Zhuangzi is mostly noted for his work on the Daoist text, Zhuangzi, much like a band that drops a self-titled album. When one lays down the second-most foundational text for one of the world’s oldest forms of philosophy, one would expect him to take this task with the utmost seriousness. However, presentation was not one of Zhuangzi’s prerogatives. I like to think that he was, in fact, the son of Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda. With Laozi, his predecessor, being the tree that breathes life into the understanding of “dao” or “the Way,” Zhuangzi is the gale that sweeps the leaves of understanding across a nation.
Our focus may then be drawn to the notion that, as Zhuangzi mentions, “If wind is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up great wings (1372).” Knowing this, Zhuangzi does not hesitate to delve deep into what it is to be human in order to comprehend what it is to be better. To bear the great wings of understanding seems like a grandiose, efficacious task, but he manages to make it an anthology of confusing and compelling stories with overarching life lessons inlayed in their subtext.
In order to comprehend what it is that makes us who we are, we need to understand what we strive for, what we become and what we may one day be.
“Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to fill one office effectively, good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures (1373).”
My man is spitroasting some wack ass quails right now for talking shit on a big fish that just wants to fly away. That’s the literal sense of what is occurring in the story, but Zhuangzi thrives in playful metaphor. He insinuates that a sense of belonging in communal affairs has little to do with one’s own happiness, as nature’s course is the only way we living creatures may flow.
Following this, he concludes this small section of work:
“Therefore I say, the Perfect man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame (1373).”
Perfectionism is the cause for a great deal of personal stress and can, in severe cases, lead to mental disorders and possible suicide at the thought of failure. Religion is a basis of communal belief in a higher power to give one a sense of belonging and understanding. Sages were known for their exceptional knowledge and triumphant welfare in ancient Chinese culture. In analyzing these thoughts, I believe I have come to a conclusion regarding what Zhuangzi may have wanted his disciples to walk away with. To strip away the self of the perfectionist would loosen the burdens of stressors. To strip away the merit of being “holy” is to cast aside the assigned morals of a geographic area and think for one’s self. To strip away fame is to care more for how one views the world over how the world views one.
In the succeeding paragraphs, Lian Shu grabs the ancient Chinese equivalent of the mic for a second to lay down some inherent facts, “We can’t expect a blind man to appreciate beautiful patterns or a deaf man to listen to bells and drums. And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone- the understanding has them too, as your words just now have shown (1374).”
What might be the blindness and deafness of the mind? Ignorance. We have a word for the mental equivalent of these sensory disabilities, however some may choose to have it so. The saying “Ignorance is bliss,” decimates the peace one might achieve through tentative understanding. Those who believe it would surely cast Zhuangzi into some kind of pit with a discriminatory notion.
“Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see (1375).”
Clearing one’s mind of these awful notions of some kind of status quo seems impossible, as things are at once stuck in their ways, then changed to be stuck in new ways. How might one free one’s self of such ways? Simple:
“No thing is either complete or impaired, but all are made into one again. Only the man of far-reaching vision knows how to make them into one again. 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. He relies upon this alone, relies upon it and does not know he is doing so. This is called the Way (1378).”
If this troubles some to wrap their heads around, know that you are not alone. However, I believe these teachings could resound eventually if one takes the time to grasp at all of the proverbial straws.
“Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy. Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome (1376).”
“Little understanding cannot come up to big understanding; the short lived cannot come up to the long-lived (1372).”
Initially, I thought this quote about big and little understanding versus lifespan acquainted age with wisdom. While it may certainly be true in some cases, I have met a great number of elders that would scrutinize things based on quick assumptions. Therefore, I wished to argue this point. Then, I took a minute and remembered that Zhuangzi speaks largely through metaphor and creative reasoning. In this light, the “short lived” and the “long lived” might not be talking about people at all, but about ideas. Ideas cannot be proven right or wrong. They simply are. Ideologies, on the other hand, make the basis for arguments aplenty.
“Right is not right; so is not so. If right were really right, it would differ so clearly from not right that there would be no need for argument… Forget the years; forget distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home (1382)!”
When right and wrong become meaningless, what do we have left as freethinking individuals? We, as a species, are terrified of the boundless, yet it welcomes us with open arms and a sincere smile. Putting away right and wrong, we see that we are simply animals set here on earth to find something.
“Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain! If you do good, stay away from fame. If you do evil, stay away from punishments (1382).”
Right and wrong is gone. How does good and evil remain? They are both concepts. I believe it may lay in the fact that “right and wrong” is a thought process, suggested by the thoughts and opinions of those who were and those who are. Good and evil, however, is an instinct. When someone is truly good, a simple smile from them can brighten your day. When someone is truly evil, your stomach twists into a knot when their attention falls on you.
Were Zhuangzi to encounter people of such natures, I feel as though the great Daoist might nod, smirk and say, “I understand.” That, in my humble opinion, is the spoken word of the Way.
Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi, Norton Anthology: Puchner, Martin, editor. The Norton Anthology of World Literature . 4th ed., A, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Zhuangzi Image received from: http://earlyworldhistory.blogspot.com/2012/03/laozi-and-zhuangzi.html Date accessed: September 9, 2019