Taoism > Abstracts

The Characteristics
of the Perfect Man

Nan-yung KhĂ» said, "And are these all the characteristics of the Perfect man?" [see also Nan-yung Khu is Granted Instruction by Lao-tzu].

Lao-tzu replied, "No. These are what we call the breaking up of the ice, and the dissolving of the cold. The Perfect man, along with other men, gets his food from the earth, and derives his joy from his Heaven (-conferred nature). But he does not like them allow himself to be troubled by the consideration of advantage or injury coming from men and things; he does not like them do strange things, or form plans, or enter on undertakings; he flees from the allurements of desire, and pursues his way with an entire simplicity. Such is the way by which he guards his life."

Hui Neng

Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch
of the Ch'an Meditation school, the model of the Perfect Man

Please notice that "perfect" is not similar with moral. The Perfect Man of Chuang-tzu is a person who attained the supreme compliance with the Tao, definition which dsoesn't imply a moral perfection as with Christians.

"And is this what constitutes his perfection?" "Not quite. I asked you whether you could become a little child. The little child moves unconscious of what he is doing, and walks unconscious of whither he is going. His body is like the branch of a rotten tree, and his mind is like slaked lime. Being such, misery does not come to him, nor happiness. It has neither misery nor happiness; - how can he suffer from the calamities incident to men?

He whose mind is thus grandly fixed emits a Heavenly light. In him who emits this heavenly light men see the (True) man. When a man has cultivated himself (up to this point), thenceforth he remains constant in himself. When he is thus constant in himself, (what is merely) the human element will leave him, but Heaven will help him. Those whom their human element has left we call the people of Heaven. Those whom Heaven helps we call the Sons of Heaven. Those who would by learning attain to this seek for what they cannot learn.

Those who would by effort attain to this, attempt what effort can never effect. Those who aim by reasoning to reach it, reason where reasoning has no place. To know to stop where they cannot arrive by means of knowledge is the highest attainment. Those who cannot do this will be destroyed on the lathe of Heaven.

Where things are all adjusted to maintain the body; where a provision against unforeseen dangers is kept up to maintain the life of the mind; where an inward reverence is cherished to be exhibited (in all intercourse) with others; - where this is done, and yet all evils arrive, they are from Heaven, and not from the men themselves. They will not be sufficient to confound the established (virtue of the character), or be admitted into the Tower of Intelligence. That Tower has its Guardian, who acts unconsciously, and whose care will not be effective, if there be any conscious purpose in it.(1)

If one who has not this entire sincerity in himself make any outward demonstration, every such demonstration will be incorrect. The thing will enter into him, and not let go its hold. Then with every fresh demonstration there will be still greater failure. If he do what is not good in the light of open day, men will have the opportunity of punishing him; if he do it in darkness and secrecy, spirits(2 ) will inflict the punishment. Let a man understand this - his relation both to men and spirits, and then he will do what is good in the solitude of himself."

1. This Guardian of the mind or Tower of Intelligence is the Tao.

2. One of the rare introductions of spiritual agency in the early Taoism.

*From "The Writings of Chuang-tzu", Book XXIII, Part III, Section I. Translation by James Legge. Selection by WPE.


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