The Book of Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu , China, c.265-275 BCE

It is common with many ancient philosophic traditions for the teacher to have a primary disciple, often unknown to the teacher, who adds to and evolves the original tradition. Confucius had Mencius, Socrates wrote nothing himself but was the central character in the works of his student Plato, and Jesus of Nazareth’s philosophy was codified and written down by Paul. The same case apples to Taoism, where the original ideas of Lao Tzu written down in the Tao were expanded and discussed in the Zhuangzi, or the Book of Chuang Tzu.

Chuang Tzu, who died about 275 BCE, was separated from Lao Tzu’s death by almost two hundred years, and was a contemporary of Mencius. Despite this, although both these writers mentioned the other philosophers of the time, neither mentioned the other in his works. Chuang Tzu used parable and anecdote, allegory and paradox, to set forth the early ideas that become the “Taoist School.” Central in this belief is that only by understanding Tao (the Way of Nature) and dwelling in unity can man achieve true happiness and be truly free, in both life and death. Witty and imaginative, enriched by brilliant imagery, making sportive use of both mythological and historical personages (including Confucius), the book has for centuries been regarded as a masterpiece of Chinese Literature.

This Taoist book was originally named after the author, but since 742 AD, when Emperor Xuanzong of Tang mandated honorific titles for Taoist texts, it has also been known as the “Nan hua zhen jing” or the “True Classic of Southern Florescence.”

The text is a probably a composite of writings from various sources. Traditionally, Chuang Tzu himself wrote the first seven chapters (the “inner chapters”) and his students were responsible for the other parts (the “outer chapters”).

While the true authorship is difficult to ascertain, the “inner chapters” have considerable grammatical and conceptual coherence. It is fairly safe to assume they were primarily written by one hand, even if not by Chuang Tzu himself.

While Chuang Tzu has been called a Taoist he is unlikely to have called himself one. While his ideas follow on from those of Lao Tzu he writes comparatively little about Tao in the inner chapters of the book.

Chuang Tzu brought a new notion Chinese philosophy — that of self-transformation as a central precept in the Taoist process (an understanding that has become central to Tai Chi Chuan). He believed life is dynamic and ever-changing. Chuang Tzu believed that life is transitory and that the pursuit of wealth and personal aggrandizement were vain follies, which distract us from seeing and understanding the world and contemplating its meaning. He strove to see nature with new eyes. Chuang Tzu felt it was imperative that we transcend all the dualities of existence. Seeing Nature at work and the way in which it reconciled these polar opposites pointed the way to the Tao where all dualities are resolved into unity.

Another core belief outlined in the books is that we may come from different pasts and have different experiences but we come together in contemplating the nature of the Tao. Chuang Tzu’s thought can thus be considered a precursor of multiculturalism and pluralism.

Another aspect of the book is the contemplation of the interchangablity of reality and perception and the nature of reality. In a famous except Chuang Tzu relates this story: “Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. But one may be the other. This is called the transformation of things.” In exploring these paradoxes, Chaung Tzu reveals that the meaning of the world is bound up in apparent contradictions.

In general, our contemporary understanding of Taoist philosophy is a mix of the ideas of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. These ideas would also have a profound influence on the school of Zen Buddhism which was crossing into China from India.

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