Notes on Chuang-Tzu

DT Strain

Spiritual Naturalist
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Any chance of posting something here? It tends to be frowned upon if there's nothing to actually read and discuss within CR itself.
Sure. Actually, this is in reference to a continuation of the thread here in the comparative-religion forums that I provided a link to (this one), so that material I thought would serve the purpose mention.

But if not, then here goes...

Notes on Chuang-Tzu

by DT Strain, 2005

I was recently looking into how the Taoist conception of the universe, the Tao, and Li "organic pattern" affected how it is believed a person should live his life. After asking about this on the Comparative Religion Forums, A poster by the screen name of Vajradhara responded, saying that I should check out the Taoist "Chuang-Tzu", a fairly brief writing which he said is often coupled along with the Tao Te Ching (the central work of Taoism). Many thanks to Vajradhara.

I found a translation (, and have recently completed my reading of it. I found it both astonishing and moving. Chuang-Tzu covers how knowledge of the Tao should guide the behavior of both the individual and the state. The following are my notes on Chuang-Tzu, a just-over 9 page document condensed from the 53 page original. Not knowing the original language, I unfortunately had to approach Chuang-Tzu through the filter of a translation rather than the original in its native form, so this may have tainted my understanding. My notes are therefore an even further step removed on top of that, and therefore should not be looked at as a substitute for reading the original, or even a translation of the original. Also, lacking the beautiful narrative and more full examples of the Chuang-Tzu itself, my notes will seem stark by comparison.

Below the notes I've included some excerpts in italics. These are not meant to be complete "proofs" that what I claim in the note is supported by the text of Chuang-Tzu. In many cases more of the surrounding context of Chuang-Tzu would need to be read to get the meaning I derived in the above note. The passage is provided only to give a reference for what general portion of the document I was referring to.

Furthermore, these notes do not necessarily include everything the Chuang-Tzu teaches, as I was reading with a narrow focus on information concerning specifically how knowledge of Tao relates to behavior and lifestyle. Lastly, I am not an expert or a scholar so my interpretations may be off in places, and are open to debate. Comments are welcome in the comments section to the right - thanks!

Body of Notes here...
Hi DT Strain,

Those were some really good insights to Chang Tzu's writings.

In reference to the Utility and Futility you had in your notes, I thought I might perhaps share my understanding of them.

"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."

In the stories of Chang Tzu, he highlights some very important insights in utility and futility.

For instance in the tree example to preserve his "treeness" and alloted life span the tree in its inherent wisdom chose to grow deformed. The tree understood the usefulness in growing this way. Man did not, he saw it as good for nothing. Because the tree had no use to man he was then able to live the allotted life span without mans interference.

When man attempts to control nature or abuse nature often his attempts are very futile as mother nature will fight back. And this is what the quote of Chang Tzu is pointing at. Man fails to see the usefulness in futility. This illustrates that although the attempts to control mother nature are futile the lesson learned is very useful to man in gaining the greater understanding of how nature works.

Learning how to live with nature is by far more useful to man but can he learn from his futility.


A question about Chuang Tzu (not completely related to this thread but I didn't want to start another one just for this).
I want to get the book, and I read that scholars separate the book into inner, outer and miscellaneus chapters.

Can anybody provide a critique of these sections, as to what flavours do they have, and how relevant or irrelevant they are. I suppose where I am heading is "how canonical they are" if such a question is relevant at all.:confused:

In contrast to the likely mythical Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, Chuang-tzu is believed to have actually existed and lived in a small town in China around 350 B.C. So far as I know, the "inner" chapters are the ones that scholars tend to believe were written by Chuang-tzu, himself. The "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters are those which are supposed to have been written by proceeding students which attirbuted their work to Chuang-tzu.

In the translations I've read, you wouldn't have been able to tell the groupings apart. In some translations, even, the three sections are intentionally mixed together lest one get the idea that they require delineation for a well-rounded read. All the ideas expressed in Chuang-Tzu reflect each other, and almost any chapter can be enriched in meaning by taking the others into account.

Now, scholars have gone to great expense to analyze the individual chapters, attempting to determine which proceeding schools of thought the Chuang-inspired writers of the "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters likely subscribed to. From a scholarly perspective, this work is most invaluable. But for the average reader, such focused analysis is mostly inconsequential. The idea is that "Chuang-tzu" is a kind of attitude toward life that is pointed to in innumerable ways, each anecdote or commentary further illuminating the perspective.

Although there may be some differences in certain sections or some disparity between the precise viewpoints expressed by adherents of various schools of thought, the process of translation usually smooths these over such that they are not particularly apparent. However, many translations are thick with footnotes detailing places where the original text is corrupted, the dominant school of thought in some sections, puns that are not translatable, and so on. The particular translation I enjoyed reading the most was by Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly.
Thanks for that. I forgot to say that most of the books I've seen (in amazon) include all of the inner chapters plus a few of the other ones. So I thought there must be some logic to this bias, that maybe the other ones aren't completely harmonious, or in the best case are dispensable.

Good to hear your view, the Palmer/Breuilly that you mention is the only full translation I've come across.
Good to hear your view, the Palmer/Breuilly that you mention is the only full translation I've come across.
Yeah, it was actually the only full translation that I could find in printed form. I believe that I've come across certain translations of the entire book on the internet, but I don't remember exactly where.

Thanks for that. I forgot to say that most of the books I've seen (in amazon) include all of the inner chapters plus a few of the other ones. So I thought there must be some logic to this bias, that maybe the other ones aren't completely harmonious, or in the best case are dispensable.

What it boils down to is that the "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters are most all influenced by a variety of different schools of Chinese thought, schools of which Chuang-Tzu, himself, was not a part.

Taoism is a term which escapes simple definition, since it is in many ways more of a cultural mindset than a 'religion'. It has assumed many different forms throughout the history of China. When people talk about philosophical Taoism, they are usually referring to "Taoism as explained by...". Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, and Lieh-Tzu tend to be the three most popular sources of unique Taoist thought in that regard. Thus, the "Inner Chapters" of Chuang-Tzu which are attributed to the Masters hand are considered the 'pure' chapters, in a sense. They are definitive examples of Taoist insight, and it is the quintessential attitude expressed in those chapters which set the scene for all the others. The "Outer" and "Miscellaneous" chapters are considered to be less distinctly Taoist, since the additions by innumerable authors following Chuang-Tzu inevitably transfer some of the characteristics of their respective schools of thought. I, personally, did not find that this affects the relevance or value of the "outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters, though.

Furthermore, since the "Inner Chapters" were purportedly composed by a single hand, we can be pretty certain that they are complete and stand as a cohesive unit as expressed by the essential voice of the text. The others chapters may contribute greatly to that which Chuang-Tzu seeks to express, but they are sometimes seen as 'additions' or 'supporting examples' rather than bearing the bulk of Chuang-Tzu's points. Again, I did not really find this to be the case in the strict sense of reading the full Chuang-Tzu. From an analytical perspective, though, delving into the historical development of Chuang-Tzu, I think this could be shown to be the case.