Saturday, April 13, 2013

Critical summary of Zhuangzi

In the last two paragraphs of chapter one of Zhuangzi's writings (p. 213 in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy), a character Huizi likens a large gnarled tree to Zhuangzi's lofty philosophy.
“I have a big tree, the kind people call Spring. Its trunk is so gnarled it won't take a chalk line, and its branches are so twisted they won't fit a compass or square. It stands by the road but no builder looks twice at it. Your talk is similarly big and useless, and everyone alike rejects it.”
Unshaken by Huizi's outright rejection of his philosophy, Zhuangzi replies with:
“Haven't you seen a weasel? It bends down then rises up. It springs east and west, not worrying about heights or depths—and lands in a snare or dies in a net. Now the yak is so big he looks like clouds hanging from Heaven. He sure can be big, but he can't catch mice. You have a big tree and are upset that you can't use it. Why not plant it by a nothing-at-all village in a wide empty waste? You could do nothing, dilly-dallying by its side, or nap, ho-hum, beneath it. It won't fall to any axe's chop and nothing will harm it. Since it isn't any use, what bad can happen to it?”
This has much philosophical significance. First of all, Zhuangzi does not make a point to explicitly name Huizi's point about the tree wrong. His response unobtrusively provides Huizi with a different way to see the tree, which stands for his philosophy. The manner of Zhuangzi's response is very important because acting this way is in agreement with other portions of his philosophy which describe following the attitude of being unshakable in all things, and letting the world be as it is. Examples of this can be found throughout the text, such as page 210:
“The whole world could praise him [Songzi, assumed to be a sort of sage] and he would not be encouraged. The whole world could condemn him and he would not be upset.”
and pages 211-212
“The world longs for chaos, but why should they fret and make the world their business? Nothing can harm these people.”
and page 218
“The Way is lost in the glorification of right and wrong.”
and page 223
“When you and I have started arguing, if you win and I lose, then are you really right and am I really wrong? If I win and you lose, then am I really right and are you really wrong? Is on of us right and the other one wrong? Or are both of us right and both of us wrong? If you and I can't understand one another, then other people will certainly be even more in the dark.”
This last excerpt touches on the importance of understanding rather than being limited to ego based labels of right and wrong.
Besides Zhuangzi acting in demonstration of his philosophy, he gives brief descriptions of a weasel and a yak. The animals aren't depicted with any exaggerated flashiness. He sort of just kind of tells us how the animals are – weasels jump around, free of worry, and eventually are caught and killed, and yaks are big which limits their ability to catch mice. I think what Zhuangzi is trying to say is that these animals are as they are, and to see them with a particular observer-imposed end in mind will be upsetting because is not their purpose.
Following this train of thought, Zhuangzi suggests that Huizi plant the tree somewhere where he could just kick back and relax underneath it. It seems Zhuangzi is trying to get Huizi to see that if the tree were meant to be chopped down and used as building material, it would have grown straight in the first place. This relates to Daoist thought because in order to use a gnarled tree as building material, a builder would have to exert a lot of extra effort, directly contrasting the Daoist concept of wu­wei, or effortless action.
When Zhuangzi's philosophy is substituted for the gnarled tree, the reading suggests that perhaps it is not supposed to be taken completely seriously, such as that philosophy attributed to Mozi, Mengzi, and Kongzi (whom Zhuangzi seems to lightly mock). Perhaps expecting Zhuangzi to be excessively serious and concerned with ethics misses the entire point. Maybe “everyone alike rejects it” because they expect the philosophy to do something other than what it was designed to do. When it is used appropriately, it can be enjoyed.
A root of many troubles in my own life is that I can expect things to be other than they are. When they are not as I expect, it is easy to get upset and caught up in unneeded conflict. These lapses understanding usually occur for me because of some emotional attachment to the past. In these cases, if I were to have realistic expectations in the first place, there would have been no problem. I think this is what Zhuangzi is getting at when he is talking to Huizi. It makes sense, for basically what he describes is to see the world as it is, no more or less, and enjoy. The Way flows, like water, and maybe it is best to relax, listen to tian (nature or Heaven), and go where it takes you.

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