About my 20th birthday, I was in Hanoi waiting for the flight to Japan. It was gonna be my first time leaving the country. I got the scholarship covering my undergrad study in Japan. Back in the old days, I had to travel to Hanoi, complete the paperwork at the Japanese Embassy, then wait a couple of weeks for the visa and the flight. Because travelling across the country was too expensive, I decided to stay at a friend’s while waiting for the exciting adventure. Trapped in his dorm room with no phone, no computer (of course no internet), the only entertainment was reading his books. That’s how I found the Book of Zhuangzi.
In many aspects, Zhuangzi’s teaching (back in 25 centuries ago) overlaps much with Taoism, Buddhism and Japanese core culture. You can think of it as a practical, down-to-earth version of those abstract philosophies. It helped me a lot in understanding and integrating into Japanese society. It is also compatible with Western Enlightenment principles. This is the bible of this Asian in the Westernland.
The Book of Zhuangzi consists of three volumes, but it is believed that only the first half of the first volume was written by Zhuangzi, and the rest by his disciples and followers. I think that makes sense, because the first half of Vol. 1 has most of the core principles and is beautifully composed (regarded as one of Chinese greatest literary works), while the remaining are largely examples (many of which are sarcastic and cynical). Below are some highlights of the Book, based on my very limited and personal understanding.
Philosophy for the living
While Confucius‘s philosophy deals with social organization and personal duties, Laozi’s with abstract concepts about the universe and life, Zhuangzi cares most about the lives of “normal” people and how to find true happiness in real life. He rejects power (opposite to Confucius who commits on establishing a solid power structure) as well as nonsensical, hypocritical theories of life which he condemns them more harmful than good. He concerns mainly about how one should live, work and enjoy life, in peace.
Scholars classifies Zhuangzi as a Taoism follower and disseminator. It is partly true. He does borrow some concepts from Taoism, especially in the nature of the Universe and rejection of hierarchy, but most of the time he has his own authentic ideas about living. Tao Te Ching is a confusing book, while Zhuangzi’s a more digestible one. Zhuangzi provides hundreds of examples (stories, fables) explaining and arguing for his ideas.
Instead of coming up with hyper-abstract theories of the world and deities (as in Taoism), or rigid rules (as in Confucianism), Zhuangzi relies heavily on reasoning and examples to make the points. He wants to convince, not to dictate. He puts himself as equal to readers, not above them. That’s why he remains one of the most popular thinkers in Chinese history, especially among “common” people, despite modern intellectuals focus heavily on the extremist Confucius and Laozi.
The pursuit of Happiness
Zhuangzi lays out three cornerstones of Happiness: Freedom, Understanding and Moderation. Freedom here covers both physically and mentally. To find true happiness, one needs to be detached, to suppress and forgo emotions and ego. Emotion attachment, per Zhuangzi, ties our mental status to some external things that we may not have control, hence lack of freedom and happiness. He rejects hierarchy of any sort, including social and intellectual status. Those who cling on and show off their power or intelligence are enslaved to their status, fame and approval of others, hence never be completely free. A truly happy person doesn’t give anything a damn except their own business.
Zhuangzi emphasizes a lot on Understanding, as he does in the first chapter of the Book: the principle of relativity, that everything in life is relative. We human are bigger than ants, yet smaller than whales, older than mice yet younger than (many) trees. There is no way to get to the extremes, so why bother comparing things at all, why not satisfy with what you have, where you are and be good at what you do instead of envying others.
To illustrate this point, he gives an example: a happy butcher who uses his knife for 20 years. How come? He is clumsy at first and bumps his knife into bones; after years of practice, he knows every bone and can skillfully chop meat without torturing the knife. He attains what seemingly impossible. He enjoys his job and becomes the master of it. He is a happy man. Zhuangzi argues that each of us does have a role in this universe, we just need to find it, accept and fulfill it. Follow your destiny to happiness.
But how do we deal with our social life? Zhuangzi recommends staying Moderate, don’t try to be too good or too bad, but instead be invisible and live in peace. Being bad draws troubles, that’s obvious. But being conspicuously good risks becoming victim of envy and self-delusion. Actually Zhuangzi doesn’t believe in good-bad at all. He thinks they always come in pair, and setting standards simply divides people and causes conflicts. By eliminating the tension “good vs bad”, one can entirely focus on life and work without getting into fights.
Prelude for Enlightenment
What strikes me the most is how unreligious the Book is. Zhuangzi’s philosophy aligns well with Western Enlightenment principles. His is no doctrine. Most of his teachings are implicit in fables and anecdotes, there is no hardcore guideline. He highly values Reason as reflected in his writing. His ideas are based on observation and reasoning.
Freedom of the mind and body is a critical element of Happiness. He rejects ruling (physical constraint) and judgment (mental constraint). Note that he is not extreme, doesn’t fight against hierarchy beyond necessity. He sees king and government as a means to help improve lives and resolve conflicts, and once people settle down in their peaceful lives, there is no need for (excessive) governing. Recall that Zhuangzi lives 25 centuries ago. Also recall that there are many classes in Confucian system, as well as deities in Taoism pantheon. In Zhuangzi’s Book, nobody dictates everybody else what to do.
How can one conduct their life? Zhuangzi recommends Virtue, derived not from socially accepted norms, but one’s understanding and unique role in life. He believes that if everyone acts virtuously, by being happy themselves and respecting others, there is no need for government and (intellectual) elites.
How can one ever be happy simply by hard working, rationality but without emotions? Look at the Japanese, they work extremely hard, they are highly rational, and there rarely be any emotional expression on their faces. How can such a robotic life be a fulfilling, happy one? Can you get that, Forest Gum?
Think about Buddha, arguably the happiest Being on Earth. Does he work hard? You may not see it, but I’m sure he does. Is he rational? Of course, he is no stupid or impulsive. Does he laugh or cry? No, his face always appears calm. Does he look like a Japanese? Well, you decide.
Now think about Zhuangzi. He must be another happiest Being on Earth.