One of my absolute heroes is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
He walked the mystery between Christianity and Buddhism in ways that have called to my heart over the many years. He has been a companion, a guide, offering correction and encouragement every step I’ve taken. He counts in my life as central, along with Eihei Dogen, Hakuin Ekaku, the author of the Book of Job, and the Heart Sutra.
Possibly my favorite of his books is his Wisdom of the Desert, where he selects and translates and, it seems pretty obvious, massages those anecdotes of the Desert fathers and mothers to demonstrate a universal nondual spirituality. Whatever the merits of that collection, it pointed a way for me. And I remain grateful to this day.
Zhuang Zhou, or, in the Wade Giles transliteration used by Father Merton, Chuang Tzu was a Taoist sage, again using the Wade Giles version living sometime before 250 B.C. The eponymous Zhuganzi is believed to contain both his own writings and writings by others about him and his teachings. The quotations I collected here were adapted by the good monk after reading four different translations, two in English, one in French, the other in German, and then washing them through the depths of his heart.
And with that something marvelous appears. I think it worth sharing.
As Thomas Merton says in his introductory note, you enter upon the way of Chuang Tzu when you leave all ways and get lost.
Welcome to that place where we are called to remove our shoes and walk on holy ground.
To name Tao is to name no-thing.
Tao is not the name of (something created).
“Cause” and “chance” have no bearing on the Tao.
Tao is a name that indicates without defining.
Tao is beyond words and beyond things.
It is not expressed either in word or in silence.
Where there is no longer word or silence
Tao is apprehended.
(25:11, p. 226)
Beyond human knowledge and understanding
Great knowledge sees all in one. Small knowledge breaks down into the many.
(2:2, p. 55)
By ethical argument and moral principle the greatest crimes are eventually shown to have been necessary, and, in fact, a signal benefit to mankind.
(9:2, p. 101)
Distinguishing ego from true self
All that is limited by form, semblance, sound, color is called object.
Among them all, man alone is more than an object.
Though, like objects, he has form and semblance,
He is not limited to form.
He is more.
He can attain to formlessness.
When he is beyond form and semblance, beyond “this” and “that,”
where is the comparison with another object?
Where is the conflict?
What can stand in his way?
He will rest in his eternal place which is no-place.
He will be hidden in his own unfathomable secret.
His nature sinks to its root in the One.
His vitality, his power hide in secret Tao.
(19:2, pp 155-156)
Understanding the nature of desire
When he tries to extend his power over objects,
those objects gain control of him.
He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self…
Prisoners in the world of object,
they have no choice but to submit to the demands of matter!
They are pressed down and crushed by external forces:
fashion, the market, events, public opinion.
Never in a whole lifetime do they recover their right mind!…
What a pity!
(23:8 and 24:4, p. 202, 211)
You train your eye and your vision lusts after color.
You train your ear, and you long for delightful sound.
You delight in doing good, and your natural kindness is blown out of shape.
You delight in righteousness, and you become righteous beyond all reason.
You overdo liturgy, and you turn into a ham actor.
Overdo your love of music, and you play corn.
Love of wisdom leads to wise contriving.
Love of knowledge leads to faultfinding.
If men would stay as they really are, taking or leaving these eight delights would make no difference.
But if they will not rest in their right state, the eight delights develop like malignant tumors.
The world falls into confusion.
Since men honour these delights, and lust after them, the world has gone stone-blind.
When the delight is over, they still will not let go of it…
(11:1-2, pp. 103-104)
Love of colors bewilders the eye and it fails to see right.
Love of harmonies bewitches the ear, and it loses its true hearing.
Love of perfumes fills the head with dizziness.
Love of flavors ruins the taste.
Desires unsettle the heart until the original nature runs amok.
These five are enemies of true life.
Yet these are what men of discernment claim to live for.
They are not what I live for.
If this is life, then pigeons in a cage have found happiness!
(12:15, p. 118)
What is fasting of the heart?
The goal of fasting is inner unity.
This means hearing, but not with the ear;
hearing, but not with the understanding;
hearing with the spirit, with your whole being…
The hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind.
Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties.
And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens.
There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you
that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.
Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitation and from preoccupation.
Fasting of the heart begets unity and freedom.
I see. What was standing in my way was my own self-awareness. If I can begin this fasting of the heart, self awareness will vanish.
(4:1, pp. 75-76)
Forgetting about preferences
Tao is obscured when men understand only one pair of opposites,
or concentrate only on a partial aspect of being.
Then clear expression also becomes muddled by mere wordplay,
affirming this one aspect and denying all the rest.
The pivot of Tao passes through the center where all affirmations and denials converge.
He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point
from which all movements and oppositions can be seen in their right relationship…
Abandoning all thought of imposing a limit or taking sides, he rests in direct intuition.
(2:3, p. 59, p.61)
When we look at things in the light of Tao, nothing is best, nothing is worst.
Each thing, seen in its own light stands out in its own way.
It can seem to be “better” than what is compared with it on its own terms.
But seen in terms of the whole, no one thing stands out as “better” …
All creatures have gifts of their own…
All things have varying capacities.
Consequently he who wants to have right without wrong, order without disorder,
does not understand the principles of heaven and earth.
He does not know how things hang together.
Can a man cling only to heaven and know nothing of earth?
They are correlative: to know one is to know the other.
To refuse one is to refuse both.
(17:4,5,8, pp. 131-133)
When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten.
When the belt fits, the belly is forgotten.
When the heart is right, “for” and “against” are forgotten.
No drives, no compulsions, no needs, no attractions:
Then your affairs are under control.
You are a free man.
(19:12, pp. 166-167)
Paraphrased: When Chuang Tzu was about to die, his disciples began planning a splendid funeral. However some disciples expressed concern that given a particular arrangement, birds and kites would eat his remains. Chuang Tzu replied, “Well, above ground I shall be eaten by crows and kites, below it by ants and worms. What do you have against birds?”
(32:14, pp. 233-234)
When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.
(19:4, p. 158)
Action and Non-Action
The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.
It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything.
The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
Not because he wills to be quiet.
Still water is like glass.
You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.
It is a perfect level;
A carpenter could use it.
If water is so clear, so level,
How much more the spirit of man?
The heart of the wise man is tranquil.
It is the mirror of heaven and earth
The glass of everything.
Emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth.
This is perfect Tao. Wise men find here
Their resting place.
Resting, they are empty.
From emptiness comes the unconditioned.
From this, the conditioned, the individual things.
So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises:
From stillness, action. From action, attainment.
From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action
And is, therefore, their attainment.
For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care
Fruitful in long years.
Joy does all things without concern:
For emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,
Silence, and non-action
Are the root of all things.
(13:1, pp. 119-121)
Prince Wen Hui’s cook was cutting up an ox … The ox fell apart with a whisper. The bright cleaver murmured like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance …
Prince Wen Hui:
Good work! Your method is faultless!
Method? What I follow is Tao beyond all methods!
When I first began to cut up oxen I would see before me the whole ox all in one mass. After three years I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions. But now I see nothing with the eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct guided by natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way…
Then I withdraw the blade, I stand still and let the joy of the work sink in. I clean the blade and put it away.
Prince Wan Hui:
This is it! My cook has shown me how I ought to live my own life!
(3:2, pp. 64-67)
Letting go of thoughts
To exercise no-thought and rest in nothing is the first step toward resting in Tao.
To start from nowhere and follow no road is the first step toward attaining Tao.
(22:1, p. 176)
The mind remains undetermined in the great Void.
Here the highest knowledge is unbounded.
That which gives things their thusness cannot be delimited by things.
So when we speak of ‘limits’, we remain confined to limited things.
The limit of the unlimited is called ‘fullness.’
The limitlessness of the limited is called ’emptiness.’
Tao is the source of both.
But it is itself neither fullness nor emptiness.
(22:6, pp. 182-183)
If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat crossing the river of the world,
no one will oppose you, no one will seek to harm you….
Who can free himself from achievement, and from fame, descend and be lost amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen, he will go about like Life itself with no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction. To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power. He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one, no one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.
(20:2, 4, pp. 168-171)
The man who has some respect for his person keeps his carcass out of sight, hides himself as perfectly as he can.
(23:2, pp. 187)
If you persist in trying to attain what is never attained (It is Tao’s gift),
if you persist in making effort to obtain what effort cannot get,
if you persist in reasoning about what cannot be understood,
you will be destroyed by the very thing you seek.
To know when to stop,
to know when you can get no further by your own action,
this is the right beginning!
(23:3-7, p. 197)
… You never find happiness until you stop looking for it.
My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness:
and this, in the minds of most people, is the worst possible course…
If you ask “what ought to be done” and “what ought not to be done” on earth in order to produce happiness,
I answer that these questions do not have an answer.
There is no way of determining such things.
Yet at the same time, if I cease striving for happiness,
the “right’ and the “wrong” at once become apparent all by themselves.
Contentment and well-being at once become possible
the moment you cease to act with them in view,
and if you practice non-doing (wu wei), you will have both happiness and well-being.
(18:1, pp. 140-150)
Seeing the light
Look at this window: it is nothing but a hole in the wall, but because of it the whole room is full of light. So when the faculties are empty, the heart is full of light.
(4:1, pp. 77-78)
The true men of old were not afraid when they stood alone in their views.
No great exploits. No plans.
If they failed, no sorrow.
No self-congratulation in success…
The true men of old knew no lust for life, no dread of death.
Their entrance was without gladness, their exit, yonder, without resistance.
Easy come, easy go.
They did not forget where from, nor ask where to, nor drive grimly forward fighting their way through life.
They took life as it came, gladly;
took death as it came, without care; and went away, yonder. Yonder!
They had no mind to fight Tao.
They did not try by their own contriving, to help Tao along.
These are the ones we call true men.
Minds free, thoughts gone. Brows clear, faces serene.
(6:1, pp. 89-90)
Goods and possessions are no gain in his eyes.
He stays far from wealth and honor.
Long life is no ground for joy, nor early death for sorrow.
Success is not for him to be pround of, failure is no shame.
Had he all the world’s power he would not hold it as his own.
If he conquered everything he would not take it to himself.
His glory is in knowing that all things come together in One and life and death are equal.
(12:2, pp. 106-107)
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”…
(He) 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.
“No-Self” is “True-Self”.
And the greatest man is Nobody.
(17:3, pp. 137-138)
The image of Thomas Merton is from Robert Lentz’s series of Ecumenical Icons, which can be purchased here.