Zhuangzi translation and commentary

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In the human world



Yan Hui asked Zhong Ni for permission to make a trip.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“To Wey.”

“What for?”

“I have heard that the Lord of Wey is young and willful. He trifles with his state and won't admit his mistakes. He is so careless with people’s lives that the dead fill the state like falling leaves in a swamp. The people have nowhere to turn. I have heard my teacher say, ‘Leave the well-governed state and go to the chaotic one. There are plenty sick people at the doctor’s door.’ I want to use what I have learned to think of a way that the state might be healed.” [1]

Zhongni said, “Sheesh! You’re just going to get yourself hurt. The way does not like complexity. Complexity quickly becomes too much. Too much leads to agitation, agitation leads to worry, and worry never solved anything. The perfect people of olden times first found it in themselves before looking for it in others. If what you’ve found in yourself isn’t settled yet, what leisure can you spare for this bully’s behavior?[2]

“Do you know how powers squandered and where knowledge comes from? Powers are squandered in fame and knowledge comes from struggle. People use fame to trample each other and knowledge as a weapon. Both of them are tools of ill-fortune, not the means of finishing your mission. [3]

“Though your powers are deep and your faith strong, you have not comprehended people's feelings. You’ve got a reputation for not being contentious but you have not comprehended the human mind. If you insist on parading standards of kindness and morality before this bully, you will just make him look bad in comparison to you. That’s antagonism, and one who antagonizes others is sure to be antagonized in return. You don’t want to antagonize him!

“Or just suppose he likes worthy people and dislikes the depraved, then what use is there in changing him? Better not to speak! Kings and dukes always ride people and force their submission. He’ll want to dazzle your eyes, nonpluss your expression, tongue-tie your mouth, cue your posture, and make up your mind. Trying to reform this kind of person is like piling fire on fire or water on water. It’s adding to the excessive. Your initial compliance won't end until he no longer trusts your good word. You will surely die at this bully’s hands.

In the past, the tyrant Jie murdered his worthy advisor Guan Longfeng and tyrant Zhou killed his uncle, Prince Bi Gan. Both cultivated themselves. They humbled themselves in order help the people and to prod their superiors. So their lords crushed them on account of their cultivation. Because they valued their reputation. [4]

In the past, Emperor Yao attacked Congzhi and  Xu-ao and Emperor Yu attacked Youhu. They destroyed the countries and slaughtered the people. Their use of arms was endless and their search for substance limitless. Both sought reputation and substance; haven't you heard? If even wise people can't resist reputations and substance, how can you? [5] 

Even so, you must have a plan. Come, tell me about it!”

Yan Hui said, “Suppose I am upright but dispassionate, energetic but not divisive. Would that work?”

"No! How could that work?” said Zhong Ni. “You’d use all your energy to sustain the empty show and your face would be unsettled. Other people can’t stand that, so they have to resist what you suggest in order to ease their own minds. If what you might call 'gradual powers' wouldn’t work, how much less such a great show of force! He’ll dig in his heels and resist change. Though he may seem well-disposed on the outside, on the inside he’ll never consider it. How could that ever work?”

Yan Hui said, “Then how about being inwardly straight but outwardly bending, having integrity but conforming to my superiors? By being inwardly straight, I could follow heaven. As a follower of heaven, I would know that the emperor and I are both children of heaven. If I speak only for myself, why worry about the approval or disapproval of other people? This way, I could be what people call 'childlike,' which is what I call 'following heaven.'

“By being outwardly bending, I could follow other people. Lifting the ceremonial tablets, kneeling, bending, bowing—this is the etiquette of a minister. Others do it, why shouldn’t I? So long as I do what other people do, who can complain? This is what I call 'following people.'

“Having integrity and conforming to superiors, one follows olden times. My words, whether they are in fact instructions or even criticisms, belong to antiquity; they are not my own. This way one can be straightforward without causing injury. This is what I call 'following olden times.' Would that work?”

Zhong Ni said, “No! How could that work? That's too many strategies. If you plan without reconnaissance, sure, you can avoid blame. But it would stop there. How could you hope to change him? You’re still making the mind your teacher.” [6]



Yan Hui said, “I have nothing else to offer. May I ask what to do?”

Zhong Ni said, “You must fast! Let me tell you. Is it easy to do anything with your mind? If you think it is, bright heaven will not approve.”

Yan Hui said, “My family is poor. Indeed, I have not drunk any wine or tasted any strong food for several months. Can this be considered fasting?”

“That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fasting of the mind.”

Hui said, “May I ask about fasting of the mind?”

Zhong Ni said, “Unify your attention. Do not listen with your ear but listen with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but listen with your energies. Listening stops with the ear. The mind stops with symbols. Energies are empty and wait on external things. Only the way gathers in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.” [1]

Yan Hui said, “Before hearing this teaching, I was sure I was Hui. But after hearing it, it is as though that person never existed. Is this what you mean by emptiness?”

The Master said, “Perfect. Let me tell you. You can go wander in his cage without being moved by his fame. If you’re getting through, sing like a bird. If not, stop. No schools. No prescriptions. Dwell in unity and lodge in what cannot be helped, and you'll be just about there.

“It’s easy to stop leaving tracks. What’s hard is to walk without touching the ground. It’s easy to fake what people do. Faking what heaven does is hard. You’ve heard of using wings to fly but not of using no wings to fly. You’ve heard of using knowledge to know, but not of using no knowledge to know. Look up at the hole in the wall that fills the empty room with light. The blessed stops stopping. Not stopping is what I call galloping while you sit. If you let the ears and the eyes communicate with the inside and banish knowledge outside the mind, then even ghosts and spirits will come to dwell. Why not men? This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secrets of Emperor Yu and Emperor Shun and the destinations of Fu Xi and Jujy, not to mention ordinary people!” [2]



Zigao, the Duke of She, was going to be sent to Qi. He said to Zhong Ni, “The king is putting me on a high-priority mission. Qi treats emissaries very well but doesn't hurry. You can’t budge an ordinary person along, much less a feudal lord! I’m already shaking. 

You’ve always told me, ‘Few tasks of whatever size are completed happily except by means of the way. If you don’t complete it, you’ll be in trouble with other people. If you do complete it, you’ll have trouble with your Yin and Yang. Only a person with powers can avoid trouble in success and failure alike.’ I’m the kind of person who eats simply and sparingly. No one in my kitchen complains of the heat. But now I received my orders in the morning and by evening I'm drinking ice-water. I’m burning up inside! I haven’t been given the facts of the job yet and I’m already having trouble with Yin and Yang. If the mission doesn’t succeed, then I’ll also be in trouble with other people. I lose both ways! I can’t handle the responsibility of taking on this assignment. Do you have anything you can tell me?”

Zhong Ni said, “In this world, there are two great considerations. One is destiny. One is righteousness. Children’s love for their family is destiny: you can’t undo it in your mind. The service of subjects for their rulers is righteousness: there is nowhere you can go and not have rulers, nowhere you can escape between heaven and earth. I call these great considerations. To serve your family, wherever they go, is the perfection of filial piety. To serve your rulers, whatever they ask, is the height of loyalty. To serve your own mind, so that sorrow and joy aren’t constantly revolving in front of you, knowing what you can’t do anything about and accepting it as though it were destiny, is the perfection of powers. As a subject or a child, there will certainly be things you can’t avoid. So long as you stick to the actual job and forget about yourself, what leisure do you have to love life or hate death? You’ll be able to do it.

“Let me tell you something else I’ve heard. In relationships, when people are close together, they generate trust through regular contact. When they are far apart, they have to establish loyalty with words, and words need a messenger to communicate them. Communicating the words of two happy or two angry people is the hardest thing in the world. Two happy people always exaggerate the good. Two angry people always exaggerate the bad. But exaggeration of any kind is false, and falsehood destroys trust, which is when it gets dangerous for the messenger. So the rule book says, ‘Always communicate the facts, not exaggerations. Then maybe you'll come out whole.'

“When people pit their strength in a contest, they start out bright like Yang but usually end up dark as Yin. They get up to more strange tricks the longer they go. People drinking wine at a ceremony start out orderly enough but usually end in chaos. The party gets stranger the longer it lasts. Everything is like this. What starts out gracious usually ends up dreary. Things begin simply and inevitably turn awkward.

“Words are just wind and waves; actions fulfill or fall short of them. Wind and waves are easily moved, but fulfilling or falling short easily leads to danger. Anger has no other source but clever words and one-sided language.[1]

Animals on the point of death don’t choose their sounds but they snort their breath furiously, rousing each other to madness. Under extreme pressure, the mind responds badly without knowing it. And if they don’t even know what they're doing, who knows how will it end? 

So the rule book says, ‘Don’t change your mission. Don’t strive for success.' Anything over the line is too much. Changing your mission and striving for success are dangerous business. A fine success takes a long time, and a bad one cannot be changed. Can you afford not to be careful?

“Saddle things so your mind can wander and nourish your middle by trusting what cannot be avoided: that’s perfection. What is there for you to do in return? Nothing is as good as fulfilling your destiny. That’s as hard as it gets.” [2]



Shutface was going to tutor Duke Ling of Wey's heir. He asked Qu Boyu, "This guy here's got the powers of a natural killer! If I go along with his unruliness I will endanger the state, but if I lay down the law I will endanger myself. He is smart enough to see other people's mistakes but not his own. So what do I do?"

Qu Boyu said, "Good question. Consider it carefully. Compose yourself. Physically, the most important thing is to stay close. Mentally, the most important thing is to get along. But both of these can have problems. You want to stay close without being drawn in, get along without being drawn out. If in your actions you get drawn in, you'll tip over and drown, collapse and fall. If you let your thoughts get drawn out, you'll get a reputation that will haunt you and damn you.

"If he acts like a baby, act like a baby with him. If he hops fences, hop fences with him. If he ignores the landmarks, ignore the landmarks with him. When you poke him, do it where he isn't sore. [1]

Don't you know the praying mantis? It waves its arms furiously at oncoming traffic, not knowing they can't stop it, because it thinks so well of its talents. Consider it carefully! If you mobilize your own talents and offend him, that will be about all for you. 

Or don't you know about the tiger trainer? He doesn't dare give them live food for fear of their fury in killing it. He doesn't even give them any whole food for fear of their fury in tearing it apart. By timing when they are hungry and full, he sounds the fury in their minds. Tigers are different creatures from people but they will fawn on the one who raised them if he accords with them. The one they kill will be the one who resists.

A horse lover may collect their shit in a basket and and their piss in a shell. But if a horsefly hovers near and he slaps at the wrong time, they will break the bit, smash his head, and trample his chest. It was a nice thought but his affection misled him. Can you afford not to be careful? [2]



Carpenter Stone was going to Qi along a twisty road when he saw a shrine with an oak tree big enough to shade several thousand oxen—a hundred feet around!—and tall enough to overlook the hills. It was seventy feet up to the first branches, a dozen of which were big enough for boats. Sightseers flocked to it like a market but Carpenter Stone didn't look twice, just kept on walking.

When his apprentice had stared his fill and caught up with Carpenter Stone, he said, "Since I took up my ax and hatchet to work for you, boss, I have never seen timber this beautiful, but you just walk by without even bothering to look. Why?"

He said, "Stop! Don't talk about it. It's a garbage tree. Make boats and they'd sink; coffins, they'd rot; bowls they'd they'd break right away; doors, they'd sweat sap; a post, and the worms would eat it. It's not a quality timber tree. It's useless; that's why it's lived so long."

When Carpenter Stone got home, the shrine oak appeared in his dream. "What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with fancy trees? Cherries, pears, oranges, grapefruits? The fruiting and nutting kinds? When the harvest ripens they're ransacked—ransacked and disgraced! The big limbs broken, the small limbs stripped. Their lives are plagued by their abilities so that they don't live out their natural years but die along the way, letting themselves be manhandled by the vulgar world. It's always this way.

"Now I've been trying to be useless for a long time. I am close to death but I've finally got it, and it's been a great use to me! Supposed I'd had a use, would I ever have gotten this big? On top of that, you and I are both things, so why treat each other like things? [1] A near-dead garbage man—how would you know a garbage tree?"

When Carpenter Stone woke up and described his dream, his apprentice said, "If it prefers to be useless, then why be a shrine?" 

Carpenter Stone said, "Quiet! Don't say that! It's just hanging out there, feeling hassled by people who don't understand. If it didn't play shrine, it might get pruned. Besides, what it cherishes is different from the mob. If we were to praise it for that, wouldn't we be missing the point?"



Southern Uncle, Mr. Dapple, was wandering through Shang Hill when he saw a big tree with something special about it. A thousand teams of horses could have been tethered in its shade. Mister Dapple said, "What kind of tree is that? It must have some special quality!" 

Looking up, he saw the smaller branches too crooked for beams or rafters. Looking down, he saw the great trunk too warped and split for coffin boards. Licking a leaf left his mouth full of blisters and sores. One whiff would give you a crazy hangover for three straight days.

Mr. Dapple said, "This is a low-quality tree! That's how it got so big. Oy! Low quality--that's how the spiritual people do it!" [1]

The Jingshi district in Song is good for catalpa, cedar, and mulberry. But those more than two hand-spans around are cut down by people looking for a monkey-perch. Those of three or four arm-spans are cut by people looking for a nice ridgepole. And those of seven or eight arm-spans are cut by rich people from merchant families wanting special coffins. So before they live out their natural years they die along the way by the ax and hatchet. These are the troubles of quality. So for the atonement ritual, oxen with white foreheads, snub-nosed pigs, and people with hemorrhoids can't be cast into the river. This is why priests call them unlucky and why spiritual people call them very lucky. [2]



Uncle Splay-limb’s chin is sunk in his belly. His shoulders are above his head, pinched together so they point at the sky. His five organs are on top, his two thighs tight against his ribs. Plying a needle and taking in laundry he makes enough to fill his mouth. Winnowing left-over grain he gets enough to feed ten. When the people in charge are calling out troops, Splay-limb wanders among them waving good-bye. When they are press-ganging workers he is exempted as a chronic invalid. When they dole out grain to the sick, he gets three measures, and ten bundles of firewood. If people with physically splayed limbs can still keep himself alive and live out their natural years, imagine if his powers were splayed? [1]



When Confucius went to Chu, Jie Yu, the madman of Chu, wandered by his door saying, "Hey phoenix! Hey phoenix! How your powers have declined! You can't wait for the future or chase the past. When the world has the way, wise people succeed in it. When it doesn't, they survive in it. These days, it's enough to avoid punishment. Prosperity is light as a feather, but no one knows how to bear it. Disaster is heavy as the earth, but no one knows how to avoid it. Stop! Stop using your powers to look down on people. Danger! There's danger in drawing lines in the sand to race. A little shade! A little shade so you don't hurt my walk. I walk backwards and crooked. Don't hurt my foot! [1]



The mountain trees plunder themselves. The grease in the torch burns itself out. Cinnamon is edible so it gets chopped. Lacquer is useful so it gets tapped. People all now the use of the useful but none know the use of the useless. [1]