(1)               The Founders and Their Lives


Lao Tzu (?604-484 BC) and Chuang Tzu (?369-286 BC ) are widely regarded as the founders of Taoism though the Taoist traditions may go some two thousand years further back. We know little about the two founders except the books they have left to us. They pursued a life of non-action, and fame was not their goal. If few knew them when they were alive, historians only had fragmentary information to write down. Lao Tzu was the curator of the royal library and was contemporary but senior to Confucius. Even the author of Historical Records, which was written in the late second century and early first century BC, did not know who Lao Tzu really was and listed three possible candidates. Now it is clear that the one who was said to have written Tao Te Ching at the request of the Strategic Pass Official lived around Chuang Tzu’s time or earlier and he only edited the book. It is equally clear that Confucius did meet Lao Tzu, and they, though different, had some views in common. (Figure 4)

Chuang Tzu was poor, and worked for a short time as a low ranking official in charge of a lacquer tree garden. We know so little that many authors fictionalized a bit to fill in the gaps.  The following are two fictionalized scenes, one each for the two founders, summarizing the information provided by the book Chuang Tzu and Historical Records. The purpose is to give the reader a living impression of the two ancient scholars. (Figure 5)


(2)           The Death of Chuang  Tzu


When Master Chuang (Chuang Tzu) was dying, he was lying in a green meadow in front of his thatched hut with his last two disciples sitting beside him. It was such a balmy day that Master Chuang had asked his disciples to move him outside to enjoy the warm fragrance of the early autumn. Master Chuang was on a straw mattress with a few wild fruits, red, orange, and yellow, scattered on the green grass beside the mattress. A small bowl of tea had just been boiled and its vapor rose like a silver serpent under the sun. One of the disciples, DA, supported Master Chuang’s back with his hands and the other disciple, DB, fed Master Chuang the tea with a spoon.

Inside their hut were piles of books and piles of wild fruits, nuts, and vegetables. They had more than plenty to digest physically and spiritually. Behind their hut was a campfire, which they kept to scare wolves away at night, and to cook meals during the day. Now there were only cinders over a pile of gray, black ashes. But the aroma of burned pine resin still hung over the meadow. Their buffalo, which Master Chuang had ridden here a few months ago, strayed a little far from their hut to join a group of wild deer and rabbits there at the bottom of a mountain. There was no house in sight, nothing but mountains and trees. They had left the residential area far behind.

After the tea, Master Chuang motioned his disciples to start their debating practice.  The two young men exchanged a glance and hesitated for a moment. They hadn’t debated or discussed any philosophical topics for days because of Master Chuang’s illness. To please and encourage their sick Master, DA had suggested it earlier in the morning and they saw Master Chuang’s eyes shine immediately at the suggestion. Now they rose and stood side by side in front of a maple tree.

DA scanned around to choose a topic to start. His eyes finally stopped at the river. A cloud of white mist had formed over the river and it was getting thicker and thicker as the sun evaporated the water.

“Fog consists of millions of water droplets.” DA moved his eyes to the sky. “The droplet is so tiny that it is hardly visible, so light that it has no weight and floats in the air. But it embodies all life forms on earth and it contains the world.”

“I cannot see how?” DB challenged his colleague.

“Those droplets rise and form clouds, which fall as rain. Rain washes the mountains green and awakes all plants to grow. And then animals have food to live on. But in the time of floods, a hundred streams pour into the river. The turbid water breaks free and the whole world is under the muddy water...”

“But it eventually reaches the ocean,” DB took over the conversation. “The ocean is so vast. A thousand miles would not measure its breadth, nor a thousand fathoms its depth. No flood in history is larger than the Ancient Flood that lasted nine years. But this did not add to the ocean’s bulk. No drought in history is longer than the Great Drought that lasted seven years and parched the whole world. There was not even a drop of water left in the deepest well. But the ocean’s shores did not recede an inch.”

“That’s our master’s mind, a real man’s heart.” DA added, “A real man’s mind is so broad that it contains the whole universe, and so deep that all human knowledge and wisdom put together fail to fill up its bottom. Cheerfully he accepts life, waiting patiently for his destiny. Living in unconstrained freedom, he does not try to show off. His serenity flows from the store of goodness within. This is called not leading the heart astray from Tao, and not supplementing the nature by human means...”

At this point, they heard a soft snore. Their master seemed to have fallen asleep with a faint smile behind his closed eyes.

“Our master needs a while of peace for himself.” They left quietly and strolled along the river.

 The sky was azure blue, the clouds were snow white, and the mountains dark green. The early autumn only tinged the tips of fruits and leaves with a little warm colour, red and orange. Master Chuang was bathed in the glittering sunlight and felt the warmth penetrating into his flesh and his heart. He was meditating. His soul was rising to join the clouds and to join the universe. His soul flew across the sky and he felt the fluffy softness of the clouds and the coolness of the sky. His soul flew with the wind over the top of trees and he heard the rustling twigs and the whispering leaves. His soul flew with the water over the rocks and he saw the leisurely shrimp and playful fish.

When he was young, he made straw shoes to sell. It was easy to make a living, since his life was simple. He had plenty of spare time to read, to think, and to discuss with other scholars. The eloquence of his argument and the flowing, roiling, carefree style of his essays soon earned him fame. What he enjoyed the most was to amaze his rivals in an open debate with his philosophical fantasies and then stun them with paradoxes of paradoxes. He then started reciting silently his closing remarks in the essay, On Leveling All Things:

Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there among trees and over grassland, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my being happy as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chuang Tzu. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself as Chuang Tzu. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man...

Who knows? Master Chuang thought.

Fame had led to his meeting with some important people.  Once he was invited as a guest of the king of State Wei. The king had never seen such a shabbily dressed man in his palace before, his clothes patched, and his shoes ragged. The king asked him why he looked so down-and-out.

He answered with pride and dignity, “I am down but not out. I am poor but not frustrated.  Born in a foul time, I am still managing my life and taking things easy as should be.”

“What’s the difference between a king and a poor man if they would both end the same as a bundle of white bones?” he thought. He opened his eyes to the mountains, clouds, and the skies. Among the chirping birds, he heard human voices. Within ten miles there were no other human beings to be found, so who were talking? Master Chuang then realized it must be his disciples who were coming back. They must have had him weighing on their minds. They seemed to be arguing with each other.

“Our Master is a great man, a phoenix in the sky and a dragon in the sea,” DA claimed.

“But our Master wants to be an ordinary person of nature,” DB disagreed.  “He is literally a poor man now. He does not want to be a dragon in the sea.”

“Not every king is a great man and not every man in poor clothes is a poor man. Our Master is as great as any kings and any lords.” DA looked at his colleague, “Do you remember that day when our Master was fishing on the bank of a river? The envoys, sent by the king of the great State Chu, came to see our Master. They wanted our Master to be their premier.”

“Of course, I remember,” DB answered with an even tone. “Our Master never stood up and never stopped his fishing. His eyes were fixed on the river as he answered. ‘Being a premier and receiving a thousand ounces of gold from the king would make me a sacrificial cow that has been kept for years and is finally cooked and decorated with all silk, embroideries, and colors, and is presented to the shrine in the temple.’ Our Master asked the envoys, ‘Do you think I prefer to be the sacrificial cow or to be a wild bull playing in the mud?’ The envoys said, ‘Of course, you want to be a bull in your own world,’ and then they left.”

“So our Master could have been a premier to a big kingdom like the great State Chu,” DA smiled broadly. “We have to bury our Master as a premier or as a lord if he dies...”

“What?” Master Chuang muttered. “What did you say?”

The two disciples hurried forward to their Master and knelt down beside him.  They had thought Master Chuang was still asleep. “We have not said anything in particular.” They both tried hard to parry the question, “We just said you, our respected Master, can recover from the current illness soon and live a long, long life.”

“What did you say about my funeral?” Master Chuang insisted in a soft voice.

The two disciples looked at each other, and then swallowed, and cleared their throat. There was no way to escape answering and they had to face it. DA felt it was his obligation to explain his idea to Master Chuang.

“We are sure you will recover soon from the current illness,” DA said. “But everybody has to pass away someday.  We’d better get prepared. After your reverence passes away, we are planning to have a formal funeral and bury you according to the royal standards as if you are a lord or a premier.”

“How?” Master Chuang asked.

DA was much relieved by Master Chuang’s asking how, since he had thought out all the details for the planned burial and funeral.

“Everything will be done according to the royal standards, as if you are a lord or a premier,” DA started to elaborate. “We will select the most desirable place to dig the pit and build the underground chamber with marble stones. We will hire some famous artists to paint the inside walls. The coffin will be made of sandalwood, and inside the coffin will be all sorts of jewels, silver, and gold...”

DA stopped abruptly as DB had nudged him. DB had noticed their master shaking his head slowly in disapproval. Both disciples knelt closer, waiting for Master Chuang’s words.

“That’s not good enough,” Master Chuang said. “I deserve much better.”

 Before the puzzled disciples could respond, Master Chuang continued:

“The sky and the earth will be my burial chamber,” Master Chuang said in a low but clear voice. Slowly he opened his eyes. “The mountains, the valleys, and the rivers will be my coffin. The sun, the moon, and all the stars will be buried with me as my burial jewels.”

Now the two disciples understood what their master meant. They knelt closer to their master, both choked by tears.

“Master…” they begged.

“When I am dead,” Master Chuang started slowly, softly, without opening his eyes. “Just throw me in the valley. I mean, leave my dead body anywhere in the mountains.” 

“But...” the two disciples murmured with a puzzled look. How could their master, a famous scholar, be buried like that? A sky burial, like barbarians. They both cried with the same weeping voice, “But your flesh will be eaten by wolves and eagles.”

Master Chuang suddenly moved his head and stared at the two young men, “Do you want to feed me to rats and bugs only?”

The two young men did not answer their master’s question but let their tears flow like rivers cross their thin cheeks. They loved their master so much.

Master Chuang was gazing over the blue sky . “What’s the difference between rats and bugs or wolves and eagles? How can you feed some animals but not others? Do you want to divide animals into different classes with some superior to others?” With those words, he burst into the sort of long, sonorous laughter, which Master Chuang usually enjoyed when he stunned his audience in a debate.

The two young men were petrified by their master’s unexpected laugh. Master Chuang’s laughter was so unusual and so loud, it seemed to set the mountains and the rivers trembling, the sky and the clouds echoed his laughter, and the whole universe quivered with it. When the laughter died out, it left such emptiness and quiet that it seemed, for a moment, the birds stopped flying, the rivers stopped flowing, the whole world was dead. The two young men hurried to examine their master, and found that their beloved master, Chuang, had just died.

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