Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu

I finished reading Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu over a week ago and have struggled to find the best way to offer my impressions of it since. I’ve noticed lately that the more I like a book the harder it is for me to discuss it. I’ve been struggling with Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River for over a month now and still haven’t managed to organize my ideas effectively.

Merton is one of those writer’s I’ve always thought I should like, try to like, but generally end up disappointed in his books. However, I’ve been wanting to read another book on Taoism so when I read positive views of Merton’s work I decided to give him another try, though I definitely hesitant to do so. As it turns out, this is by far my favorite of Merton’s works I’ve read. The experience has been almost diametrically opposed to previous experiences.

For me, Merton’s introduction to Chuang Tzu and Taoism is worth the price of the book in itself. I’m certainly no Taoist expert, but I’ve read a lot of Taoist thought and I don’t think I’ve ever found a clearer explanation of its basic principles than I found here. I found it helpful to see Taoism through the eyes of a western contemplative.

The rather special nature of this book calls for some explanation. The texts from Chuang Tzu assembled here are the result of five years of reading, study, annotation, and meditation. The notes have in time acquired a shape of their own and have become, as it were, “imitations” of Chuang Tzu, or rather, free interpretative readings of characteristic passages which appeal especially to me.


These “readings” are then not attempts at faithful reproduction but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation. Inevitably, any rendering of Chuang Tzu is bound to be very personal. Though, from the point of view of scholarship, I am not even a dwarf sitting on the shoulders of these giants, and though not all my renderings can even qualify as “poetry,” I believe that a certain type of reader will enjoy my intuitive approach to a thinker who is subtle, funny, provocative, and not easy to get at.

A scholarly reader who wants a totally “accurate” reading of Chuang Tzu might not be as happy with this collection as I was, but I am primarily interested in the practical philosophy found in Chuang Tzu and other Taoist thinkers and how it applies to my life. In fact it’s concepts like this

Chuang Tzu is not concerned with words and formulas about reality, but with the direct existential grasp of reality in itself. Such a grasp is necessarily obscure and does not lend itself to abstract analysis. It can be presented in a parable, a fable, or a funny story about a conversation between two philosophers. … But the whole teaching, the “way” contained in these anecdotes, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push, and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society. This other is a “way” that prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of some supposedly spiritual attainment.

that in recent years have drawn me more and more to philosophical Taoism, and related forms of Buddhism. My experiences as an Army officer taught me that I preferred “not to get anywhere in the world,” and that I lacked “ambition,” particularly when it obliged me to act in ways I didn’t want to act.

More importantly, despite an extensive “toy collection,” I discovered long ago that I was never going to be happy by striving to make money and by buying things.

He takes up this question of the good in the meditation that I have called “Perfect Joy.” First of all he denies that happiness can be found by hedonism or utilitarianism (the “profit motive” of Mo Ti). The life of riches, ambition, pleasure is in reality an intolerable servitude in which one “lives for what is always out of reach,” thirsting “for survival in future” and “incapable of living in the present.”

Too few people seem to realize that most businesses are really selling “wanting,” not a product that satisfies any real need. How often does the thrill of owning something last as long as the payments?

I’ve long been aware that not wanting something is better than actually owning it, but it took me much longer to learn this truth:

To put it simply, the hero of virtue and duty ultimately lands himself in the same ambiguities as the hedonist and the utilitarian. Why? Because he aims at achieving “the good” as object. He engages in a self-conscious and deliberate campaign to “do his duty” in the belief that this is right and therefore productive of happiness. He sees “happiness” and “the good” as “something to be attained,” and thus he places them outside himself in the world of objects. In so doing, he becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape: between the present, in which he is not yet in possession of what he seeks, and the future in which he thinks he will have what he desires: between the wrong and the evil, the absence of what he seeks, and the good that he hopes to make present by his efforts to eliminate the evils; between his own idea of right and wrong, and the contrary idea of right and wrong held by some other philosophical school. And so on.

After I came back from Vietnam I spent much of my life trying to be a “hero of virtue and duty,” trying to do “good,” though never quite sure what “good” was. Of course, as a teacher it became clear fairly soon that it wasn’t easy know what was “right” or “wrong,” and you seldom knew if you were doing more harm than good when it came to teaching some students.

Since retirement, with no real goals left, I’ve begun to move toward the kind of life Merton describes here:

Chuang Tzu’s Taoism is nostalgic for the primordial climate of paradise in which there was no differentiation, in which man was utterly simple, unaware of himself, living at peace with himself, with Tao, and with all other creatures. But for Chuang this paradise is not something that has been irrevocably lost by sin and cannot be regained except by redemption. It is still ours, but we do not know it, since the effect of life in society is to complicate and confuse our existence, making us forget who we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not. It is this self-awareness, which we try to increase and perfect by all sorts of methods and practices, that is really a forgetfulness of our true roots in the “unknown Tao” and our solidarity in the “uncarved block” in which there are as yet no distinctions.

At its best, birding for me recaptures for a moment, at least, “the primordial climate of paradise.” Surrounded by birds totally oblivious to you, you can identify with Emerson when he says, “ I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” Strange that in moments like this is when I’m increasingly happiest.

I’m still not sure what wu wei is, but Merton nudges me a little closer to an understanding of it:

The true character of wu wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action because it is act without activity. In other words, it is action not carried out independently of Heaven and earth and in conflict with the dynamism of the whole, but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but it is action that seems both effortless and spontaneous because performed “rightly,” in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is completely free because there is in it no force and no violence, It is not “conditioned” or “limited” by our own individual needs and desires, or even by our own theories and ideas.

I’m not sure if I ever practice wu wei, but it is certainly emphasized in Tai Chi. The hardest part of the practice is learning to totally relax while you are moving. I have begun to apply this to my walks, particularly my walks in the gym where I try to sustain aerobic levels. I’ve become more conscious of unnecessary tightness in other muscles, tightness that holds me back and tires me out but adds nothing to my exercise.

It reminds me of the 30+ years where I played basketball in the evening. The best games were always those where I played “unconsciously,” and the worst games were always when I thought too much. Nothing ensured that I would miss a shot quicker than actually thinking about the shot before I took it.