The Tao of Odds and Ends


© Barry Kavanagh 2003

Butterfly    Tao

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" [24]. 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 [25]). 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?" [26]. 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!" [27]

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" [28]. 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…" [29]. 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…?" [30]

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?" [31]

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) [32]. 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" [33]

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" [34]. 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?" [35] - 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!" [36]

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 [37]. 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 [38].

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 [39].

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 [40]. 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" [41].

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" [42].

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" [43].

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" [44].

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.


Part four: Yang Zhu and "The Minister of the Waves"