Monday, March 03, 2008


Fourth in a series on Chinese philosophy
by Thomas Riggins

Introductory note. As China continues to develop into a superpower a knowlege of its form of Marxism becomes imperative for Western progressives. The progressive movement cannot allow itself to be misdirected in an anti-Chinese direction by reactionary forces in the West. In order to understand Chinese Marxism fully it is important to be familiar with traditional Chinese philosophy, many elements of which reappear in Marxist guise in today’s China. I have therefore constructed a series of dialogues based on the actual words of the most important Chinese thinkers. Each dialogue will present the core beliefs of the philosopher discussed plus relevant Marxist commentary where warranted. Readers are welcome to add their own comments and observations.

“Well, Fred, are you ready to discuss Chuang Tzu?”

“Yes. I have just finished reviewing the text of Chuang Tzu in Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] and reading Chan’s introductory remarks. Chuang lived in the 4th Century BC and was a Taoist.”

“Fung [A Short History of Chinese Philosophy] says he might have been the greatest of the early Taoists! This would elevate him even over Lao Tzu.”

“And Chan might agree. He thinks that an advance was made by Chuang over the views of Lao. His book seems to have been compiled after his death. It's an amalgam of his writings and those of his followers, so Chan has selected those passages considered most authentically Chuang’s own. We will start with Chapter Two which Chan says ‘reveals his philosophy.’ Here is a short passage: ‘Tzu-chi of Nan-kuo sat leaning on a low table. Looking up to heaven, he sighed and seemed to be at a loss as if his spirit had left him. Yen-ch’eng Tzu-yu (his pupil), who was standing in attendance in front of him, said, “What is the matter? The body may be allowed to be like dry wood but should the mind be allowed to be like dead ashes? Surely the man leaning on the table now is not the same man leaning on the table before.' Chan says this expression of body as ‘dry wood’ and the mind as ‘dead ashes’ has become famous in Chinese philosophy and literature as metaphors regarding the question of the status of the human spirit or mind--’whether man is a spirit and whether the mind is alert’ - as he puts it.”

“Fred, it reminds me, the last part of the passage, of both Heraclitus the ancient Greek and Sartre the existentialist.”

“How so?”

“The part about not being the ‘same man’ seems to suggest we are always changing and being different from what we were before, This certainly suggests Sartre’s view that human beings have no fixed ‘essence’ but are always able to create themselves anew. Also, Heraclitus believed in an eternal ‘flux’ we are never the same from one moment to the next. So there are elements of Taoism that seem in harmony with Western ways of seeing the world.”

“I see what you mean. I have always thought that the so called big separation or difference between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ ways of thinking was a bit artificial. When we humans start to think about things we will create very similar philosophies despite whatever superficial cultural differences may indicate.”

“You know, Fred, there is a passage in Chan that I find ironic. Look there at the top of page 179, about Chuang’s influence.”

“...’ since the fifth century [AD] , his doctrines have never been propagated by any outstanding scholar’.”

“Yet his views, we will see, influence everyone right up to the present day so that is a way of ‘propagating’ doctrines. Chan himself said, as you mentioned before, that his comment about the body and mind and ‘dry wood’ and ‘ashes’ became a standard expression in literature and philosophy. But lets go on and we will better see what I mean.”

“ OK. Tzu-chi likes Tzu-yu’s comment. He then speaks of the relations of humanity with nature and heaven i.e., all the similarities and mysteries thereof. He especially talks about the ‘mind’ which is far from being ‘dead ashes’ at least until the end of life. When, he says, ‘it is old and exhausted. And finally it is near death and cannot be given life again. Pleasure and anger, sorrow and joy, anxiety and regret, fickleness and fear, impulsiveness and extravagance, indulgence and lewdness come to us like music from the hollows [the music of the wind] or like mushrooms from the damp.’ All this seems to indicate that the ‘self’ is responsible for these feelings. But then in a famous passage Chuang goes on to say ‘Without them (the feelings mentioned above) there would not be I. And without me who will experience them? They are right near by. But we don’t know who causes them. It seems there is a True Lord who does so, but there is no indication of his existence.’”

“The ‘problem of God’ I see. What is this ‘True Lord’. I thought we had established that only Mo Tzu had ‘God ideas’.”

“Don’t worry Karl. The ‘True Lord’ will turn out to be Spinoza’s ‘God’--that is Nature.”

“What does Chan say?”

“Basically he has a comment to the effect that Chinese agnosticism has been reinforced by this attitude expressed by Chuang. The rule of interpretation is that Chuang, whenever he uses the term ‘creator’ is best understood as referring to ‘nature.’ “Any personal God or one that directs the movement of things is clearly out of harmony with Chuang Tzu’s philosophy.’”

“It only makes sense, Fred, since the supreme principle is the TAO.”

“Indeed, and Chuang says ‘Tao is obscured by petty biases and speech is obscured by flowery expressions. Therefore there have arisen the controversies between the Confucianists and the Moists, each school regarding as right what the other considers as wrong, and regarding as wrong what the other considers as right.”

“That's a great observation Fred, and it goes to the heart of Chuang’s dialectics as he maintains that opposites flow back and forth interchanging with one another.”

“Wait, Karl, there is more in this vein. He says,”to show what each regards as right is wrong or to show what each regards as wrong is right, there is no better way than to use the light (of Nature).’ He goes on:’ There is nothing that is not the “that” and there is nothing that is not the “this.” Things do not know that they are the “that” of other things; they only know what they themselves know. Therefore I say that the “that” is produced by the “this” and the “this” and the “this” is also caused by the “that.” This is the theory of mutual production.... Because of the right there is the wrong, and because of the wrong, there is the right. Therefore the sage does not proceed along these lines (of right and wrong, and so forth) but illuminates the matter with Nature.... When “this” and “that” have no opposites, there is the very axis of Tao. Only when the axis occupies the center of a circle can things in their infinite complexities be responded to. The right is an infinity. The wrong is also an infinity. Therefore I say that there is nothing better than to use the light (of Nature).’”

“if we, Fred, equate the ‘light (of Nature)’ with our ability to think and reason about the Tao of things, the ‘this’ and ‘that’ distinctions become intertwined. This reminds me of Hegel’s discussion of ‘sense-certainty’ in the beginning of his Phenomenology of Mind.”

Karl pulled down a volume from his book shelf and began to read: “A simple entity of this sort, which is by and through negation, which is neither this or that, which is a not-this and with equal indifference this as well as that [he is discussing the ‘Now’--is it night or day] --a thing of this kind we call a Universal.... the universal which the object has come to be, is no longer such as the object was to be for sense-certainty. The certainty is now found to lie in the opposite element, namely in knowledge....” “Here is another example of how Eastern and Western thought have points of convergence,” Karl said.

“This next passage is a little difficult, at least for me: ‘Only the intelligent knows how to identify all things as one. Therefore he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common [principle]. The common means the useful and the useful means identification. Identification means being at ease with oneself. When one is at ease with himself, one is near Tao. This is to let it (Nature) take its own course. He has arrived at this situation, and does not know it. This is Tao.’”

“This is a little mystical. You know,Fred, you forgot to name this famous second chapter of the Chuang Tzu that is ‘The Equality of all things (Ch’i Wu Lun). From the limited individual point of view we look out upon a universe made up of millions of different and conflicting entities, ‘the one thousand things’, but the sage comes to understand that they are really one. An example from the life of our time. In the MIddle East, as elsewhere in our world unfortunately, different groups of humans, innocent of philosophy, are fighting and killing one another because they think they are so different from one another because they speak different languages or subscribe to different culturally imposed superstitions or have different eating habits or historical experiences. But they are really all just human beings cast into the world to live and die the same. Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice catches this exactly for all of us. This is the equality of all humans, all evolved from the same primordial glop as everything else. We can extend this to the rest of life as well. All this is just the way it is, the way Nature is as the result of the Tao. The sage knows this and can be just as happy in Brooklyn as the West Bank the earth too is one--all things are, ultimately. So Chuang tells us when we figure this out (identification) and it is second nature to us, as it were, so we don’t even have to think about it all the time (being at ease) then we are arrived at Tao without having to think it through each time we confront a worldly situation--the sage ‘knows’ and ‘does not know it’--i.e. have to think about it all the day long.”

“That is just so true Karl. All our social problems, at least, come from non recognition of this Tao. If only we could solve our problems as easily as the monkey keeper! ‘A monkey keeper once was giving out nuts and said, “Three in the morning and four in the evening.” All the monkeys became angry. He said, “If that is the case, there will be four in the morning and three in the evening.” All the monkeys were glad. Neither the name nor the actually has been reduced but the monkeys reacted in joy and anger [differently]. The keeper also let things take their own course. Therefore the sage harmonizes the right and the wrong and rests in natural equalization. This is called following two courses at the same time.’”

“As I remember it, this is a very important point in Chinese philosophy.”

“It sure is, Chan says that almost all Chinese schools of thought adopt it--the doctrine of following two courses at the same time. They even follow three courses. He says in his comment ‘In the Book of Changes [the I Ching, which we will get to], it is said that “in the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same.” The upshot is that most Chinese follow the three systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and usually take a multiple approach to things.’”

“And we can now add Marxism! If they are non- dogmatic they can follow four systems depending on the requirements of life. The so called ‘Cultural’ Revolution was a big mistake on this way of thinking.”

“O.K. Karl, back to Chuang. He says ‘When the distinction between right and wrong became prominent, Tao was thereby reduced, individual bias was formed.... Therefore the sage aims at removing the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Because of this he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common principle. This is what is meant by using the light (of Nature).’"

“Wittgenstein said doing philosophy was like showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle that is the same as removing confusions and doubts that dazzle people.”

“O.k. Karl, Chuang now talks about what he calls the ‘eight characteristics’--left and right, discussions and theories, analyses and arguments, competitions and quarrels. And he says ‘What is beyond the world, the sage leaves it as it exists and does not discuss it. What is within the world, the sage discusses but does not pass judgment. About the chronicles of historical events and the records of ancient kings, the sage passes judgments but does not argue. Therefore there are things which analysis cannot analyze, and there are things which argument cannot argue. Why? The sage keeps it in his mind while men in general argue in order to brag before each other. Therefore it is said that argument arises from failure to see [the greatness of Tao].... Therefore he who knows to stop at what he does not know is perfect.’”

“This seems to be pretty good advice. It seems that with regard to religion and such other worldly stuff the philosopher won’t be wasting his or her time, that he or she will be nonjudgmental regarding what actually exists [this can be regarded as ‘quietism’ in the social realm and seems a departure from Lao Tzu’s views] and as far as history goes it looks a little dogmatic, this making judgments but no arguments allowed. Plato tells us the philosopher has to be ready to argue his or her position and be willing to follow the argument wherever it leads. The problem is, of course, that if one understands the Tao one understands the inner necessity and whatness and whyness of all things--therefore argument is not necessary. But it would seem some type of argument and reasoning with people is necessary if you want to remove the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Maybe you can have ‘discussions’ and ‘theories’ because he thinks arguments are more for people who want to show off their (limited) knowledge.”

“You might be right Karl. Chan says that Chuang exhibits a spirit of doubt that has influenced ‘China’s long tradition of skepticism.’ This is another reason he might consider ‘arguments’ as a waste of time as opposed to discussions with other people.”

“Indeed. You really can’t force people to believe things by arguments [except of course philosophers]. They have to come to see the truth of things themselves. The Taoist sage is one who comes to this position. I think the Confucian sage might use argument a bit more often.”

“Look a little further in the text Fred. Chuang, as I remember it, gives some reasons for not relying on arguments to find the truth.”

“Well, he does say this:’ Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong. If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Since between us neither you nor I know which is right, others are naturally in the dark. Whom shall we ask to arbitrate?’”

“What is needed is obviously a decision mechanism by which good arguments can be separated from the bad. There was no Aristotle in ancient China to develop the science of the syllogism and logic in general. Chuang here exhibits an admirable open mindedness but the accumulation of knowledge by experience and science and the logical analysis of truth claims would be paralyzed by this attitude. Taoist mysticism may have some good points but you can clearly see the wisdom the Chinese show by using simultaneously different systems and taking what Chan called ‘a multiple approach to things’”

“Now A we come to a famous passage which shows the Taoist attitude par excellence towards the unity of everything encompassed by the Tao. Chuang Chou is Chuang Tzu’s given name. ‘Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamed that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Chou. Between Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.’”

“It is a great passage despite the fact that lacking the higher centers of the mammalian brain it doesn’t seem that it is possible for a butterfly to dream. The ‘transformation of all things’ is undoubtedly true. All the atoms that make up every thing on earth had their origin in our Sun or at least they are the direct result of the so called ‘Big Bang.’ Hence everything that we know that exists is just a recombination of the same elemental particles in different proportions and arrangements. The atoms that make up me will eventually be those of a butterfly or a rock and atoms from past butterflies and even dinosaurs make up people today. This is a Taoist understanding I think. It is not unique. Anaxagoras held that ‘All things were together’ and arranged themselves by ‘Mind’ [νουs] which is like Tao. The Greek Atomists would also agree.”

Now we move on to Chapter Six of the Chuang Tzu, ‘The Great Teacher.’ Chuang writes, ‘He who knows the activities of Nature (T’ien, Heaven) and the activities of man is perfect. He who knows the activities of Nature lives according to Nature. He who knows the activities of man nourishes what he does not know with what he does know, thus completing his natural span of life and will not die prematurely half of the way .... However, there is some defect here.... How do we know that what I call Nature is not really man and what I call man is not really Nature? Furthermore, there must be the pure man [i.e., simple and in accord with the Tao] before there can be true knowledge.’”

“I see the problem. How can we be sure we are on the road to being a true sage? Maybe we will end as a fascist stooge as did Heidegger or betray humanity or human heartedness (jen) as did Nietzsche.”

“We are going to come to some difficult passages now Karl. I’m not sure we can understand them outside of the entire context of ancient Chinese culture in which they are embedded.”

“Well, we will have to make the attempt. It may be some of this philosophy just won’t be able to smoothly move over into our way of seeing things but we can at least try to understand what Chuang means.”

“Chapter Six continues: ‘Therefore he who takes special delight in understanding things is not a sage. He who shows [special] affection [to anyone] is not a man of humanity (jen, love).... He who seeks fame and thus loses his own nature is not learned. And he who loses his own nature and thus misses the true way is not one who can have others do things for him.’”

“This seems to indicate that the sage should love all forms of learning equally. He also seems to be in agreement with Mo Tzu in thinking that one should not be partial in showing affection [love]. If so it shows that some Taoists were close to Mohism and even distancing themselves farther from the Confucianists. It is obvious that the sage should not seek fame at the expenses of truth. I’m not sure the sage should want ‘others to do things for him.’ Others might be helpful, as say the followers of Socrates helped him out due to his singled minded pursuit of philosophy and consequent neglect of practical affairs, but this should not be something the sage ‘wants’ or expects.”

“What about this: ‘To regard knowledge as a product of time means to respond to events as if they had to be. And to regard virtue as people’s observance means that it is comparable to the fact that anyone with two feet can climb a hill, but people think that a pure man makes a diligent effort to do so. Therefore what he liked was one and what he did not like was also one.... He who regards all things as one is a companion of Nature. He who does not regard all things as one is a companion of man. Neither Nature nor man should overcome the other. This is what is meant by a pure man.’ So tell me Karl that this is not confusing!”

“Confusing it is. But I think he means that we should be impartial and also accept Nature for what it is. Don’t make value judgments about Nature. For example, as a person I don’t like the aids virus and would like to eradicate it. But from the point of view Nature the virus is simply a part of the totality of existence and is doing its thing just as everything else is that makes up the fabric of the interaction of all the elements of reality. As Hume said--from the point of view of Nature an oyster is the same as a human being. The sage knows this. But as a human being the sage also knows it's ok to be against the aids virus. These two views or attitudes are in balance in the ‘pure man’. As to the comment about regarding knowledge as a product of time, it seems to suggest determinism. This seems to be in accordance with Tao and the sage should be in accordance with Tao.”

“This may also be reflected in the following Karl: ‘If our physical bodies went through ten thousand transformations without end, how incomparable would this joy be! Therefore the sage roams freely in the realm in which nothing can escape but all endures’”

“But the sage does not endure!”

“He goes on: ‘Tao has reality and evidence but no action or physical form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be obtained but cannot be seen. It is based in itself, rooted in itself. Before heaven and earth came into being, Tao existed by itself from all time.... It created heaven and earth.’”

“Tao is playing the role of Yahweh only without the personality attributed to It. “

“Chan makes a good point here. Chuang says the sage has to be impartial: ‘In dealing with things, he would not lead forward or backward to accommodate them.’ Chan says this phrase ‘has become a favorite dictum [“not to lean forward or backward”] among later Chinese thinkers, especially Neo-Confucianists. It does not mean moderation or indifference but absolute spontaneity and impartiality in dealing with things and complete naturalness in response to things.’”

“Chan’s observations are usually quite good.”

“What do you think of this. I think Chuang would have been a Stoic had he lived in ancient Rome instead of China. This is a vignette about a very sick person, Tzu-yu, whose ‘internal organs were on top of his body’ so he was really in dire straits about to pass on but was very accepting of his condition because, as he told his friend Tzu-suu: ‘When we come, it is because it was the occasion to be born. When we go, it is to follow the natural course of things. Those who are contented and at ease when the occasion comes and live in accord with the course of Nature cannot be affected by sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients called release from bondage. Those who cannot release themselves are so because they are bound by material things. That material things cannot overcome Nature, however, has been a fact from time immemorial. Why, then should I dislike it [the disease]?’”

“I see what you mean Fred.”

“Wait up Karl, there’s more.”

“Another vignette?”

“Tzu-li goes to visit the dying Tzu-lai and says to the grieving family: ‘Go away.... Don’t disturb the transformation that is about to take place.... Great is the Creator [i.e., Nature]! What will he make of you now? Where will he take you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver. Will he make you into an insects leg?’ Far from being upset by this intrusion, Tzu-lai responds in kind: ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, whether east, west, south, or north, he has to obey. The yin and yang are like man’s parents. If they pressed me to die and I disobeyed, I would be obstinate. What fault is theirs? For the universe gave me the body so I may be carried, my life so I may toil, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest.
Therefore to regard life as good is the way to regard death as good.’”

“Well, this is very Stoic, a very Greco-Roman attitude. This is the Stoic apathia. To accept whatever comes along in life as just the working out of the logos or the law of the universe. Resistance is futile!”

“Here is a passage about Confucius!”

“Don’t be alarmed Fred. Chuang Tzu never knew Confucius. The Taoists, who were great rivals of the Confucians and didn’t appreciate their philosophy at all, liked to pretend that in his old age Confucius was finally enlightened and converted to Taoism. As a result of this phantasy, Confucius crops up in Taoist works expressing very un-Confucian opinions. What is he doing here?”

“One of three friends has died and Confucius has sent his rather orthodox pupil to the funeral to represent him. This pupil, Tzu-kung,[he was of the major disciples] no less, was shocked to see the two surviving friends singing and playing the lute. This was a big no-no from Tzu-kung’s viewpoint--a major violation of the li or ceremonial procedures required for a proper funeral. He hurries back to Confucius to complain about the unseemly behavior of the departed’s companions. But this Taoist Confucius remarks: ‘They travel in the transcendental world and I travel in the mundane world. There is nothing in common between the two worlds, and I sent you there to mourn! How stupid!... How can they take the trouble to observe the rules of propriety of popular society in order to impress the multitude?’”

“Do you think the real Confucius would have said that Fred?”

“Maybe. I don’t say he would have, but he was a very open minded person. IF he had known Chuang Tzu he might have been able to deal with this. After all, it was a private funeral with a few like minded friends.”

“We will never know.”

Chan thinks this passage is very important. Do you want me to read his commentary?”


“He says, “Chuang Tzu distinguished traveling in the transcendental world, or fang-wai (literally, “outside the sphere” of human affairs), and traveling in the mundane world, or fang-nei (literally, “inside the sphere”). Later the former came to mean Buddhism and the latter Confucianism. The first distinction was made here. To consider life as a temporary existence of various elements is highly Buddhistic, for in Buddhism an entity is but a temporary grouping of five elements. But Taoism is free from the quietism of Buddhism and emphasizes non-action. As Kuo-Hsiang [died 312 AD] emphatically stated, however, taking no action does not mean doing nothing but simply doing nothing unnatural.’”

“Is that it for Tzu-kung and Confucius?”

“No, there’s more bogus Confucius. ‘Confucius said,”Fishes attain their full life in water and men attain theirs in the Tao. Those fish which attain a full life in water will be well nourished if a pool is dug for them, and those men who attain a full life in the Tao will achieve calmness of nature through inaction. Therefore it is said, ‘Fishes forget each other (are happy and at ease with themselves) in rivers and lakes and men forget each other in the workings of Tao.’” “May I ask about those strange people?” said Tzu-kung. Replied Confucius, “Those strange people are strange in the eyes of man but are equal to Nature. Therefore it is said, ‘The inferior man to Nature is a superior man to men, and the superior man to men is an inferior man to Nature.’”’”

“I seem to remember Yen Hui, Confucius’ favorite disciple, getting into the act.”

“You remember correctly Karl. Chuang Tzu’s famous doctrine of ‘sitting down and forgetting everything’ [famous because of its later use by the Neo-Confucians] is put in to the mouth of Yen Hui. Yen made the comment in the context of being asked by Confucius what progress he had made. ‘I cast aside my limbs,’ replied Yen Hui, ‘discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind, and become one with [the] Great Universal (Tao). This called sitting down and forgetting everything.’”

“Excellent. This would no doubt drive an orthodox Confucian to distraction.”

“No doubt. That’s it for the two major philosophical chapters presented by Chan, but he has some interesting passages in his ‘Additional Selections.’”

“Well what are you waiting for?”

“This is from ‘The Nature and Reality of Tao’. Which comes from chapter 12 of the Chuang Tzu. Its rather long.”

“Is it important?”

“Chan thinks so. He says its a pretty important statement of Taoist metaphysics.”

“By all means then,Fred, lets hear it.”

“Here goes: ‘In the great beginning there was non-being. It had neither being nor name. The One originates from it: it has oneness but not yet physical form. When things obtain it and come into existence, that is called virtue (which gives them their individual character). That which is formless is divided [into yin and yang], and from the very beginning going on without interruption is called destiny (ming, fate). Through movement and rest it produces all things. When things are produced in accordance with the principle (li) of life, there is physical form. When the physical form embodies and preserves the spirit so that all activities follow their own specific principles, that is nature. By cultivating one’s nature one will return to virtue. When virtue is perfect, one will be one with the beginning. Being one with the beginning, one becomes vacuous (hsü, receptive to all), and being vacuous, one becomes great. One will then be united with the sound and breath of things. When one is united with the sound and breath of things, one is united with the universe. This unity is intimate and seems to be stupid and foolish. This is called profound and secret virtue, this is complete harmony.’”

“This requires some thought.”

“What do you make of it?”

“I think it fits with what we today might agree to. Before the universe there was nothing (non-being) --if we can use the word ‘before’ in this context--there is then the ‘Big Bang’ (the One originates) and the rest of the universe evolves into what we have now by means of the laws of nature (ming, li or fate and principle). If we want to live intelligent and happy lives we must understand the natural laws and conform to them (virtue). If we follow this Taoist outline of virtue we will be in harmony both with ourselves and with Nature. But I must stress, Fred, that Chuang Tzu is of course not privy to the type of modern scientific understanding of the universe that has developed over the last few centuries, never-
theless this passage of his is not contrary or out of step with modern notions. It is certainly nearer to contemporary scientific understanding than anything the spokesmen of the currently popular so-called ‘world’ religions are dishing out!”

“There is some strange evolutionary speculation that Chan includes about insects turning into horses and horses turning into men! This may not be a meant to be taken seriously but Chan says it shows the Chuang saw everything in Flux (Heraclitus) and ‘conceived reality as ever changing and as developing from the simple to the complex.’”

“Don’t forget Chuang is only a few hundred years away from the Pre-Socratics who also had strange, by our lights, views on evolution especially Empedocles. Not so much Anaxamander who thought we came from fish.”

“O.K., now it's time for supplement five ‘Tao as Transformation and One.’ Ready?”


“’Although the universe is vast, its transformation is uniform. Although the myriad things are many, their order is one. Although people are numerous, their ruler is the sovereign. The sovereign traces his origin to virtue (te, individual and essential character), and attains his perfection in Nature. Therefore it is said in the cases of sovereigns of high antiquity no [unnatural] action (wu-wei) was undertaken and the empire was in order.... When all things in general are seen through Tao, the response of things to each other becomes complete. Therefore it is virtue that penetrates Heaven and Earth, and it is Tao that operates in all things. Government by the ruler means human affairs, and when ability is applied to creative activities, it means skill. Skill, is commanded by Nature. Therefore it is said that ancient rulers of empires had no [selfish] desires and the empire enjoyed sufficiency.’”

"Anything more in this section?”

“Yes-- the Ten Points that the great man or the sage must adhere to if he wants the world to listen to him. This is the Grand Master talking....”

“The Grand Master?”

“Its really Confucius but Chuang calls him the ‘Grand Master’. By the way, these may be Taoist points but from what we discussed about Confucius, I think he really would agree with all of them.”

“Let’s hear them!”

“’ [1] To act without taking an [unnatural action] means Nature. [2] To speak without any action means virtue. [3] To love people and benefit all things means humanity (jen). [4] To identify with all without each losing his own identity means greatness. [5] To behave without purposely showing any superiority means broadness. [6] To possess an infinite variety means richness. [7] Therefore to adhere to virtue is called discipline. [8] To realize virtue means strength. [9] To be in accord with Tao means completeness. [10] And not to yield to material things is called perfection.’”

“I also think the real Confucius would go along with these Fred. But I would add ‘unnatural’ before ‘action’ in number 2 as it doesn’t make that much sense to me without it.”

“Supplement Six: ‘Nature vs. Man’: This is the Spirit of the North Sea speaking to Uncle River--’An owl can catch fleas at night, and sees the tip of a hair, but in the daytime even with its eyes wide open it cannot see a mountain, which shows that different things have different natures. Therefore it is said, “Why not let us follow the right instead of the wrong, and follow order instead of chaos?” This is to misunderstand the principle (li) of nature and the reality of things.’ This confuses Uncle River as to what he should be doing, so the Spirit of the North Sea adds, ‘Never stick to one’s own intention and thus handicap the operation of Tao.’”

“I see. This means, of course, that we must first understand the Tao and then not be bull headed and try to force the world to do what we want rather than to adjust ourselves to reality. This is reminiscent of Descartes’ third maxim in his Discourse on Method where he says he will always try ‘to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world’ so he too seeks to be in tune with the Tao.”

“Uncle River next wants to know the value of Tao. He is told ‘One who knows Tao will surely penetrate the principle of things, and one who penetrates the principles of things will surely understand their application in various situations.’ I take it that was what Descartes was also interested in. The Spirit of the North Sea continues, ‘It means that he discriminates between safety and danger, remains calm whether he suffers calamity or enjoys blessing, and is careful about taking or not taking an action, so that none can harm him. Therefore it is said that what is natural lies within and what is human lies without, and virtue abides in the natural.’ The Spirit then gives an example of just what he means by Nature. ‘A horse or a cow has four feet. That is Nature. Put a halter around the horse’s head and put a string through the cow’s nose, that is man. Therefore it is said, “Do not let man destroy Nature.”’

“Very good L, but must we not admit that man is also part of Nature and it is not against the Nature of a horse to put a halter on it and to ride it, as it would say, to try to do that to a tiger. Men ride horses not tigers and that is also Nature and due to Tao.”

“Then the Spirit of the North Sea is giving bum answers to Uncle River?”

“Let us just say that the Spirit of the North Sea may have a point but there is no Chinese Wall between man and Nature. It is because of this that Confucianism is able to function as an enlightened philosophy and the true sage is not exclusively a Taoist nowadays.”

“In Supplement Seven, Chuang further develops his ideas of objectivity. He says, ‘Exercise fully what you have received from Nature. In one word, be absolutely vacuous (hsü) [having no selfish desires or bias--Chan]. The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not lean forward or backward in its response to things. It responds to things but conceals nothing of its own. Therefore it is able to deal with things without injury to [its reality].’”

“I remember that Chan said the mirror symbolism was important. Why don’t you read his comment?”

“O.k.--he says its an important ‘symbol for the mind both in Zen Buddhism and in Neo-Confucianism. The difference is that with Buddhism, external reality is to be transcended, whereas with Chuang Tzu and the Neo-Confucianists, external reality is to be responded to naturally and faithfully, like a mirror objectively reflecting all.’”

“This is like naive realism in Western epistemology and in some forms of Marxism. I remember Lenin’s opinion that the mind ‘reflects’ external reality. This seems to be a rejection of Kantian views.’”

“In Supplement 8 ‘Sageliness and Kingliness’ we find the following: ‘The evolution of the Tao of Nature goes on without obstruction. Therefore all things are produced. The evolution of the Tao of the sovereign goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole empire comes to him. The evolution of the Tao of the sage goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole world pays him homage.’”

“I’m glad the term ‘evolution’ is used Fred. We live in vastly different times here in the West as do many of the people of the East undergoing ‘modernization’. Chuang’s views still can hold but they must be seen to have ‘evolved.’ The Tao of Nature is the same but the Tao of the sovereign no longer can be seen in terms of the emperor system of pre-revolutionary China. The ‘sovereign’ of today is the mass of the people and in China this means the workers and peasants. If the Chinese Communist Party truly represents their interests--i.e., if it represents the sovereign--then we can interpret the phrase ‘the whole empire comes to him’ to mean that the party has the support of the people in its policies. In this way of speaking, I would say that updated Chuang means as long as the Tao of the people’s interests is without obstruction the party will have the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ This analysis goes for any country--not just China--but you have to be clever enough to match Chuang’s views with the objective reality you are confronting in each case. Finally, the sage should not care if the whole world gives him/her homage but if the sage correctly understands the Tao this may happen. Sages, however, are often out of tune with the times.”

“I agree with you Karl. I think Chuang would too. Here is another quote: ‘Vacuity, tranquillity, mellowness, quietness, and taking no [unnatural] action characterize the things of the universe at peace and represent the ultimate of Tao and virtue. Therefore rulers and sages abide in them.’”


“Finally, Chuang says, ‘ One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with men. To be in harmony with men means human happiness, and to be in harmony with Nature means the happiness of Nature.’ What do you make of that Karl.?”

“In the first place ‘the happiness of Nature’ must be our happiness with Nature since Nature is neither happy nor unhappy, it just is what it is. In the second place, does the statement about the one who is in accord with the world being in accord with men mean (1) going along with what everyone thinks is being in accord with them and hence with the world [don’t rock the boat] or does it mean [2] if you correctly understand the nature of the world that means you will find yourself in accord with your fellow men [definitely counterfactual!]. If it means (1) it is trivial and unworthy of the Sage [so Chuang doesn’t mean this] and if it is (2) then it must be false as hoi polloi predominate and they do not see the world as the Sage does in most instances and so the Sage will be out of accord on many issues. Of course it is happiness to be in harmony with men but only if the men in question are themselves in harmony with the Tao. For example, the German Nazi philosopher Heidegger found himself in ‘harmony’ with most of his fellow Germans believing that the Tao of Hitler was the Tao itself. But would we want to say he was ‘happy’--maybe for a short while. And if he was in accord with ‘men’ was he with Nature? You may reply that ‘men’ means ‘all men’ and so the Nazis lost because their Tao was a false Tao. As you can see, Fred, this is a very complicated issue.”

“So I see. Coming up is a famous vignette about the death of Chuang’s wife.”

“Lets hear it!”

“This is Chan’s Ninth Supplement ‘The Equality of Life and Death’ I’m going to read all of it because it is so famous:

‘Chuang Tzu’s wife died and Hui Tzu went to offer his condolence. He found Chuang Tzu squatting on the ground and singing, beating on an earthen bowl. He said, “Someone has lived with you, raised children for you and now she has aged and died. Is it not enough that you should not shed any tear? But now you sing and beat the bowl. Is this not too much?”

“No,” replied Chuang Tzu. “When she died, how could I help being affected? But as I think the matter over, I realize that originally she had no life; and not only no life, she had no form; not only no form, she had no material force (ch’i)."

"In the limbo of existence and non-existence, there was transformation and the material force was evolved. The material force was transformed to be form, for was transformed to become life, and now birth has transformed to become death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. Now she lies asleep in the great house (the universe). For me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show my ignorance of destiny. Therefore I desist.”’”

“That says it all, Fred. No Stoic, Epicurean or classical Skeptic, let alone any religious thinker, could have put it any better. Secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics would be hard pressed to to top Chuang here. But I think it takes a real sage -AKA philosopher-to find comfort in this view of life.”

“Maybe ‘comfort’ is not what this view offers.”

“True. Maybe ’resignation’ and ‘acceptance’ of the Tao is a better understanding than ‘comfort’.”

“One last vignette, A. Supplement Ten--’Subjectivity’--’Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River. Chuang Tzu said, “The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of the fish.”

“You are not fish.” said Hui Tzu. “How do you know its happiness?”

You are not I,” said Chuang Tzu. “How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?”

Hui Tzu said, “Of course I do not know, since I am not you. But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of the fish.”

“Let us get to the bottom of the matter,” said Chuang Tzu. “When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how. I knew it along the river.”’

“This is a cute story, Fred, but Chuang’s logic can be used right back at him by Hui. I don’t suppose, though, that these vignettes are supposed to be taken as logical.”

“You are surely correct Karl. That ends our readings in the Chuang Tzu. What do you think we should do next?”

“I think we should do Mencius the official number two man in Confucianism--or Mengzi or Meng Tzu as he is also known. Since the Latin form of Mencius is so traditional let’s stick with that.”

“Sounds good to me Karl. But its getting late and I have stuff to do tonight. Let us meet tomorrow after breakfast back here in your study. I’ll come by around ten or so for coffee and conversation.

“All right Fred, I’ll see you then.”

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