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Chuang tzu's advice on recognizing the true nature of things

What would Chuang tzu think about this tree?
What would Chuang tzu think about this tree?
Photo by Tristan Fewings

In a recent article “Unraveling the mysterious and misunderstood concept of P'u”, we examined how the true meaning of P'u is not the uncarved block, rather it is the ideal of remaining or returning to a state of untouched naturalness. The trees of an uncut forest.

Now we will reflect on what Chuang tzu had to say about the true nature of things, and how to observe things as they are. For lack of a better name lets call this the story of “the ugly tree or the tree on the mountain”:

“Hui-tse [a woodcutter/lumberjack] said to [Chuang tzu], 'I have a large tree which no carpenter can cut into lumber. Its branches and trunk are crooked and tough, covered with bumps and depressions. No builder would turn his head to look at it. Your teachings are the same---useless, without value. Therefore, no one pays attention to them.'

'As you know,' [Chuang tzu] replied, 'a cat is very skilled at capturing its prey. Crouching low, it can leap in any direction, pursuing whatever it is after. But when its attention is focused on such things, it can be easily caught with a net. On the other hand, a huge yak it not easily caught or overcome. It stands like a stone, or a cloud in the sky. But for all its strength, it cannot catch a mouse.'

'You complain that your tree is not valuable as lumber. But you could make use of the shade it provides, rest under its sheltering branches, admiring its sheltering branches, and stroll beneath it, admiring its character and appearance. Since it would not be endangered by an ax, what could threaten its existence? It is useless to you only because you want to make it into something else and do not use it in its proper way. (The Tao of Pooh)”

After this incident Chuang tzu left the mountain and spent the night at a friends house. The friend, honored by his visit, asks one of the servants to cook a goose. The servant wanted to know if he should kill the goose that cackles or the one that cannot, the friend responded with “the one that cannot cackle”.

Later on Chuang tzu's students were perplexed by this apparent paradox and asked their teacher, “yesterday you said the tree in the mountains would live out its years because it was useless. Now the goose in your friends house was killed because it was useless. Which would you prefer, to be useful or to be useless?

“[Chuang tzu] laughed and said, 'If I were to say that I would prefer to be in the intermediate position between being useful and being useless, that might seem to the right position. But it is not, for we will not be able to avoid difficulties. One who follows the virtue of the dao [Tao] is free of difficulties. He is above praise or condemnation, moves like a dragon or a snake, and is transformed with the ongoing changes of the times without being fixed upon on thing. Now high and now low, he is in harmony with all and with the origin of all things. He presides over all things while nothing can preside over him. How could there be then any difficulties? This is the path of Shennong and the Yellow Emperor. But it is different in the world of things and varying practices of human relations. Union brings separation; becoming, passing away; sharp corners, the use of a file; honour, disparagement; activity, failure; knowledge, plotting; inability, contempt. Where is constancy to be found? the dao [Tao] and its virtue. (Zhuangzi)”

What things are we trying to make into something else and not use in its proper way? Are you the useless tree or the useless goose? If you think you are useful, the higher question is useful to whom, or to what?

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