Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Nine – The Zhuangzi

In the Zhuangzi, there’s a story of a great oak tree who speaks to the carpenter in a dream. “As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use… how do you know I’m a worthless tree?” (60) The message is profoundly pro-life and anti-instrumentalist. What if we don’t need to be useful in this world? What if the fundamental fact of being alive – of existing – is enough? What if existence alone is enough to confer absolute value on anyone and anything?  

That’s a terrifying thought to entertain because it requires us to let go of so many categories we’ve established over time to know what is good and what isn’t. Moving in this direction is a step into darkness, where even the penetrating descriptiveness of language can’t always penetrate. Some things resist being known. Contrary to superstitions, these too are valuable – even crucial to living a good life (but are best explored with safe people). If it’s sunshine all the time, when do we rest and cool our minds, which tend to be overheated with thinking and explaining? Our unquestioning faith in the power of language to protect us from the darkness is part of what feeds our fear of the unknown, and Zhuangzi finds ways to undermine and play with language in every chapter. “I’m going to try speaking some reckless words and I want you to listen to them recklessly,” (42) he says, and also, “understanding that rests in what it does not understand is the finest. Who can understand discriminations that are not spoken, the Way that is not a way?” (40) “Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?” (34)

He feels the same way about institutionalized morality. “The way I see it, the rules of benevolence and righteousness and the paths of right and wrong are all hopelessly snarled and jumbled. How could I know anything about such discriminations?” (41) One thing I love about Zhuangzi is the gentleness with which he introduces these possibilities. He seems to understand how disorienting it can be to let go of all our boxes and analyses, so he uses playfulness and soothing imagery to soften the impact. “There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (38)

According to him, this world isn’t just a binary of subjects and objects, acting on each other or being acted upon. There is subjectiveness in everything, and when we lean into that collaborative attitude, life gets much easier. This is illustrated in the story of the cook who has carved up thousands of oxen and hasn’t needed to sharpen his knife for nineteen years.  “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began carving up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.” (46, italics mine) 

It’s not that our hero doesn’t think at all: “whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! The whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.” (46) It’s just that there is a recognition that thinking and reason only take us so far in our experience of the world and in our being virtuous in the world. There’s an emphasis on intuition and pre-rational knowing. 

Similarly, he’s not against feelings and emotions, but he recommends a way of being that isn’t ruled by emotions. “When I talk about having no feelings, I mean that a man doesn’t allow likes or dislikes to get in and do him harm. He just lets things be the way they are and doesn’t try to help life along.” (71) “And to serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate – this is the perfection of virtue.” (55)

So if we’re not ruled by thought and reason and we’re not ruled by emotions, what should be our primary source of information for decision making? It is the moment. “So he has no use [for categories], but relegates all to the constant. The constant is the useful; the useful is the passable; the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished.” (36) Zhuangzi tells us to follow the moment, to not try to avoid what is real, but to accept it. This is hard work, but not necessarily the hard work of an ascetic who denies or mutilates themselves in order to chase goodness – that is falling back on the fragmented view that there is something other – an object – to be achieved. Instead this is the middle way which requires ongoing focus and openness and ongoing opening and ongoing becoming. 

I think the fundamental project and shift that Zhuangzi is advocating for is a turn back to the recognition of absolute subjectivity outside ourselves. This takes an ongoing awareness that Kierkegaard would argue requires something like religious fervor – whatever you’re willing to check out from is whatever you’re willing to use instead of relating to with more integrity. Obeying rules and lists of expectations allows a person to check out from the work of truly being with the world, but it is a fragmented way to live. It is easier in the short term, but disconnects you from the world in the long term. In the same way that each of us has the choice to respond to the limitations of our bodies as they are now or be even more limited in the future by the results of ignoring those messages, we have that same choice in our relationships with the people and situations we encounter every day.   

Another thing I love about this book and this attitude toward life is the sense that it’s available to everyone. Each person has their own Way and will interpret the words differently (Zhuangzi is using language to point at the inadequacy of language, after all!), but the more each one of us can consciously respond to outer limitations with our inherent freedom and respect for the freedom of others, the less friction we will experience in relationships, and the safer the world will be for everyone. “[The tiger trainer] gauges the state of the tiger’s appetite and thoroughly understands its fierce disposition. Tigers are a different breed from men, and yet you can train them to be gentle with their keepers by following along with them. The men who get killed are the ones who go against them.” (58) 

If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher?

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