Commentary on Chuang-tzu

The Princess in Tears

How do I know that the love of life is not a delusion? and that the dislike of death is not like a young person's losing his way, and not knowing that he is (really) going home? Li Ki was a daughter of the border Warden of Ai. When (the ruler of) the state of Zin first got possession of her, she wept till the tears wetted all the front of her dress. But when she came to the place of the king, shared with him his luxurious couch, and ate his grain-and-grass-fed meat, then she regretted that she had wept. How do I know that the dead do not repent of their former craving for life? (Chuang-tzu, Book II - The Adjustment of Controversies, 9, version James Legge)


Indeed, as a matter of fact it's impossible to know if life is  death, in other words, if is more agreeable to live than die! There are no testimonies in a way or the other, and the very fact that we live - here and now - makes us hold on life as the only worth living reality. Princess Li Ki cried sobbing thinking about her future, by marrying the ruler of the state. Then she realized that her life is much more satisfactory at the palace and regretted her foolish crying!

In everyday life we are guided by preconceived ideas, by prejudices, not having the certainty of their veracity. And the living experience contradicts most of the times what we had already known about life. Here we have, in Chuan-tzu's words, a subtle criticism towards formal thinking, specific to the Confucian's intellectual typology.


I have recently read a commentary to this story published on the Net, to find out in the end that it refers, by the symbols it contained, at our relationship with life and death. The story itself was much extended (I don't know by whom) with lots of details, which, in author's opinion, refer to after life events: When the physical body stops functioning - tells the author - the metaphysical ego moves towards the realm of pure consciousness.

I didn't find anywhere in Taoism - the philosophical Taoism (tao-chia) - ideas about the metaphysical consciousness. Perhaps they exist in the mystical Taoism, in the esoteric schools - I don't know. But I certainly know that Chuang-tzu didn't approach such subjects with any relevance in everyday reality!

Chuang-tzu was an extremely pragmatic person and especially preoccupied by demolishing Confucian' concepts, or more generally, the formal thinking, which starts from abstract precepts and have nothing to do with reality. Chuang-tzu is the advocate of a spontaneous, natural, thinking, as we shown in our Level 1 of our Taoism initiation course dedicated to the explanation of the basic concepts.

Consequently, there's nothing at Chuang-tzu dealing with the esoteric or the pure consciousness (what does this mean?).(*)

The fact that this commentary has no logical basis results from the following contradiction: asserting that we can't know anything about death ("the only certain thing we know is that death cannot be avoided"), the author assures us that in the after life the consciousness, the ego, and other such things won't be the same! And all these, to find out in the end that the ego moves towards the realm of pure consciousness. So, do we know or do not know anything else about death unless that it is inevitable?

Is it still necessary to say that such articles written by ignorant people are detrimental to Taoism? That Taoism is taken for a cheap occultism with claims of spiritual science?

*However, it should be noted that Chuang-tzu (the text of the book) has many contradictory facets, ranging from the claimed pragmatism and up to ideas and stories embraced by esoteric schools. Therefore we must be cautious when we meet such inconsistencies and do not attribute them to the master's thinking.

Selection and commentary by Jhian


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