Sunday, February 27, 2011


by Scott Bradley

Zhuangzi concludes his Inner Chapters with the curious story of the death of Chaos. Chaos is the emperor of a realm between two others, the emperors of which are his dear friends. Chaos frequently entertains them, being, as he is, in the middle. To show their gratitude, these two friends decide to do him a great kindness; seeing that he lacks the ‘seven holes’ common to humanity, each day they bore him one. “On the seventh day, Chaos died.”

The lessons here are many. Some are perhaps incidental, but nonetheless illustrate important aspects of Zhuangzi’s philosophy. Among these is the idea that we show each other the greatest kindness when we leave each other alone to follow our own paths. “Fish forget one another in the rivers and lakes, and human beings forget one another in arts of the Way.” (All quotes from Brook Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi) The wind blows through the forest and a great cacophony arises from the infinite diversity among the trees. This chaos, Zhuangzi tells us, is the expression of Tao. Let it be.

In Chapter Two, the emperor Yao confesses to Shun that he is obsessed with a desire to conquer other petty realms. Shun reminds him: “Once upon a time, ten suns rose in the sky at once, and the ten thousand things were all simultaneously illuminated. And how much better are many Virtuosities than many suns.” This, Dr. Ziporyn tells us, is a parody of the story later related in the Huainanzi where Yao sees these many suns as a problem and has nine shot from the sky. He explains: “Yao thinks ten different standards of ‘rightness’ will lead to chaos—there must be a single unified truth, a single ruler. Zhuangzi here allows all things their own rightness—and thereby there will be all the more illumination, with each thing its own sun.”

This likewise illustrates a major theme in Chapter Seven, in which he explains that the best way to rule the empire is to let it rule itself. “When a sage rules, does he rule anything outside himself?” When Tian Gen asked a nameless man how best to manage the world, the latter reluctantly answered, “Let your mind roam in the flavorless, blend your vital energy with the boundless silence, follow the rightness of the way each thing already is without allowing yourself the least bias. Then the world will be in order.” The death of Chaos through the beneficent management of his friends concludes this chapter.

Yet the most fundamental lesson here lies, I think, at the very heart of Zhuangzi’s thinking: “The Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map.” When Liezi, again in Chapter Seven, becomes enamored with the predictive powers of the shaman Jixian and brings him to his master, Huzi, this worthy soon has the shaman fleeing in fear. Huzi explains: “I just showed him what I am when not yet emerged from my source—something empty and serpentine in its twistings, admitting of no understanding of who or what. So he saw it as something endlessly collapsing and scattering, something flowing away with every wave. This is why he fled.” What he saw was Chaos. And this is where the sage roams, “in the homeland of nothing at all.”

Finally realizing that the way of his master was not something to obtain or understand, Liezi hid himself away “letting all the chiseled carvings of his character return to an unhewn blockishness. Solitary like a clump of soil, he planted his physical form there in its place, a mass of chaos and confusion. And that is how he remained to the end of his days.”

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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