The Daoism of Zhuan-zi

An excerpt from The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism by Peter M.K. Chan

An abridged and systematic reconstitution of their words


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The Daoism of Zhuan-zi


4.1 Wonderment about Dao and Nature

4.2 What is Wrong with the Human Mind

4.3 Program of Self-Restoration

4.4 The Meaning of Death

4.5 The Sagely Way of Being

4.6 Debunking the Legacy of the Sage-kings

4.7 Embrace All without Distinctions 



      The naturalism of Lao-zi was further developed in the Book of Zhuan-zi, which is a collections of essays by Zhuan-zi (c 369-286 BC) and his associates. Apart from its many tall tales and allegories, it also contains gossips about certain famous ancient personalities, real or legendary. It also has things to say about Zhuan-zi as well. The world was too turbid to appreciate Zhuan-zi. … This was why he had to repeat his words and propagate them by way of allegories. (以天下为沈浊,不可以庄语。 以重言为真,以寓言为广Book of Zhuan-zi, Chapter 33 ) Even though his words are not always consistent, his rhetoric is yet rich with wit and humor. (其辞虽参差,而諔诡可观。 Ibid.) As Zhuan-zi was also reported to have said: ninety percent of what I said are allegories to be discussed by others, seventy percent of what I said are repetitions (of what I have heard). (寓言十九,藉外论之。 重言十七, 所以已言也。 Ibid. Chapter 27) 


      As to Zhuan-zi the man, it is said that he turned down an invitation from the State of Chor to become its prime minister. I had rather drag my tail (like a turtle) in the mud, he said. (吾将曳尾于途中。Ibid. Chapter 17) For this reason, Zhuan-zi’s family was poor and had to borrow grain from the superintendent of waterways. (庄周家贫,故往贷粟于监河侯。 Ibid. Chapter 26) Upon another occasion, it is also said that when asked by the king of Wei as to why he dressed so miserably, Chuan-zi’s answer was that he was only poor, but not miserable. An intellectual is miserable only when he is unable to practice Dao and Virtue. Wearing wretched garments and shoes is indicative of poverty, not misery. (庄子曰:贫也,非惫也。士有道德不能行,惫也; 衣弊履穿, 贫也,非惫也。 Ibid. Chapter 20 ) Such was the way of a Daoist sage. In a world where Dao did not prevail, he would rather be poor than be burdened with the responsibilities of state.



4.1 Wonderment about Dao and Nature


     One of the things that the Lao-zi had kindled in the ancient Chinese mind were wonderments about Dao and the workings of Nature. Thus, it is not surprising to find in the Book of Zhuan-zi the following barrage of questions. Is the color of the sky really blue? Does it reaches out infinitely and without limits? (天之蒼蒼,其正色邪?其遠而無所至極邪?Ibid. Chapter 1) Does Heaven move around? Is the earth stationary? Are the sun and the moon chasing each other? Who directs and sustains all these? Who has the leisure to push them along? Are they made to move by way of mechanical arrangements? Or, do they just keep revolving and cannot stop in and of themselves? (天其运乎?地其处乎?日月其争于所乎?孰主张是?孰维纲是?孰居无事而推行是?意者其有机缄而不得已邪?意者其运转而不能自止邪?Ibid. Chapter 14) Are clouds the same as rain, or rain the same as clouds? Who makes them rise and sends them down? Who has the leisure to enjoy doing such things? (云者为雨乎?雨者为云乎?孰隆施是?孰居无事淫乐而劝是?Ibid.) The wind rises from the north. It blows not just east and west, but whirls upward as well. Who is doing all this sucking and blowing? Who has the leisure to shake things about in this way? May I ask what is causing all these? (风起北方,一西一东,有上彷徨,孰嘘吸是?孰居无事而披拂是?敢问何故?Ibid.)


     With respect to all these queries, Zhuan-zi’s answer is that Dao has potential as well as effects, even though it does not do anything and has no features. It can transmit without being felt, and attain without being seen. It comes of itself and is rooted in itself. It has existed since time immemorial, even before Heaven and Earth. (夫道,有情有信,無為無形;可傳而不可受,可得而不可見;自本自根,未有天地,自古以固存;Ibid. Chapter 6) It created deities and spiritual beings as well as Heaven and Earth. It is above the supreme ultimate and yet not high. It is beneath the six deeps and yet not low. It existed from antiquity before Heaven and Earth, but is not old. (神鬼神帝,生天生地;在太極之先而不為高,在六極之下而不為深,先天地生而不為久,長於上古而不為老。Ibid.) The Great Dipper has it and never veered from its course. The sun and moon possess it, and have never cease to be. (維斗得之,終古不忒;日月得之,終古不息;Ibid.)


     As Lao-zi was also reported to have told Confucius: If Dao is with you, you can achieve anything; if you lose it, nothing can be done. (苟得于道,无自而不可;失焉者,无自而可。Ibid. Chapter 14) It comes without a trace and moves with neither bounds nor obstruction. Those who have it are strong in limbs, broad in mind, sharp in hearing, and clear in sight. Because of Dao, Heaven is high and the Earth vast; the sun and moon cannot but move, and everything cannot but prosper. (其来无迹,其往无崖,无门无房,四达之皇皇也。邀于此者,四肢彊,思虑恂达,耳目聪明。......天不得不高,地不得不广,日月不得不行,万物不得不昌,此其道与!Ibid. Chapter 22)


     But the question is this: Where is Dao? It is everywhere, said Zhuan-zi. It is in the ant, in the weed, in the brick, in the excrement and urine. ...... Nothing can escape from Its influence. You do not have to look for it. (所谓道,恶乎在?庄子曰:无所不在。 在蝼蚁。...在稊稗。...在瓦甓。...在屎溺。...汝唯莫必, 无乎逃物。Ibid.) By moving and resting, it produced all things. When things are produced and give rise to principle (natural law), features come into being. When features and shapes are preserved, their pattern of activities is called their nature. (留动而生物,物成生理谓之形;形体保神,各有仪则谓之性Ibid. Chapter 12)


     Further, it is to be observed that where water is available, certain things will continue to grow. When water and soil is available, some of these things will become flogs, whereas others on land will become moss, and those on fertile soil will become weeds. (种有几,得水则为继,得水土之际则为蛙,宾之衣,生于陵屯则为陵舄,陵舄得郁栖则为乌足。Ibid. Chapter 18) The roots of these weeds will become worms, which will in turn become butterflies. Butterflies will transform into insects, which are born under the stove. When the skin of these are shed, they are called chu-tuo (乌足之根为蛴螬,其叶为胡蝶。胡蝶胥也化而为虫,生于灶下,其状若脱,其名为鸲掇。Ibid.) After a thousand days, the chu-tuo becomes a bird by the name of gan-yu-gu, the saliva of which will turn into an insect by the name of ser-ni, which in turn will become another insect by the name of shi-zi. It is from this that another insect by the name of yi-lu was born. (鸲掇千日为鸟,其名为干余骨。干余骨之沫为斯弥,斯弥为食醯;颐辂生乎食醯。Ibid.)


     It is also to be observed that when the plant yung-hsi is paired with bamboo for a long time, there will be bamboo shoots, which will produce the insect called ching-ning. The ching-ning produces another insect called zheng. Zheng produces the horse, and the horse produces man. Man again re-enters the process (of Nature). (羊奚比乎不箰,久竹生青宁,青宁生程,程生马,马生人,人又反入于机。Ibid.) All things come from the process of Nature and re-enter the process of Nature. (万物皆出于机,皆入于机。Ibid.)


Comment: Far-fetched as these observations may sound, it is not to be overlooked that what was being entertained is not only about the formation and transformation of things, but their possible evolutionary relationships as well. This is also a good place to note that one of the ancient Greek naturalists by the name of Empedocles had also harbored similar kinds of views, two thousand years or so before Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin.


     But is that good enough to be called Dao? Asked Know-little (少知 or Shao-zer). No, answered the Great Arbitrator (大公调 or Tai Kong Tio), presumably on behalf of Zhuan-zi. As things in the world are innumerable, to speak about “the myriad things is but our way of saying that there are a great number of things. Similarly, to speak about Heaven and Earth is but our way of connoting dimensions that are very large; and to speak about yin and yang is but out way of talking about the strength of vital energy (chi). Thus, to speak about Dao is to speak non-specifically. It is sufficient to understand that Dao is called Dao because of its incomparable immensity (omnipresence). The difference between what we mean by Dao and Dao itself is far greater than the difference between dogs and horses. (少知曰:然则谓之道,足乎?大公调曰:不然。今计物之数,不止于万;而期曰万物者,以数之多者号而读之也。是故天地者,形之大者也;阴阳者,气之大者也;道者为之公。因其大以号而读之则可也,已有之矣,乃将得比哉?则若以斯辩,譬犹狗马,其不及远矣。Ibid. Chapter 25) It short, what language can possibly express and knowledge can possibly reach are confined to what is in the world. The observers of Dao do not pry into the origin and end of things. This is also where discussions must come to an end. (言之所尽,知之所至,极物而已。睹道之人,不随其所废,不原其所起,此议之所止。Ibid.)


Comment: That is not too bad an answer. Two points are to be noted. One is that whether to call the ultimate wherewithal of all things Dao is a matter of convention. Some may want to call it God, or the Great Mother of all things, as Lao-zi preferred. Another is that Dao is not something to which one could point at and described as we could with things. It is but Lao-zi’s notion of that ultimate something that is self-generated, self-sufficient, unceasing, and worthy to be called the Mother of all things. As such, whether the word Dao is really appropriate to stand for such a presumed referent is not a question that could really be debated. 


     But how did everything come into existence? Asked Know-little (少知曰:万物之所生恶起?Ibid. Chapter 25) The Great Arbitrator’s reply is that as the vital energies of yin and yang attract and repulse as well as interact with each other, the four seasons will produce and terminate each other. It is also in this way that likes and dislikes would come and go as well as rise and fall. The same goes for the matching of male and female, the interfacing of risk and security, the mutual generation of blessings and calamities, the countering influence of patience and impatience, and the generative effects of congregation and dispersion. (大公调曰:阴阳相照相盖相治,四时相代相生相杀。欲恶去就,于是桥起。雌雄片合,于是庸有。安危相易,祸福相生,缓急相摩,聚散以成。 Ibid..) Such realities can be documented and their details ascertained. It is the nature of things to interact and influence one another procedurally, as exemplified by the reversal of extremes, where every ending is but a new beginning. This is how things came into being. (此名实之可纪,精微之可志也。随序之相理桥运之相使,穷则反,终则始,此物之所有。Ibid.)


     But our Know-Little was not through with all his questions yet. According to him, some say that the world was not created, i.e., that it came in and of itself. Others say that it was created by something. Which one of these two views is correct, and which of the two has actually deviated from the truth? (二家之议,孰正于其情?孰偏于其理?Ibid. Chapter 25) To this, the Great Arbitrator replied: Whether the world was created by nothing or that it was created by something is not really decidable on the basis of what we know about things. The world of things has names and actualities. That which is without name and actuality is vacuous (without shape or form). We may think and talk about it, but the more words we use, the farther we will be from the truth. (或之使,莫之为,未免于物而终以为过。有名有实,是物之居;无名无实,在物之虚。可言可意,言而愈疏。Ibid. ) Further, the view that something created the world or that nothing created the world are both conjectures. For what I can see, the quest for the world’s beginning and end is both infinite and without end. Unlike the way we speak about things, speech is not able to express that which is infinite and without end. The view that something created the world and the view that nothing created the world are based on speech, which can only begin and end with things. (或之使,莫之为,疑之所假。吾观之本,其往无穷;吾求之末,其来无止;无穷无止,言之无也,与物同理;或使莫为,言之本也,与物终始。Ibid. )


     Now, according to the Great Arbitrator, Dao is not Being (the totality of things), and Being is not nothing. Dao is a term that we adopt for practical purposes. The two views mentioned above are both formulated on the basis of things. (道不可有,有不可无。 道之为名, 所假而行。或使莫为,在物一曲,Ibid. Chapter 25) If we speak adequately, we can speak about things all day long. But Dao, the ultimate of all things, cannot be conveyed with either speech or silence. The highest form of discussion is (to be found) neither speech nor silence. (言而足,则终日言而尽物。道,物之极,言默不足以载。非言非默,议有所极。Ibid. )


     As Lao-zi was also reported to have said: Those who have attained do not discuss. Those who discuss have not attained. Dao is not something that can be seen. To argue about it is not as good as maintaining silence. It is not something that can be heard either. To hear what people say about it is not as good as not hearing about it at all. This is what is meant by great attainment. (彼至则不论,论则不至;明见无值,辩不若默;道不可闻,闻不若塞。此之谓大得。Ibid. Chapter 22)


Comment: What Zhuan-zi was trying to say (by way of the Great Arbitrator and Lao-zi) appears to be this. Firstly, debate about the ultimate wherewithal of the world is really pointless. As human language is limited to what is known of this world, no one is really in the position to judge as to whether the world has come in and of itself, or that it was created by something that is out of this world. Secondly, since the limit of human experience is also the limit of language, it should follow that whereof one does not experience, thereof one must be silent.  


     A similar case in point, said Zhuan-zi, is to quarrel over the existence of ghosts and fate (prefixed destiny). If we do not know the end of life, how can it be said that there is no fate? If we do not know the beginning of life, how can it be said that there is fate? Likewise, if everything has its corresponding opposite, how can it be said that there are no ghosts? If everything does not have its corresponding opposite, how can it be said that there are ghosts? (莫知其所终,若之何其无命?莫知其所始,若之何其有命也?有以相应也,若之何其无鬼邪?无以相应也,若之何其有鬼邪? Ibid. Chapter 27 )

     Another thing to keep in mind is that speech is but a tool which should be discarded when meaning is obtained. The fish trap is used to catch fish, but when the fish is caught, we ignore the fish trap. The rabbit snare is used to catch rabbit, but when the rabbit is caught, we ignore the rabbit snare. Language is used to capture meaning, but when the meaning is captured, we ignore our words. (荃者所以在鱼,得鱼而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。Ibid. Chapter 26) In other words, one should let go of speech when one gets the thought. What is being implied is that the bewitchment of language metaphysical can become the bewitchment of thought.



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