The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton

“It takes one to know one,” might work in identifying fakes and b.s.ers but it can also work in a positive direction, a sort of compass for compassion and truth.

Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton @

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Chuang Tzu , living almost 2500 years ago, was what we might today term a monk. He was certainly an iconoclast. Thomas Merton was not only a monk but an advocate of the proposition that those who are inching towards the source of sacredness were brother and sister, monks and nuns regardless of official dress and doctrine. He sees a kinship with Chuang Tzu, to our benefit.

If we consider the two great names of Taoism: Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, we can compare Lao Tzu’s book, The Tao Te Ching, to the Old Testament for its serious sagacity. In that case Chuang Tzu can be likened to the New Testament for its parabolic parables.

Chuang Tzu, idler, humorist, story teller and fantasist; seems like the kind of philosophy teacher we all would like to have encountered in school, a cross between Santa Claus and Mahatma Gandhi. Beloved for centuries, his stories give us the flavor, tone, fragrance and feel of Taoist practice.

Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, did not translate these tales, he transplanted them into his consciousness. Reading four major translations then relying on help from Dr. John Wu, Merton created a sort of impressionistic poetry and somehow caught much of Chuang Tzu’s lively joy and engaging humor.

He does us one great service, that of honestly proclaiming… “This book is not intended to prove anything or to convince anyone of anything that he does not want to hear about in the first place. In other words, it is not a new apologetic subtlety (or indeed a work of Jesuitical sleight of hand) in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat.”

Because of Merton’s honesty in presenting his subject, we are allowed to sit in the shade with the sage himself, Chuang Tzu—the first Taoist figure we can confirm historically to have lived—walked through a time of classic Chinese thought: 550 to 250 b.c.e. This bore an era, paralleling the west, of philosophical contention among Confucians, Moists, Hui Tzu’s logic and the pain/pleasure principles of the Legalists.

Here are a few stories from this beautiful little hardbound edition:

 “The Need to Win”

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous/
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets—
He is out of his mind !

His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting—
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

“Means and Ends”

The gatekeeper in the capital city of Sung became such an expert mourner after his father’s death, and so emaciated himself with fasts and austerities, that he was promoted to high rank in order that he might serve as a model of ritual observance.

As a result of this, his imitators so deprived themselves that half of them died. The others were not promoted.

The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.

The purpose of a rabbit snare it to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.

The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.

“The Turtle”

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
Was fising in Pu river.

The prince of Chu
Sent two vice-chancellors
With a formal document:
“We hereby appoint you
Prime Minister.”

Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole
Still watching Pu river,
He said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise,
Offered and canonized
Three thousand years ago,
Venerated by the prince,
Wrapped in silk,
In a precious shrine
On an altar
In the Temple.

 “What do you think :
Is it better to give up one’s life
And leave a sacred shell
As an object of cult
In a cloud of incense
Three thousand years,
Or better to live
As a plain turtle
Dragging its tail in the mud?”

 “For the turtle,” said the Vice-Chancellor,
“Better to live
And drag its tail in the mud.”

“Go home!” said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
To drag my tail in the mud!”

Taoism is sinless and guiltless and therein can rise the rub for many people. But, as Chuang Tzu makes clear with his wonderful little stories, it is also painless. Highly recommended especially if you want a pleasant and clear introduction to one of the world’s great philosophies.

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