Butterfly dream: Finely-etched steel butterfly at machine tools exhibition, picture by Francis Chin, May 2005
Cutting up
a bullock

In doing good, avoid fame. In doing bad, avoid disgrace. Pursue a middle course as your principle. Thus you will guard your body from harm, preserve your life, fulfil your duties by your parents, and live your allotted span of life.

Prince Huei’s cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whooshh of rent flesh, every chinhk of the chopper, was in perfect rhythm, like the dance of  the Mulberry Grove, like the harmonious chords of Ching Shou.

“Well done!” cried the Prince. “Yours is skill indeed!”

“Sire,” replied the cook laying down his chopper, “I have always devoted myself to Tao, which is higher than mere skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me whole bullocks. After three years’ practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. My mind works along without the control of the senses. Falling back upon eternal principles, I glide through such great joints or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not even touch the convolutions of muscle and tendon, still less attempt to cut through large  bones.

“A good cook changes his chopper once a year – because he cuts. An ordinary cook, one a month – because he hacks. But I have had this chopper 19 years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the  whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. Indeed there is plenty of room for the blade to move about. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for 19 years as though fresh from the whetstone.

“Nevertheless, when I come upon a knotty part which is difficult to tackle, I am all caution. Fixing my eye on it, I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah! the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper and stand up, and look around, and pause with an air of triumph. Then wiping my chopper, I put it carefully away.”

Let things take their natural course

Yen Huei went to take leave of Confucius. “Whither are you bound?” asked the Master.

“I am going to the State of Wei,” was the reply.

“And what do you propose to do there?”

“I hear,” answered Yen Huei, “the Prince of Wei is of mature age, but of an unmanageable disposition. He behaves as if the people were of no account, and will not see his own faults. He disregards human lives and the people perish; and their corpses lie about like so much under growth in a marsh. The people do not know where to turn for help. And I have heard you say that if a state be well governed, it may be passed over; but that if it be badly governed, then we should visit it. At  the door of physicians there are many sick people. I would test my knowledge in this sense, that perchance I may do some good at that state.”

“Alas!” cried Confucius, “you will be only going to your doom. For Tao must not bustle about. If it does it will have divergent aims. From divergent aims come restlessness; from restlessness comes worry, and from worry one reaches the stage of  being beyond hope. The Sages of old first strengthened their own character before they tried to strengthen that of others. Before you have strengthened your own character, what leisure have you to attend to the doings of wicked men? Besides, do you know into what virtue evaporates by motion and where knowledge ends? Virtue evaporates by motion into desire for fame and knowledge ends in contentions. In the struggle for fame men crush each other, while their wisdom but provokes rivalry. Both are instruments of evil, and are not proper principles of living.

“Besides, if before one’s own solid character and integrity become an influence among men and before one’s own disregard  for fame reaches the hearts of men, one should go and force the preaching of charity and duty and the rules of conduct on wicked men, he would only make these men hate him for his very goodness. Such a person may be called a messenger of evil. A messenger of evil will be the victim of evil from others. That, will be your end.

“On the other hand, if the Prince loves the good and hates evil, what object will you have in inviting him to change his  ways? Before you have opened your mouth, the Prince himself will have seized the opportunity to wrest the victory from you. Your eyes will be dazzled, your expression fade, your words will hedge about, your face will show confusion, and your heart will yield within you. It will be as though you took fire to quell fire, water to quell water, which is known as aggravation. And if you begin with concessions, there will be no end to them. If you neglect this sound advice and talk too much, you will  die at the hands of that violent man.

“Of old, Chieh murdered Kuanlung P’ang, and Chou slew Prince Pikan. Their victims were both men who cultivated themselves and cared for the good of the people, and thus offended their superiors. Therefore, their superiors got rid of them, because of their goodness. This was the result of their love for fame.

“Of old, Yao attacked the Ts’ung-chih and Hsu-ao countries, and Ya attacked the Yu-hus. The countries were laid waste, their inhabitants slaughtered, their rulers killed. Yet they fought without ceasing, and strove for material objects to the last. These are instances of striving for fame or for material objects. Have you not heard that even Sages cannot overcome this love of fame and this desire for material objects (in rulers)? Are you then likely to succeed? But of course you have a plan. Tell it to me.”

“Gravity of demeanor and humility; persistence and singleness of purpose – will this do?” replied Yen Huei.

“No,” said Confucius, “how can it? The Prince is a haughty person, filled with pride, and his moods are fickle. No one opposes him, and so he has come to take actual pleasure in trampling upon the feelings of others. And if he has thus failed in the practice of routine virtues, do you expect that he will take readily to higher ones? He will persist in his ways, and though outwardly he may agree with you, inwardly he will not repent. How then will you make him mend his ways?”

“Why, then,” replied Yen Huei “I can be inwardly straight, and outwardly yielding, and I shall substantiate what I say by  appeals to antiquity. He who is inwardly straight is a servant of God. And he who is a servant of God knows that the Son of  Heaven and himself are equally the children of God. Shall then such a one trouble whether his words are approved or disapproved by man? Such a person is commonly regarded as an (innocent) child. This is to be a servant of God. He who is  outwardly yielding is a servant of man. He bows, he kneels, he folds his hands – such is the ceremonial of a minister. What  all men do, shall I not do also? What all men do, none will blame me for doing. This is to be a servant of man. He who  substantiates his words by appeals to antiquity is a servant of the Sages of old. Although I utter the words of warning and take him to task, it is the Sages of old who speak, and not I. Thus I shall not receive the blame for my uprightness. This is to be the servant of the Sages of old. Will this do?”

“No! How can it?” replied Confucius. “Your plans are too many. You are firm, but lacking in prudence. However, you are only  narrow minded, but you will not get into trouble; but that is all. You will still be far from influencing him because your own  opinions are still too rigid.”

“Then,” said Yen Huei, “I can go no further. I venture to ask for a method.”

Confucius said, “Keep fast, and I shall tell you. Will it be easy for you when you still have a narrow mind? He who treats things as easy will not be approved by the bright heaven.”

“My family is poor,” replied Yen Huei, “and for many months we have tasted neither wine nor flesh. Is that not fasting?”

“That is a fast according to the religious observances,” answered Confucius, “but not the fasting of the heart.”

“And may I ask,” said Yen Huei, “in what consists the fasting of the heart?”

“Concentrate your will. Hear not with your ears, but with your mind; not with your mind, but with your spirit. Let your hearing  stop with the ears, and let your mind stop with its images. Let your spirit, however, be like a blank, passively responsive to  externals. In such open receptivity only can Tao abide. And that open receptivity is the fasting of the heart.”

“Then,” said Yen Huei, “the reason I could not use this method was because of consciousness of a self. If I could apply this method, the assumption of a self would have gone. Is this what you mean by the receptive state?”

“Exactly so,” replied the Master. “Let me tell you. Enter this man’s service, but without idea of working for fame. Talk when he is in a mood to listen, and stop when he is not. Do without any sort of labels or self- advertisements. Keep to the One and  let things take their natural course. Then you may have some chance of success.

“Look at that emptiness. There is brightness in an empty room. Good luck dwells in repose. If there is not inner repose, your mind will be galloping about though you are sitting still. Let your ears and eyes communicate within but shut out all  knowledge from the mind. Then the spirits will come to dwell therein, not to mention man. This is the method for the transformation influencing of all Creation.”

Sacred tree

A certain carpenter Shih was travelling to Chi State. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the temple to the God of Earth. It was so large its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred spans in girth, towering up eighty feet over the hilltop, before it branched out. A dozen boats could be cut out of it. Crowds stood gazing at it, but the carpenter took no notice, and went on his way without even casting a look behind.

His apprentice however took a good look at it, and when he caught up with his master, said, “Ever since I have handled an adze in your service, I have  never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you, Master, did not care to stop and look at it?”

“Forget about it. It’s not worth talking about,” replied his master. “It’s good for nothing. Made into a boat, it would sink; into a  coffin, it would rot; into furniture, it would break easily; into a door, it would sweat; into a pillar, it would be worm-eaten. It is  wood of no quality, and of no use. That is why it has attained its present age.”

When the carpenter reached home, he dreamt that the spirit of the tree appeared to him in his sleep and spoke to him:

“What is it you intend to compare me with? Is it with fine-grained wood? Look at the cherry-apple, the pear, the orange, the pumelo, and other fruit bearers? As soon as their fruit ripens they are stripped and treated with indignity. The great boughs are snapped off, the small ones scattered abroad. Thus do these trees by their own value injure their own lives. They cannot fulfil their allotted span of years, but perish prematurely because they destroy themselves for the admiration of the world. Thus it is with all things.

“Moreover, I tried for a long period to be useless. Many times I was in  danger of being cut down, but at length I have succeeded, and so have become exceedingly useful to myself. Had I indeed  been of use, I should not be able to grow to this height. Moreover, you and I are both created things. Have done then with this criticism of each other. Is a good-for-nothing fellow in imminent danger of death a fit person to talk of a good-for-nothing tree?”

When the carpenter awaked and told his dream, his apprentice said, “If the tree aimed at uselessness, how was it that it became a sacred tree?”

“Hush!” replied his master. “Keep quiet. It merely took refuge in the temple to escape from the abuse of those who do not appreciate it. Had it not become sacred, how many would have wanted to cut it down! Moreover, the means it adopts for safety is different from that of others, and to criticise it by ordinary standards would be far wide of the mark.”

In the state of Sung there is a land belonging to the Chings, where thrive the catalpa, the cedar, and the mulberry. Such as are of one span or so in girth are cut down for monkey cages. Those of two or three spans are cut down for the beams of fine  houses. Those of seven or eight spans are cut down for the solid unjointed sides of rich men’s coffins. Thus they do not fulfil their allotted span of years, but perish young beneath the axe. Such is the misfortune which overtakes worth. For the  sacrifices to the River God, neither bulls with white foreheads, nor pigs with high snouts, nor men suffering from piles, can be used. This is known to all the soothsayers, for these are regarded as inauspicious. The wise, however, would regard them as extremely auspicious to themselves.

The hunchback

There was a hunchback named Su. His jaws touched his navel. His shoulders were higher than his head. His neck bone stuck out toward the sky. His viscera were turned upside down. His buttocks were where his ribs should have been. By tailoring, or washing, he was easily able to earn his living. By sifting rice he could make enough to support a family of 10. 

When orders came down for a conscription, the hunchback walked about unconcerned among the crowd. And similarly, in government conscription for public works, his deformity saved him from being called. On the other hand, when it came to government donations of grain for the disabled, the hunchback received as much as three chung and of firewood, 10 faggots. And if physical deformity was thus enough to preserve his body until the end of his days, how much more should  moral and mental deformity avail!

The mountain trees invite their own cutting down; lamp oil invites its own burning up. Cinnamon bark can be eaten; therefore  the tree is cut down. Lacquer can be used, therefore the tree is scraped. All men know the utility of useful things; but they do not know the utility of futility.

Passion for life

Hueitse said to Chuangtse, “Do men indeed originally have no passions?”

“Certainly,” replied Chuangtse.

“But if a man has no passions,” argued Huei, “what is it that makes him a man?”

“Tao,” replied Chuangtse, “gives him his expressions, and God gives him his form. How should he not be a man?”

“If then he is a man,” said Huei, “how can he be without passions?”

“Right and wrong (approval and disapproval),” answered Chuangtse, “are what I mean by passions. By a man without passions I mean one who does not permit likes and dislikes to disturb his internal economy, but rather falls in line with nature and does not try to improve upon (the materials of) living.”

“But how is a man to live this bodily life,” asked Huei.

“He does not try to improve upon (the materials of) his living?”

“Tao gives him his expression,” said Chuangtse, “and God gives him his form. He should not permit likes and dislikes to disturb his internal economy. But now you are devoting your intelligence to externals, and wearing out your vital spirit. Lean  against a tree and sing; or sit against a table and sleep! God has made you a shapely sight, yet your only thought is the  hard and white.”

True men of old

The true men of old did not override the weak, did not attain their ends by brute strength, and did not gather around them counsellors. Thus, failing they had no cause for regret; succeeding, no cause for self-satisfaction. And thus they could scale heights without trembling, enter water without becoming wet, and go through fire without feeling hot. That is the kind of  knowledge which reaches to the depths of Tao.

The true men of old slept without dreams and waked up without worries. They ate with indifference to flavour, and drew deep breaths. For true men draw breath from their heels, the vulgar only from their throats. Out of the crooked, words are retched  up like vomit. When man’s attachments are deep, their divine endowments are shallow.

The true men of old did not know what it was to love life or to hate death. They did not rejoice in birth, nor strive to put off  dissolution. Unconcerned they came and unconcerned they went. That was all. They did not forget whence it was they had  sprung, neither did they seek to inquire their return thither. Cheerfully they accepted life, waiting patiently for their restoration (the end). This is what is called not to lead the heart astray from Tao, and not to supplement the natural by  human means. Such a one may be called a true man.

Such men are free in mind and calm in demeanor, with high foreheads. Sometimes disconsolate like autumn, and sometimes warm like spring, their joys and sorrows are in direct touch with the four seasons in harmony with all creation, and none know the limit thereof. And so it is that when the Sage wages war, he can destroy a kingdom and yet not lose the affection of the people; he spreads blessing upon all things, but it is not due to his (conscious) love of fellow men.

Therefore he who delights in understanding the material world is not a Sage. He who has personal attachments is not humane. He who calculates the time of his actions is not wise. He who does not know the interaction of benefit and harm is not a superior man. He who pursues fame at the risk of losing his self is not a scholar. He who loses his life and is not true to himself can never be a master of man.

The true men of old appeared of towering stature and yet could not topple down. They behaved as though wanting in  themselves, but without looking up to others. Naturally independent of mind, they were not severe. Living in unconstrained  freedom, yet they did not try to show off. They appeared to smile as if pleased, and to move only in natural response to  surroundings. Their serenity flowed from the store of goodness within. In social relationships, they kept to their inner  character. Broad-minded, they appeared great; towering, they seemed beyond control. Continuously abiding, they seemed  like doors kept shut; absent-minded, they seemed to forget speech. They saw in penal laws an outward form; in social  ceremonies, certain means; in knowledge, tools of expediency; in morality, a guide. It was for this reason that for them  penal laws meant a merciful administration; social ceremonies, a means to get along with the world; knowledge a help for  doing what they could not avoid; and morality, a guide that they might walk along with others to reach a hill. And all men really thought that they were at pains to make their lives correct.

For what they cared for was ONE, and what they did not care for was ONE also. That which they regarded as ONE was ONE, and that which they did not regard as ONE was ONE likewise. In that which was ONE, they were of God; in that which was not  ONE, they were of man. And so between the human and the divine no conflict ensued. This was to be a true man.

Life and Death are a part of Destiny. Their sequence, like day and night, is of God, beyond the interference of man. These all  lie in the inevitable nature of things. He simply looks upon God as his father; if he loves him with what is born of the body,  shall he not love him also with that which is greater than the body? A man looks upon a ruler of men as one superior to  himself; if he is willing to sacrifice his body (for his ruler), shall he not then offer his pure spirit also?

Human form

To have been cast in this human form is to us already a source of joy. How much greater joy beyond our conception to know  that that which is now in human form may undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look forward to? Therefore it  is that the Sage rejoices in that which can never be lost, but endures always. For if we emulate those who can accept  graciously long age or short life and the vicissitudes of events, how much more that which informs all creation on which all  changing phenomena depend?

For Tao has its inner reality and its evidences. It is devoid of action and of form. It may be transmitted, but cannot be  received; It may be obtained, but cannot be seen. It is based in itself, rooted in itself. Before heaven and earth were, Tao  existed by itself from all time. It gave the spirits and rulers their spiritual powers, and gave Heaven and Earth their birth. To  Tao, the zenith is not high, nor the nadir low; no point in time is long ago, nor by the lapse of ages has it grown old.

Getting on

Yen Huei spoke to Confucius, “I am getting on.”

“How so?” asked the latter.

“I have got rid of charity and duty.”

“Very good,” replied Confucius, “but not quite perfect.”

Another day, Yen Huei met Confucius and said, “I am getting on.

“How so?”

“I have got rid of ceremonies and music.”

“Very good,” said Confucius, “but not quite perfect.”

Another day, Yen Huei again met Confucius and said, “I am getting on.

“How so?”

“I can forget myself while sitting.”

“What do you mean by that?” said Confucius, changing his countenance.

“I have freed myself from my body,” answered Yen Huei. I have discarded my reasoning powers. And by thus getting rid of  my body and mind, I have become One with the Infinite. This is what I mean by forgetting myself while sitting.”

“If you have become One,” said Confucius, “there can be no room for bias. If you have lost yourself, there can be no more hindrance. Perhaps you are really a wise one. I trust to be allowed to follow in your steps.”

Opening trunks, stealing a state

The precautions taken against thieves who open trunks, search bags, or ransack tills, consist in securing with cords and fastening with bolts and locks. This is what the world calls wit. But a strong thief comes and carries off the till on his shoulders, with box and bag, and runs away with them. His only fear is that the cords and locks should not be strong enough! Therefore, does not what the world used to call wit simply amount to saving up for the strong thief? And I venture to  state that nothing of that which the world calls wit is otherwise than saving up for strong thieves; and nothing of that which  the world calls sage wisdom is other than hoarding up for strong thieves.

In the state of Chi, the  neighbouring towns overlooked one another and one could hear the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks in the neighbouring town. Fishermen cast their nets and ploughmen ploughed the land in a territory of over two thousand li. Within its four boundaries, there wasn’t a temple or shrine dedicated, a god worshipped, or a hamlet, county or a district governed, but in accordance with the rules laid down by the Sages.

Yet one morning Tien Chengtse slew the ruler of Chi, and stole his kingdom. And not his kingdom only, but the wisdom-tricks which he had got from the Sages as well, so that although Tien acquired the reputation of a thief, he lived as securely and comfortably as ever did either Yao or Shun. The small states did not venture to blame, nor the great states to punish him, and for 12 generations his descendants ruled over Chi.

If pecks and bushels are used for measurement, the pecks and bushels themselves will also be stolen, along with the rice. If scales and steel yards are used for weighing, the scales and steel yards themselves will also be stolen along with the goods. If tallies and signets are used for good faith, the tallies and signets will also be stolen. If charity and duty are used  for moral principles, charity and duty will also be stolen. How is this so? Steal a hook and you hang as a crook; steal a  kingdom and you are made a duke. (The teachings of) charity and duty remain in the duke’s domain. Is it not true, then, that  they are thieves of charity and duty and of the wisdom of the Sages?

Love of knowledge the root of confusion

Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, and gangsters will stop! Fling away jade and destroy pearls, and petty thieves will  cease. Burn tallies and break signets, and the people will revert to their uncouth integrity. Split measures and smash  scales, and the people will not fight over quantities. Trample down all the institutions of Sages, and the people will begin to  be fit for discussing Tao.

Confuse the six pitch-pipes, confine lutes and stringed instruments to the flames, stuff up the ears of Blind Shih K’uang, and each man will keep his own sense of hearing. Put an end to decorations, confuse the five colours, glue up the eyes of Li Chu, and each man will keep his own sense of sight. Destroy arcs and lines, fling away squares and compasses, snap off the fingers of Ch’ui the Artisan, and each man will use his own natural skill.

If each man keeps his own sense of sight, the world will escape being burned up. If each man keeps his own sense of  hearing, the world will escape entanglements. If each man keeps his intelligence, the world will escape confusion. If each  man keeps his own virtue, the world will avoid deviation from the true path.

In the days of Yungcheng, Tating, Pohuang, Chungyang, Lilu, Lihsu, Hsienyuan, Hohsu, Tsunlu, Chuyung, Fuhsi and Shennung, the people tied knots for reckoning. They enjoyed their food, beautified their clothing, were satisfied with their homes, and delighted in their customs. Neighbouring settlements overlooked one another, so they could hear the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks of their neighbours, and the people till the end of their days had never been outside their own country. In those days there was indeed perfect peace.

But nowadays any one can make the people strain their necks and stand on tiptoes by saying, “In such and such a place there is a Sage.” Immediately they put together a few provisions and hurry off, neglecting their parents at home and their masters’ business abroad, going on foot through the territories of the princes, and riding to hundreds of miles away. Such is the evil effect of the rulers’ desire for knowledge. When the rulers desire knowledge and neglect Tao, the empire is  overwhelmed with confusion.

How can this be shown? When the knowledge of bows and cross-bows and hand-nets and tailed arrows increases, then they carry confusion among the birds of the air. When the knowledge of hooks and bait and nets and traps increases, then they carry confusion among the fishes of the deep. When the knowledge of fences and nets and snares increases, then they carry confusion among the beasts of the field. When cunning and deceit and flippancy and the sophistries of the “hard” and “white” and identities and differences increase in number and variety, then they overwhelm the world with logic.

Therefore it is that there is often chaos in the world, and the love of knowledge is ever at the bottom of it. For all men strive to grasp what they do not know, while none strive to grasp what they already know; and all strive to discredit what they do not excel in, while none strive to discredit what they do excel in. That is why there is chaos. Thus, above, the splendor of the heavenly bodies is dimmed; below, the power of land and water is burned up, while in between the influence of the four  seasons is upset. There is not one tiny worm that moves on earth or insect that flies in the air but has lost its original nature. Such indeed is the world chaos caused by the desire for knowledge! Ever since the time of the Three Dynasties  downwards, it has been like this. The simple and the guileless have been set aside; the specious and the cunning have been exalted. Tranquil inaction has given place to love of disputation; and disputation alone is enough to bring chaos upon  the world.

The Spirit of the Ocean

“Should we regard the universe as great and the tip of a hair as small?” asked the Spirit of the River.

“Not at all,” said the Spirit of the Ocean. “Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he  knows that there is no limit to dimensions. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end. He investigates fullness and decay, and therefore does not rejoice  if he succeeds, nor lament if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not constant. He who clearly apprehends the scheme of existence does not rejoice over life, nor repine at death; for he knows that terms are not final.

“What man knows is not to be compared with what he does not know. The span of his existence is not to be compared with the span of his non-existence. To strive to exhaust the infinite by means of the infinitesimal necessarily lands him in confusion and unhappiness. How then should one be able to say that the tip of a hair is the ultimate of smallness, or that the universe is ultimate of greatness?”

“If we look at the great from the standpoint of the small, we cannot reach its limit; and if we  look at the small from the standpoint of the great, it eludes our sight. The infinitesimal is a subdivision of the small; the  colossal is an extension of the great. In this sense the two fall into different categories. This lies in the nature of circumstances. Now smallness and greatness presuppose form. That which is without form cannot be divided by numbers, and that which is above measurement cannot be measured. The greatness of anything may be a topic of discussion, and  the smallness of anything may be mentally imagined. But that which can be neither a topic of discussion nor imagined mentally cannot be said to have greatness or smallness.

“Therefore, the truly great man does not injure others and does not credit himself with charity and mercy. He seeks not gain, but does not despise the servants who do. He struggles not for wealth, but does not lay great value on his modesty. He asks for help from no man, but is not proud of his self-reliance, neither does he despise the greedy. He acts differently from the vulgar crowd, but does not place high value on being different or eccentric; nor because he acts with the majority does he despise those that flatter a few. The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and  shame no cause for disgrace. He knows that right and wrong cannot be distinguished, that great and small cannot be  defined.

“I have heard say, ‘The man of Tao has no concern for reputation; the truly virtuous has no concern for possessions; the  truly great man ignores self.’ This is the height of self-discipline.”

“But how then,” asked the Spirit of the River, “arise the distinctions of high and low, of great and small in the material and  immaterial aspects of things?”

“From the point of view of Tao,” replied the Spirit of the Ocean, “there are no such distinctions of high and low. From the  point of view of individuals, each holds himself high and holds others low. From the vulgar point of view, high and low honours and dishonour are things conferred by others. “In regard to distinctions, if we say that a thing is great or small  by its own standard of great or small, then there is nothing in all creation which is not great, nothing which is not small. To  know that the universe is but as a tare-seed, and the tip of a hair is (as big as) a mountain, – this is the expression of relativity.

“In regard to function, if we say something exists or does not exist, by its own standard of existence or non-existence, then there is nothing which does not exist, nothing which does not perish from existence. If we know east and west are  convertible and yet necessary terms in relation to each other, then such (relative) functions may be determined.

“In regard to man’s desires or interests, if we say that anything is good or bad because it is either good or bad according to  our individual (subjective) standards, then there is nothing which is not good, nothing – which is not bad. If we know that Yao and Chieh each regarded himself as good and the other as bad, then the (direction of) their interests becomes apparent.

“Of old Yao and Shun abdicated in favour of worthy successors and the rule was maintained, while Kuei (Prince of Yen)  abdicated (in favor of Tsechih) and the latter failed. T’ang and Wu got the empire by fighting, while by fighting, Po Kung lost it. From this it may be seen that the value of abdicating or fighting, of acting like Yao or like Chieh, varies according to time, and may not be regarded as a constant principle. “A battering-ram can knock down a wall, but it cannot repair a breach.”

“Different things are differently applied. Chichi and Hualiu (famous horses) could travel 1,000 li in one day, but for catching rats they were not equal to a wild cat. Different animals possess different aptitudes. An owl can catch fleas at night, and see the tip of a hair, but if it comes out in the daytime it can open wide its eyes and yet fail to see a mountain. Different creatures are differently constituted.

“Thus, those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong; or good government without its correlate, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation. One might as well talk of the existence of Heaven without that of Earth, or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly impossible. Yet people keep on discussing it without stop; such people must be either fools or knaves.

“Rulers abdicated under different conditions, and the Three Dynasties succeeded each other under different conditions. Those who came at the wrong time and went against the tide are called usurpers. Those who came at the right time and  fitted in with their age are called defenders of Right. Hold your peace, Uncle River. How can you know the distinctions of high and low and of the houses of the great and small?”

“In this case,” replied the Spirit of the River, “what am I to do about declining and accepting, following and abandoning courses of action?”

“From the point of view of Tao,” said the Spirit of the Ocean. “How can we call this high and that low? For there is (the process of) reverse evolution (uniting opposites). To follow one  absolute course would involve great departure from Tao. What is much? What is little? Be thankful for the gift. To follow a  one-sided opinion is to diverge from Tao. Be exalted, as the ruler of a State whose administration is impartial. Be at ease, as the Deity of the Earth, whose dispensation is impartial. Be expansive, like the points of the compass, boundless without  a limit. Embrace all creation, and none shall be more sheltered or helped than another. This is to be without bias. And all  things being equal, how can one say which is long and which is short?

“Tao is without beginning, without end. The material  things are born and die, and no credit is taken for their development. Emptiness and fullness alternate, and their relations are not fixed. Past years cannot be recalled; time cannot be arrested. The succession of growth and decay, of increase and diminution, goes in a cycle, each end becoming a new beginning. In this sense only may we discuss the ways of truth and the principles of the universe. The life of things passes by like a rushing, galloping horse, changing at every turn, at every hour. What should one do, or what should one not do? Let the cycle of changes go on by themselves!”

“If this is the case,” said the Spirit of the River, “what is the value of Tao?”

“Those who understand Tao,” answered the Spirit of the Ocean “must necessarily apprehend the eternal principles and  those who apprehend the eternal principles must understand their application. Those who understand their application do  not suffer material things to injure them.

“The man of perfect virtue cannot be burnt by fire, nor drowned by water, nor hurt by  the cold of winter or the heat of summer, nor torn by bird or beast. Not that he makes light of these; but that he discriminates  between safety and danger, is happy under prosperous and adverse circumstances alike, and cautious in his choice of  action, so that none can harm him.

“Therefore it has been said that Heaven (the natural) abides within man (the artificial) without. Virtue abides in the natural. Knowledge of the action of the natural and of the artificial has its basis in the natural its destination in virtue. Thus, whether moving forward or backwards whether yielding or asserting, there is always a reversion to the essential and to the ultimate.”

“What do you mean,” enquired the Spirit of the River, “by the natural and the artificial?”

“Horses and oxen,” answered the Spirit of the Ocean, “have four feet. That is the natural. Put a halter on a horse’s head, a string through a bullock’s nose. That is the artificial.

“Therefore it has been said – do not let the artificial obliterate the natural; do not let will obliterate destiny; do not let virtue be  sacrificed to fame. Diligently observe these precepts without fail, and thus you will revert to the True.”


The walrus envies the centipede; the centipede envies the snake; the snake envies the wind; the wind envies the eye; and the eye envies the mind. The walrus said to the centipede, “I hop about on one leg but not very successfully. How do  you manage all those legs you have?”

“I don’t manage them,” replied the centipede. “Have you never seen saliva? When it is ejected, the big drops are the size of  pearls, the small ones like mist. At random they fall, in countless numbers. So, too, does my natural mechanism move, without my knowing how I do it.”

The centipede said to the snake, “With all my legs I do not move as fast as you with none. How is that?”

“One’s natural mechanism,” replied the snake, “is not a thing to be changed. What need have I for legs?”

The snake said to the wind, “I wriggle about by moving my spine, as if I had legs. Now you seem to be without form, and yet you come blustering down from the North Sea to bluster away to the South Sea. How do you do it?”

“This is true,” replied the wind, “that I bluster as you say. But anyone who sticks his finger or his foot into me, excels me. On the other hand, I can tear away huge trees and destroy large buildings. This power is given only to me. Out of many minor defeats, I win the big victory. And to win a big victory is given only to the Sages.”

Happiness of fish | Death comes to all | Cutting up a bullock | Contents