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The Condensed Chuang-Tzu

DT Strain, 2010

Five years ago, after noticing a fascinating correlation between the observations of nature made in Buddhism, Stoicism, and some other ancient philosophies, and those of modern complex systems theory, I began looking into how those philosophers went from is to ought. I knew systems like Stoicism were highly integrated, between the realms of physics, logic, and ethics. They were connected, with each proposition layered upon the next. When I asked around for examples of ancient philosophy that took natural observations and derived life lessons, I was pointed to the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu (or Zhuangzi). Many thanks to the user by the name of Vajradhara on the Comparative Religion forums for this pointer.

So, in 2005 I read an English translation of his writings by Lin Yutang which I found on a site called Virtual Libraries. I made some notes on Chuang-Tzu, which I have had on my website ever since (here). These notes were long and followed the format of the writings. They also purposely focused in on those aspects of Chuang-Tzu which looked to the natural universe to derive principles for living. Although they have helped inform my writings and thoughts on many areas over the past five years, I have been meaning to streamline and condense these notes into a brief and easily accessible summary of what Chuang-Tzu has to teach us. In this, I have reorganized his work into four general areas on which he speaks:
  • On Checking Our Perceptions & Assumptions
  • On Coming to Terms
  • On Ethics & Behavior
  • On Dealing with One Another
Together, these four areas contain summaries of 15 prescriptions of Chuang-Tzu. Each of these prescriptions can be derived from Taoist observations about the workings of the natural universe. About two thirds of these prescriptions seem to be based on observations of Nature, and the other third can be said to be prescriptions of behaviors that are necessary to effectively observe Nature (and yet applicable throughout life). I hope this summary may be of use...


(1) Things aren't always what they seem - stay humble.

In On Leveling All Things Chuang-Tzu says, "Tao (the way) is obscured by our inadequate understanding, and words are obscured by flowery expressions" bringing us only confusion. When we try to apply labels and language to things, we often obscure them by placing everything into separate pigeonholes, making assumptions about them that may not be true. We must therefore be humble. Socrates would agree with Chuang-Tzu when he says, "...that knowledge which stops at what it does not know, is the highest knowledge."

(2) All things are interconnected - proceed with caution.

Chuang-Tzu says, "There is nothing which is not this; there is nothing which is not that... This is the theory of interdependence of this and that." All things under the heavens (all things in Nature) are interdependent and connected. He warns us against wearing out our intellects "in an obstinate adherence to the individuality of things, not recognizing the fact that all things are One." If we are not cautious to see the full ramifications of our actions, and take care to balance all factors, we will suffer the consequences. As Chuang-Tzu says, "The true sage rejects all distinctions and takes his refuge in [Nature]."

(3) Learn and listen without bias by withholding judgment.

Chuang-Tzu says, "The true Sage keeps his knowledge within him, while men in general set forth theirs in argument, in order to convince each other. And therefore it is said that one who argues does so because he cannot see certain points." When we are busy putting forth our judgments on things, we cannot learn (become as a Sage). He says that when it comes time to learn we must be able to let information come by us freely: "to be poured into without becoming full, and pour out without becoming empty..." By momentarily withholding what we believe to be true for a time, in order to learn without bias, we are practicing what he calls the art of "Concealing the Light".

(4) Reality is subtle, complex, and relative. Beware absolute or simplistic claims and dictates.

Chuang-Tzu warns against absolutist thinking. He asks, "if a man sleeps in a damp place, he gets lumbago and dies. But how about an eel? And living up in a tree is precarious and trying to the nerves. But how about monkeys? Of the man, the eel, and the monkey, whose habitat is the right one, absolutely?" The only real absolutes are the true underlying principles that govern these things. To see beyond the subjective and know these, we must consider the harmony of all Nature, or look at the "big picture". This is what Chuang-Tzu means when he says, "if we wish to reach the absolute, we must harmonize them by means of the unity of God, and follow their natural evolution."

(5) Not everything useless to you is truly useless.

In This Human World, Chuang-Tzu speaks of the "utility of futility". We often try to use up everything around us, but we don't appreciate things that have no immediate use to us and we don't tend to preserve some other things that do. Other things may have uses to us beyond merely their immediate common uses, such as beauty or diversity as values in their own right. This is a plea for preservation and conservation. In A Happy Excursion, when told a gourd had been destroyed because it was too large to be useful as a container or ladle, he replied, "It was rather you did not know how to use large things." Some things have uses we do not appreciate, such as important roles in the ecosystem or even in a society or a business.


(6) All roles in Nature are equal in value and have their place.

In speaking of the ideas of 'the small' and 'the great', Chuang-Tzu notes how a simple sparrow might seem insignificant to us. He describes a man who admirably fills a small office. He says that if that man thinks small of himself, as being like a mere sparrow, the wise philosopher Yung of Sung would laugh. He says of Yung, "If the whole world flattered him, he would not be affected thereby, nor if the whole world blamed him would he be dissuaded from what he was doing. For Yung can distinguish between essence and superficialities, and understand what is true honor and shame." Here, the 'essence' of true honor and shame does not lie in what people think of as more or less important stations for, just as in Nature, all of these roles are important to the whole and of value.

(7) All things we think of as good and bad come from the same dynamic system. Learn to accept the system for what it is.

Observation of Nature clearly shows the impermanence of life and all things. If we fully acknowledge this and come to terms with it, we will understand that to curse death or loss is to curse one necessary part of an overall system that makes possible everything that we love. In Autumn Floods Chuang-Tzu says, "Those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong... do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation." He mentions these natural principles again in The Preservation of Life when he says, "[To cry thus at one's death] is to evade the natural principles and increase human attachments... Those who accept the natural course and sequence of things and live in obedience to it are beyond joy and sorrow." And in The Great Supreme he concludes, "The Great [universe] gives me this form, this toil in manhood, this repose in old age, this rest in death. And surely that which is such a kind arbiter of my life is the best arbiter of my death."

(8) We will never know everything nor
control everything - get used to it.

In Deformities, Chuang-Tzu explains that, although many things happen around us and to us - many of them we do not understand - we should let the 'still water' be our model. By not allowing judgments, 'likes and dislikes' (of others or ourselves) to disturb our eternal economy, we can be without mental agitation. How do we do this? By being a virtuous person. Then, with anything that happens, and with whatever others think, we will have lived a life without regrets and can be secure in the knowledge that we did the best we could. As Chuang-Tzu says, "...only the virtuous man can recognize the inevitable and remain unmoved."


(9) Knowledge and wisdom are impossible without integrity.

Chuang-Tzu noted that our world is an uncertain place, and if we are to have true knowledge of it, we must be careful to avoid bias so that we do not confuse what is of the things we examine with what is of us. As he states in The Great Supreme, "we must... have true men before we can have true knowledge." But what is a 'true person'? A true person knows that morality is a guide for working with others toward a shared goal. They understand how the world works and are calm, at peace with it. They have integrity because they set themselves in accordance with the universe and their nature as moral beings. Without a true person knowledge, much less wisdom, are impossible. Without wisdom, our well-being is in jeopardy. Therefore, integrity aids our well-being, and its lack diminishes it.

(10) Simplicity and elegance work well for Nature - they should work well for you.

Often we tend to over-analyze when we think about what decisions are right or how to live. We concoct elaborate and intricate doctrines and philosophies about the nature of ethics and try to prove them with complex logical arguments. Then we erect overly formalized incentive systems, thinking these will make us good people. But in Joined Toes, Chuang-Tzu points out these things are as extraneous as being born with extra limbs. More often, nature achieves many functions through streamlined elegant systems. Taking that example, we can also find that simple is often best. He says that 'good hearing' is not so much about hearing what others say, as hearing ourselves. When our minds are clear of delusion and our values in accord with our true nature as moral beings, we often know what is right without the need of such doctrines and complexities.

(11) Nature shows us how insignificant we are, which makes possible our maturity beyond self interest.

Chuang-Tzu states in Autumn Floods, " that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles." It is often noted that young people think they know everything, and many adults do as well. It is easy to think we know everything when all that we know is small and so much of it occupied by ourselves. Chuang-Tzu compared these people - limited by what knowledge they do have - to well frogs limited by their abode, and summer insects limited by their short life. He said you cannot speak to the well frog of the ocean, or to the summer insect of ice. Similarly, you cannot speak of great principles to someone until they know enough about the world to see that they are not the center of it. Yet, ironically, understanding these great principles are key to the flourishing individual life.


(12) Don't be reactive to disagreements. Keep an open mind.

To often, when hearing others with whom we disagree, we are quick to judge and quick to jump in with our own views. This can sometimes even take the form of being dogmatic about our views. Chuang-Tzu says in This Human World that such rigidity, reactionary stance, and narrow mindedness keeps us from communicating our own views to others and from learning from others. Instead, he advocates Fasting of the Heart, which is when we achieve an open mind by quieting our mind and simply listening and considering carefully first, before responding with our own views so impulsively.

(13) All things happen in their own time and conditions. Be tolerant and patient waiting for the right time to approach those with differences.

With respect to those with whom we have differences, Chuang-Tzu advises us to talk when they are in a mood to listen, and stop when they are not. "Let things take their natural course," he says. This may take patience and tolerance and, in fact, others may never reach this point. But if they do not or have not, then it is pointless to try to change an unwilling mind. Yet, if we are attentive and patient, we will often find that timing and the situation have an enormous effect on success in reaching others. Chuang-Tzu further adds, in This Human World, that this kind of approach is how we can best influence anything in Nature. Let the natural disposition of things work toward your goals, rather than brutishly going against the grain.

(14) Complex systems in Nature work from the bottom up. So should governments and societies.

Chuang-Tzu notes in Horses Hooves that many people seem to think they know how society should run. He says, " who knows how to govern the empire should not do so. For people have certain natural instincts -- to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves." By this he means that much happens naturally in society because of the natural inclinations of people, and overly regulated, rigid, "top-down" systems are not necessary. In fact, Chuang-Tzu says these kinds of systems can be harmful. Be they religious, government, corporate, or other social systems of control, imposed duties and hand-out charity can make people's "minds and gestures become like those of thieves".

(15) As social animals, living virtuously is natural to us and makes for a happy life.

In Autumn Floods, Chuang-Tzu says that a virtuous character does not need to consciously or procedurally follow virtue. He illustrates the idea with a story of a walrus asking a centipede how it manages all its legs. The Centipede replies, "I don't mange them." So too does the virtuous character follow virtue naturally. In fact, to live as such is to follow our deeper nature as social beings and, as such, yields more happiness for us than wealth or power. As Chuange-Tzu said to the Prime Minister of Liang as they strolled over a bridge, "See how the small fish are darting about! That is the happiness of the fish."