Read an Excerpt
Introduction is for those who would like to know more about the historical and philosophical background of the
It also outlines a method of presenting the teachings of a spiritual text. Readers who are only interested in the practical advice the
can offer us in our everyday lives should go straight to the text and return to the introduction later.
When asked to name three representative texts of Taoism, most people would list the
Of the three, the
is probably the best known and most widely read, and for Westerners, it is most likely the book that introduced them to Taoism. Those who want to continue to explore the philosophy of Taosim might venture into the
and the more curious would probably wonder what the
is all about.
By some strange circumstances, my introduction to these three famous texts of
Taoism was the reverse. I read the
after studying the
and before I had even heard of Taoism, the stories of the
were familiar to me from my childhood readers. That I was introduced to the
can probably be attributed to some freak decision by the Board of Education in Hong
Kong, the council that planned the curriculum when I was in high school. That I
was introduced to the stories contained in the
I was a child can be attributed to the fact that many of the ideas of the
have become a part of the Chinese culture. Although my family was bilingual, I grew up in Chinese culture, and the
gave me and my schoolmates kernels of wisdom packed in fables and proverbs. Even at age six or seven, we knew about the Old Fool who tried to move the mountains,
the man who worried that the sky would fall, and the man who tried to chase down the sun.
That the stories in the
are common in children's readers also shows that Lieh-tzu's teachings are simple for children to understand and yet profound for adults to ponder. I have since looked at a lot of children's storybooks in Chinese, and I have never failed to find some of Lieh-tzu's stories and teachings in them. However, I have yet to find stories or teachings from the
in children's books. Not that these two texts do not contain words of wisdom, but
I've always felt there is something very special about Lieh-tzu's teachings that can reach a child and an adult at the same time.
It is this "something special" in the
that attracted me to the text. When I first started studying the
did it in the traditional way Chinese classics were studied: I memorized a section of the text, then studied the section's commentaries that were collected in the Taoist canon. I continued with this process until I had gone through all eight sections of the original text. After several years I had a nice catalogue of ideas in my head, but I did not feel I really understood the teachings of the book. So I stopped the project.
year later, I felt an urge to read the
This time, instead of studying it, I simply read it. It was in this second attempt at understanding the
that the text started "speaking" to me and I began to listen. At first its voice was hesitant, as if it were trying to make my acquaintance before confiding its intentions to me. But after a while, it spoke often. Initially, I
was someone it could talk to. Then I became someone it wanted to share its thoughts with. Finally, we became kindred spirits. It walked with me in city streets and hiked with me through mountain trails. It spoke and I listened; I
spoke and it listened. I began to feel that I had reached an understanding of its teachings. Even now, after several years of listening to the
it is still speaking, and I feel it will continue to speak as an advisor and friend.
The Person and the Book
Lieh-tzu was a real person who lived in the Spring and Autumn Period of the Eastern
Ch'ou dynasty (770–476 BCE). Most historians now agree that he was born around 400 BCE, about two hundred years after Lao-tzu and Confucius. He was a citizen of the feudal kingdom of Cheng, and, like many people of his time who were weary of the political struggles and intrigues, he never held a government post. He was reputed to have studied under Wen-tzu, who was a student of
Lao-tzu, and with various shadowy and legendary characters such as Hu-tzu and
Old Shang the Immortal. Of the rest of his life, not much is known.
Lieh-tzu was not listed in the biographies of philosophers in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's
and for a long time, scholars who relied on this work as a source of information on the history of the Ch'ou dynasty had dismissed Lieh-tzu as an imaginary character. However, his existence is documented in other sources (such as the
Spring and Autumn Annals of Lu), and it is now agreed that Lieh-tzu was a real person.
contains materials that were written over a period of six hundred years, from the early
Han to the Chin dynasties (between 200 BCE and 400 CE). There were twenty sections in the original collection; these were condensed into the eight sections we have today. During the hundred years or so after it was compiled,
did not receive the kind of attention that was given to the
Most scholars believed that its teachings were similar to those of the
and that one could get an understanding of Taoism during the Warring States
(475–221 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–219 CE) periods by studying the
contained more stories than formal philosophical discussion, the book was further dismissed as a minor work. Even in the fifth century CE, after many Taoist books had been written, the
remained obscure. If not for the efforts of a scholar of the Eastern Chin (317–420
CE) who edited and wrote a commentary on it, the
would have probably disappeared into oblivion.
Taoism reached the height of its development in the T'ang dynasty (between the seventh and tenth centuries), the
were acknowledged as the three classics of Taoism. From then on, the
place in the Taoist classics was firmly established.
is a collection of stories and philosophical musings. Although the stories were set in the Spring and Autumn Period and the early years of the Warring States,
its teachings reflected the kind of Taoism that was prevalent in the later years of the Warring States, the Ch'in (221–207 BCE), the Han (206
BCE–219 CE), and even the Wei (220–265 CE) and Chin dynasties
During those times, China was in a state of political and social chaos. As early as
600 BCE in the Eastern Ch'ou, rulers of the feudal states vied for power, first by diplomatic and covert means in the Spring and Autumn Period, and later in open warfare during the Warring States Period. The strong survived and the weak perished. It was the era of the "mercenary statesmen," the political and military advisors who offered their skills to the highest bidder. Politics were dirty. Family members spied on each other and assassinations were common.
Treachery and intrigue were widespread among government officials. One could certainly lose one's life by playing the dangerous game of politics, but being virtuous and loyal did not guarantee safety. Under these circumstances, what could people do? Many chose to play the political game and accepted the risks,
but some, like Lieh-tzu, preferred to stay out.
There had been hermits in China even before the Warring States, but they were individuals with their own reasons for abandoning society. It was only in the
that being a hermit or recluse was presented as an alternative way of life. Those who removed themselves from the social and political world might be able to survive and yet preserve their personal integrity.
As if things were not bad enough, the Warring States ended in the tyrannical rule of the Ch'in dynasty (221–207 BCE). In an attempt to crush opposition, the
Ch'in emperor had scholars executed and books burned. The early years of the
Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE) provided a brief respite from the reign of terror, but after a hundred years of peace, court intrigues appeared again,
and eventually Wang Meng, a powerful minister, removed the weak emperor,
dissolved the Western Han, and founded his own dynasty (9–24 CE).
During the Western Han dynasty, Confucianism was favored by the emperors, who had hoped a philosophy that promoted propriety, virtue, and responsibility would create a stable social structure. That a minister should depose a monarch not only brought a blow to the political continuity of the Han dynasty, but also questioned the effectiveness of Confucianism in maintaining the established social structure. Disillusioned with Confucianism, many of the intelligentsia abandoned it for Taoism, which at that time advocated noninvolvement in politics and focused on individual cultivation.
Although the Han dynasty was revived after Wang Meng was defeated and killed, peace was short-lived. In less than forty years, court intrigues appeared again, this time more vicious than ever, as eunuchs became powerful players in court politics. Factions within the higher levels of government fought each other for control of young, weak emperors, and assassinations and treachery once again became the way to deal with rivals.
In an attempt to wipe out the eunuchs, one of the generals, Yuan-shao, enlisted the help of a barbarian chieftain, but the plan was uncovered and Yuan-shao himself was killed. When the barbarian armies arrived at the capital, they wiped out the eunuchs, looted and burned the countryside, and refused to leave.
Out of this chaos came Ts'ao-ts'ao, an ambitious minister who ousted the barbarians, made himself regent, and took control of the emperor. This was followed by some fifty years of civil war when the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu,
and Wu fought for control of the country.
Ts'ao-ts'ao was victorious in the end. His son established the Wei dynasty (220–265
CE), but a generation later, the Ssu-ma clan rose to power, killed everyone who stood in their way, and created the Chin dynasty (265–420 CE).
During these times, life was precarious at best. In the Warring States, one could survive by staying out of politics. In the later Han and Wei dynasties, staying out was not an option. To the Ssu-ma clan, staying out meant that you did not support them. Not supporting them meant you opposed them, and if you opposed them, you had to be removed.
It was a time when being virtuous and loyal could not save you, being scheming and unscrupulous could cost you your life, and wanting to disengage yourself from the situation could kill you. Under these circumstances, what could you do? If your life was in danger every minute, why make plans for tomorrow? Why not acknowledge that life is short, that you have no control over destiny, and that wealth, renown, and social reputation are not worth sacrificing a single strand of your hair for? It was these social and political conditions that gave rise to the philosophy discussed in the Yang-chu chapter of the
Perhaps the lives of a group of people known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove best illustrate this outlook on life. These seven friends met often in a bamboo forest and spent their time singing, playing music, improvising poetry, and drinking. Their poetry and song spoke of the transient nature of life and the emptiness of wealth and renown. To them, the social conventions and rules of propriety set up by Confucianism were far worse than political imprisonment.
These social rules stifled freedom of thought, action, and feeling. The life of
Liu Ning, one of the seven friends, was itself a rebellion against all the social conventions of his day. He stayed away from politics and shunned social life. He was unkempt, went around barefooted, and spent his time drinking and writing poetry. In one of his poems he wrote, "If I die by the roadside,
just dig a hole and bury me there." In another of his drinking songs he quipped that it was better and safer to spend life in a drunken stupor than to be aware of what was happening in the world. Although the alternative way of life that the
advocates does not go to these extremes, it has the same courage to laugh at empty people who pursue empty goals in life.
Philosophy of the Lieh-tzu
What is the purpose of life? To some, the goal of living is to be a useful citizen and serve society and country, make a name for oneself, and contribute to the arts and sciences. However, when times are oppressive and social and political pressures threaten to dictate people's thoughts and actions, the wise will realize that many things in life are beyond their control. They do not want to trade their freedom and peace of mind for the life of anxiety that accompanies wealth and renown. It is this view of life that prompted the great Chinese poet
Tu Fu to say, "No matter how famous you are, you must die someday"
and the philosopher Yang-chu to say, "In life we may be different, but in death we are all the same." This voice is echoed throughout the
as it advises us that name, title, and social reputation are not worth sacrificing our physical health and mental well-being for.
Most people think all Taoists are hermits who withdraw from worldly matters. This is not accurate. In the history of China, not all Taoists were recluses. Some were active in political and social establishments. They worked closely with the government and received imperial support. During the Yuan dynasty
(1271–1368 CE), under the leadership of Ch'iu Ch'ang-ch'un, the Complete
Reality School of Taoism supported the emperor and served the country as official spiritual advisors.
There were also Taoists who were not satisfied with the status quo but believed changes could be made through reforms within the existing political and social system. The great Taoist scholar and sage of the Sung dynasty (907–1279
CE), Chen Hsi-yi, was such a person. He did not serve as spiritual advisor in any official capacity, but his proposals for social and political reform were adopted by the emperor. His most famous proposal to the Sung emperor involved preserving Hua-shan as a Taoist sanctuary.
Then there were Taoists who did not accept the status quo but did not believe in reform. Instead, they sought to replace the established system through rebellion or revolution. The Yellow Turban rebellion of the Eastern Han dynasty, led by the followers of Chang Tao-hang—the man who was reputed to have turned Taoism from philosophy into religion—was an example. A more recent example was the Boxer Uprising at the turn of this century, which involved
Maoshan Taoists (a sect that advocated magical practices).
there were Taoists who neither supported the status quo nor believed reform and revolution were viable options. They did not want to be a part of any group,
whether it was for or against the establishment. These were the hermits or recluses, and their way of life is presented in the
Even hermits have different reasons for choosing a life of noninvolvement. There were those who became hermits as a protest against the established government,
like Po-yi and Shu-ch'i who would rather starve to death in the wilderness than serve an enemy lord. There were people who decided to become hermits because they were weary or disillusioned with the world, like the Taoists Lao-tzu and
Lu Tung-pin. Then there were people like Lieh-tzu who became hermits not because of disappointment or as a protest against the establishment. Rather,
they were recluses by natural inclination.
Lieh-tzu was a natural hermit. From the scanty information we have about him, we are told that, unlike Lao-tzu, he never held an office. Unlike Lu Tung-pin, he never aspired to hold an office or succeed in politics. It was his natural disposition to live a simple and quiet life away from the muddy affairs of the world.
then, were Lieh-tzu's teachings? They are presented in the book's eight chapters. Following is a summary of the main ideas of each section.