On Chuang Tzu

Nov 23 2009 @ 11:23am

Chuang

Apologies for the typo: the name of this remarkable fellow was Chuang Tzu or Zuangzi depending on your mode of translating Chinese names into English. I’ve long known of him via Oakeshott but had never really pondered the deep similarities between their thought before reading an unpublished paper by Chor-yung Cheung, an Oakeshott scholar from Hong Kong, at a recent Oakeshott conference. A light bulb went off as well when I realized that Chuang Tzu was also one of Thomas Merton’s favorite writers. Merton wrote his own versions of several of Chuang Tzu’s stories, parables and anecdotes. From a review:

Merton sees Chuang Tzu as his kindred spirit. Merton and Chuang Tzu both were hermits to some extent, and both spiritual philosophers of sorts, perhaps with Merton heavier on the spiritual side and Chuang Tzu more the philosopher. The content of their philosophies is similar, too. Merton assures us that his book “is not a new apologetic subtlety (or indeed a work of jesuitical sleight of hand) in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat.” Yet Merton’s paraphrase demonstrates how Chuang Tzu’s writings closely resemble the apophatic thought of some Christian theologians and mystics that Merton writes about elsewhere.

Merton points out that Chuang Tzu’s Taoism is not “the popular, degenerate amalgam of superstition, alchemy, magic, and health-culture which Taoism later became.” Instead, Chuang Tzu’s Taoism values an inner unity, a hiddenness of the true man, and a practical asceticism that Merton also finds in Christian mysticism. Merton believes that Chuang Tzu’s gift of “unknowing” is similar to Christian contemplation. A Chuang Tzu disciple loses his self-conscious “knowledge” and gains an inner “unknowing” by which he lives through Tao. The disciple in one Chuang Tzu story, for instance, prepares for the gift of unknowing through a patient emptying of desires, otherwise known as a “fasting of the heart,” much as Merton’s contemplative must go through John of the Cross’ Night of Sense, when the will grows tired of desire and reasoning.

The gift of unknowing – what Oakeshott would try to capture in his theory of aesthetics as well as of practical life – is perhaps best put in this classic Chuang Tzu tale that was central to Oakeshott’s understanding of how human beings actually do what we do, and live how we live, irrespective of modern rationalism’s claim to have captured all human knowledge in theory:

Duke Huan was in his hall reading a book.

The wheelwright P’ien, who was in the yard below chiseling a wheel, laid down his mallet and chisel, stepped up into the hall, and said to Duke Huan, “This book Your Grace is reading—may I venture to ask whose words are in it?”

“The words of the sages,” said the duke.

“Are the sages still alive?”

“Dead long ago,” said the duke.

“In that case, what you are reading there is nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old!”

“Since when does a wheelwright have permission to comment on the books I read?” said Duke Huan. “If you have some explanation, well and good. If not, it’s your life!”

Wheelwright P’ien said,

“I look at it from the point of view of my own work. When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won’t take hold. But if they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. Not too gentle, not too hard—you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach [explain] it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me. So I’ve gone along for seventy years and at my age I’m still chiseling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So what you are reading there must be nothing but chaff and dregs of the men of old.”

Once you have understood this story, you have understood the core philosophical principle of conservatism.