Chuang Tzu

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“Everything has what is innate. Everything has what is necessary”

Chuang Tzu, or Zhuang Zhou, (369-286 BCE) was a Taoist philosopher credited with writing The Book of Chuang Tzu.

Nature forms the bedrock of Chuang Tzu’s philosophy and of Taoism in general. Writes Martin Palmer: “Taoism is the search for the Tao, the Way of Nature which, if you could become part of it, would take you to the edge of reality and beyond”. (1)

Particular stress is laid on the hsing, or innate nature, of all things in this world, including human beings. “Everything has what is innate. Everything has what is necessary,”  Chuang Tzu tells us. (2)

There is an inherent underlying structure to the cosmos which is the basis of authentic existence. “The fruits of the trees and the trailing plants have their distinctive patterns. Even human relationships, for all their troubles, have an order and a structure”. (3)

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This is often contrasted with the artificial ways of so-called civilization and combines perfectly with an anarchic rejection of meddling human authority.

Palmer explains: “Chuang Tzu sees all attempts to impose ‘civilization’ upon the innate nature of the world, and especially on the people, as a terrible mistake which has distorted and abused the natural world – the world of the Tao, the flow of nature. And so he stands firmly opposed to all that the Confucians stood for – order, control and power hierarchies.

“This is why the Book of Chuang Tzu was always ignored or despised by Confucians and why it, along with other such ‘Taoist’ classics, was never formally counted as being amongst the Classics of Academia in Imperial China. This man is a subversive, and he knows it! The Chuang Tzu is a radical text of rejection and mockery aimed at the pretensions of human knowledge and powers”. (4)

He adds: “Chuang Tzu has a profound hatred of all that enslaves or controls the human spirit. In this he is against the state cult of Confucians, the cruel, almost fascist teachings of the Legalists and Mohists, who felt that human nature was evil and therefore had to be brutally ruled…” (5)

Chinese birdChuang Tzu is a proponent of organic anarchy, a natural order that needs no external control: “The snow goose doesn’t need a daily bath to stay white, nor does the crow need to be stained every day to stay black”. (6)

So long as this innate harmony remains in place, human tinkering is pointless and counter-productive: “If the nature of everything under Heaven is not distorted, if the world’s Virtue is not despoiled, then what need is there to govern the world?” (7)

He writes of a time of perfect Virtue, a kind of green anarchist utopia when “people live side by side with the birds and beasts, sharing the world in common with all life. No one knows of distinctions such as nobles and the peasantry! If people are truly simple, they can follow their true nature”. (8)

The goal of life is simplicity, in harmony with innate nature, as Chuang Tzu has a gardener explain in rejecting the idea of a machine for watering his plants: “The gardener was furious, then laughed and said, ‘I have heard from my teacher that where you have machines, then you get certain kinds of problems; where you get certain kinds of problems, then you find a heart warped by these problems.

“‘Where you get a heart warped, its purity and simplicity are disturbed. Where purity and simplicity are disturbed, then the spirit is alarmed and an alarmed spirit is no place for the Tao to dwell. It isn’t that I don’t know of these machines, but I would be ashamed to use one'”. (9)

Video links: Chuang Tzu animation Pt 1a (10 mins), Pt 1b (10 mins), Pt 1c (5 mins), Pt 2a (10 mins), Pt 2b (10 mins), Pt 2c (5 mins),  Pt 3a (10 mins), Pt 3b (10 mins), Pt 3c (4 mins), Pt 4a (10 mins), Pt 4b (10 mins), Pt 4c (5 mins).

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1. Martin Palmer, Introduction, The Book of Chuang Tzu, trans. by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly, Chang Wai Ming and Jay Ramsay (London: Penguin, 2006), pxiii.
2. The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. 13.
3. The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. 192.
4. Palmer, The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. xxiv.
5. Palmer, The Book of Chuang Tzu, pp. xxviii -xxix.
6. The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. 124.
7. The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. 82.
8. The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. 73.
9. The Book of Chuang Tzu, p. 99.

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