by Vered Arnon
Chuang-Tzu’s Basic Writings is a widely studied text. The way one approaches a written text determines how one will see it and interpret it. “Words are like wind and waves,” Chuang-Tzu wrote. “Wind and waves are easily moved,” (Chuang-Tzu, 56). Therefore, when attempting to understand Chuang-Tzu’s Basic Writings, having the background of the Tao Te Ching is essential.
The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese poem. The title can be interpreted in many ways, but two common ones are “Song of the Tao and the Te” and “Root of the Tao and the Te”. Attributed to Lao-Tzu, the Tao Te Ching is the basis of Taoism and Taoist philosophy. It plays a role for Taoism somewhat comparable to what the Buddhist sutras play for Buddhism. Chuang-Tzu’s Basic Writings, by virtue of being Taoist essays, has its basis in the Tao Te Ching. Chuang-Tzu’s commentary cannot be understood, and is not very useful, without the context of the Tao Te Ching.
The opening verse of the Tao Te Ching proclaims:
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name,” (Tao Te Ching, 1).
This verse is saying that the nature of the Tao transcends words and meaning. Chuang-Tzu rephrases that at the end of his Basic Writings to apply it to the nature of one following the Tao. “Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” (Chuang-Tzu, 140). Here Chuang-Tzu is making a direct application of the principles described in the first verse of the Tao Te Ching. If that is not taken into account, his words can be construed in any which way, and the relevance can easily be lost. For one who is studying the text, Chuang-Tzu’s passage may not make any sense at all unless the philosophical background is known.
The Tao Te Ching gives specific instructions for how to follow the Tao and how to harmonize one’s thought patterns, perceptions, and attitudes with the Tao. The poem explains the paradigm which Chuang-Tzu’s Basic Writings was written in and relies on. This paradigm is often called Relativity or Relativism. As the poem explains,
“When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad,” (Tao Te Ching, 2).
This is the principle Chuang-Tzu is elaborating on in passages such as the story of Lady Li (Chuang-Tzu, 42) and the story of the butterfly dream (Chuang-Tzu, 45). Lady Li viewed her life as good, so captivity was suffering for her. When she viewed the material comforts of captivity as good, she no longer suffered. The nature of her experience was created by the relative contrast in her perception. Likewise in the butterfly dream story, there is really no way for Chuang Chou to know whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or is now a butterfly dreaming of being a man, since the situation changes relative to his perceptions.
Much of Chuang-Tzu’s Basic Writings seems very complex and deeply imbued with many layers of meaning. But rigid analysis is futile in attempting to explain or even make sense of many passages. What Chuang-Tzu is doing is actually very simple. He is a Taoist master, and thus follows the directions stated in the Tao Te Ching about how a Master teaches.
“The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know,” (Tao Te Ching, 3).
Chuang-Tzu isn’t attempting to expound any profound secret in his essays. He’s just very wittily accomplishing the task of emptying the reader’s mind and creating confusion. Analysis without this realization is exhausting, frustrating, and fails to provide illumination, since it misses the point entirely.
When following the guidelines outlined in the Tao Te Ching, instead of using rigid analytical methods, Chuang-Tzu’s Basic Writings can be truly understood. Any writing must be understood within its own paradigm. Plato’s writing makes no sense when approached with Taoist principles, and likewise one cannot expect to understand Chuang-Tzu’s point in his Basic Writings if one approaches with a linear analytic mindset. As Chuang-Tzu cautions in his essay titled “The Secret of Caring For Life”, “If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger,” (Chuang-Tzu, 46). Within the limits of the analytic paradigm, Taoism cannot be understood.
Chuang-Tzu, Basic Writings. Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.
Mitchell, Stephen. A New English Version: Tao Te Ching. Harper Perennial, New York, 1988.