Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Writings of Chuang Tse / Chuang Tse -- in The Sacred Books of the East, V. XXXIX & XL -- London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

It is often remarked that the Taoist texts are in some sense inferior to Buddhist and Confucian texts; that they are frequently obscure, incoherent, and even contradictory. It is difficult to know if this is a result of the original text or of poor translations, but reading The Writings of Chuang Tsu, translated by James Legge doesn't dispel the common opinion. Nonetheless, much insight and pleasure still can be gained from this work. Immersing oneself in 462 pages of Taoist writing eventually has its effect. Central themes and ideas recur, while the obscure and contradictory passages recede into the background.

Chuang Tse, is thought to have lived in the fourth century BCE and is considered second only to Lao Tse among Taoist authors. Chuang Tse's Writings translated by Legge appear along with Lao Tse's Tao Te Ching in the monumental monographic series Sacred Books of the East, edited by Max Muller. Together, they provide an excellent introduction to anyone seeking to understand the foundations of Taoism.

Two important related themes arise in the Writings: non-resistance and humility. The attitude of non-resistance might better be described as a refusal to engage in conflict and disputation. This appears in the first two parts of the Writings. When faced with conflict or partisan aggression, Chuang Tse advises the Taoist to avoid attempts to engage the conflict or to refute misguided views. To do so will only enflame the conflict or further entrench the partisan in his or her misguided view. By refusing to engage the partisan, one allows the circumstance of the conflict to pass away, leaving an opportunity for the true opinion to assert itself in time, naturally.

The theme of humility appears prominently in the third part of the Writings. Here the similarities between Taoism and Buddhism are clear. Chuang Tse repeatedly emphasizes how detrimental wealth, power, and fame are to living according to the Tao. Instead, the Taoist is encouraged to diminish the significance of the self and allow the self to be swallowed up current of nature. By subordinating one's self to the way of nature, one helps to avoid the destructive disruptions that come from aggrandizing the self.

Regardless of the literary quality of Taoist writings, these ideas are ones which the world would do well to heed. For the ancient Taoist, "nature" likely meant something different from what we mean by it today, but the concept is not wholly alien. The desire to aggrandize our selves, to accumulate wealth and power, and to struggle against evil has only led the world to unending, escalating conflict, fought with weapons of mass destruction and to immanent environmental destruction. Chuang Tse would not be surprised.

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