Chuang Tzu. Chapter 18. Argument: The
uncertainty of human happiness. What the world aims at is physical
well-being. This is not profitable even to the body. In inaction
alone is true happiness to be found. Inaction the rule of the
material universe. Acquiescence in whatever our destiny may bring
Is perfect happiness to be found on earth, or
not? Are there those who can enjoy life, or not? If so, what do
they do, what do they affect, what do they avoid, what do they
rest in, accept, reject, like, and dislike?
What the world esteems comprises wealth, rank,
old age, and goodness of heart. What it enjoys comprises comfort,
rich food, fine clothes, beauty, and music. What it does not esteem
comprises poverty, want of position, early death, and evil behaviour.
What it does not enjoy comprises lack of fine clothes for the
back, lack of beauty for the eye, and lack of music for the ear.
If men do not get these, they are greatly miserable. Yet from
the point of view of our physical frame, this is folly.
Wealthy people who toil and moil, putting together
more money than they can possibly use, from the point of view
of our physical frame, is not this going beyond the mark?
Officials of rank who turn night into day in
their endeavours to compass the best ends; ‹ from the point
of view of our physical frame, is not this a divergence?
Man is born to sorrow, and what misery is theirs
whose old age with dulled faculties only means prolonged sorrow!
From the point of view of our physical frame, this is going far
Patriots are in the world's opinion admittedly
good. Yet their goodness does not enable them to enjoy life; and
so I know not whether theirs is veritable goodness or not. If
the former, it does not enable them to enjoy life; if the latter,
it at any rate enables them to cause others to enjoy theirs.
It has been said, 'If your loyal counsels are
not attended to, depart quietly without resistance'. Thus, when
Tzu Hsu resisted, his physical frame perished; yet had he not
resisted, he would not have made his name. Is there then really
such a thing as this goodness, or not?
As to what the world does and the way in which
people are happy now, I know not whether such happiness be real
happiness or not. The happiness of ordinary persons seems to me
to consist in slavishly following the majority, as if they could
not help it. Yet they all say they are happy. But I cannot say
that this is happiness or that it is not happiness. Is there then,
after all, such a thing as happiness?
I make true pleasure to consist in inaction,
which the world regards as great pain. Thus it has been said,
'Perfect happiness is the absence of happiness; perfect renown
is the absence of renown'.
Now in this sublunary world of ours it is impossible
to assign positive and negative absolutely. Nevertheless, in inaction
they can be so assigned. Perfect happiness and preservation of
life are to be sought for only in inaction.
Let us consider. Heaven does nothing; yet it
is clear. Earth does nothing; yet it enjoys repose. From the inaction
of these two proceed all the modifications of things. How vast,
how infinite is inaction, yet without source! How infinite, how
vast, yet without form!
The endless varieties of things around us all
spring from inaction. Therefore it has been said, 'Heaven and
earth do nothing, yet there is nothing which they do not accomplish'.
But among men, who can attain to inaction?
When Chuang Tzu's wife dies, Hui Tzu went to
condole. He found the widower sitting on the ground, singing,
with his legs spread out at a right angle, and beating time on
'To live with your wife', exclaimed Hui Tzu,
'and see your eldest son grow up to be a man, and then not to
shed a tear over her corpse, this would be bad enough. But to
drum on a bowl, and sing; surely this is going too far.'
'Not at all', replied Chuang Tzu. 'When she died,
I could not help being affected by her death. Soon, however, I
remembered that she had already existed in a previous state before
birth, without form, or even substance; that while in that unconditioned
condition, substance was added to spirit; that this substance
then assumed form; and that the next stage was birth. And now,
by virtue of a further change, she is dead, passing from one phase
to another like the sequence of spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
And while she is thus lying asleep in Eternity, for me to go about
weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of these
natural laws. Therefore I refrain.'
A hunchback and a one-legged man were looking
at the tombs of departed heroes, on the K'un-lun Mountains, where
the Yellow Emperor rests. Suddenly, ulcers broke out upon their
left elbows, of a very loathsome description.
'Do you loathe this?' asked the hunchback.
'Not I', replied the other, 'why should I? Life
is a loan with which the borrower does but add more dust and dirt
to the sum total of existence. Life and death are as day and night;
and while you and I stand gazing at the evidences of mortality
around us, if the same mortality overtakes me, why should I loathe
Chuang Tzu one day saw an empty skull, bleached,
but still preserving its shape. Striking it with his riding whip,
he said, 'Wert thou once some ambitious citizen whose inordinate
yearnings brought him to this pass? some statesman who plunged
his country in ruin and perished in the fray? some wretch who
left behind him a legacy of shame? some beggar who died in the
pangs of hunger and cold? Or didst thou reach this state by the
natural course of old age?'
When he had finished speaking, he took the skull,
and placing it under his head as a pillow, went to sleep. In the
night, he dreamt that the skull appeared to him and said, 'You
speak well, Sir; but all you say has reference to the life of
mortals, and to mortal troubles. In death there are none of these.
Would you like to hear about death?'
Chuang Tzu having replied in the affirmation,
the skull began: 'In death, there is no sovereign above, and no
subject below. The workings of the four seasons are unknown. Our
existences are bounded only by eternity. The happiness of a king
among men cannot exceed that which we enjoy.'
Chuang Tzu, however, was not convinced, and said,
'Were I to prevail upon God to allow your body to be born again,
and your bones and flesh to be renewed, so that you could return
to your parents, to your wife, and to the friends of your youth,
would you be willing?'
At this, the skull opened its eyes wide and knitted
its brows and said, 'How should I cast aside happiness greater
than that of a king, and mingle once again in the toils and troubles
When Yen Yüan went eastwards to the Ch'i
State, Confucius was sad. Tzu Kung arose and said, 'Is it, Sir,
because Hsi has gone east to Ch'i that you are sad?'
'A good question', replied Confucius. 'There
is a saying by Kuan Chung of old which I highly esteem: "Small
bags won't hold big things; short ropes won't reach down into
deep wells". Thus, destiny is a pre-arrangement, just as
form has its limitations. From neither, to neither, can you either
take away or add. And I fear lest Hui, on his visit to the prince
of Ch'i, should preach the Tao of Yao and Shun, and dwell on the
words of Sui Jen and Shen Nung. The prince will then search within
himself, but will not find. And not finding, he will doubt. And
when a man doubts, he will kill.
'Besides, have you not heard that of old when
a sea-bird alighted outside the capital of Lu, the prince went
out to receive it, and gave it wine in the temple, and had the
Chiu Shao played to amuse it, and a bullock slaughtered to feed
it? But the bird was dazed and too timid to eat and drink anything;
and in three days it was dead. This was treating the bird like
oneself, and not as a bird would treat a bird. Had he treated
it as a bird would have treated a bird, he would have put it to
roost in a deep forest, to wander over a plain, to swim in a river
or lake, to feed upon fish, to fly in order, and to settle leisurely.
When the bird was already terrified at human voices, fancy adding
music! Play the Hsien Ch'ih or the Chiu Shao in the wilds of Tung-t'ing,
and birds will fly away, beasts will take themselves off, and
fishes will dive down below. But men will collect to hear.
'Water, which is life to fishes, is death to
man. Being differently constituted, their likes and dislikes are
different. Therefore the Sages of the past favoured not uniformity
of skill or of occupation. Reputation was commensurate with reality;
mens were adapted to the end. This was called a due relationship
with others coupled with advantage to oneself.'
Lieh Tzu, being on a journey, was eating by the
roadside, when he saw an old skull. Plucking a blade of grass,
he pointed at it and said, 'Only you and I know that there is
no such thing as life and no such thing as death. Are you really
at peace? Or am I really happy?
'Certain germs, falling upon water, become duckweed.
When they reach the junction of the land and the water, they become
lichen. Spreading up the bank, they become the dog-tooth violet.
Reaching rich soil, they become wu-tsu, the root of which becomes
grubs, while the leaves come from butterflies, or hsü. These
are changed into insects, born in the chimney corner, which look
like skeletons. Their name is ch'ü-to. After a thousand days,
the ch'ü-to becomes a bird called kan-yü-ku, the spittle
of which becomes the ssu-mi. The ssu-mi becomes a wine fly, and
that comes froman i-lu. The huang k'uang produces the chiu-yu
and the mou-jui produces the fire-fly. The yang ch'i grafted to
an old bamboo which has for a long time put forth no shoots, produces
the ch'ing-nng, which produces the leopard, which produces the
horse, which produces man.
'Then man goes back into the great Scheme, from
which all things come and to which all things return.'
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Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition,
1889; second edition, 1923.