Taoism > Masters > Lieh-tzu

Who Was Lieh-tzu

MOTTO: Our Master Lieh Tzu dwelt on a vegetable plot
in the ChĂȘng State for forty years, and no man
knew him for what he was
(From the book Lieh-tzu)


  • Biography

There is hardly anything known about Lieh-tzu's life. Some authors even declare that he was but an allegorical character fabricated by Chuang-tzu. Here is Balfour's statement for an instance: "a philosopher who never lived" (1).

In Ch'ung-hsu chen-ching ( Classic of Perfect Emptiness) - the book attributed to him - he appears only 18 times and not as a main character. More serious even, neither does the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien mention anything related to him. The reason might be that his writing had disappeared by the time Ch'ien lived. However, sources prior to the Historical Records do quote the Lieh-tzu.

On the other hand, Chuang-tzu cites Lieh-tzu and approaches him as a real person. Here and there, he goes to the length of imitating his writing style.

Most likely, if we take into account the story in Book VIII, chap. 6, Lieh-tzu was born around 450 BC As for the events of his lifetime, his trade, etc. - we know nothing!

Undoubtedly he survived thanks to his many disciples' help. It seems that he willingly rejected a job offer at the princely court, as one may find out from the confessions he made to his friend and co-disciple Po-hun: The prince would have surely charged me with state affairs, inviting me to do great things. (II, 14).

  • Spiritual Experience

In Book IV, chap. 6, from the Classic of Perfect Emptiness, there is a short account of master Lieh about his spiritual accomplishment by the time he was a disciple of Hu-tzu. We also have a narration from the master himself, which was widely quoted by various authors. Here is the concluding part:

    My mind was frozen, my body in dissolution, my flesh and bones all melted together. I was wholly unconscious of what my body was resting on, or what was under my feet. I was borne this way and that on the wind, like dry chaff or leaves falling from a tree. In fact, I knew not whether the wind was riding on me or I on the wind. (II, 3)

1. In
Leaves from my Chinese Scrapbook, with the fragments of the author. London, 1887.

The quotations are taken from the French version of the Classic of Perfect Emptiness [Le vrai classique du vide parfait], translated by Benedykt Grynpas, Gallimard, 1961 (II, 14) and from Lionel Giles: Taoist Teachings - Book of Lieh-tzu (1912) (II, 3).

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