Taoist teachings from the book of Lieh Tzŭ/Book 1
Our Master Lieh Tzŭ dwelt on a vegetable plot in the Chêng State for forty years, and no man knew him for what he was. The Prince, his Ministers, and all the State officials looked upon him as one of the common herd. A time of dearth fell upon the State, and he was preparing to migrate to Wei, when his disciples said to him: 'Now that our Master is going away without any prospect of returning, we have ventured to approach you, hoping for instruction. Are there no words from the lips of Hu-Ch'iu Tzŭ-lin that you can impart to us? Lieh Tzŭ smiled and said: 'Do you suppose that Hu Tzŭ dealt in words? However, I will try to repeat to you what my Master said on one occasion to Po-hun Mou-jên. I was standing by and heard his words, which ran as, follows: –
"There is a Creative Principle which is itself uncreated; there is a Principle of Change which is itself unchanging. The Uncreated is able to create life; the Unchanging is able to effect change. That which is produced cannot but continue producing; that which is evolved cannot but continue evolving. Hence there is constant production and constant evolution. The law of constant production and of constant evolution at no time ceases to operate. So is it with the Yin and the Yang, so is it with the Four Seasons. The Uncreated we may surmise to be Alone in itself.
The Unchanging goes to and fro, and its range is illimitable. We may surmise that it stands Alone, and that its Ways are inexhaustible."
'In the Book of the Yellow Emperor it is written: "The Spirit of the Valley dies not; it may be called the Mysterious Feminine. The issuing-point of the Mysterious Feminine must be regarded as the Root of the Universe. Subsisting to all eternity, it uses its force without effort."
'That, then, which engenders all things is itself unengendered; that by which all things are evolved is itself untouched by evolution. Self-engendered and self-evolved, it has in itself the elements of substance, appearance, wisdom, strength, dispersion and cessation. Yet it would be a mistake to call it by any one of these names.
The Master Lieh Tzŭ said: 'The inspired men of old regarded the Yin and the Yang as controlling the sum total of Heaven and Earth. But that which has substance is engendered from that which is devoid of substance; out of what then were Heaven and Earth engendered?
'Hence we say, there is a great Principle of Change, a great Origin, a great Beginning, a great Primordial Simplicity. In the great Change substance is not yet manifest. In the great Origin lies the beginning of substance. In the great Beginning, lies the beginning of material form. In the great Simplicity lies the beginning of essential qualities. When substance, form and essential qualities are still indistinguishably blended together it is called Chaos. Chaos means that all things are chaotically intermixed and not yet separated from one another. The purer and lighter elements, tending upwards, made the Heavens; the grosser and heavier elements, tending downwards, made the Earth. Substance, harmoniously proportioned, became Man; and, Heaven and Earth containing thus a spiritual element, all things were evolved and produced.'
The Master Lieh Tzŭ said: 'The virtue of Heaven and Earth, the powers of the Sage, and the uses of the myriad things in Creation, are not perfect in every direction. It is Heaven's function to produce life and to spread a canopy over it. It is Earth's function to form material bodies and to support them. It is the Sage's function to teach others and to influence them for good. It is the function of created things to conform to their proper nature. That being so, there are things in which Earth may excel, though they lie outside the scope of Heaven; matters in which the Sage has no concern, though they afford free play to others. For it is clear that that which imparts and broods over life cannot form and support material bodies; that which forms and supports material bodies cannot teach and influence for good; one who teaches and influences for good cannot run counter to natural instincts; that which is fixed in suitable environment does not travel outside its own sphere. Therefore the Way of Heaven and Earth will be either of the Yin or of the Yang; the teaching of the Sage will be either of altruism or of righteousness; the quality of created objects will be either soft or hard. All these conform to their proper nature and cannot depart from the province assigned to them.'
On one hand, there is life, and on the other, there is that which produces life; there is form, and there is that which imparts form; there is sound, and there is that which causes sound; there is colour, and there is that which causes colour; there is taste, and there is that which causes taste.
Things that have been endowed with life die; but that which produces life itself never comes to an end. The origin of form is matter; but that which imparts form has no material existence. The genesis of sound lies in the sense of hearing; but that which causes sound is never audible to the ear. The source of colour is vision; but that which produces colour never manifests itself to the eye. The origin of taste lies in the palate; but that which causes taste is never perceived by that sense. All these phenomena are functions of the principle of Inaction. To be at will either bright or obscure, soft or hard, short or long, round or square, alive or dead, hot or cold, buoyant or sinking, treble or bass, present or absent, black or white, sweet or bitter, fetid or fragrant — this it is to be devoid of knowledge, yet all-knowing, destitute of power, yet all-powerful.
On his journey to Wei, the Master Lieh Tzŭ took a meal by the roadside. His followers espied an old skull, and pulled aside the undergrowth to show it to him. Turning to his disciple Po Fêng, the Master said: 'That skull and I both know that there is no such thing as absolute life or death.
This knowledge is better than all your methods of prolonging life, a more potent source of happiness than any other.'
In the Book of the Yellow Emperor it is written: 'When form becomes active it produces not form but shadow; when sound becomes active it produces not sound but echo.'
When Not-Being becomes active, it does not produce Not-Being but Being. Form is something that must come to an end. Heaven and Earth, then, have an end, even as we all have an end. But whether the end is complete we do not know.
The course of evolution ends where it started, without a beginning; it finishes up where it began, in Not-Being. That which has life returns again into the Lifeless; that which has form returns again into the formless. This, that I call the Lifeless, is not the original Lifelessness. This, that I call the formless, is not the original Formlessness.
That which has life must by the law of its being come to an end; and the end can no more be avoided than the living creature can help having been born. So that he who hopes to perpetuate his life or to shut out death is deceived as to his destiny.
The spiritual element in man is allotted to him by Heaven, his corporeal frame by Earth. The part that belongs to Heaven 'is ethereal and dispersive, the part that belongs to Earth is dense and tending to conglomeration. When the spirit parts from the body, each of these elements resumes its true nature. That is why disembodied spirits are called kuei, which means 'returning', that is, returning to their true dwelling-place.
The Yellow Emperor said: 'If my spirit returns through the gates whence it came, and my bones go back to the source from which they sprang, where does the Ego continue to exist?'
Between his birth and his latter end, man passes through four chief stages - infancy, adolescence, old age and death. In infancy, the vital force is concentrated, the will is undivided, and the general harmony of the system is perfect. External objects produce no injurious impression, and to the moral nature nothing can be added. In adolescence, the animal passions are wildly exuberant, the heart is filled with rising desires and preoccupations. The man is open to attack by the objects of sense, and thus his moral nature becomes enfeebled. In old age, his desires and preoccupations have lost their keenness, and the bodily frame seeks for repose. External objects no longer hold the first place in his regard. In this state, though not attaining to the perfection of infancy, he is already different from what he was in adolescence. In death, he comes to his rest, and returns to the Absolute.
Confucius was travelling once over Mount T'ai when he caught sight of an aged man roaming in the wilds. He was clothed in a deerskin, girded with a rope, and was singing as he played on a lute. 'My friend,' said Confucius, 'what is it that makes you so happy?' The old man replied: 'I have a great deal to make me happy. God created all things, and of all His creations man is the noblest. It has fallen to my lot to be a man: that is my first ground for happiness. Then, there is a distinction between male and female, the former being rated more highly than the latter. Therefore it is better to be a male; and since I am one, I have a second ground for happiness. Furthermore, some are born who never behold the sun or the moon, and who never emerge from their swaddling-clothes. But I have already walked the earth for the space of ninety years. That is my third ground for happiness. Poverty is the normal lot of the scholar, death the appointed end for all human beings. Abiding in the normal state, and reaching at last the appointed end, what is there that should make me unhappy? ;What an excellent thing it is,' cried Confucius, 'to be able to find a source of consolation in oneself!'
Tzŭ Kung was tired of study, and confided his feelings to Confucius, saying: 'I yearn for rest.' Confucius replied: 'In life there is no rest.'
'Is rest, then, nowhere to be found? 'Oh yes!' replied Confucius; 'look at all the graves in the wilds, all the vaults, all the tombs, all the funeral urns, and you may know where rest is to be found.' 'Great, indeed, is Death!' exclaimed Tzŭ Kung. 'It gives rest to the noble hearted, and causes the base to cower.' 'You are right,' said Confucius. 'Men feel the joy of life, but do not realize its bitterness. They feel the weariness of old age, but not its peacefulness. They think of the evils of death, but not of the repose which it confers.'
Yen Tzŭ said: 'How excellent was the ancients' view of death! — bringing rest to the good and subjection to the wicked. Death is the boundary-line of Virtue.
'The ancients spoke of the dead as kuei-jên (men who have returned). But if the dead are men who have returned, the living are men on a journey. Those who are on a journey and think not of returning have cut themselves off from their home. Should any one man cut himself off from his home, he would incur universal reprobation. But all mankind being homeless, there is none to see the error. Imagine one who leaves his native village, separates himself from all his kith and kin, dissipates his patrimony and wanders away to the four corners of the earth, never to return: — what manner of man is this? The world will surely set him down as a profligate and a vagabond. On the other hand, imagine one who clings to respectability and the things of this life, holds cleverness and capacity in high esteem, builds himself up a reputation, and plays the braggart amongst his fellow men without knowing where to stop: — what manner of man, once more, is this? The world will surely look upon him as a gentleman of great wisdom and counsel. Both of these men have lost their way, yet the world will consort with the one, and not with the other. Only the Sage knows with whom to consort and from whom to hold aloof.'
Yŭ Hsiung said: 'Evolution is never-ending. But who can perceive the secret processes of Heaven and Earth? Thus, things that are diminished here are augmented there; things that are made whole in one place suffer loss in another. Diminution and augmentation, fullness and decay are the constant accompaniments of life and death. They alternate in continuous succession, and we are not conscious of any interval. The whole body of spiritual substance progresses without a pause; the whole body of material substance suffers decay without intermission. But we do not perceive the process of completion, nor do we perceive the process of decay. Man, likewise, from birth to old age becomes something different every day in face and form, in wisdom and in conduct. His skin, his nails and his hair are continually growing and continually perishing. In infancy and childhood there is no stopping nor respite from change. Though imperceptible while it is going on, it may be verified afterwards if we wait.'
There was once a man in the Ch'i State who was so afraid the universe would collapse and fall to pieces, leaving his body without a lodgment, that he could neither sleep nor eat. Another man, pitying his distress, went to enlighten him. 'Heaven,' he said, 'is nothing more than an accumulation of ether, and there is no place where ether is not. Processes of contraction and expansion, inspiration and expiration are continually taking place up in the heavens. Why then should you be afraid of a collapse?' The man said: 'It is true that Heaven is an accumulation of ether; but the sun, the moon, and the stars — will they not fall down upon us? His informant replied: 'Sun, moon and stars are likewise only bright lights within this mass of ether. Even supposing they were to fall, they could not possibly harm us by their impact.' 'But what if the earth should fall to pieces? 'The earth,' replied the other, 'is merely an agglomeration of matter, which fills and blocks up the four comers of space. There is no part of it where matter is not. All day long there is constant treading and tramping on the surface of the earth. Why then should you be afraid of its falling to pieces? Thereupon the man was relieved of his fears and rejoiced exceedingly. And his instructor was also joyful and easy in mind. But Ch'ang Lu Tzŭ laughed at them both, saying: 'Rainbows, clouds and mist, wind and rain, the four seasons — these are perfected forms of accumulated ether, and go to make up the heavens. Mountains and cliffs, rivers and seas, metals and rocks, fire and timber — these are perfected forms of agglomerated matter, and constitute the earth. Knowing these facts, who can say that they will never be destroyed? Heaven and earth form only a small speck in the midst of the Void, but they are the greatest things in the sum of Being. This much is certain: even as their nature is hard to fathom, hard to understand, so they will be slow to pass away, slow to come to an end. He who fears lest they should suddenly fall to pieces is assuredly very far from the truth. He, on the other hand, who says that they will never be destroyed has also not reached the right solution. Heaven and earth must of necessity pass away, but neither will revert to destruction apart from the other. Who, having to face the day of disruption, would not be alarmed?
The Master Lieh Tzŭ heard of the discussion, and smiling said: 'He who maintains that Heaven and earth are destructible, and he who upholds the contrary, are both equally at fault. Whether they are destructible or not is something we can never know, though in both cases it will be the same for all alike. The living and the dead, the going and the coming, know nothing of each other's state. Whether destruction awaits the world or no, why should I trouble my head about it?
Mr Kuo of the Ch'i State was very rich, while Mr Hsiang of the Sung State was very poor. The latter travelled from Sung to Ch'i and asked the other for the secret of his prosperity. Mr Kuo told him. 'It is because I am a good thief,' he said. 'The first year I began to be a thief, I had just enough. The second year, I had ample. The third year, I reaped a great harvest. And, in course of time, I found myself the owner of whole villages and districts.' Mr Hsiang was overjoyed; he understood the word 'thief' in its literal sense, but he did not understand the true way of becoming a thief. Accordingly, he climbed over walls and broke into houses, grabbing everything he could see or lay hands upon. But before very long his thefts brought him into trouble, and he was stripped even of what he had previously possessed. Thinking that Mr Kuo had basely deceived him, Hsiang went to him with a bitter complaint. 'Tell me,' said Mr Kuo, 'how did you set about being a thief?' On learning from Mr Hsiang what had happened, he cried out: 'Alas and alack! You have been brought to this pass because you went the wrong way to work. Now let me put you on the right track. We all know that Heaven has its seasons, and that earth has its riches. Well, the things that I steal are the riches of Heaven and earth, each in their season — the fertilizing rain-water from the clouds, and the natural products of mountain and meadow-land. Thus I grow my grain and ripen my crops, build my walls and construct my tenements. From the dry land I steal winged and four-footed game, from the rivers I steal fish and turtles. There is nothing that I do not steal. For corn and grain, clay and wood, birds and beasts, fishes and turtles are all products of Nature. How can I claim them as mine?
'Yet, stealing in this way from Nature, I bring on myself no retribution. But gold, jade, and precious stones, stores of grain, silk stuffs, and other kinds of property, are things accumulated by men, not bestowed upon us by Nature. So who can complain if he gets into trouble by stealing them?
Mr Hsiang, in a state of great perplexity, and fearing to be led astray a second time by Mr Kuo, went off to consult Tung Kuo, a man of learning. Tung Kuo said to him: 'Are you not already a thief in respect of your own body? You are stealing the harmony of the Yin and the Yang in order to keep alive and to maintain your bodily form. How much more, then, are you a thief with regard to external possessions! Assuredly, Heaven and earth cannot be dissociated from the myriad objects of Nature. To claim any one of these as your own betokens confusion of thought. Mr Kuo's thefts are carried out in a spirit of justice, and therefore bring no retribution. But your thefts were carried out in a spirit of self-seeking and therefore landed you in trouble. Those who take possession of property, whether public or private, are thieves. Those who abstain from taking property, public or private, are also thieves.
The great principle of Heaven and earth is to treat public property as such and private property as such. Knowing this principle, which of us is a thief, and at the same time which of us is not a thief?'
- A fellow-disciple. Out of modesty, Lieh Tzŭ does not say that the teaching was imparted directly to himself.
- The commentator says: 'That which is once involved in the destiny of living things can never be annihilated.'
- The Yin and the Yang are the Positive and Negative Principles of Nature, alternately predominating in day and night.
- 'The Supreme, the Non-Engendered — how can its reality be proved? We can only suppose that it is mysteriously One, without beginning and without end.'
- The Book of the Yellow Emperor is no longer extant, but the above passage is now incorporated in the Tao Tê Ching, and attributed to Lao Tzŭ.
- 'They were engendered out of nothing, and came into existence of themselves.'
- 'After the separation of the Yin and the Yang, when classes of objects assume their forms.'
- Wu Wei, Inaction, here stands for the inert, unchanging Tao.
- Such is Tao.
- 'If we regard ourselves as passing along the road of evolution, then I am alive and he is dead. But looked at from the standpoint of the Absolute, since there is no such principle as life in itself, it follows that there can be no such thing as death.'
- See footnote 5. This passage does not occur in the Tao Tê Ching.
- 'When there is conglomeration, form comes into being; when there is dispersion, it comes to an end. That is what we mortals mean by beginning and end. But although for us, in a state of conglomeration, this condensation into form constitutes a beginning, and its dispersion an end, from the standpoint of dispersion, it is void and calm that constitute the beginning, and condensation into form the end. Hence there is perpetual alternation in what constitutes beginning and end, and the underlying Truth is that there is neither any beginning nor any end at all.'
- A paradoxical way of stating that there is no beginning and no end.
- 'That, which is here termed the Lifeless has formerly possessed life, and subsequently passed into the extinction of death, whereas the original Lifelessness from the beginning knows neither life nor extinction.' We have here again the distinction between the unchanging life-giving Principle (Tao), which is itself without life, and the living things themselves, which are in a perpetual flux between life and death.
- 'The region of the Great Void.'
- 'To toil in anxious planning for the future, to slave in bolstering up the bodily frame — these are the businesses of life.'
- That is, Death abolishes all artificial and temporary distinctions between good and evil, which only hold good in this world of relativity.
- 'He consorts with those who regard life and death merely as waking and sleeping, and holds aloof from those who are steeped in forgetfulness of their return.'
- The speaker means that though there is no immediate danger of a collapse, it is certain that our universe must obey the natural law of disintegration, and at some distant date disappear altogether. But the process of decay will be so gradual as to be imperceptible.
- It will be observed that Lieh Tzŭ anticipates here, in a somewhat different sense, Proudhon's famous paradox: 'La propriété c'est le vol.'
- By 'taking possession of public property', as we have seen, Lieh Tzŭ means utilizing the products of Nature open to all — rain and the like.
- 'For no one can help possessing a body, and no one can help acquiring some property or other which cannot be got rid of with the best will in the world. Such thefts are unconscious thefts.'
- The object of this anecdote is to impress us with the unreality of mundane distinctions. Lieh Tzŭ is not much interested in the social aspect of the question. He is not an advocate of communism, nor does he rebel against the common-sense view that theft is a crime which must be punished. With him, everything is intended to lead up to the metaphysical standpoint.