Purushottama Bilimoria

CHUANG TZU fourth century BCE

All the fish needs is to get lost in water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao.1

The two most famous and enduring works of philosophical Taoism, both composed during the classical period of Chinese thought (c. 500-200 BCE), are the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) and the Chuang Tzu (or Zhuang Zi). They are works, moreover, in which subsequent generations, right down to the present, have claimed to find an enlightened attitude towards the natural world, a 'doctrine of harmony with the natural environment'.2 Traditionally the Tao Te Ching was attributed to one Lao Tzu or Lao Tan, supposedly a contemporary of Confucius (sixth-fifth century BCE), and the Chuang Tzu to a later disciple. Modern scholars, however, favour the view that the latter work was the earlier, with the Tao Te Ching being a third-century BCE compilation by unknown authors who, in a manner then familiar, annexed their thoughts to the name of an ancient, and perhaps mythical, sage.3

Unlike Lao Tzu, the actual existence of the reputed and eponymous author of the Chuang Tzu is reasonably well attested. A later chronicle asserts that Chuang Tzu (Master Chuang) was an official in a lacquer garden in present-day Honan and that he refused higher royal office on the grounds, according to his own Book, that he would prefer to live like an ordinary tortoise, free to 'drag its tail in the mud', than to live artificially like one pampered at court (17.11). Other anecdotes in the Book suggest that Chuang Tzu was an engaging and ironic individualist, with scant respect for artifice and convention, especially for the Confucian rites of burial. We find him, from his deathbed, chiding his disciples for preparing a 'sumptuous burial' for him (32.14).

Although the Book is traditionally attributed to Chuang, it is now accepted that he wrote only some of the thirty-three chapters, no more, perhaps, than the 'inner chapters' (1-7), and that some sections of other chapters were assembled by thinkers of his 'school'.4 Like one of his translators, then, 'when I speak of Chuang Tzu, I am referring...to the mind, or group of minds, revealed in the text called Chuang Tzu\ rather than to a specific, historical individual.5

The Chuang Tzu, as noted, is a classic of philosophical Taoism. The qualifier is important, since the Taoism it represents should be sharply distinguished from the 'religious' or 'magical' Taoism which developed after the second century CE. The distance between the two may be gauged from reflecting that whereas Chuang taught calm acceptance of, even indifference to, death, the main obsession of 'magical' Taoists was discovery of the elixir of eternal life. Before characterizing philosophical Taoism, three points should be borne in mind. First, the division of classical Chinese philosophers into 'schools'—Taoist, Confucian, Legalist, etc.—was the work of a later taxonomist and encourages exaggeration of the differences between, and similarities within, these 'schools'. Thus Confucius, though often a critical target of Chuang's, sometimes appears in the Book as an admired sage. Second, Taoism is not to be distinguished by its concern for the Tao (Way, Path), since it was the common and primary concern of Chinese philosophers to determine the proper Way for human beings to follow. Third, while there is significant affinity between the two Taoist classics, their emphases are different. The Tao Te Ching pre-eminently addresses the problem of how rulers should govern in turbulent, warring times, while the Chuang Tzu is occupied with how the private, indeed apolitical, individual should live in these, or any other, times.

Distinctive of Taoism is the very general and abstract notion of the Tao which it invokes. For Confucius, the Tao was the proper Way for human beings, but for Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu the central notion is that of a 'Great Tao', the 'complete, universal, all-inclusive' Way of the universe itself, a Way with which human lives should harmoniously accord (22.6). This 'Great Way' cannot be precisely articulated. In keeping with the famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching—'The Way that can be told is not the constant Way'—Chuang says that 'The Great Way is not named.. .If the Way is made clear, it is not the Way' (2.2). Nevertheless, some things can be said about it, and lessons for human conduct drawn.

The Tao is the Way of nature as a whole, so that 'the true man', who is 'lost in the Tao', is one who lives 'naturally'. The ills of social and individual life, for Chuang, stem from the fact that, uniquely among living creatures, men are able to, and for the most part do, live unnaturally. This means, above all, that most people think and act on the basis of artificial distinctions—between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, men and animals, and so on—whose dependence on partial, pragmatic perspectives they fail to recognize, treating them instead as rigid and as mirrors of reality itself. 'Those who discriminate fail to see' (2.2), for the Tao itself, as the source of all differences and distinctions in the world, is itself seamless and fluid. Moreover, as the Way of nature as a whole, the Way is 'spontaneous' and 'free', since it faces no obstacles which it must endeavour to overcome and by which it is limited. Likewise, therefore, 'the true man' will behave spontaneously: indeed, his life, like that of the Tao itself, will be one of 'non-action' (wu wei), in the sense of being non-deliberative and non-striving. Many of the most attractive stories in the Chuang Tzu are in praise of skilled craftsmen—like the butcher whose carving effortlessly responds to the natural grain and joints of the ox (3.1)—who dispense with rules and verbal instructions in favour of a spontaneous, wordless 'know-how'. What is true of the butcher or bell-maker is also true of the Taoist sage. Ignoring the doctrines and principles taught by philosophers—'the dregs of the men of old'—the sage lives in intuitive appreciation of the Way, recognizing that 'he who knows does not say; he who says, does not know' (13.10).

To live 'naturally', 'lost' in the Tao, is, then, not to live like a caveman, but to act spontaneously, flexibly and intuitively, without rigid attachment to conventional rules and distinctions, linguistic, moral or other. The 'true man', as it were, 'hangs loose'. In the so-called 'primitivist' chapters (812) of the Chuang Tzu, however—though they are not written by Chuang himself—there are passages which advocate a life of extreme simplicity. These, and corresponding passages in the Tao Te Ching, have encouraged the idea that, in Lin Yutang's words, the person 'with a hidden desire to go about with bare feet goes to Taoism'.6 But this 'primitivism' is contradicted by other passages, and is anyway of too extreme a kind to be relevant to modern environmental discussion. The real relevance of the Chuang Tzu resides in its rejection of attitudes which, arguably, have played pernicious roles in the comportment of human beings towards their natural environments.

To begin with, Chuang is critical of anthropomorphic perspectives on which the lives and the good of animals and other living beings are judged by criteria applicable only to humans. Several anecdotes highlight the difference between our and an animal's own conception of its good: for example, the one about the marsh pheasant which, though it must struggle to get food and drink, does not therefore desire to live in a well-provided cage (3.3). Second, Chuang's rejection of rigid distinctions incorporates a criticism of those between man and other creatures, between 'great' and 'small', which encourage an anthropocentric elevation of humans above the rest of nature. Looked at 'in the light of the Tao, nothing is best, nothing is worst.. .seen in terms of the whole, no one thing stands out as "better"' (17.4). Finally, the sage's life of wu wei is incompatible with precisely those types of desire and ambition—for profit, esteem, control— which have led men to exploit nature. Such men are 'driven', 'penned in by things.. .Pitiful, are they not?' (24.4). For Chuang, the person who has put aside such pernicious attitudes, and in whom, therefore, 'the Tao acts without impediment', will 'harm no other being' (17.3)—not because he now adheres to some moral principle, but because he now lacks any motivation to cause harm.

The authors of the Chuang Tzu and the Tao Te Ching have been as influential as any of those included in this volume. For more than two millennia, Taoism—despite both the imperial sanctioning of Confucian precepts and, later, Mao Tse Tung's brutal animosity—has powerfully shaped aspects of Chinese life, not least an intimacy with nature attested to in Taoist landscape painting and poetry. No less important was its impact upon religious development in China and Japan, where its true descendant has not been 'magical' Taoism, but that intriguing blend of Taoist and Buddhist thought known as Chan—or, in Japan, Zen— Buddhism. The haiku verses of Basho, discussed elsewhere in this volume, owe as much to Chuang Tzu as to the Buddha. Over the last century, philosophical Taoism has attracted many Western thinkers, not least on account of its view of human beings' relation to nature—one which, in many Western eyes, favourably contrasts with that of their own societies. Martin Heidegger, arguably the twentieth century's most penetrating critic of technology, once began a translation of the Tao Te Ching, and the Taoist influence on his thinking was larger than his occasional acknowledgements suggest. During the last few decades, many environmental ethicists have enthusiastically invoked Taoist ideas.7 It would, however, be misleading to speak of Chuang's 'environmental ethic'. Certainly he would have been without sympathy for talk of, say, the 'rights' of animals or our 'obligations' to nature. In his view, the need for talk like that—talk of morality, justice, righteousness, benevolence—is a sure sign that men have 'lost the Way' and, therefore, are no longer 'lost in the Way' (22.1). Those who naturally 'let things be' do not stand in need of moral principles.


1 6.11. References to the Chuang Tzu in the text are to the chapters and sections into which translators standardly divide the text. My citations are from various of the translations listed under 'Major writings', but primarily from Watson's.

2 Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, London: Fontana, p. 340, 1983.

3 See A.C.Graham, Disputers of the Tao, pp. 215ff.

5 Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, p. 3.

6 My Country and its People, London: Heinemann, pp. 109-10, 1936.

See also in this book

Basho, Heidegger

Chuang Tzu's major writings

Among the many translations of the Chuang Tzu, the following are easily available, each with its distinctive merits:

Merton,Thomas, The Way of Chuang Tzu, London: Unwin, 1965.

Watson, Burton, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia

University Press, 1968. Palmer, Martin, et al., The Book of Chuang Tzu, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

Further reading

Chau, S. and Song, F., 'Ancient Wisdom and Sustainable Development from a Chinese Perspective', in J.R. and J.G.Engel (eds), Ethics of Environment and Development, London: Belhaven, 1990. Cooper, D., 'Is Daoism "green"?', Asian Philosophy, 4 (2), 1994.

Graham, A.C., Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China,

La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989. Hansen, C., 'Laozi' and 'Zhuangzi', in R.Arrington (ed.), Blackwell Companion to the Philosophers, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C.Lau, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.


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