The Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu. Chapter 24. Argument: The operation of Tao is not seen. Spheres of action vary. Tao remains the same. Spontaneity essential. Tao can be divided but remains entire. It is infinite as Time and Space. It is unconditioned. The external and the internal.*

Among the disciples of Lao Tzu was one named Keng Sang Ch'u. He alone had attained to the Tao of his Master. He lived up north, on the Wei-lei Mountains. Of his attendants, he dismissed those who were systematically clever or conventionally charitable. The useless remained with him; the incompetent served him. And in three years the district of Wei-lei was greatly benefited.

One of the inhabitants said in conversation, 'When Mr. Keng Sang first came among us, we did not know what to make of him. Now, we could not say enough about him in a day, and even a year would leave something unsaid. Surely he must be a true Sage. Why not pray to him as to the spirits, and honour him as a tutelary god of the land?'

On hearing of this, Keng Sang Ch'u turned his face to the south in shame, at which his disciples were astonished. But Keng Sang said, 'What cause have you for astonishment? The influence of spring quickens the life of plants, and autumn brings them to maturity. In the absence of any agent, how is this so? It is the operation of Tao.

'I have heard that the perfect man may be pent up like a corpse in a tomb, yet the people will become unartificial and without care. But now these poor people of Wei-lei wish to exalt me among their wise and good. Surely then I am but a shallow vessel; and therefore I was ashamed for the doctrine of Lao Tzu.'

The disciples said, 'Not so. In a sixteen-foot ditch a big fish has not room to turn round; but 'tis the very place for an eel. On a six- or seven-foot hillock a large beast finds no shelter, while the uncanny fox gladly makes its lair therein. Besides, ever since the days of Yao and Shun it has always been customary to honour the virtuous, advance the able, give precedence to the good and useful. Why not then among the people of Wei-lei? Let them do it, Sir.'

'Come here, my children', said Keng Sang Ch'u. 'A beast big enough to swallow a cart, if it wanders alone from the hills, will not escape the sorrow of the snare. A fish big enough to gulp down a boat, if stranded on the dry shore will become a prey to ants. Therefore it is that birds and beasts love height, and fishes and turtles love depth. And the man who cares for himself hides his body. He loves the occult.

'As to Yao and Shun, what claim have they to praise? Their fine distinctions simply amounted to knocking a hole in a wall in order to stop it up with brambles; to combing each individual hair; to counting the grains for a rice pudding! How in the name of goodness did they profit their generation?

'If the virtuous are honoured, emulation will ensue. If knowledge be fostered, the result will be theft. These things are of no use to make people good. The struggle for wealth is so severe. Sons murder their fathers; ministers their princes; men rob in broad daylight, and bore through walls at high noon. I tell you that the root of this great evil is from Yao and Shun, and that its branches will extend into a thousand ages to come. A thousand ages hence, man will be feeding upon man!'

Nan Yung Ch'u sadly straightened his seat and said, 'But what is one of my age to do that he may attain to this?'

'Preserve your form complete', said Keng Sang, 'your vitality secure. Let no anxious thoughts intrude. And then in three years' space you may attain to this.'

'I do not know', said Nan Yung, 'that there is any difference in the form of eyes; yet blind men cannot see. I do not know that there is any difference in the form of ears; yet deaf men cannot hear. I do not know that there is any difference in the form of hearts; yet fools cannot use theirs to any purpose. The forms are alike; yet there is something which differentiates them. One will succeed, and another will not. Yet you tell me to preserve my form complete, my vitality secure, and let no anxious thoughts intrude. But so far I only hear Tao with my ears.'

'Well said!' cried Keng Sang; and then he added, 'Small wasps cannot transform huge caterpillars. Bantams cannot hatch the eggs of geese. The fowls of Lu can. Not that there is any difference in the hatching power of chickens. One can and another cannot, because one is naturally fitted for working on a large, the other on a small, scale. My talents are of the latter order. I cannot transform you. Why not go south and see Lao Tzu?'

So Nan Yung took some provisons, and after a seven days' journey arrived at the abode of Lao Tzu.

'Have you come from Keng Sang Ch'u?' said the latter.

'I have', replied Nan Yung.

'But why', said Lao Tzu, 'bring all these people with you?'

Nan Yung looked back in alarm, and Lao Tzu continued, 'Do you not understand what I say?'

Nan Yung bent his head abashed, and then looking up, said with a sigh, 'I have now forgotten how to answer, in consequence of missing what I came to ask.'

'What do you mean?' said Lao Tzu.

'If I do not know', replied Nan Yung, 'men call me a fool. If I do know, I injure myself. If I am not charitable, I injure others. If I am, I injure myself. If I do not do my duty to my neighbour, I injure others. If I do it, I injure myself. My trouble lies in not seeing how to escape from these three dilemmas. On the strength of my connection with Keng Sang, I would venture to ask advice.'

'When I saw you', said Lao Tzu, 'I knew in the twinkling of an eye what was the matter with you. And now what you say confirms my view. You are confused, as a child that has lost its parents. You would fathom the sea with a pole. You are astray. You are struggling to get back to your natural self, but cannot find the way. Alas! alas!'

Nan Yung begged to be allowed to remain, and set to work to cultivate the good and eliminate the evil within him. At the expiration of ten days, with sorrow in his heart, he again sought Lao Tzu.

'Have you thoroughly cleansed yourself?' said Lao Tzu. 'But this grieved look ... There is some evil obstruction yet.

'If the disturbances are external, do not be always combating them, but close the channels to the mind. If the disturbances are internal, do not strive to oppose them, but close all entrance from without. If the disturbances are both internal and external, then you will not even be able to hold fast to Tao, still less practise it.'

'If a rustic is sick', said Nan Yung, 'and another rustic goes to see him; and if the sick man can say what is the matter with him, ‹ then he is not seriously ill. Yet my search after Tao is like swallowing drugs which only increase the malady. I beg therefore merely to ask the art of preserving life.'

'The art of preserving life', replied Lao Tzu, 'consists in being able to keep all in One, to lose nothing, to estimate good and evil without divination, to know when to stop, and how much is enough, to leave others alone and attend to oneself, to be without cares and without knowledge, ‹ to be in fact as a child. A child will cry all day and not become hoarse, because of the perfection of its constitutional harmony. It will keep its fist tightly closed all day and not open it, because of the concentration of its virtue. It will gaze all day without taking off its eyes, because its sight is not attracted by externals. In motion, it knows not whither it is bound; at rest, it is not conscious of doing anything; but unconsciously adapts itself to the exigencies of its environment. This is the art of preserving life.'

'Is this then the virtue of the perfect man?' cried Nan Yung.

'Not so', said Lao Tzu. 'I am, as it were, but breaking the ice.

'The perfect man shares the food of this earth, but the happiness of God. He does not incur trouble either from men or things. He does not join in censuring, in plotting, in toadying, Free from care he comes, and unconscious he goes; ‹ this is the art of preserving life.'

'This then is perfection?' enquired Nan Yung.

'Not yet', said Lao Tzu. 'I specially asked if you could be as a child. A child acts without knowing what it does; moves without knowing whither. Its body is like a dry branch; its heart like dead ashes. Thus, good and evil fortune find no lodgment therein; and there where good and evil fortune are not, how can the troubles of mortality be?

'Those whose hearts are in a state of repose give forth a divine radiance, by the light of which they see themselves as they are. And only by cultivating such repose can man attain to the constant.

'Those who are constant are sought after by men and assisted by God. Those who are sought after by men are the people of God; those who are assisted by God are his chosen children.

'To study this is to study what cannot be learnt. To practise this is to practise what cannot be accomplished. To discuss this is to discuss what can never be proved. Let knowledge stop at the unknowable. That is perfection. And for those who do not follow this, God will destroy them!

'With such defences for the body, ever prepared for the unexpected, deferential to the rights of others, ‹ if then calamities overtake you, these are from God, not from man. Let them not disturb what you have already achieved. Let them not penetrate into the soul's abode. For there resides the Will. And if the will knows not what to will, it will not be able to will.

'Whatsoever is not said in all sincerity, is wrongly said. And not to be able to rid oneself of this vice is only to sink deeper towards perdition.

'Those who do evil in the open light of day, ‹ men will punish them. Those who do evil in secret, ‹ God will punish them. Who fears both man and God, he is fit to walk alone. Those who are devoted to the internal, in practice acquire no reputation. Those who are devoted to the external, strive for pre-eminence among their fellows. Practice without reputation throws a halo around the meanest. But he who strives for pre-eminence among his fellows, he is as a huckster whose weariness all perceive though he himself puts on an air of gaiety.

'He who is naturally in sympathy with man, to him all men come. But he who forcedly adapts, has no room even for himself, still less for others. And he who has no room for others, has no ties. It is all over with him.

'There is no weapon so deadly as man's will. Excalibur is second to it. There is no bandit so powerful as Nature. In the whole universe there is no escape from it. Yet it is not Nature which does the injury. It is man's own heart.

'Tao informs its own subdivisions, their successes and their failures. What is feared in subdivision is separation. What is feared in separation, is further separation. Thus, to issue forth without return, this is development of the supernatural. To issue forth and attain the goal, this is called death. To be annihilated and yet to exist, this is convergence of the supernatural into One. To make things which have form appear to all intents and purposes formless, ‹ this is the sum of all things.

'Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting-point. Existence without limitation is Space. Continuity without a starting-point is Time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Portal of God.

'The Portal of God is Non-Existence. All things sprang from Non-Existence. Existence could not make existence existence. It must have proceeded from Non-Existence. And Non-Existence and Nothing are One. Herein is the abiding-place of the Sage.

'The knowledge of the ancients reached the highest point, ‹ the time before anything existed. This is the highest point. It is exhaustive. There is no adding to it.

'The second best was that of those who started from existence. Life was to them a misfortune. Death was a return home. There was already separation.

'The next in the scale said that at the beginning there was nothing. Then life came, to be quickly followed by death. They made Nothing the head, Life the trunk, and Death the tail of existence, claiming as friends whoever knew that existence and non-existence, and life and death were all One.

'These three classes, though different, were of the same clan; as were Chao Ching who inherited fame, and Chia who inherited territory.

'Man's life is as the soot on a kettle. Yet men speak of the subjective point of view. But this subjective point of view will not bear the test. It is a point of knowledge we cannot reach.

'At the winter sacrifice, the tripe may be separated from the great toe; yet these cannot be separated. He who looks at a house, visits the ancestral hall, and even the latrines. Thus every point is the subjective point of view.

'Let us try to formulate this subjective point of view. It originates with life, and, with knowledge as its tutor, drifts into the admission of right and wrong. But one's own standard of right is the standard, and others have to adapt themselves to it. Men will die for this. Such people look upon the useful as appertaining to wisdom, the useless as appertaining to folly; upon success in life as honourable, upon failure as dishonourable. The subjective point of view is that of the present generation, who like the cicada and the young dove sees things only from their own standpoint.

'If a man treads upon a stranger's toe in the market-place, he apologizes on the score of hurry. If an elder brother does this, he is quit with an exclamation of sympathy. And if a parent does so, nothing whatever is done.

'Therefore it has been said, "Perfect politeness is not artificial; perfect duty to one's neighbour is not a matter of calculation; perfect wisdom takes no thought; perfect charity recognizes no ties; perfect trust requires no pledges".

'Discard the stimuli of purpose. Free the mind from disturbances. Get rid of entanglemens to virtue. Pierce the obstructions to Tao.

'Honours, wealth, distinction, power, fame, game, ‹ these six stimulate purpose.

'Mien, carriage, beauty, arguments, influence, opinions, ‹ these six disturb the mind.

'Hate, ambition, joy, anger, sorrow, pleasure, ‹ these six are entanglements to virtue.

'Rejecting, adopting, receiving, giving, knowledge, ability, ‹ these six are obstructions to Tao.

'If these twenty-four be not allowed to run riot, then the mind will be duly ordered. And being duly ordered, it will be in repose. And being in repose, it will be clear of perception. And being clear of perception, it will be unconditioned. And being unconditioned, it will be in that state of inaction by which there is nothing which cannot be accomplished.

'Tao is the sovereign lord of Te. Life is the glorifier of Te. Nature is the substance of life. The operation of that nature is action. The perversion of that action is error.

'People who know put forth physical power. People who know employ mental effort. But what people who know do not know is to be as the eye.

'Emotion which is spontaneous is called virtue passive. Emotion which is not evoked by the external is called virtue active. The names of these are antagonistic; but essentially they are in accord.

'Yi was skilled in hitting the bull's-eye; but stupid at preventing people from praising him for so doing. The Sage devotes himself to the natural and neglects the artificial. For only the Perfect Man can devote himself profitably to the natural and artificial alike. Insects influence insects; because insects are natural. When the Perfect Man hates the natural, it is the artificially natural which he hates. How much more man's alternate naturalness and artificiality?

'If a bird falls in with Yi, Yi will get it. Such is his skill. And if the world were made into a cage, birds would have no place of escape. So it was that by cookery T'ang got hold of I Yin, and by five rams' skins Duke Muh of Ch'in got Poh Li Ch'i. But had these princes not been themselves successful at getting, they never would have got these men.

'A one-legged man discards ornament, his exterior not being open to commendation. Condemned criminals will go up to great heights without fear, for they no longer regard life and death from their former point of view. And those who pay no attention to their mortal clothing and condition become oblivious of their own personality; and by thus becoming oblivious of their personality, they proceed to be the people of God.

'Wherefore, if men revere them, they rejoice not. If men insult them, they are not angered. But only those who have passed into the eternal harmony of God are capable of this.

'If your anger is external, not internal, it will be anger proceeding from not-anger. If your actions are external, not internal, they will be actions proceeding from inaction.

'If you would attain peace, level down your emotional nature. If you desire spirituality, cultivate adaptation of the intelligence. If you would have your actions in accordance with what is right, allow yourself to fall in with the dictates of necessity. For necessity is the Tao of the Sage.'
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* Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition, 1889; second edition, 1923.


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