The Man of Taos

The version of Chuang Tzu I read previously, The Essential Chuang Tzu translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton was offered as a prose translation, so I was a little surprised when most, though, not all, of the excerpts in Merton’s version were offered as poems. Merton is definitely playing to my bias since I am much fonder of poetry than philosophical tombs.

I don’t know if this


The man in whom Tao
Acts without impediment
Harms no other being
By his actions
Yet he does not know himself
To be “kind,” to be “gentle.”

The man in whom Tao
Acts without impediment
Does not bother with his own interests
And does not despise
Others who do.
He does not struggle to make money
And does not make a virtue of poverty.
He goes his way
Without relying on others
And does not pride himself
On walking alone.
While he does not follow the crowd
He won’t complain of those who do.
Rank and reward
Make no appeal to him;
Disgrace and shame
Do not deter him.
He is not always looking
For right and wrong
Always deciding “Yes” or “No.”
The ancients said, therefore:

“The man of Tao
Remains unknown
Perfect virtue
Produces nothing
Is ‘True-Self!
And the greatest man
Is Nobody.”

was originally written as a poem, but I do know that presenting it as a poem seems to distinguish, while emphasizing, the ideas. The very concreteness of the Man of Taos’ actions reinforces the overarching themes of the poem.

I began to understand the true nature of the Man of Taos when reading the lines “Yet he does not know himself /To be “kind,” to be “gentle.” Of course, it’s not a new idea as it reminded me of Matthew 6:2-4 (New King James Version)

2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

But it’s a concept too often ignored or overlooked in a society where fame certainly takes precedence over virtue. I must admit it also reminds me of those annoying Christians who claim to be God’s Chosen People because of their beliefs, and their occasional actions. Needless to say, it’s far easier to want to be humble than it is to be humble, but it still seems a noble aim. Just pointing out this “flaw” in others might be considered a flaw in itself because it’s this “judging” that seems to separate us from the Taos, and our fellow humans.

The lines “He is not always looking/For right and wrong/Always deciding ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ strike me as the key lines here. This reminds me of a nearly forgotten Henry Miller line, “Nothing is right or wrong but thinking makes it so. You no longer believe in reality but in thinking.” I can remember rejecting the idea when I first heard it in college because it was so contrary to how I’d been raised. As I’ve aged, though, it seems more and more true. (Of course, I can remember having a fit when my daughter was writing a college paper on India arguing that the British were wrong to ban Sati. When I pushed back, she said her professors would have a fit if she ignored the cultural traditions of the Indian people. I was having none of it; the practice was just plain immoral in my mind, and no one could ever convince me otherwise.)

Chuang Tzu seems to argue that this constant judging lies at the heart of man’s alienation from the Taos, though others might argue that this “judging” is the very basis of critical reasoning.

8 thoughts on “The Man of Taos”

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. I added it to my wish list, though I have quite a stack waiting to be read here in my den.

  2. I know very little of eastern religions and philosophies, but the poem is beautiful and accessible. And I agree wholeheartedly about sati. Burning up live people is a bad thing to do. Many cultural and religious practices are cruel and stupid and should be ended.

  3. Seems to me that there’s a gulf between a man who “harms no other being” and one who is “charitable.” I’m not sure charity is valued in Taoism.

    1. It’s certainly not a central focus in Merton’s version, though it’s alluded to in several places. Merton discusses charity as a virtue in Confucian philosophy and places Chuang Tzu in that context. Chuang Tzu criticizes those who merely perform the rituals of benevolence in Hamil’s interpretation.

      The Tao-Te-Ching says, “If Tao perishes, then Virtue will perish; if Virtue perishes, then Charity will perish; if Charity perishes, then Duty to one’s neighbour will perish; if Duty to one’s neighbour perishes, then Ceremonies will perish.” So virtue and charity seemed intrinsically linked.

      1. I found this chapter from Chuang Tzu thtat discusses charity as something, well, “non-perfect”:

        No sense here that it’s a valued trait (“And those whom I regard as cultivators of the Tao are not those who cultivate charity and duty to one’s neighbor.”)

        I watched a movie recently about Fr. Damien who gave his life to help the lepers in Hawaii. Chuang Tzu seems almost to have him, non-favorably, in mind in some passages of the chapter I’ve linked.

        1. I think Chuang Tzu’s main objection to these forms of charity can be found in the lines, “People who graft on charity, force themselves to display this virtue in order to gain reputation and to enjoy the applause of the world for that which is of no account. Of such were Tseng and Shih.”

          You have to remember part of what Chuang Tzu was reacting against was Confucian society, where rigid demands were imposed by society and rituals were an essential part of the culture. Charity was one such demand.

          But, I suspect that you’re right that Chuang Tzu would not have seen sacrificing yourself to serve others as following the Taos.

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