Wandering Freely With Zhuangzi: 10 Lessons in Life and Death from a Wise Old Sage

 “Our life spans are bounded, but knowledge knows no bounds. Chase the boundless with the bounded and you will wear yourself out – those who persist will just fall in exhaustion.” – Zhuangzi

Stumbling across the works of an old sage like Zhuangzi, and finding within it something of meaning, is a pretty rare joy. Despite a time lapse of 2400 years, his words have the power to cut across language and temporal barriers, imparting messages which are still relevant to the modern world. His work, known as The Zhuangzi, sits alongside the Daodejing by Laozi as one of the seminal texts of Daoist philosophy – a school of thought which has had an equally powerful influence in shaping Chinese thought as Confucianism or Buddhism.

But what does a guy who lived over two thousand years ago have anything to teach me about life? you might rightfully ask.

Well, when you start foraging into old books and ancient history, you start to notice that humans have been grappling with the same basic questions for millennia – questions such as how did we get here, what is our purpose in being here (if there is one), and what is the meaning of it all. For those among you with a measure of curiosity who like to ideate and theorize about the cosmos, Zhuangzi is your go-to wise old sage. He is something of a cross between the world’s first hippie, irreverent anarchist and bold existentialist. It’d be pretty cool to share a cup of tea with him.

Zhuangzi’s full name was Zhuang Zhou (莊周), and he lived in the 4th century B.C. in the State of Song. Known as the Warring States era, this was a particularly turbulent period of China’s history before the eventual unification of the nation under the Qin Dynasty – a time when smaller kingdoms were constantly fighting each other. This chaos gave rise to many different schools of thought. Philosophers such as Confucius, Laozi, Mencius and other lesser known early Chinese thinkers were all writing around this time, trying to bring a measure of harmony and morality into their fractured world. Zhuangzi is credited with being one of the most creative thinkers of this period, and, unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t  get caught up in the minutiae of state apparatus and power struggles, nor did he seem much concerned with the fate of humanity. The Indiana University’s Early Chinese Thought describes his “pure brilliance of thought”, asserting that “no other Classical book of any kind compares with the literary originality of the Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi by Japanese artist, Mori Kansai (1814-1894).
Zhuangzi by Japanese artist, Mori Kansai (1814-1894).

We don’t know much else about Zhuangzi’s life, except for a vague hint that he might have held a position at a lacquer tree garden (which he probably left pretty quickly – you’ll see why). He might have been a hermit, possibly had a small following (pre-Twitter days), and he may have been married, since there’s mention of a wife in his books. But who is going to trust the biography someone who references ancient books which scholars suspect never even existed and talks birds with a ten-thousand mile long wingspan? Clearly many of the tales in Zhuangzi are purely fictional so it’s hard to assert even the most basic facts about him. One imagines he probably lived a quiet and solitary life, and legend tells that he turned down a government official position offered to him by the King of Chu.

The Zhuangzi is a compilation of seven inner chapters which are believed to have been penned by the man himself, followed by 15 outer chapters and 11 miscellaneous chapters of unknown authorship. But without getting dragged into the highly contentious academic debates over who wrote what, the Zhuangzi still makes for extremely enjoyable reading. Zhuangzi’s writing is punctuated by fantastical creatures, such as a leviathan fish, talking fabulous beasts, sorcerers, hunchbacks, mysterious hermits, expert butchers and talking rivers. Full of insightful metaphors, allegories, poems and playful rhetorical questions, Zhuangzi’s literary style is captivating.

Yet he’s also fiercely modest, and pokes fun at himself with lighthearted humour. “Is man’s life inherently befuddled in this way,” he teasingly asks at one point, “or is it I alone who am befuddled while there are others who are not?” He manages to allude to profound insights without over-proselytizing or pushing the point. Zhuangzi doesn’t leave you with clear-cut answers, but rather points you in a certain direction and challenges you to come to your own conclusions.

His writing is wry, humorous and playful, the words of a mischievous old man who cares little if you think he’s stark raving mad or spouting absolute nonsense. But something makes you suspect that he isn’t…

So here are ten lessons in life and death from the most mischievous of all the sages. Of course, feel free to dive into the original and come away with your own interpretations. Where would the fun be otherwise?

Fish at Play in a Spring Stream, by Xugu (1823-1896)
Fish at Play in a Spring Stream, by Xugu (1823-1896)

Lesson One: Everything is One 

The concept of the Dao 道 is a cornerstone of Daoist philosophy, used by Laozi and Zhuangzi alike to describe the unity of everything. It’s the universe, the galaxies, the stars, and the Earth. It’s in all creatures and plants, the ants and the grass. Zhuangzi gleefully asserts that it’s even in the shit and piss. Everything which manifests itself within myriad forms, undergoing infinite spontaneously occurring transformations is all part of the Dao – something which defies complete explanation in linguistic terms or our limited comprehension.Zhuangzi writes, “The Dao has its intrinsic character and is reliable. It is without action and without form. It can be transmitted but not received; it can be grasped but not seen. It is its own root, rooted in itself, before heaven and earth, from antiquity it has persisted as it is.” This notion of the Dao underpins the cosmological framework of Zhuangzi’s thinking – a man whose mind constantly fled to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, tackling the perennial existential questions of humankind, transcending the minutiae of everyday life in favour of the infinite.

Lesson Two: Let go of your Knowledge

Zhuangzi asserts the axiom that all of our judgements of good and bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, are all intellectual prejudices which have no basis of fundamental truth in any given situation. He rejects the discriminating and categorising tendencies of language, which attempt to divide up the unified Dao into separate parts.

Zhuangzi urges us to realise that our linguistic capacity for reasoning is extremely limited and frail. “We think our speech is different from the chirping of baby birds, but is there a real distinction or is there none?” In essence, he doesn’t believe in an objective discernible reality, since everything is relative and in a constant state of flux. Language distorts our world view, reinforcing erroneous divisions of the whole into separate categories.

Lesson Three: Learn to Think Intuitively

Zhuangzi believes we need to unlearn language, cut ourselves free of the ties of distinctions, comparisons and prejudices, thereby allowing ourselves to wander the universe in a free and easy manner. This is what he terms “the understanding that comes from not knowing.” He yearns nostalgically for the primordial days of pre-linguistic thought, when humans behaved in an intuitively spontaneous and natural way.

His ideal, The True Man of Antiquity, “slept without dreaming and woke without anxiety; he sought no sweetness in his food and he breathed as deeply as could be… He did not know to take pleasure in life or to detest death; he simply came and went in freedom. He did not forget his beginnings and he did not seek to know his end. Happy with what had been given to him, returning to it in forgetfulness.”

To illustrate this point, Zhuangzi tells a wonderful story of a conversation with his friend and fellow philosopher Huizi, in which they observe the fish swimming beneath a bridge. Zhuangzi comments on how happy the fish are and Huizi challenges him to justify how he knows that the fish are happy, since Zhuangzi himself is not a fish. Zhuangzi, in his typically frustratingly playful way, says “And you are not me. How do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?” Huizi responds, “Of course I’m not you, and I don’t know what you think; but I do know that you’re not a fish, and so you couldn’t possibly know the fish are happy.” To which Zhuangzi replies, “Look, when you asked me how I knew the fish were happy, you already knew that I knew the fish were happy.  I knew it from my feelings standing on this bridge.” Zhuangzi thus evades the limits of rational knowledge and linguistic reasoning, in favour of an intuitive knowledge which can appreciate the manifestation of things in their natural state.

Lesson Four: Learn to Follow the Middle Path

Zhuangzi asserts that in cultivating this kind of intuitive thinking, we can learn to align ourselves with the universal Dao, which he calls “following the Middle Path.” In typical Zhuangzi style, he does not elucidate a specific formula for doing this, since by his account there is evidently no silver bullet, no neat one-size-fits-all solution. But he guides you towards learning to be open-minded and receptive to all forms of the Dao, such that we can find our path to true happiness. This includes accepting your own inner nature and the nature of the Dao, and learning not to force your prejudicial assumptions of good versus bad onto any situation.

Zhuangzi illustrates this with the story of the duck and the crane: “The duck’s legs are short, but if we try to lengthen them, the duck will feel pain. The crane’s legs are long, but if we try to cut off a portion of them, the crane will feel grief. Therefore we are not to amputate what is by nature long, nor to lengthen what is by nature short.” This is also tied to the Daoist concept of wuwei (無爲), often translated as “inaction”, whereby the action which requires the least effort is that which is in alignment with the Dao.

Lesson Five: Cultivate your Dao

Han Huang, Five Oxen. Photo Credit: Cultural China
Han Huang, Five Oxen. Photo Credit: Cultural China

The Zhuangzi contains all sorts of wonderful stories of people who have brought their individual skills to a point of complete precision, a phenomenon which Zhuangzi describes as cultivating the Dao and the art of wuwei.

As with any skill that you wish to acquire, a frustrating paradox often arises whereby practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. Sometimes the harder you try, the worse the results.

Zhuangzi cites the example of an archer – “when you’re betting tiles on your shots, you perform with skill. When you’re betting fancy clasps, you grow cautious. When the bet is for gold, you’re a nervous wreck.” He suggests that the art of perfection lies in cultivating the ability to empty your mind of all external concerns, approaching a task with total purity and absorption, and focus on the intrinsic motivation of the task rather than the external rewards or repercussions.

The character of the hunchback in Zhuangzi is one example of this principle, who explains his aptitude for catching cicadas saying, “No matter how huge heaven and earth or how numerous the myriad things, I perceive nothing but the cicada wings.” The other oft cited parable is that of Cook Ding, a butcher who hasn’t needed to sharpen his knife once in nineteen years. He explains how after many years of practice, that “now I meet [the carcass] with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding cease and spirit moves as it will. I follow the natural form: slicing the major joints I guide the knife through the big hollows, and by conforming to the inherent contours, no vessels or tendons or tangles of sinews – much less the big bones – block my blade in the least.”

Even today, we are still amazed by those individuals whose talents seemingly take them to another plane of consciousness, those who can enter a state of “flow” and let their intuitive minds work in seamless harmony with their bodies to enable them to execute a task with total flawlessness. We see this phenomenon emerge most clearly in cases of high performing athletes, dancers and musicians. Flow is also accredited to the pinnacle achievements of specialists such as composers, artists, writers, mathematicians and scientists.

Modern-day neuro-psychologists are trying to unravel the marvelous secrets of that godly state, which simultaneously seems to induce a state of inner clarity, serenity, elation and ecstasy. Whether you call it “flow” or “cultivating the Dao”, it’s pretty awesome that many of Zhuangzi’s assertions about this phenomenon are being validated by modern science 2400 years later.

Lesson Six: Embrace Life

That age-old question which we all grapple with in darker moments once in a while – whether life has any meaning or not, the thought which drags many a soul down into the foul depths of depression – is one which Zhuangzi resolutely rejects. He asserts that finding joy in our existence is imperative, regardless of the inevitability of death or the numerous sufferings we will undergo.

With his mind ever trained on the bigger picture, he writes, “We have happened to take on human shape and we are pleased enough with that. But our human shape will undergo ten thousand future changes and not even begin to reach the end – those joys are beyond calculation.”

According to Zhuangzi, life may just be one big dream, but we need to embrace it. We need to learn to live fully within the present moment, or else to later risk regretting all the time we wasted in anxiety and misery. “How do I know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out to hunt. During our dreams we do not now we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen.”

The Divine Turtle, by Zhuang Gui
The Divine Turtle, by Zhuang Gui

Lesson Seven: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Zhuangzi is irreverent about the petty minutiae which we like to concern ourselves with; the daily struggle to assert our status and seek power, to gain wealth and fame – these are all of trivial importance to the wise old sage. Observing the way in which humans rush around trying to attain the elusive golden vessel of happiness, Zhuangzi notes that we are often “carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction.”

There’s a story that the King of Chu wished to offer Zhuangzi a position in his administration. Zhuangzi replied to the offer saying, “I have heard the Chu possesses a sacred turtle, dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. This turtle, now, would it prefer to be dead with its bones preserved and honoured, or to be alive with its tail dragging in the mud?” The officials answered,” Alive with its tail dragging in the mud.” “Then go away,” said Zhuangzi, “I mean to drag my tail in the mud!”

His ideal is to be a solitary sage wandering free and untethered through the earthly realm, rather than tied to the wearying bondages of reputation and fortune. Thus he proffers this advice, “Do not be the host of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be in charge of affairs; do not be the master of knowledge. Embody to the full the limitless and wander where nothing is foreshadowed. Exhaust what you have received from Heaven and be free of all gain – just be empty, that’s all.”

This approach is radically different from that of Confucius, who was concerned with establishing a clear social hierarchy in which each would know his proper place, and act accordingly. By contrast Zhuangzi’s approach to society is much more laissez-faire, even anarchistic, in simply seeking to re-establish natural patterns of behaviour and trusting that the rest would fall into place.

Rock Pine in the Evening Mist, by Li Huayi
Rock Pine in the Evening Mist, by Li Huayi

Lesson Eight: Learn to Go with the Flow

Zhuangzi is kind of the original hippie, telling us to just relax and just go with the flow, instead of letting anxieties and frustrations take over. In response to the beleaguered complaints of Huizi on the perceived “uselessness” of an old tree in his possession which no carpenter would ever think to use, Zhuangzi says “Why don’t you plant it in the village of Nothing-At-All or the plain of Broad-Void and amble beside it doing nothing at all, or wander free and easy lying asleep beneath it? No axe will ever cut short its life, nothing will ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, what hardship could ever befall it?”

He also teaches us not to let the various fluctuations of fortune which befall us on our journey through life to be the measure of our happiness, rather to let our happiness flow from some intrinsic place which is impervious to outer conditions.

He writes, “Death and life, existence and extinction, failure and success, poverty and wealth, worthiness and unworthiness, slander and praise, hunger and thirst, cold and warmth: all these are the actions of fate. They appear in turn before us night and day, yet understanding cannot compass their origins. Thus, these are not things worthy of determining our state of harmony or disorder: one must not allow them to enter into one’s spirit storehouse. Let them penetrate you with equanimity and do not lose your sense of joy – remain sealed off from care of the changes of nights and day, and join with the world of things in springtime. One who is like this ever encounters the world with newborn timeliness in his heart.”

Lesson Nine: Rewire Your Attitude to Death

As you may have already gathered, Zhuangzi doesn’t consider death to be an issue to be too perturbed about, writing that “Life is the composition of matter; death is the decomposition of it.” Trying to fight death, or get upset about it, is beyond useless. It merely intensifies your own suffering. Death is inevitable, an intrinsic feature of the nature of the Dao, the balancing force of the conception of life.

Accorinding to Zhuangzi, accepting death is a key aspect of learning to ride the transformations of the cosmos without harm. Furthermore, he asserts that we have no knowledge on which to base our fear of death, no hard facts to ascertain whether the next stage of our existence or lack thereof will be any better or worse than our present state. So to fear it is both futile and naïvely arrogant.

Thus Zhuangzi rejects the rigid thinking which stipulates that one must express grief at the passing of a loved one or close friend. He shocks his friend Huizi when after the death of his own wife, Huizi finds him banging on drums and singing at the top of his voice. But Zhuangzi justifies his unruly demeanour, saying “When she first died, how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life. Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared; when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Here she was lying down to sleep in a huge room and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”

Lesson Ten: Find Your Own Path

Zhuangzi is fully aware of the contradictions of passing on wisdom through words when he spends a large portion of the book describing the limitations of language and knowledge.

In one story, a carpenter angers a Duke when he tells him that reading the words of old sages is simply “reading the dregs of long gone men.” The Duke demands an explanation for such audacious behaviour, and the carpenter explains, “In my case I see things in terms of my own work. When I chisel at a wheel, if I go slow the chisel slides and does not stay put; if I hurry, it jams and doesn’t move properly. When it is neither too slow nor too fast, I can feel it in my hand and respond to it from my heart. My mouth cannot describe it in words but there is something there that I cannot teach to my son and my son cannot learn from me. So I have gone on for seventy years, growing old chiselling wheels. The men of old died in possession of what they could not transmit. So it follows that what you are reading is their dregs.”

This is kind of where the magic of Zhuangzi lies – he does not give you any straight answers. There is no memorisable formula for cultivating the Dao or finding freedom. He merely gives you little hints, a push in the right direction. And the rest, well, you’ll just have to work it out for yourself.

Zhuangzi

Does our interpretation of Zhuangzi’s works match up with your own? Have you ever experienced that state of flow? How can we apply this knowledge to our daily life? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave us a comment!

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