Friday, September 16, 2011

Tao Book: "Lieh-Tzu, A Taoist Guide To Practical Living" by Eva Wong

After the Lao-tzu, or the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang-Tzu, the Lieh-Tzu is the third most important text in philosophical Taoism and is probably the most enjoyable to read. It is a collection of stories and fables that give very practical advice on taoist living. It is also required reading for anyone interested in Taoism.

Lieh-Tzu was a real person who lived around 400 BCE, about 200 years after Lao-Tzu. However, the text contains writings over a span of some six hundred years. The stories take place during the volatile Warring States period, when life was precarious and politics were deadly and full of intrigue. It is in this setting that Lieh-tzu offers us an alternative life of the hermit. Historically, there were many different kinds of taoists with different approaches to life. Some held high government posts and were active in politics as advisers. Some tried to bring about change within the system through reforms. Still others tried to force change from without through rebellion. And some Taoists withdrew from society altogether and lived as hermits. But even among hermits there were different reasons for doing so. Some withdrew out of protest against the established government and others were disillusioned with society and worldly life. Lieh-tzu wasn't a hermit for any of these reasons. He simply wanted to live the quiet life close to nature.

Lieh-tzu stands apart from other great taoist sages. Unlike many other sages he never held a government post. He is also the only sage I know who is married. He lives apart from government and society, but he has very concrete problems to deal with in everyday life. When people start to read about Taoism, usually they first read the Tao Te Ching, then later the Chuang-Tzu, and finally they find Lieh-Tzu. However, in China or at least Hong Kong, children grow up on the stories of Lieh-tzu long before they even know what Taoism is. His stories are simple enough for children to understand and enjoy, but profound enough for adults to ponder. Even writing this review was different. For Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu, I think in terms of philosophical teachings or great quotes. For Lieh-tzu, I think in terms of stories. His voice is quite different, too. Whereas sometimes you feel Lao-tzu is talking down at you, as if from a podium and Chuang-tzu is laughing at you in your confusion, Lieh-tzu talks to you.He is the most approachable of the sages. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are too high and removed, but Lieh-tzu is someone you could be friends and spend time with. Also, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu teach us about what it's like to be at one with the Tao, to be enlightened or how a sage thinks; the end result, but Lieh-tzu shows us how the sage lives. He shows us the path to enlightenment and the struggles along the way. His teachings are humorous and he isn't afraid to make himself the fool of his own stories and show us his mistakes.

This is an excellent rendering by Eva Wong. It's not a literal translation, but focuses on readability and understanding. It is divided into eight sections, each with its own collection of stories;

Part One, The Gifts of Heaven: All things come from the Tao. It is indivisible. Yin and yang arise from the Tao. Humanity and all things are the products of the interaction of yin and yang energies. Your life, your body, your spirit, and your children do not belong to you. These things are gifts from heaven and earth. This is the natural way of things. It is better to use your time to cultivate yourself and "forget yourself" this is how to attain the Tao.

Part Two, The Yellow Emperor:Part two teaches about yielding. Things that are rigid, break. Things that are soft and yielding survive the storm. Yielding also means openness. Throughout the Lieh-tzu, but particularly in this part there are many stories of people who attain a very high level in a particular skill, whether it be fishing, swimming, archery, or taming tigers. This is done not just come through dedicative practice, but through opening oneself to the natural flow of things. This is done to the point when the barriers between oneself and the art fall away and you become one with it.

Part Three, King Mu of Ch'ou:Part three questions the nature of reality. In this way it reflects the Chuang-tzu, "Was I dreaming I was a butterfly, or is a butterfly dreaming he's me." Our perceptions of things are what make it "real". We have the story of the man who lost his memory and couldn't remember things from one day to the next, yet was happy and free of worry, but after regaining them, became miserable. Or the story of the homesick man who became emotional when he thought he'd returned home, but was mistaken.

Part Four, Confucius:This part is all about the sages. What is the nature of the sage and who is an enlightened person? Sages have abilities far above other people and yet often prefer to remain hidden, anonymous. To the enlightened, enlightenment is an ordinary experience attainable by anyone.

Part Five, The Questions of Tang:Part five teaches about attitude and our approach to life. Our attitude to things greatly affects the outcome. One of the best stories of Lieh-tzu is about the Old Fool. The Old Fool was so-called because he was always coming up with impossible or impractical ideas. One day, tired of walking around the two mountains which blocked his valley, the Old Fool proclaimed he would move them out of the way. But the Old Fool was in his nineties and frail and could hardly pick up a bag of dirt. Everyone mocked him, including his wife. But the Old Fool said even if he couldn't finish the project his descendants would carry on, until one day the mountains would be gone. Every day he set out with his son, grandson, and another boy to dig away at the mountain. Eventually, the gods heard about his plan. They were so impressed with the Old Fool's will and tenacity that they intervened on his behalf.

Part Six, Effort and Destiny:Fortune and misfortune, success and failure, life and death are things beyond our control, so why fret and worry about things we can't change. Better is to try and control our reactions to events. Here we have the story of Kuan-Chung and Pao Shu-ya who were both powerful ministers, but never let fortune or misfortune affect their friendship. The always kept work and friendship separate and were honest and true.

Part Seven, Yang-chu: Life is short, so why not make the best of the time you're given. Names, titles, and social status are empty and gone with death. My favorite story comes here. There was once a powerful Prime Minister who worked tirelessly for the betterment of his country. He also had two brothers. The first brother was a drunkard. He lived in a brewery and spent all his time drinking and partying. The second brother kept a harem of beautiful women and spent all of his time making love. to them. Which is worse, to damage one's health in pursuit of idle pleasures or to damage one's health in pursuit of titles and power?

Part Eight, Explaining Coincidences: Cause and effect, retribution and reward, coincidence and accident. Are these things real or simply the meanings that we give to events? It's all in how you think.

This book is a treasure. It's full of ancient wisdom in concise little stories that are both highly entertaining and profoundly thought-provoking. With Lao-tzu or Chuang-tzu, you have to be in a certain state of mind to read and listen to them. Lieh-tzu you can read anytime and get something. And you will, time and time again. I highly recommend this delightful book.

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