Chuang Tzu and the Skeleton

Written by You-Sheng Li

Taoist Philisophy for the 21st Century

Once Chuang Tzu travelled in State Chu and came to a stretch of grassland where no houses were in sight. He found a skeleton hidden in the high grass, and it was worn by weather but every bone was there in the form of a human body. Chuang Tzu knocked it with his whip handle and asked, “Did you so lust for life that you acted without reason, and so ended thus? Or did you lose your state and fall as a victim of axe and sword, and so end thus? Or did you do something wrong and were shamed to see your parents, wife, and children, and so ended thus? Or did you freeze or starve, and so end thus? Or did you live your full life span and end thus in your later years?”

As dark set in, Chuang Tzu took the skull as a pillow and fell into sleep. In the middle of the night, the skeleton came into his dream as a middle-aged man, and said, “You sound like an eloquent disputer. What you said are all entanglements of human life, and the dead has not a single one of them. Do you want me to tell you about death?”

“Do please!”

“In death,” he said, “there is no lord above and no slave below. There are no such things as the four seasons, cold and hot. The eternity of heaven and earth marks the time. The joy of a king cannot surpass ours.”

Chuang Tzu did not believe it, and said, “If I ask the Official in Charge of Life and Death to bring you back to life, put flesh back on your bones, and return you to your parents, your wife and your children, your neighbours and your friends down home, would you want that?”

The skeleton man became agitated as if he feared some great punishment, and replied, “How could I give up the joy of a king and take up again the suffering of humanity?”
(Chuang Tzu, Chapter 19)