The writings of the semi-legendary Taoist sage Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhou, Zhuangzi) are composed of small verses, poems, and stories, just a few sentences long each. The wisdom contained in them is unbounded and timeless, serving as a way of spiritual illumination for all seekers, both Western and Eastern, Taoist or otherwise.
Here are some of my favorite inspirational quotes and stories by Chuang Tzu:
If a man steps on a stranger’s foot
In the marketplace,
He makes a polite apology
And offers an explanation:
“This place is so crowded.”
If an elder brother
Steps on his younger brother’s foot
He says, “Sorry.”
And that is that.
If a parent steps on his child’s foot
Nothing is said at all.
The greatest politeness
Is free from all formality.
Perfect conduct is free of concern.
Perfect wisdom is unplanned.
Perfect love is without demonstrations.
Perfect sincerity offers no guarantee.
Means and Ends
The purpose of a fishtrap
Is to catch fish,
And when the fish are caught
The trap is forgotten.
The purpose of words
is to convey ideas.
When the ideas are grasped
The words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man
Who has forgotten words?
He is the one I would like to talk to.
The Need to Win
When an archer is shooting for fun
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.
His skill has not changed,
But the prize divides him.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.
Flight from the Shadow
There was a man
who was so disturbed
by the sight of his own shadow
and so displeased
with his own footsteps,
that he determined to get rid of both.
The method he hit upon was
to run away from them.
So he got up and ran.
But everytime he poot his foot down
there was another step,
while his shadow kept up with him
without the slightest difficulty.
He attributed his failure
to the fact
that he was not running fast enough.
So he ran faster and faster,
until he finally dropped dead.
He failed to realize
that if he merely stepped into the shade,
his shadow would vanish,
and if he sat down and stayed still,
there would be no more footsteps.
Chi Hsing Tzu was a trainer of
fighting cocks for King Hsuan.
He was training a fine bird.
The king kept asking
if the bird was ready for combat.
“Not yet”, said the trainer.
“He is full of fire.
He is ready to pick a fight
with every other bird.
He is vain and confident
of his own strength.”
After ten days he answered again,
“Not yet. He flares up
when he hears another bird crow.”
After ten more days,
“Not yet. He still gets that angry look
and ruffles his feathers.”
Again ten days.
The trainer said,
“Now he is nearly ready.
When another bird crows,
his eyes don’t even flicker.
He stands immobile like a block of wood.
He is a mature fighter.
Other birds will take one look at him and run.”
Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
was fishing in the Pu river
The prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors
with a formal document:
We hereby appoint you prime minister
Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole still.
Watching the Pu river, he said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise offered
and canonized three thousand years ago,
venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk,
in a precious shrine on an altar
in the temple.
What do you think?
Is it better to give up one’s life
and leave a sacred shell
as an object of cult
in a cloud of incense
for three thousand years,
or to live as a plain turtle
dragging its tail in the mud?”
“For the turtle”, said the vice-chancellor,
“better to live and drag its tail in the mud!”
“Go home!”, said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
to drag my tail in the mud.”
Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright
Duke Hwan of Khi, first in his dynasty,
sat under his canopy reading his philosophy.
And Phien the wheelwright was out in the yard
making a wheel.
Phien laid aside hammer and chisel,
climbed the steps
and said to duke Hwan,
“May I ask you, Lord,
what is this you are reading?”
Said the duke: “The experts, the authorities.”
Phien asked: “Alive or dead?”
The duke said: “Dead, a long time.”
“Then,” said the wheelwright,
“you are only reading the dirt they left behind.”
The duke replied, “What do you know about it?
You are only a wheelwright.
You had better give me a good explanation
or else you must die.”
The wheelwright said,
“Let us look at the affair from my point of view.
When I make wheels, if i go easy they fall apart,
and if I am too rough they don’t fit.
But if I am neither too easy nor too violent
they come out right,
and the work is what I want it to be.
“You cannot put this in words,
you just have to know how it is.
I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,
and my own son cannot learn it from me.
Se here I am, seventy years old, still making wheels!
The men of old took all they really knew
with them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
is only the dirt they left behind them.”
The Man of Tao
The man of Tao acts without impediment,
He harms no other being by his actions,
Yet he does not know himself
to be kind and gentle.
He does not struggle to make money
And he does not make a virtue of poverty.
He goes without relying on others,
And does not pride himself
on walking alone.
The man of Tao remains unknown.
Perfect virtue produces nothing.
No Self is True Self.
And the greatest man is nobody.
How does the true man of Tao
Walk through walls without obstruction
And stand in fire without being burnt?
Not because of cunning or daring,
Not because he has learned –
But because he has unlearned.
His nature sinks to his root in the one.
His vitality, his power,
Hide in secret Tao.
When he is all one,
There is no flaw in him
By which a wedge can enter.
So a drunken man who falls out of a wagon
Is bruised, but not destroyed,
His bones are like the bones of other men,
But his fall is different.
His spirit is entire.
He is not aware of getting into the wagon,
Or falling out of it.
Life and death are nothing to him.
He knows no alarm,
He meets obstacles without thought,
And takes them without knowing they are there.
If there is such sincerity in wine,
How much more in Tao?
The wise man is hidden in Tao,
Nothing can touch him.
Chuang Tzu’s Funeral
When Chuang Tzu was about to die,
His disciples began planning a grand funeral.
But Chuang Tzu said:
“I shall have heaven and earth for my coffin,
the sun and moon will be jade symbols
hanging by my side;
planets and constellations
will shine as jewels all around me,
and all beings will be present
as mourners at the wake.
What more is needed?
Everything is amply taken care of.”
But the disciples said:
“We fear that the crows and kites
will eat our Master.”
Chuang Tzu replied:
Well, above the ground I shall be eaten
by crows and kites,
And below the ground by ants and worms.
In either case I shall be eaten –
So why are you favoring the birds?”