Friday, September 16, 2011

Tao Book: "The Essential Chuang Tzu" By Sam Hamill

In philosophical Taoism, the Chuang Tzu is the second most important book after the Tao Te Jing itself, which is the source of all Taoism. These two books, in addition to the Lieh Tzu, comprise the core of philosophical Taoist thought. Chuang Tzu is required reading for anyone interested in Taoism. It is not only important to Taoism, but one of the most significant works of Chinese literature. It has been studied by poets and philosophers for over two thousand years. Its importance continues today and it has inspired and influenced writers both eastern and western, including the likes of Walt Whitman and T.S. Elliot. The Chuang Tzucontains 33 chapters and is an anthology of stories and parables that illustrate Taoist thought on topics such as nature, government, society, and freedom. The first 7 chapters, known as the Inner Chapters are attributed to the philosopher Chuang Chou (369-286 BCE). Subsequent chapters, known as the Outer Chapters were written by others.

There are many translations available, but The Essential Chuang Tzuis the best for readability. Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton have done an excellent job in finding a balance between literal translation and free interpretation. This volume remains true to the original text, yet is expressive, funny, and enjoyable to the modern reader in English.

Far from being a dry, treatise on philosophy, it is full of humor, wit and paradox. Chuang Tzu is a poet who is fond of rambling on. At times, he seems set on confusing and confounding the reader. His stories meander and take abrupt and unexpected turns. This acts as a karate chop that takes the reader out of himself and opens his mind to a new way of thinking. Take for example this passage from Chapter 2 about how opposites create one another.

“That arises out of this, but this is also caused by exactly that. This is the theory that this and that are born together.” And although this is true enough, where there’s birth, there’s death, where there’s death, birth. Where there’s a possible, there is the impossible; with the impossible, possible. Cause right and you cause wrong, cause wrong, cause right. Right? So be it.

Or another famous passage from the same chapter:

To use the finger to make the point that a finger is not a finger is not as good as using a nonfinger to make the same point. To use a horse to prove that a horse is not a horse is not as good as to use a nonhorse to prove that a horse is not a horse. Heaven-and-Earth is one finger. All ten thousand things are one horse Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay.

The famous parable of the butterfly dream comes to us from Chuang Tzu.

I don’t know whether it is Chou who dreamed he was a butterfly, or whether a butterfly dreams he’s Chuang Chou.

In Taoism, the person of ideal virtue is the sage who follows in the footsteps of the Tao. He is the wise man who knows nothing, the one does nothing and yet, nothing is left undone. But what does such a man look like, how does he act? The Chuang Tzu speaks much of the ancestral teacher. Even in Chuang Tzu’s time, the sage was ancient, from long, long ago:

…such a man doesn’t permit good and bad to wound his body. He goes as nature goes and seeks no benefit from life.

The True Ones of antiquity didn’t know to take joy from life, didn’t know how to despise death….They climbed high without fear. They went into the water without sinking. They went into fire without feeling the heat. ….The had no need to sweeten what they ate, they breathed deep.

If I take life as good, I must therefore take death as equally good.

The whole world could prize him and he would work no harder; the whole world could call him wrong and yet he would persist.

..he neither pursues profit nor avoids loss…He isn’t married to the Tao.

Chuang Tzu shows us that we are the source of our own sufferings. It is our attachments to things and our insistence on judging things as “good” or “evil”. But the answer isn’t dropping out of life. The sage cares for the world, yet remains impersonal. He travel with the herd, yet is unaffected by right and wrong. He does what is required and knows when to let go. It makes me think of the Samurai of ancient Japan, who were ready for death at anytime, or the Jedi of Star Wars who fight for the good of all, but are not swayed by emotions.

The Essential Chuang Tzu is a wonderful book. It’s ancient wisdom that is so desperately needed in our world today. It sets an example for all to strive for in our daily lives. It can be read in a single sitting, yet take a lifetime to understand. You get something new every time you read it. You need this book.

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