Wandering Freely at Ease (Part 1)

Note: This chapter will be presented in two parts.

This chapter, Wandering Freely at Ease, reveals for the first time in Taoist philosophy the three ranks for those achieving successful Taoist cultivation. Zhuang Zi states there is the Perfected Person (眞 人, Zhen Ren), Spirit-Like Person (神 人, Shen Ren), and the Sagely Person(聖 人, Sheng Ren). In brief, the Perfected Person is referring to someone who, through self-training and cultivation, gains a perfected state of being. The Spirit-Like Person is someone who, through various endowments and merits, has awakened their spirit and so is considered illuminated. The Sagely Person is someone who has attained to the state of wisdom and insight. All three types can be a result of focused and long-term self-cultivation, but the last two could just as well be a result of the person’s inherited endowments or merits.

This chapter also reveals that creatures large and small, short or long lived, are actually identical in their experiences of life; there is no need for them to make judgements of each other, as they all can find happiness in whatever Tao in which they find themselves.

Zhuang Zi likewise makes clear in this chapter that “nothingness” is really useful, an idea coming from Lao Zi but expanded upon here. 

Lastly, it’s important to note that the three ideograms in the title of this chapter all have as their main radical, chuo (辶, or sometimes written as 辵), which reveals the idea of “now walking, now stopping,” but contained in the meaning of “untroubled enjoyment,” “to do as one pleases,” “to move or not move as one wishes.” The radical chuo can also be used in Taoism to mean a “watercourse way,” just as seen in the ideogram for Tao (道).

Wandering Freely at Ease

逍 遙 遊, Xiao Yao You

* * *

In the Northern Deep there is a fish called Kun.1 How many miles in size it is is unknowable, but it can transform into a bird called Peng2 whose back is thousands of miles in size. After its wings gain enough energy, it flies, and its wings appear as clouds suspended in the sky. When this bird does take flight it causes the seas to churn, and this means it is about to shift to the dark waters of the Southern Deep. These southern waters are sometimes called Heaven’s Pond.3

In the Qi Xie,4 a record of tall fantastic tales, it is conveyed, “When the Peng is shifting to the southern dark waters, it churns the water over an expanse of three thousand miles, and so creates a cyclone that supports its rise to a height of ninety thousand miles. After flying for six months it then rests.” Contrast the enormity of this with the movements of the morning mists, dust, or what is blown upon one living creature to another.

Is azure the sky’s true color, or is it just a mark of its unfathomable distance and depth? When the Peng looks down, all it sees is a similar blueness. 

If there is not a sufficient depth of a body of water a large boat cannot be supported upon it. If you empty a cup of water on the floor, a straw can serve as a boat in the small puddles, but if you place a cup there it will simply ground, as the water is too shallow to support it. Similarly, if the wind is insufficient it cannot support huge wings. Only at a height of ninety thousand miles is there enough wind to support the Peng. Then, with only the blue sky above it and nothing else obstructing it, the Peng can travel south.

When a small cicada heard this story, he smiled and said to a pigeon, “When I want to fly, I just rise quickly up into an elm or sapanwood tree. If I do not reach the top immediately I simply glide back to the ground. Why does the Peng have to rise ninety thousand miles before it can start flying south?”

1. Kun, 鯤, a legendary giant fish that can transform itself into a giant bird, the Roc.

2. Peng, 鵬, a large fabulous bird usually called the Roc.

3. Heaven’s Pond (天 池, Tian Chi) could also be translated as the Heavenly Pool.

4. Qi Xie, 齊 諧. 

* * *

Anybody who travels nearby to the grassy outskirts will eat three bowls of food and still return home with their stomachs full. If traveling a hundred miles, a person will pack enough grain to last a whole night; traveling a thousand miles, they will take enough provisions for three months. But what do cicadas and pigeons know about such things?

A trifle of knowledge is not comparable with the measure of vast knowledge, no more than youth is comparable with old age. How do I know this? All we need do is observe that the morning mushroom never knows either the last day of a month or the first day of the following month, nor does the mountain cicada ever know both spring and autumn—they are both too short-lived to know these things.

South of Chu5 there is a tree called Ming Ling6 where five hundred of our years are considered but a spring to this tree, and another five hundred just an autumn. In high antiquity, the Da Chun7 tree needed eight thousand of our years for just a spring and another eight thousand for just an autumn. Yet today the immortal Peng Zu8 with a life span of over seven hundred years is famous for his incredible longevity and is used as a standard of comparison! 

5. Chu, 楚, a reference to the State of Chu, present day Shandong province, where both Lao Zi and Zhuang Zhou were born.

6. Ming Ling, 冥 靈, literally meaning “a profound and deep immortal spirit.

7. Da Chun, 大 椿, a great tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

8. Peng Zu, 彭 祖, a legendary Taoist figure dated to the Zhang dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) who reportedly lived some 800 years.

* * *

In the Questions Put by Tang to Ji,9 there is a similar account. “In the desolate north lies the deep, dark ocean known as Heaven’s Pond, where lives a fish that is thousands of miles in width and no one is certain of its length. This fish is called Kun. There is also a bird living there, called Peng. Its back is as broad as Mount Tai2 and its wings are like clouds hanging in the sky. After creating a cyclone of wind it then spirals itself up ninety thousand miles. Then, when beyond the clouds and with only blue sky to its back, it travels south and goes to the deep, dark waters there.

The quail in the meadow laughs at it, saying, “Where is that thing going? All I need do is jump up, and within a few feet I just flutter down upon the grass. This is certainly the longest flight possible, so where is that thing going?” This is the difference between smallness and vastness.

The petty jobholders, the magistrates, the loyal followers of one ruler, and the rulers of state all share the same narrow-mindedness as the quail, and even though the humanitarian Rong Zi11 of the Song12 mocked the narrow-mindedness of all these persons, he himself is tarnished by the same brush. 

So, even if we were to give praise to an entire generation this would not incite such persons [like Rong Zi] to gain a better understanding, nor would criticizing an entire generation prevent them from their idle chatter. But this is what it means to have fixed views about things internal and external, and to distinguish rigidly between honor and dishonor. Not everyone shares the attitude Rong Zi of Song expresses about our age, and even if it were so, further proof of his claims would still be required.

9. Questions Put by Tang to Ji (湯 之 問 棘, Tang Zhi Wen Ji).

10. Mount Tai (泰 山, Tai Shan), Hua Shan in present day Shandong province.

11. Rong Zi [榮 子], a philosopher living during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE).

12. The State of Song [宋] was a state during the Zhou dynasty China. The state was founded right after King Wu of Zhou conquered the Shang dynasty to establish the Zhou dynasty in 1046 BCE. Not to be confused with the later Song dynasty (960–1279 CE).

Translation © 2019 by Stuart Alve Olson

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