Chuang Tzu

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i have the merton translation and my favorite is the The Woodcarver (i feel that affinity to finding the inspiration rather than forcing it or thinking it comes from the spirits)


you should also check out Wen-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries and my current favorite Awakening to the Tao by Liu I-Ming, translated by Thomas Cleary. Awakening has many contemplations to meditate on.

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A vary different translation to Merton !!!


I also have Victor Mair's "Wandering on the Way" on order, Burton Watson is next :)

Chuang Tzu is a remarkable but also very tricky text, unless one know the history behind its creation, it will be like a mirror to a reader - he will see only his own thoughts in it and rejoice in percieved validation.

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The same verse by Martin Palmer :-

Workman Chui could draw as straight as a T- or as curved as a compass, because his fingers could follow the changes and his heart did not obstruct. Thus his mind was one and never blocked. The feet can be forgotten when you walk in comfortable shoes. The waist can be forgotten when your belt fits comfortably. Knowledge can forget yes and no, if the heart journeys contentedly. Nothing changes inside, nothing proceeds from outside, if you respond to what occurs in a contented way. By starting with what is contented, not undergoing that which is disturbing, it is possible to know the contentment of forgetting what contentment is.


Burton Watson is next :)

Watson is quite similar to Palmer:


Artisan Ch'ui could draw as true as a compass or a T square because his fingers changed along with things and he didn't let his mind get in the way. Therefore his Spirit Tower (Daoist term for the mind) remained unified and unobstructed.

You forget your feet when the shoes are comfortable. You forget your waist when the belt is comfortable. Understanding forgets right and wrong when the mind is comfortable. There is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside, when the adjustment to events is comfortable. You begin with what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable.


I love Zhuangzi, particularly Merton's translation which is my favorite. I never really appreciated Zhuangzi fully until reading Osho's commentaries in the two books When the Shoe Fits and The Open Boat. Whatever else Osho might have been, he could really communicate profound meanings in Daoist literature. I never realized he used the Merton translations - thanks for turning me on to that.


One of my favorite Zhuangzi parables is The Strutting Cock and the Fighting Cock


Chi Hsing Tzu was a trainer of fighting cocks

for King Hsuan.

He was training a fine bird.

The King kept asking if the bird were

Ready for combat.

"Not yet," said the trainer.

"He is full of fire.

He is ready to pick a fight

With every other bird. He is vain and confident

Of his own strength."

After ten days, he answered again:

"Not yet. He flares up

When he hears another bird crow."

After ten more days:

"Not yet. He still gets

That angry look

and ruffles his feathers."

Again ten days:

The trainer said, "Now he is nearly ready.

When another bird crows, his eye

does not even flicker.

He stands immobile

Like a cock of wood.

He is a mature fighter.

Other birds

will take one look at him

And run."


(The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton, 1965)



Here is Watson's version

Chi Hsing-Tzu was training gamecocks for the king. After ten days the king asked if they were ready.

"Not yet. They're too haughty and rely on their nerve."

Another ten days and the king asked again.

"Not yet. They still respond to noises and movements."

Another ten days and the king asked again.

"Not yet. They still look around fiercely and are full of spirit."

Another ten days and the king asked again.

"They're close enough. Another cock can crow and they show no sign of change. Look at them from a distance and you'd think they were made of wood. Their virtue is complete. Other cocks won't dare face them, but will turn and run."


Very cool thread Mal!

Another worthwhile investment is Lin Yutang's book The Wisdom of Lao-tse. It intersperses chapters of Dao De Jing with relevant excerpts from Zhuangzi. A very scholarly and serious work of Chinese philosophy.

Edited by xuesheng

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Hi Everyone,

The first translation I found was "The book of Chuang Tzu" translated by Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly. To be honest I never enjoyed this translation, I found it very hard to read and understand. But I kept trying because every now and then someone would recommend Chuang Tzu.


Agreed. The osho one was entertaining and got the point across. I actually had to stop reading the Palmer one half way in incase I died from boredom :)

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The Wheel Maker


by Derek Lin


One day, King Huan was reading a book while an old craftsman was busy making wheels over in a corner. The old man noticed that the book seemed to capture the King's complete attention. He grew increasingly curious about this, and after a while decided to approach.


"Your Majesty, forgive me for intruding," the old man said. "What is this book that you are studying so diligently?"


"This is no ordinary book," the King said, holding it up with great respect. "It is written by a wise sage."


The old man asked: "Is this sage still alive, Your Majesty?"


The King shook his head. "No, he passed away a long time ago."


"Oh, I see," the old man nodded. Then, without thinking, he added: "In that case, what Your Majesty is reading would simply be the leftovers of a dead man."


This struck the King as incredibly insulting. "What is this?" His anger flared. "You are nothing more than a lowly craftsman. Is it your place to comment on what I wish to read? Explain the reasoning of your statement and I may let you live. If you fail to do so, I shall have your head."


The old man replied: "Your Majesty, it is exactly as you say: I am but a humble craftsman. I know nothing except the art of making wheels. Permit me to explain myself to you using this little bit of knowledge that I have."


This response surprised the King. To him, making wheels and reading books could not be further apart. Had the old man lost his mind due to fear? King Huan was puzzled, but his interest was piqued. "Go on," he said.


"Your Majesty, in my line of work, the hole in the center is of supreme importance. It must fit the axle just right. If I make it too big, the wheel will slip right off and become useless. If it is only slightly too big, then the wheel will seem to stay on, but after a short while of actual usage on the roads, it will loosen and fall off the axle, quite possibly causing great damage to the carriage in the process.


"On the other hand, it is also possible to make the hole too small. In that case, when I force the axle into it, I may very well split the wheel in two, thus wasting hours of effort. If it is only slightly too small, then it may appear to be a secure fit, but after a short while of actual usage, the wheel will crack and break apart, again causing possible harm to the carriage and even the passengers within.


"Therefore, one secret of my trade is to know the right way to make the hole. But making the hole just right, not too big and not too small, requires years of non-stop practice. This experience gives me a feeling that guides my hand. It is a feeling I have learned to trust, for it is never wrong.


"The other secret of my trade has to do with the roundness of the wheel. If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the work in a short time, but the wheel won't be perfectly round. Even though it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it will cause excessive shaking of the carriage. The ride will be extremely uncomfortable, and the wheel will damage itself beyond repair in a matter of days.


"Of course, I can chisel slowly and carefully. This guarantees a perfectly round wheel, but it will also take so much time to complete that Your Majesty would have to wait many years before we can assemble the royal fleet of carriages. Clearly, this would not be acceptable.


"In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely manner, I must chisel at just the right speed - not too fast and not too slow. This speed is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through many years of experience. With this feeling, I can be perfectly composed and unhurried when I make my wheels, but still complete the project on time.


"I can teach the mechanics of wheel making to anyone. It is easy to create something that looks like a wheel, but quite difficult to make wheels that are durable, safe, and provide a smooth ride. I can explain all of this to my son, but it is impossible for me to give him the feeling that is at the heart of the wheel making art. He must gain that on his own. This is why I am seventy years old and still making wheels.


"Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings that were at the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty was reading the leftovers of a dead man."

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Actually that should be chapter 33 :)


There certainly is a lot more meaning to Chang Tzu than you get from a cursory glance. I can see why people recommend Victor Mair. Easily the most useful translation, although I do still enjoy Thomas Merton's poetic style, and I feel Merton captures the meaning well.


Thomas Merton end of chap 19. (full quote 1st post)

Easy is right. Begin right

And you are easy

Continue easy and you are right.

The right way to go easy

Is to forget the right way

And forget that the going is easy.


That is just beautiful, Mair (and Palmer) cannot come close in terms of poetry IMHO

Victor Mair.

Craftsman Ch'ui could draft as accuratly freehand as if he were using a compas or L square because his fingers evolved with things and he did not caculate with his mind. Therefore, his numinous terrace remained unified and unfettered.

A shoe fits when you forget about your foot; a belt fits when you can forget about your waist; the mind fits when you forget about right and wrong; opportunity fits when there is no internal transformation or external imitation. One who begins with what fits and never experiences what doesn't fit has the fitness that forgets about what fits...


I'm getting a lot more out of Palmers translation now that I have 2 others to compare it with. It interesting to see the slightly different chapter layouts between Mair and Palmer. Using Mair, Palmer becomes readable at last :)



EDIT: Re-reading all theposts I know now that "Heart" in these sort of texts refers to what we (I) think of as "Mind"

And numinous terrace = Spirit Tower = mind


Will try to do the wheel maker next, couple of differences in the description of how to make wheels :blink:

Although I usually stop reading old books for a while after reading that one :angry::P

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I haven't had a chance to read anything but Victor Mair's translation. I chose that one because I know Mair is a very highly regarded scholar, and he even writes occasionally for linguistics blogs and clearly knows his stuff.


(Here is a nice example of his blog writing. He seems like someone with his head screwed on straight.)


It's great to see his translation side-by-side with others. Although I agree that Merton's poetic style is lovely, I still think I prefer Mair's very straightforward, ungilded interpretation. Reading his Chuang Tzu, I feel this interesting similarity to the parables of Franz Kafka, which I have always loved. Whether this is truer to the original (if there is really any objective way to tell), I can't say. I don't read classical chinese. But his interpretation works well for me.




"Once upon a time Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting about happily enjoying himself. He didn't know that he was Chou. Suddenly he awoke and was palpably Chou. He did not know whether he were Chou who had dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly who was dreaming that he was Chou. Now, there must be a difference between Chou and the butterfly. This is called the transformation of things."


I love the breeziness and down to earth feeling of this prose.




I prefer the old Willa and Edwin Muir translations, probably because they were the first I read. But still, I think their translations do have a nice feeling of concrete simplicity to them as well, similar to what I perceive in Mair's rendition of Chuang Tzu.




Hm. In Kafka's own way that parable I linked to is very similar to the one above about the wheel maker!

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Very good Mal, nice to see you interested in Chuang Tsu (JONG JEE in cantonese), it is a part of the learings in Taoism to read these sage's wisdom too. We call this the learnings of DUCK in taoism. you remember that word DUCK I talked about?

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Hi Mal, nice analysis.

I like Victor Mair best.

In particular I like of his analysis how he seem to try to summarise the whole chapter in few lines at the beginning. It gives a sense and a suggestion of how the whole chapter is about one thing. I remember when I started reading Mair I tended to read the same chapter over and over and over. Not moving to the next chapter until I felt I got that one chapter. Maybe we could set up some space to discuss Chuang Tzu chapter by chapter.

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I wonder if there are any more thoughts on the various translations and which one is recommended.


Well, like I said in some other thread, I prefer Burton Watson's translation while there are a lot of people who prefer James Legge's. (Lin Yutang's is nice but not all the outer chapters were translated.)


Peace & Love!

Edited by Marblehead

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