Chuang Tzu

“the butterfly philosopher”

Chuang Tzu (360?-268? B.C.) was a leading thinker representing the Taoist strain in Chinese thought. Chuang Tzu probably lived some time in the fourth century BC, but his dates are uncertain, as are the details of his life. His philosophy drove him to avoid all public action – he was, it is said, invited to become prime minister, but he declined, so as to retain his freedom. Later Chinese philosophers condemned this attitude as irresponsible.

It was Lao Tzu who first formalized Taoism, but Chuang Tzu presented a considerably more coherent philosophical system, developing cosmology (theories of the origin of the universe), metaphysics (theories of the nature of reality) and epistemology (theories of the nature of knowledge).

Using parable and anecdote, allegory and paradox, he set forth the early ideas of what was to become the Taoist school. Central in these is the belief that only by understanding Tao and dwelling in unity can man achieve true happiness and be truly free, in both life and death.

Tao is the concept transcends the powers of reason and must be grasped intuitively, it is beyond words, beyond all differences and distinction, it is the unchanging, permanent reality of constant change. Chuang Tzu describes the Tao allegorically as the inter penetration of the yin and the yang: “I saw yin, the Female Energy, in its motionless grandeur; I saw yang, the Male Energy, rampant in its fiery vigour. The two penetrated one another, were inextricably blended and from their union the things of the world were born.”

In Lao Tzu the Tao is essentially natural, in Chuang Tzu it becomes transcendental. Lao Tzu seeks to reform society; Chuang Tzu is concerned with self transcendence. Lao Tzu thinks in terms of being generated from non-being and emphasizes spontaneity and constancy; Chuang Tzu adds the concept of becoming and makes change the major theme of his deliberations. Like the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus he views the universe as a cosmic process of transformation, involving innumerable stages succeeding one another. He focuses on the flux of and in things. He even proposed a theory of evolution from tiny silk-like plants via insects and horses to man.

To Chuang Tzu, opposites are truly one. Chuang Tzu’s ideal man knows his nature (which is unique), nurtures it and adapts it and himself to the universal process of transformation. He obtains liberation or enlightenment by abandoning the illusion of distinction and grasping the unity which underlies multiplicity. He is in touch with his own being-as-becoming and travels beyond the mundane world. The sage realizes that vacuity and tranquility are the roots of all things. Like Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu stresses the value of inactivity, of simply moving with the current of the Tao.

It is worth noting that there is no sign in either Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu of a religious inclination (ascribing events and processes to a pantheon of deities, etc.) of the kind which later adherents beset Taoism with. Taoism evolved as a philosophy without the religious trappings that later followers felt they had to add to the movement. It is also free of any trace of divination, alchemy, searches for an elixir of life and all the other strains of occultism that later attached themselves to this philosophy.

Witty and imaginative, enriched by brilliant imagery, making use of both mythological and historical personages (including even Confucius), the book which bears Chuang Tzu’s name has for centuries been savored by Chinese readers.”

From a literary point of view the Chuang Tzu is one of the richest texts in all of philosophy. At times the language has a diamond-like density in which every word counts. At times it is extended, full of dialogues, parables, stories, examples and images based on the whole of human life from low to high, and on natural phenomena. The book was probably written by a number of followers of Chuang Tzu. It expresses a deeply compassionate insight into human weaknesses and sufferings, and a refreshing concern with common folk and the poor which is unusual in ancient texts.

excerpts from Chuang Tzu