31: Chuang Tzu obliterates the Verbal Reality

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It seems that Chuang Tzu was not a real man and the book named after this legendary individual had a relatively minimal impact upon the Taoist tradition. However the Chuang Tzu continues to be included along with the Tao te Ching as the 2 Bibles of Taoism. Many histories and translations include both books in a common package. Indeed Thomas Cleary’s above-mentioned translation was a recent addition.

If Taoists as a whole ignore the Chuang Tzu, what has led to its enduring appeal? Who has been reading this book and passing it on from generation to generation? Taoists are more involved in practices than books. What class of humans supports the literary tradition? Quite obviously, the literati.

The educated, first in China and then the West, have found the ideas and presentation of the Chuang Tzu to be fascinating and intriguing. Further, scholars have adopted Su Ma Chien’s history, his ‘eyewitness report’, as the justification for the linkage and importance of the Chuang Tzu and the Lao Tzu. Although scholarship has established that the history is bogus and impact on Taoism is minimal, the learned continue to write extensive commentaries on the Chuang Tzu. Why?

Could it be that the Chuang Tzu contains verbal wisdom that is addressed to the literati in an engaging and amusing fashion? What insights does the Chuang Tzu provide for the learned? What wisdom is revealed in its quirky format that might inform our word-filled lives here in the 21st century?

That is the topic of this article. We are neither looking for historical authenticity nor Taoist relevancies. Our primary intent is to mine some gems of wisdom from the ancient text. Rather than continuing with verbal approximations, let us examine the actual words of the Chuang Tzu.

Internal Rectification precedes Leading by Example

An example of Chuang Tzu Humor

Following is an example of Chuang Tzu humor.

When Bearing Self asks Crazy Chariot-Grabber if the people will follow a ruler who rules by good example and justice only, Crazy Chariot-Grabber responds,

“This is bogus virtue. It is about as feasible for governing the world as it would be to walk across an ocean, dig out a river, or have a mosquito carry a mountain on its back. Is the government of sages government of externals? It is simply a matter of acting only when correct, making certain of the ability to do one’s work; that is all. Furthermore, birds fly high to avoid being hit by arrows. Rats burrow deep under shrines to avoid being smoked out or dug out. Are you more ignorant than these two creatures?”1

Disrespect for authority

The names and the analogies are both funny. Furthermore the abruptness of the response is especially startling for the gracious Chinese, who normally couch nearly any response in self-depreciating terms. Tripitaka is a master of this type of response. ‘Although your humble disciple knows nothing, you might consider this alternative.’ This is a typical court response designed to avoid the wrath of the emperor or a higher-ranking official. The Chuang Tzu deliberately expresses disrespect for authority of any kind.

Confucius says to rulers rule by good example

In this particular case, this dialogue expresses disrespect for the ideas of Confucius who felt that if rulers set a good example that the people would follow suit. Confucius glorified Chou Kung and Wen Wang as rulers who led by example. In the Spring and Autumn Era, the leaders were self-serving and corrupt according to Confucius, neglecting the needs of their citizens. From the ruling ju class, Confucius offered his suggestions to the rulers. Get your act together and the people will follow your good example.

Bogus virtue, insufficient for task

In this dialogue, Chuang Tzu expresses the idea that a good example is not enough. It is like asking a mosquito to carry a mountain on its back. In other words, the behavior of the ruler is insufficient to carry the mountain of popular behavior with it. By extension, the correct behavior of the sage will also come up short. Leading by good example is ‘bogus virtue’, insufficient for the task.

Behavior responsive, not automatic

The reality is that the behavior must be responsive rather than automatic. As the Crazy Chariot-Grabber said, “Is the government of sages government of externals? It is simply a matter of acting only when correct, making certain of the ability to do one’s work; that is all.”  Or  [In another translation] “When the sage governs, does he govern what is on the outside? He makes sure of himself first, and then he acts. He makes absolutely certain that things can do what they are supposed to do, that is all.”2 (Because of the inadequacies of the English language in translating Chinese, it is always nice to examine several translations to better hone in on the meaning of the passage.)

Do you think that sages govern by externals?

 Because this passage connects to so many themes in this work, we are going to study it a little more closely. ‘When the sage governs, does he govern what is on the outside?’  The implicit understanding behind this rhetorical question is that sages seek to exert an influence on the internal world, the implicit belief structure that governs our behavior, rather than wasting time on explicit beliefs, which are inevitably overridden by subliminal mental constructs. Only if the sage changes our ideational foundation will our conscious belief structure be permanently changed.

Right yourself before acting

The Chuang Tzu: ‘He makes sure of himself first, and then he acts.’  Or another translation: ‘It is simply a matter of acting only when correct.’’

The Chuang Tzu is saying that a person needs to first right himself before acting. This statement is in contrast with most cultures including Confucian China. Usually the individual learns about social morals in order to exert an influence. In other words, align with the culture before acting. However, this is not the Taoist approach. Taoists align themselves with Heaven first before acting. Sometimes Heaven and culture are in congruence, sometimes not. Confucians would say that the purpose of education is to train individuals to adopt the proper cultural morals, such as filial piety. Taoists, especially Chuang Tzu, feel that aligning with Heaven is more important than alignment with Culture.

‘acting only when correct.’

But how is one to align oneself with the Will of Heaven? How does one ‘make sure of himself first’?  How does one know when one is correct in order to begin acting – i.e. ‘acting only when correct’’? These answers, while crucial, are not explicitly answered in either the Lao Tzu or the Chuang Tzu. Most Taoists know from the private transmission of Masters that ‘making sure of oneself’ concerns self-cultivation techniques. Meditation, in particular, enables the individual to distinguish between conditioned and real behavior. This point is only reached from a position of extreme quietude.

How to make oneself correct, not taught in Lao Tzu  or Chuang Tzu

While implicit in both the teachings of the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu, the self-cultivation techniques are never explicitly spelled out3. Furthermore without the self-rectification of meditation, action is futile because it is rooted in the falseness of conditioned behavior, the Sea of Sand. Hence no matter how many times one reads the Chuang Tzu or the Lao Tzu, it is meaningless without self-purification.

Practice comes first

Knowing that one should act only when correct is different from acting from a point of correctness. All the knowledge in the world is useless unless it is coupled with the knowledge and practice of self-rectification, i.e. the separation of the false from the real. The information in the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu is incomplete without the real knowledge of purification techniques. Further, these purification techniques are useless unless practiced. Proper practice comes first, hopefully with the guidance of a master.

Thinking that one knows Taoism from reading the Taoist classics without physical practices is like saying that one knows what is going on inside the building, after seeing the outside. Or it is like saying that one understands how to play the violin after reading an instruction manual. Purification must accompany integration for actualization to occur.

Look to your own doorstep before moving outwards.

The Chuang Tzu states that righting oneself comes before correct action.  This self-rectification is the difficult step. Bypassing this step, Confucians instead stress idealized behavior. For them, knowledge of correct behavior comes first. As pointed out in the section on Confucius, one of his goals was to have universal moral instruction. While many religions start with concepts, such as a moral code, Taoism starts not with ideas but with the non-verbal mysteries of the body, those passed on non-verbally by Mother Li.

Right action in response to environment

After setting oneself right, then one can act. But again the action does not exist in a vacuum but is in response to an external situation – to the context of the environment. “Birds fly high to avoid being hit by arrows.” The bird doesn’t just maintain perfect birdlike behavior hoping that its perfection will allow it to avoid the arrows.

Proactive response to life

In this simple dialogue, Chuang Tzu points out that first comes self-rectification. Only after ‘making oneself right’ does ‘true action’ occur, i.e. a response that is attuned to environmental necessity.


In this small dialogue, Chuang Tzu hit upon some crucial points. First, the passage suggests that sages govern by influencing the internal rather than the external. Further it suggests that right behavior is dependent upon righting oneself. Finally, one’s actions must be responsive to the environment.

Chuang Tzu doesn’t describe how to right one’s behavior; this is left to the non-verbal teachings of a Master, originally Mother Li. The dialogue further exposed the human, especially Chinese, dichotomy between idealized and internalized behavior. Real people rarely behave in an ideal manner. Further external behavior is forced and therefore transitory, while internalized behavior is self-motivated and thereby self-propelling.

Holding fast to the Source

Here is another example of how the Chuang Tzu points to where you want to be without telling you how to get there.

Dialogue of Completed Virtue

In the fifth inner chapter, named ‘The Sign of Virtue Complete’, there is a man Wang T’ai, whose foot has been cut off, presumably because he had committed a crime. Evidently, he has as many followers as does Confucius. When a disciple of Confucius mentions this to him, Confucius says, in paraphrase, “I have been remiss. I must go see him, too, and I will take the whole world with me to become his followers.” His disciple is amazed and asks Confucius what it is about this one-footed man that draws everyone to him.

Disciple: “He doesn’t stand up and teach, he doesn’t sit down and discuss, yet they go to him empty and come home full. Does he really have some wordless teaching, some sort of formless way of bringing the mind to completion? What sort of man is he?” …

Confucius: “Life and death are great affairs, and yet they are no change to him. Though heaven and earth flop over and fall down, it is no loss to him. He sees clearly into what has no falsehood and does not shift with things. He takes it as fate that things should change, and he holds fast to the source.”4

Playing with historical personalities.

This is an example of the Chuang Tzu playing with historical personalities. No one really thinks that Confucius said any of these words or had an experience anything like the one portrayed above. It is merely an illustrative example of a man with virtue that is complete. The story indicates that the virtue of Confucius is incomplete because even he could learn from this whole man.

Wordless teaching style

Also a contrast is drawn between the wordless teachings of this ex-criminal and the verbose style of most philosophies, especially Confucianism. Indeed many traditions, including traditional Buddhism, the Biblical religions, and our educational system are based upon teachers and preachers who speak to crowds.  Even though this sage, called so by Confucius himself, doesn’t  ‘talk’ or‘discuss’, people ‘go to him empty and come home full’.  The implication is that this ‘wordless teaching’ has ‘some sort of formless way of bringing the mind to completion.’

Non-verbal teaching

Chuang Tzu is pointing to the Taoist teaching style, which is not based upon words. Many successful teaching styles are based upon non-verbal techniques including Suzuki violin and Montessori education. In fact, words are the secondary source. The primary source, as it is with Yoga and Tai Chi, is a variety of physical practices. This is another reason why the words of the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu are not an ‘initiation into the heart of Taoism’, as Cleary claims, but are just skimming the surface. This is sometimes called ‘reading the manual without having the tool’.

Tai Chi is the wordless teaching

The description of the wordless teaching of the one-footed man is identical to that of Master Ni, our modern Tai Chi teacher. He rarely talks or discusses and yet we come home full after being empty. His ‘wordless teaching’, i.e. Tai Chi, has some sort of formless way of bringing our minds to completion. This is but one indication that Master Ni’s teaching style is Taoist and that Tai Chi can be employed as a Taoist practice, i.e. a ‘formless way of bringing the mind to completion.’

Non-verbal model superior

The Chuang Tzu points to a non-verbal teaching model as the superior way to bring the mind to completion. However, he does not inform us about what non-verbal techniques he has in mind. We are only told about the ‘virtuous’ one-footed man.

Unattached to events

Chuang Tzu through Confucius points out that the man is unattached to events. Neither the affairs of life and death or heaven and earth concern him because he ‘takes it as fate that things should change’.  Once again Chuang Tzu tells us where we want to be but not how to get there. He is very clear that we must not be attached to events, but how to achieve this state is unclear from his dialogues.

Understanding, not enough

In the Chinese novel, Journeyto the West, it was made quite clear that understanding is not enough. Tripitaka, the Buddhist monk, regularly repeats a sutra that posits the unreality of existence. He believes that he understands the sutra’s meaning, but is regularly scared until he is weeping when the ‘unreality of existence’ threatens him.

‘Holding fast to the source’

One other characteristic of this footless sage is that ‘he holds fast to the source.’  This phrase is even more ambiguous. Chuang Tzu is not clear as to what the source is or how to hold fast to it. Yet he makes it very clear that it is an essential ingredient in the wholeness of the one-footed sage.

Heaven is the Source

What does he mean by holding fast to the source? First, what is the source? According to our reading, Heaven is the source. Remember that underlying this whole discussion is the assumption that we live in a cosmos, not chaos. There is meaning, which by definition comes from Heaven, which some translate as Nature. Thus holding fast to the source is the continuous alignment with the Tao of Heaven, i.e. Nature’s method.

We must constantly rectify our Heavenly Path so that we don’t drift off and instead fulfill the tao of Man. Holding fast to the Tao of Heaven is not easy. The tao of Humans regularly interferes with the Tao of Heaven. Indeed, in many ways the Confucian method is to align oneself with the tao of Man, while the Taoist way is to align with Heaven, the source.

Omens and quietude reveal the Will of Heaven

How is the Tao of Heaven determined? We have mentioned two techniques, the first being the I Ching and the second being quietude. The I Ching is based upon the theory that Tao of Heaven is revealed in seemingly random events, such as throwing coins or yarrow sticks to obtain a hexagram. Sensitivity to our environment also provides us with a moment-to-moment reading of our alignment with Heaven. This is the theory behind omenology, the study of omens.

The notion behind this mindset is that Heaven communicates through omens. The I Ching, astrology, and Tarot cards are all formalized approaches for interpreting omens. As mentioned, these omens can be interpreted passively turning the Seeker into a victim of fate, or they can be interpreted proactively putting the Seeker in charge of their own destiny. The individual chooses whether to align him or herself with the Tao of Heaven, the tao of Man, Family, or Self.

Quietude, a more dependable technique

A way to determine truth from falsehood is through quietude, the more dependable source. The theory of quietude is that if we are quiet enough, then the noise of conditioning won’t be able to have an effect upon us. Hence our footless man ‘sees clearly into what has no falsehood and does not shift with things.’ Quietude, a key to seeing things clearly, must be practiced regularly.

Much practice needed

Our footless sage has undoubtedly spent a great deal of time practicing internal quietude in order to achieve the state where he would not be affected by externals and could simultaneously hold fast to the source. No Taoist would even consider the possibility that the footless man achieved this state through insight or understanding. They would all realize that he reached this state through daily physical practices, which were probably transmitted in a non-verbal fashion.

Becoming footless stripped him of external possibility

Becoming footless probably helped tremendously. As long as the distractions of the world are a possibility, it is hard to forget them. If all possibilities of external rewards are eliminated, then the internal work can begin in earnest. Thus it is no accident in this story that the sage is one-footed. His foot has been chopped off because he was a criminal. He is a marked man, scorned by society, stripped of external face. He is forced to look inward for salvation or become bitter. ‘It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven, than it is for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.’

The one-footed man probably achieved his state of sagehood through the combination of physical practices and life experience. Physical practices put him in a position to benefit from life’s experiences. In and of themselves, self-cultivation practices are incomplete. Life experience is necessary to complete the process.

Journey to the West provides us with a good example. Each of the disciples of the Journey practiced self-cultivation before they even began on the path. In fact their internal powers, while elevating them above normal mortals, also got them into trouble. Only by embarking upon the Journey were they able to atone for their past transgressions and move to a higher level of self-integration. Life Experience is a necessary complement to internal practices.

Life’s Ordeals, the only choice

The Tao of Heaven is not kind or compassionate. ‘Holding fast to the source’ does not guarantee happiness or peace of mind. At a certain point it is the only thing to do. Monkey is stuck under the Five Phases Mountain for 500 years with nothing to do. Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, offers Monkey freedom from this boredom by providing him the meaning of the Journey. Kuan Yin promised Monkey neither happiness nor peace of mind. Further he does not achieve tranquility due to this mystic quest. He is instead promised a Heavenly Ordeal where he can achieve immortality through deeds. ‘Holding fast to the source’ is scary, as it can lead to many diverse trials and tribulations. However when weighed against the boredom of endlessly practicing self-cultivation without the exhilarating and excruciating tests of Life Experience, it is really the only choice.


In summary, Chuang Tzu, the book, has played a very important role in the history of Taoism. One individual, while historically unimportant, probably wrote the core of the book, the inner chapters. In contrast, the Tao Te Ching was probably compiled over centuries by a variety of authors. Both the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu stress direct experience over verbal knowledge. In fact both books attempt to break the reader’s mindset by making seemingly paradoxical statements. However, neither book provides many insights into the self-cultivation practices that are necessary to attain this deep state of being. These classic Taoists texts suggest the ideal state without telling how to get there. Describing a beautiful location with no map.

The Obliteration of Words, Ideas & Categories

The Chuang Tzu also stands as a major attack upon verbal reality. On the most basic level, the book’s style of communication is frequently and intentionally non-sequitur, in the sense that the logic is paradoxical. For instance, Confucius wants to study with a man who has forgotten everything. The style seems to be deliberately fashioned to break the reader’s mental constructs. Further, the Chuang Tzu glorifies those who have transcended ideas and categories. Let us explore a concrete example.

An individual, Yi Erh-tzu, comes to a hermit, Hsü Yu, for instruction. The hermit questions Yi Erh-tzu about what he has already learned from Yao. As one of the Sage Kings of antiquity, Yao is obviously very wise, at least in the traditional sense. Yi Erh-tzu replies:

“Yao told me, ‘You must learn to practice benevolence and righteousness and to speak clearly about right and wrong.’ ”

“Then why do you come to see me?” said Hsü Yu [the hermit]. “Yao has already tattooed you with benevolence and righteousness and cut off your nose with right and wrong. Now how do you expect to go wandering in any far-away, carefree, and as-you-like-it paths?”5

In this exchange, Hsü Yu the hermit very clearly states that holding onto traditional Confucian verbal constructs, such as benevolence and righteousness (jen and yi) and right and wrong, are restricting the student’s potential for freedom.

Further it is evident that it is going to be next to impossible for the student to shed these notions, as he has been branded with jen and yi and his nose cut off with ‘right and wrong’. These were permanent punishments inflicted upon those who had committed certain crimes, as a way of identifying their criminal behavior to the community.

It is possible to interpret this passage in a number of ways. We will suggest 2 of them.

When an individual is inculcated in a particular way of thinking, whether religious, philosophical, scholarly or even scientific, s(he) begins seeing the world through these filters. Over time, sometimes not that long, these filters block out other ways of thinking about or experiencing the world. For instance, Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, illustrates that outsiders or individuals that are fresh to a field of study initiate most of the paradigm shifts in the scientific world. After years of study, the student has been branded with the mental constructs of his discipline and has a difficult time thinking about the world from a fresh perspective. For this reason, insiders are the most resistant to change and new ideas.

In this passage, the Chuang Tzu suggests that those who have extensively studied the mental constructs of Confucianism have been branded. As such, they will have a difficult time experiencing life with fresh eyes. Similarly those who have thought long and hard about right and wrong have cut off their nose to a new perspective. For instance, the Confucian virtue of filial piety is so patriarchal in nature that Confucians tend to be blind to the feminine perspective. To be mentally free, the individual must resist or avoid these intellectual chains. In this way, he or she will be able to wander on the far-away, carefreepaths of ideas.

  Another interpretation of the passage: verbal abstractions block out the freedom of the experiential world. Any mental construct diminishes our direct experience of reality - the far-away, carefreepaths. We brand ourselves with these abstractions and are unable to have a complete sensory experience. We cut off our nose with right and wrong and reside in the world of judgment. In this state, we are unable to encounter other humans without judging them. Under this take, direct experience is valued more highly than verbal constructs.

The next story in the Chuang Tzu reinforces this interpretation. A man comes to Confucius and states that he has been able to forget first benevolence and righteousness, and then rites and music. (These are all classic Confucian virtues.) Confucius responds that this is not enough. The man returns and says:

“I can sit down and forget everything. … I smash up my limbs and body, drive out perception and intellect, cast off form, do away with understanding, and make myself identical with the Great Thoroughfare [the Tao?]. This is what I mean by sitting down and forgetting everything.”6

Startled, Confucius asks to become the man’s follower. The reader inadvertently laughs at the unexpected turn of events. The Great Sage, the word-driven Confucius asks to study with a man who has forgotten everything. Forgetting is normally not a desirable trait.

“Smashing up limbs and body” seems perplexing and maybe even humorous due the image it presents. However for the Initiate, it is evident that the entire statement is about meditation. The statement of the man who forgets everything is a very clear indication of the goal of sitting meditation. Confucius wants to study with him, not because he has forgotten everything, but because he has been able to achieve this state in quietude.

The Chuang Tzu seen through the I Ching filter

We would like to suggest yet another interpretation of the Chuang Tzu’s anti-intellectual stance: one that is based upon the yin-yang philosophy of the Book of Changes, the I Ching.

The I Ching stresses the notion that everything is in a continual state of change from one extreme to another. From this perspective, the Chuang Tzu is not a call for a state of permanence, but is instead stressing the importance of one of the changing states. This notion of continual change is foreign to most humans, especially those of us in the West.

  Due to the prevalent either-or mindset of Western thinking, we tend to interpret Chinese philosophy in exclusive terms – either one philosophy/religion or the other – Jewish or Christian, Presbyterian or Baptist, Confucian or Taoist. We rarely think in inclusive terms – both Confucian and Taoist. In a similar fashion, it is easy to interpret the Chuang Tzu in the same exclusive fashion.

Because the book glorifies the wandering, free, non-ideational life style, it is easy to think of Chuang Tzu (or some unknown author(s)) as completely rejecting the world of words. However, Chuang Tzu could just as easily be stressing the experiential, non-verbal aspect of reality in order to counteract the imbalances of the word-driven Confucian world.

Under this reading of the Chuang Tzu, the author is not advocating residing in the wandering non-ideational state permanently. However, he does stress the absolute importance of aiming to achieve this state at least some of the time, especially in meditation. This down time is a necessary requirement to clear our mind of the mental conditioning that blocks our ability to think in a fresh manner and to experience reality directly.

While intellectual freedom is important, restrictions and limitations are required to achieve complexity. For instance, a skyscraper restricts our freedom of movement and simultaneously allows us to ascend to heights that we could never have achieved without the building’s attributes. Indeed the Chuang Tzu should probably be interpreted as a work cautioning against the imbalances of intellectualism, rather than as a dogmatic statement as to where the Sage or True Man should reside permanently. This reading is entirely plausible, as the Chuang Tzu in its entirety is definitely a statement against dogmatism in any form. This anti-doctrinal declaration applies, of course, to a dogmatic reading of the Chuang Tzu.

Mirrors & the Chuang Tzu

Mirrors have always been special to the Chinese and especially to the Taoists. Mirrors reached a high point in the Warring States Period in the state of Ch’u. They tended to be made of polished metal, especially bronze. The mirror was thought to reflect not only the exterior, but also the interior of an individual.

Heart of a sage like a mirror

A book written in 656 BCE states: ‘Heaven has robbed him of his mirror’7.  In other words, the person is blind to his faults. The Chuang Tzu states:

‘The heart of the sage is quiet. It is a mirror of Heaven and Earth, a mirror of all things.”8

Restating: The heart of the sage is quiet, acting as a mirror of Heaven and Earth. The implication is that if the heart of the sage is not quiet enough, that it will have a hard time reflecting Heaven and Earth. Too much internal activity and noise will prevent the individual from attuning with the Tao of Heaven. The greater one’s personal quietude, the easier it will be to act as the mirror, being sensitive to the processes of Heaven and Earth. Notice the Chuang Tzu says nothing about mirroring Man. In other words, the sage does not act as a mirror for humans, but only for Heaven and Earth.

To accurately perceive truth and/or directly experience reality, the Mirror of the Mind must be clean. If the Mirror is dirty with mental constructs, such as ‘right and wrong’, the truth might be distorted or filtered out. If the Mind’s Mirror is cluttered with thoughts, it will be impossible to have a complete experience of reality. For instance, our ability to fully taste delicious food is impaired by too much conversation. With attention split between ideas and Heaven, our mental energy is diminished and reality is clouded. Thus it behooves us to regularly clean the Mirror of our Mind with quietude.

Master Ni, Mirrors and Push Hands

Over 2 thousand years later, Master Ni expresses the same Taoist sentiment towards mirrors. He says we should be like a mirror. While he probably intended the universal aspect mentioned above, his comment also has a martial context. On the mental level, if our Mirror is dirty with thoughts, our response time will be too slow to defend our body from attack. On the physical level, if we can accurately mirror our opponent’s energy, our response time will be quicker, enabling us to better deflect (ward off) aggressive moves. Further, mirroring means that we will neither move too fast nor too slow and our opponent will not be able to take advantage of our excesses.

Mirroring our opponent’s energy also enables us to find holes or hardness in his or her defensive field. Then we are able to naturally exploit the openings and hardness that are revealed through the mirroring process. As physical mirrors, we move easily through the emptiness and around the hardness to press our advantage. From ancient times, through the Chuang Tzu and into modern times with Master Ni, the Mirror has been a potent Taoist metaphor for the necessity of a clean reflective surface for both Body and Mind.

Similarities: Chuang Tzu & Journey to the West

The Chinese novel, Journey to the West, has many Taoist overtones. The Journey has more features in common with the Chuang Tzu than it does with the Lao Tzu. Both the Chuang Tzu and the Journey contain extensive humor and irony, while the Lao Tzu has no humor. Both the Chuang Tzu and the Journey rely upon the dialectic of storytelling to get the truth across, while the Lao Tzu contains neither stories nor dialogue. Both the Chuang Tzu and the Journey poke fun at authority, showing the many frailties of humankind.

To say that the Chuang Tzu inspired the Journey would be overstating the case. However it could be said that the authors of both of these works see the limitations of intellectual exposition in conveying the truth. The story of The Journey is of far more significance than the verbal truth contained therein. Similarly, the Chuang Tzu is short on explanation and long on example.

Story vs. philosophy

The idea that the story is a superior method of transmitting truth is not unique to the Chinese. Jesus taught in parables; Aesop had his fables; the Greeks and Romans had their mythology, the Western world has the Bible, Islam has Sufi stories and India/Southeast Asia have the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Philosophy tends to be what it is. Either one understands the message or doesn’t. Stories, however, can be interpreted on many levels. While philosophies tend to tell us what to believe, stories provide us with the possibility of personal interpretation.

We react somewhat passively to philosophical information, in the sense that we digest the insights into our lives. Stories, on the other hand, reverberate throughout our soul, evoking personal meaning. While philosophy tends to be specific, stories are more ambiguous. Due to this ambiguity, stories, although rich with meaning, are more prone to misinterpretation. For instance, both sides are frequently presented in a story, while philosophy normally only attempts to persuade us to adopt a single point of view.

Despite the possibility of misunderstanding, the authors of both the Journey and the Chuang Tzu chose the story over logical exposition as their means of communication. Could they have felt that straightforward philosophy was an inadequate tool for expressing non-verbal truths? Could they have believed that the ambiguous, yet interpretation-rich, story format was well worth the risk of misinterpretation, as it was the best means of communicating the inexpressible?

I Ching: A Three-pronged Method of Communicating a Sage’s Thoughts

 The ambiguity of words,

What is the best way to communicate the wordless truth? This has been a problem that humans have grappled with since time immemorial. Non-verbal truths, by definition, resist description. The best we can do is point at the Mystery with words.

The I Ching takes a multi-leveled approach to the issue of transmission. In the Ta Chuan, the Great Treatise: Chapter XII, Section 2:

“2. The Master said: Writing cannot express words completely. Words cannot express thoughts completely.

Are we then unable to see the thoughts of the holy sages?

The Master said: The holy sages set up the images in order to express their thoughts completely; they devised the hexagrams in order to express the true and false completely. They then appended judgments and so could express their words completely.”9

Writing cannot express thoughts completely

In this passage, the Master, whoever he is, acknowledges the inadequacy of writing to express words completely or for words to communicate thoughts completely. The question is then posed. “If this is true, are we then never able to understand the wisdom of a wise man?” The Master responds that the combination of hexagrams, images, and judgments in the I Ching allows for the transmission of the non-verbal reality of the sage.

Both Lyrical and analytical writing needed

Words alone are inadequate for the task of communicating a sage’s thoughts. Words must be used in two ways in combination with an abstract diagram to communicate the whole truth of the sages. In the I Ching, words are employed in both a lyrical and analytical fashion, as represented in the above by the image and the appended judgment. The image is poetry – lyrical, ambiguous, and proactive. The appended judgment is the philosophy – analytical, straightforward, and reactive. The two types of word usages balance each other to harmonize the truth.

Also the hexagrams or diagrams

But the wordiness of this combination is still incomplete. A diagram is added to hone in on the truth. The context of the statement is that the I Ching with its song-poems combined with analysis and hexagrams are able to convey the complete truth of the ancient sages.

However, this analysis could be extended to include a variety of communication methods. Lecturers weave story, analysis, and diagrams to communicate most effectively. Textbooks attempt to combine pictures with text in varied formats to evoke the truth. In Tai Chi, we have the abstract forms and physical experience combined with analytical study and interpersonal communication. The point is that truth is not one-sided and hence must be approached from a variety of perspectives in order to come closer to it.

The Lao Tzu philosophical, the Chuang Tzu lyrical, also need body

The Tao Te Ching attempts to hone in on the truth analytically. The Chuang Tzu balances the analysis with a lyrical interpretation. Further the two books by themselves are incomplete and out of balance – too mental. The mental truths of these books must be balanced by physical practices10. The body is needed to balance the mind and vice versa. Since ancient times, Taoism has focused upon the purification/alignment of both body and mind. This dual mind/body focus is the essence of Taoist self-cultivation practices.

The Field of Action

For the sake of completion, there is a crucial fourth element – the field of action, the world. Without a field of action to test understanding, self-cultivation and truth are relatively meaningless. The I Ching is neither descriptive, nor predictive, but instead suggestive. The Seeker can employ the readings as an aid to dealing with life experience and to further the process of self-actualization.

Journey to the West expresses a similar notion. Although the members of the Quest have cultivated both their mental and physical sides, this is not enough. They must employ their mental understanding and physical conditioning to surmount the obstacles thrown upon them on their Quest. Balance and wisdom are not enough; they must be applied to the ‘field of action’, life experience.

Life experience & physical practices necessary for completion

The author of the Journey to the West focuses upon the lyrical side of words to communicate his truths. The Chuang Tzu employs anecdote and story to communicate non-verbal wisdom. The Lao Tzu and the I Ching also employ words to communicate their message. However, this verbal understanding is only part of the package. To fulfill life potentials – to self-actualize – to achieve self-realization, the individual must also combine self-cultivation practices with life experience.

In summary, the Chuang Tzu, in particular, stresses the importance of cleaning the Mirror of our Mind of verbal constructs so that we can both reflect Heaven’s Way and experience reality directly. If we rectify our internal state, our external actions will also be purified. If our behavior is pure, our effect on our surroundings will be more permanent. By practicing self-cultivation, the Chuang Tzu suggests we can maximize our effect upon the world. In such a fashion, we will also be able to ‘wander on any far-away, carefree, and as-you-like-it paths.’


1 The Essential Tao, translated by Cleary, pp. 116-7

2 Chuang Tzu basic writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1964, p 90.

3 Taoism, the enduring tradition, Russell Kirkland, Routledge, 2004, p. 36

4 Watson, pp. 64-5

5 Burton Watson, 1964, pp. 85-86

6 Burton Watson, 1964, pp. 85-87

7 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan, p. 62

8 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan, p. 63

8 Wilhelm, I Ching, p. 322

10 Any type of regular physical exercise that promotes circulation and concentration will work. Of course, the best exercise is the one that you do.


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