dream interpret a dream within it; not until we wake do we
know that we were dreaming. Only at the ultimate awakening shall we know
that this is the ultimate dream. Yet fools think they are awake, so confident
that they know what they are, princes, herdsmen, incorrigible!"
It important to realize here that Zhuangzi is not being sceptical about
the existence of the world 'external' to the mind. The Indo-European concern
with 'reality', illusion, and inner consciousness does not fit into the
conceptual framework in which he was philosophizing . The Chinese
philosophers were far more interested in knowing how (to live,
etc.) than knowing what (about the cosmos). Zhuangzi's scepticism
here is about how dreaming and waking are discriminated, that is, how
they are distinguished from one another. They tend to be treated as opposites,
but they do not necessarily have to be treated as such. Your life, while
you are awake, undoubtedly affects the content of your dreams, and, these
dreams in turn can affect your life, after you have awoken. And have you
ever been half-awake, or half-asleep? Many people have had hallucinations;
some people have had visions. Could these be considered as waking dreams,
and could dreams be considered as visions in sleep? After all, if there
is an absolute distinction between dreaming and waking, you can
be either awake, or you can be asleep, it can only be one or the other.
This would mean that now, as you read this, you are either absolutely
awake, or absolutely dreaming:
Once I, Chuang Chou [Zhuangzi], dreamed that I was a butterfly and was
happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself,
but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was,
visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming that he was a
butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Chou .
Discriminating, making distinctions between things, this is activity
that comes from following a dao. Once you adopt a dao, you
are accepting its parameters; once you are engaged in a particular point
of view, you adopt the myopia, or flaws, inherent in that point of view.
This is demonstrated in the story about Zhuangzi in chapter 20. He is
hunting a bird (a "strange jackdaw") in a fenced preserve:
Hitching up his robe, he hurried after it with his crossbow in order
to take a pot shot at it. On the way he saw a cicada which was basking
in a beautifully shady spot, without a thought for its bodily safety.
Suddenly, a praying mantis stretched forth its feelers and prepared to
spring upon the cicada, so engrossed in the hunt that it forgot its own
safety. The strange jackdaw swept down and seized them both, likewise
forgetting its own safety in the excitement of the prize. Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi]
sighed with compassion and said, "Ah! So it is that one thing brings
disaster upon another, and then upon itself!" He cast aside his crossbow
and was on his way out, when the forester chased after him, shouting at
him for being a poacher .
Zhuangzi is hunting a bird, which is hunting a praying mantis, which
is hunting a cicada. But Zhuangzi is not the 'highest' in this chain;
the forester hunts him. While discriminating something as prey,
he was unaware that he is also prey. His is not the ultimate point of
view. Any dao, any system of guidance that can be adopted, has
flaws and errors. It is interesting that the protagonist in this story
is Zhuangzi himself, the philosopher. His philosophical exercise was to
get beyond an individual point of view, consider other human points of
view, look at animal perspectives, and the perspectives even of trees,
rocks and rivers, the view from nature, and the universe as a whole. But
he could not argue that he had some kind of cosmic insight. His
'meta-perspective', his perspective on perspectives, is itself merely
one point of view . This is made clear in chapter 17, with the story
of the frog and the turtle:
"Did you never hear about the frog in the deep-down well? He said
to the turtle of the East Sea 'A happy life I have! I go out and hop up
onto the well-rail, come in and rest on the wall where there's a cracked
tile. I have water to plunge in which comes right up to my armpits and
holds up my chin, mud to wade in which submerges my feet so deep that
you can't see the heels. Look round at the mosquito larvae and crabs and
the tadpoles, not one of them compares with me. And to have the water
of an entire hole at your command, the joy of a deep-down well where you
can do as you please, is the highest of distinctions. Why don't you call
now and then, sir, come in and see the view?'
"Before the turtle of the East Sea got his left foot in, his right
foot was already jammed. Then as he shuffled backwards he told him about
the sea. 'A distance of 1,000 miles gives no idea of its size, a height
of 8,000 feet gives no impression of its depth. In the time of Yü
there were nine floods in ten years, but its water was not swelled by
them; in the time of T'ang, there were seven droughts in eight years,
but its shores were not shrunk by them. Not to be pushed into shifting
when durations are too short or long, not to be driven forward or backward
when the water is too much or little, that is the great joy of living
in the East Sea.' Then the frog of the deep-down well was stunned with
amazement to hear it, beside himself with bewilderment" .
The turtle has seen a world undreamed of by the frog, and his point of
view seems so vast compared to one that sees everything from a dark and
limiting well. But the turtle's feet (i.e. flippers) cannot fit into the
well, meaning the frog's point of view is completely inaccessible to him.
No matter how wide ranging and profound the turtle's perspective seems,
it cannot be universal.The two points of view are mutually exclusive,
and a composite, cosmic point of view is impossible to achieve.
The conclusion can easily be drawn from Zhuangzi that different points
of view, different daos, different ways of life, are inevitable
and have to be tolerated. That is as much a departure from Laozi's standpoint
that all daos are unnatural, as it is from the philosophers who
tried to establish one dao to guide society - each with a different
idea of what that that dao should be. In Zhuangzi's particular
kind of relativism, there was tolerance of different points of view and
ways of life, rather than prejudice, or exclusion; and there was acceptance
that an endless myriad of daos are within the embrace of nature.
A fascinating consequence of Zhuangzi's acceptance of multiple daos was
his interest in how each dao can, once adopted, operate and develop.
In chapter 3, he describes a cook slicing meat:
Cook Ding was slicing up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every push of his
hand, every angle of his shoulder, every step with his feet, every bend
of his knee - zip! zoop! he slithered the knife along with a zing, and
all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were dancing to Mulberry Grove
or keeping time as in Jing-shou music.
"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill
reaching such heights!"
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is
a dao which advances my skill. When first I began cutting up oxen, I could
see nothing that was not ox. After three years, I never saw a whole ox.
And now - now I go at it by spirit and do not look with my eyes. Controlling
knowledge has stopped and my spirit wills the performance. I depend on
the natural makeup, cut through the creases, guide through fissures. I
depend upon things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament
or tendon, much less bone" .
Following a dao - any dao - can become an art form. No
matter how humble the activity, even if it's just slicing lumps of meat,
it can be performed to a high level of skill. This skill can then become
second nature to the practitioner, and performed without conscious thought.
It is possible to lose oneself in an activity. But like the reclining
Nanguo Ziqi, this 'loss of self' is not akin to the 'mystical experiences'
of Indo-European traditions. It is a state of consciousness in which the
operation of the trained skill has become intuitive, and does not require
conscious thought. Indeed, conscious awareness would interfere with the
performance of the skill. The importance of not being self-conscious is
alluded to in this story from chapter 21:
When Prince Yüan of Sung was about to have a portrait painted, all
official painters came, bowed, and at the royal command stood waiting,
licking their brushes and mixing their ink. Half of them were outside
the room. One official came late. He sauntered in without hurrying himself,
bowed at the royal command and would not remain standing. Thereupon he
was given lodging. The prince sent a man to see what he did. He took off
his clothes and squatted down bare-backed. The ruler said, "He will
do. He is a true painter" .
So, the painter is immersed in the act of painting. His spontaneous lack
of self-consciousness is seen as a great asset. However, there is an exception
to this rule. Conscious awareness is once again necessary when the skill
has to be developed or advanced. In any art form, there is no limit to
possible future accomplishment. When Cook Ding comes to a new and difficult
part in his work, he regains his awareness, solves the problem, and in
doing so develops his skill even further:
"Despite that, I regularly come to the end of what I am used to.
I see its being hard to carry on. I become alert; my gaze comes to rest.
I slow down my performance and move the blade with delicacy. Then zhrup!
It cuts through and falls to the ground. I stand with the knife erect,
look all around, deem it wonderfully fulfilling, strop the knife and put
it away" .
Cook Ding is fulfilled when he finally looks around him and sees the
entirety of his work. This is the satisfaction of following a dao.
It is inevitable and natural that we will walk one path or other. Why
not develop that path to the level of art?
Of course, as expressed above, once you adopt a dao, you are accepting
its parameters. Thus to be skilled at one activity is to be flawed at
others. The great turtle cannot enter the frog's well.