The Way of Chuang Tzu (1965)

I’ve been reading Merton’s book about Chuang Tzu’s writings. Below I share a few of the stories, divided according to some themes that I picked out.

The first theme that stands out to me is the notion of wu wei, or non-action, or effortlessness. The first example appeared in a story about a butcher cutting up a cow. His work was so good that others would call attention to the excellence of his cuts of meat; when asked how he did this, he replied, “I see nothing with my eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct” (46). Another aspect of effortlessness is settledness. One story sums it up this way: “All the fish needs is to get lost in water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao,” which involves sinking “into the deep shadow of non-action to forget aggression and concern,” lacking “nothing,” being “secure” (65).

In yet another story, a wheelwright tells a duke that his philosophy books contain nothing but “dirt.”  The duke is furious and demands that the wheelwright explain himself. The wheelwright says, “If I go easy, [the wheels I make] fall apart; If I am too rough, they do not fit. If I am neither too easy nor too violent they come out right. The work is what I want it to be. You cannot put this into words: You just have to know how it is. I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done, and my own son cannot learn it from me. . . . The men of old took all they really knew with them to the grave.” Thus the philosophy books are “only the dirt they left behind them” (83).

Another story in Chuang Tzu discusses how “emptiness, stillness, tranquility, tastelessness, silence, and non-action are the root of all things” (81). Merton, in his contemplative cell, might make the very same statement. Indeed, seeking non-action seems to parallel Contemplative Prayer in the Christian tradition.

A second theme in Chuang Tzu involves freeing ourselves from pretentiousness, or from the drive to be something more (or less) than what we are. The clearest example of this comes from a story about monkeys. A prince climbed a mountain where monkeys were living. All the monkeys but one fled. The remaining monkey was eventually shot by the prince’s entourage because the monkey was being more clever than it should have been. The King sums up the situation: “[The monkey] trusted in his own skill. He thought no one could touch him. Remember that! Do not rely on distinction and talent when you deal with men!” The attendant to whom the King spoke “returned home” and “renounced every pleasure. He learned to hid every ‘distinction.'” The side effect, at least in this case, of casting off pretentiousness is that “no one in the Kingdom knew what to make of him. Thus they held hi in awe” (143).

In another story, Chuang Tzu explains how to attain perfect joy: “Perfect joy is to be without joy. Perfect praise is to be without praise.” Again, the idea is not to overextend oneself, to make a big deal of oneself. “Contentment and well-being at once become possible the moment you cease to act with them in view” (101). The model of this perfectly unpretentiousness is heaven and earth because “Heaven and earth do nothing, yet there is nothing they do not do” (102).

The notion of not being pretentious takes on a different nuance in the story called “The Need to Win.” Here Chuang Tzu notes how a skilled archer can shoot an arrow perfectly when shooting for nothing. However, when a prize is on the line, “He goes blind.” He adds that “the prize divides [the archer]. . . . And the need to win drains him of power” (107).

A third theme involves the notion of keeping to oneself, avoiding power and political games. The first story to look at here is called “The Active Life,” very overtly contrasting the non-active life. Chuang Tzu focuses on politicians (but could be speaking to anyone in the Twitterverse), saying “Those who are caught in the machinery of power take no joy except in activity and change—the whirring of the machine! Whenever an occasion for action presents itself, they are compelled to act; they cannot help themselves. . . . Prisoners in the world of objects, they have no choice but to submit to the demands of matter! They are pressed down and crushed by external forces, fashion, the market, events, public opinion. Never in a whole lifetime do they recover their right mind! The active life! What a pity!” (142).

Another story that’s worth mentioning is the one titled “Two Kings and No-Form.” These three characters are each rulers and friends. The two humans—the two kings from the title—decide that their friend no form needs eyes and ears and nostrils and a mouth. So they put holes in him, one a day for seven days. The end result was that No-Form died. Chuang Tzu concludes: “To organize is to destroy” (66), something folks like Tolstoy, Campbell, and Goode have also long told us.

The fourth theme I took away from this book is the notion of balance. The importance of balance can begin to be seen in the following paragraph:

Too much happiness, too much unhappiness, out of due time, men are thrown off balance. What will they do next? Thought runs wild. No control. They start everything, finish nothing. Here competition begins, here the idea of excellence is born, and robbers appear in the world (70).

Keeping balance depends on our keeping things in perspective, a sort of middle-of-the-road approach. Balance “stays far from wealth and honor. Long life is no ground for joy, nor early death for sorrow. Success is not for [a person] to be proud of, failure is no shame. . . . His glory is in knowing that all things come together in One and life and death are equal” (72). It harkens back to when there was “no history,” when “no one paid any special attention to worthy men, nor did they single out the man of ability. . . . They were honest and righeous without realizing that they were ‘doing their duty.’ . . . For this reason their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history” (76).

The fifth and final theme I noted during my read of Chuang Tzu is that of uselessness. In the very first story in the volume, a rival accuses Chuang Tzu’s teaching of being “big and useless.” Chuang Tzu replies that, like a yak, his teaching is big, yes, but also powerful. And, like a crooked tree, his teaching is useless, but, like a tree that will not be cut down, his teaching is also something to provide shade and to rest under. He concludes his defense by saying, “Useless? You should worry!” (36).

Likewise, in another story, Chuang Tzu uses the image of a tree to describe the value of uselessness. He says:

The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down!
The lacquer tree is profitable: they maim it.
Every man knows how useful it is to be useful.

No one seems to know
How useful it is to be useless (59).

The final story involving the notion of uselessness further expounds on the value of uselessness. Another critique says that his teaching “is centered on what has no use.” Chuang Tzu replies:

If you have no appreciation for what has no use
You cannot begin to talk about what can be used.
The earth . . . is broad and vast
But of all this expanse a man uses only a few inches. . . .
Now suppose you suddenly take away
All that he is not actually using . . .
And he stands in the Void . . .
How long will he be able to use what he is using?

His critique answers that it would soon “cease to serve a purpose.” Chuang Tzu, one imagines, gives a smile and states, “This shows the absolute necessity of what has ‘no use'” (153).

And it’s the notion of the “useless” which, I think, leads us nicely back to thinking about “non-action,” giving what might seem to be a rather useless post a nice bit of logical symmetry. I hope you find these thoughts thought-provoking if less than being an “absolute necessity.”

Peace, y’all.


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