The Chuang Tzu

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 forth.*

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 astray.

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 a bowl.

'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 it?'

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 of mortality?'

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.


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