An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)

If Zhuangzi's philosophy could be summed up in one word, it would most fittingly be "wandering," or more precisely, "carefree wandering." If expressed in two words, it would be "wandering mind," indicating that the mind is in a state of "wandering." So, how can we transition from a closed mentality to an open mindset, allowing our spiritual horizons to infinitely expand? Concepts such as "Encounter with the divine without relying on mere sight," transforming the discipline of the Dao's "non-action" into a serene and harmonious living environment, a soul imbued with aesthetic sensibilities, and the transformative "great accumulation" akin to the changes of the Kun and Peng, are all messages that Zhuangzi seeks to impart to us.
An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)

In the 1970s, Chen Guying, known for his works "Annotations and Interpretations of Laozi" and "Contemporary Annotations and Translations of Zhuangzi," was one of the representatives in Taiwan's academic circles studying Daoist thought. The philosophical proposition of Zhuangzi's "all things have their different constitutions and modes of actions" served as an important theoretical basis for his advocacy of the uniqueness of individuals. He deeply admired the metaphor of "a myriad apertures there issues its excited noise" and "blowing the myriad differences" in the " The Adjustment of Controversies," using it as a starting point to construct a vast and boundless realm of carefree wandering in people's minds. He said...

How to Break Free From Adversity?—The Realm of Carefree Wandering in Boundlessness.

The concept of "all things have their different constitutions and modes of actions" — "a myriad apertures there issues its excited noise" and "blowing the myriad differences" — serves as a great elucidation and inspiration to avoid sinking into individualism. However, solely viewing things from the perspective of "viewing from its differences" can easily lead to a narrow-minded observation and self-centeredness. Hence, one should also "view from its similarities" to broaden one's perspective.

Just like in the essay "The Floods of Autumn," where the river deity contentedly resides in its own domain, perceiving the beauty of the world as encompassed within itself, remaining like a frog in a well until it sees the Ruo of the Northern Sea, while the sea, upon seeing the river deity, still "dare not consider itself superior." Therefore, one must transition from the river deity's limited perspective to the sea's expansive view.

From Closed Minds to Open Hearts—The Infinite Expansion of Spiritual Realms

An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)

If we say that the philosophy of Laozi is characterized by "flexibility," and that of Confucius by "benevolence," then what word best represents the philosophy of Zhuangzi? It would be "wandering," or more precisely, "carefree wandering." If we were to summarize it in two words, it would be "wandering mind," signifying the mind's inclination towards wandering.

What is the central idea of the seven Inner Chapters of Zhuangzi? "I believe the most important core lies in the character 'mind' in 'wandering mind.'" What does this mean? Ancient thinkers believed that life consists of two important parts: the "form" and the "mind." The "Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease" does not refer to the wandering of the "form," not the physical wandering of the body, but rather, more importantly, the wandering of the "mind."

Eliminate All "Preconceptions" First

Then, let's discuss the figurative depiction of "all the apertures are empty" in "The Adjustment of Controversies". Zhuangzi emphasized the importance of broadening the mind and avoiding preconceptions; having preconceptions implies having a "predetermined mind", and the clash of various schools of thought exemplifies the notion that "great knowledge is wide and comprehensive; small knowledge is partial and restricted". As for "great speech" and "small speech", taking modern media as an example, when we turn on the television and watch those talk shows featuring so-called pundits, almost every individual can twist black into white and white into black. In fact, even before they speak, we already know what they are going to say because they already have a fixed preconception and then articulate it accordingly. Therefore, "The Adjustment of Controversies" begins by discussing the concept of the "predetermined mind", followed by an exploration of how a closed mind can ascend to the open mindset of "the proper light". Hence, an open mind is "nothing like the proper light (of the mind)", and it is metaphorically depicted as the removal of ten barriers, symbolizing an expansive outlook.

Cultivating a Reflective Heart — Wandering with "Spirit"

An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)

Revisiting "Nourishing the Lord of Life," which delves into the concept of "spirit," ancient thinkers believed that the heart serves two crucial functions: one is spirit, the other is thought. The heart, known as the "official of thought," is the faculty capable of thinking and pondering; whereas today we equate it with the brain, ancient people perceived it as the organ responsible for cognitive functions. Therefore, thought, or "thinking," emanates from the heart, constituting what is known as spirit or intellect. Zhuangzi particularly favored using "spirit" to describe the role of the heart, hence "Nourishing the Lord of Life" focuses on "spirit."

It's akin to a calligrapher: when they wield the brush, they are immersed in the art, which is a form of "wondering." Therefore, "the cook cuts up an ox" is like a dance, and the sounds emitted resemble a symphony. However, this is the "spirit" at play: "deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills," which is to "enlarge the mind"; it is the spirit of the heart.

How to "Cultivate the Mind"? — Transforming the "Non-Action" of Dao into a Peaceful and Contented Living Situation.

Continuing with "Man in the World, associated with other Men," Zhuangzi further illustrates the various contradictions and conflicts inherent in human society, such as the relationship between intellectuals and rulers. Zhuangzi represents the "scholar" class, and many conflicts between intellectuals and rulers often transform from internal contradictions into conscious conflicts of opposition. Therefore, despite some intellectuals actively and passionately advising, Zhuangzi ultimately concludes that rulers cannot be influenced.

Zhuangzi lived in the tumultuous and miasmic state of Chu, and throughout his life experienced two rulers, one incompetent and the other tyrannical. Therefore, in "Man in the World, Associated with other Men," when addressing persuading the King of Chu— "Oh, King of Chu! Rivers of blood under your reign, accompanying you is like accompanying a tiger"— Zhuangzi refutes all admonitions through allegories and references to Confucius, emphasizing that rulers cannot be influenced. In the end, "Man in the World, Associated with other Men" concludes with this. Thus, it returns to the discussion of governing oneself and governing the state. Laozi focuses on governing the state, leaning more towards the Dao of governance, emphasizing "knowing when to be strong and when to yield," and stating, "Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful." As for Zhuangzi, he emphasizes self-cultivation, transforming the Dao of non-action into a peaceful and contented living situation. Therefore, the most important aspect of self-cultivation is cultivating the mind, hence Zhuangzi's mention of "fasting of the mind." "The Seal of Virtue Complete" is also related to the "mind." Zhuangzi often illustrates the chaos of the world by describing physical disabilities, such as having an arm severed or a leg missing due to torture, to explain how one must transcend through the freedom of the mind and spiritual elevation to achieve "peace amidst adversity."

Aesthetic Spirit and the State of Aesthetic Appreciation.

An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)

"The Seal of Virtue Complete" also emphasizes not placing too much importance on external appearances; the essence of life is crucial. It stresses the enrichment of inner virtues and the significance of an internal personality over external appearances. Therefore, "The Seal of Virtue Complete" is essential, discussing the "treasury of intelligence," where a spiritually receptive mind can unleash its exquisite effects. It states, "To cause this harmony and satisfaction ever to be diffused, while the feeling of pleasure is not lost from the mind; to allow no break to arise in this state day or night, so that it is always spring-time in his relations with external things." If one can let all external phenomena change naturally, without disturbing the harmony of their "treasury of intelligence," and keep their inner being filled with the serene and joyful energy of harmony, then they can maintain a perpetual "spring-time in his relations with external things." When our inner selves can consistently maintain such a state of delight and joy, we can have vitality and vigor like that of spring, which is the spring of our hearts, without interruption. Therefore, this speaks to an aesthetic heart and an aesthetic spirit, a state of aesthetic appreciation.

Understanding the External World and Reflecting on Oneself with the "Mind"

Continuing with "The Great and Most Honored Master," it primarily discusses the universal flux of great transformation, addressing how individuals can find contentment within it. The observation, participation, adaptation, and contentment in this process are all related to the state of mind. Lastly, in "The Normal Course for Rulers and Kings," it states, "When the perfect man employs his mind, it is a mirror." The human mind must be like a mirror to accurately reflect external phenomena and conditions. Apart from the metaphor of the mind as a mirror, which Zen Buddhism draws from Zhuangzi, emphasizing that the mind is like a mirror, thus the term "mind-mirror," the entire inner chapter discusses the "mind," which is equivalent to what we now call the brain, as a means to understand the external world and reflect on oneself.

The Process of Becoming: Accumulation and Transformation

From a philosophical perspective, one of the key concepts in Zhuangzi's thought is "transformation." Zhuangzi extensively discusses the notion of transformation, emphasizing the universal flux of great transformation. This concept not only describes the seasonal changes, celestial movements, and natural transformations within the world but also refers to the grand cosmic process. Therefore, Zhuangzi speaks of the importance of "observing transformation," "acquiescing to transformation," "adapting to transformation," and finding contentment within it. He uses the metaphor of the " transformation of Kun and Peng" to illustrate this:

An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)


"In the Northern Ocean there is a fish, the name of which is Kun - I do not know how many li in size. It changes into a bird with the name of Peng, the back of which is (also) - I do not know how many li in extent. When this bird rouses itself and flies, its wings are like clouds all round the sky. When the sea is moved (so as to bear it along), it prepares to remove to the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is the Pool of Heaven."

In this story, firstly, Zhuangzi utilizes the transformation of Kun and Peng to break free from the constraints of material forms. The world we inhabit is one dominated by material images, and we are often ensnared and bound by these images—like in my time when people in America would send back photos taken next to their cars, visit friends, and many would eagerly show off their homes and gardens, each person striving to display these material images of their lives. However, Zhuangzi employs the transformative Kun and Peng to shatter the constraints of material images, allowing us to open up a space where we attempt to showcase the universe as boundlessly infinite. In the history of Chinese thought, Zhuangzi was the first to recognize the limitations of the individual and the boundless infinitude of the universe. Zhuangzi opened a window through which we could peer into the infinite expanse of the cosmos. When we watch the Peng bird soar upwards, "Is its azure the proper color of the sky? Or is it occasioned by its distance and illimitable extent? If one were looking down (from above), the very same appearance would just meet his view." It seems as if the sky has no end, and looking down, it appears endless as well. Thus, through the transformative Kun and Peng, Zhuangzi expands the space in which we exist—we are within an infinite universe.

The infinitude of the universe and the infinity of time and space constitute the first level. Then, we must allow our spirits to roam freely, which is the concept of "greatness." In familiar terms, lacking grandeur is akin to a timid demeanor. Zhuangzi tells another allegorical story, likening it to a young nobleman fishing for a big fish, using fifty oxen as bait, squatting between Yushan and Alishan, casting his line into the Taiwan Strait, and catching a big shark in one go. Wow! From south to north, countless people could eat their fill. This epitomizes the grandeur that young people should possess—the expansive spirit of "enjoying oneself in the illimitable."

What Do 'Kun' and 'Peng' Symbolize?"

Continuing on the discussion of what "Kun" and "Peng" represent and symbolize—Nietzsche once wrote about three spiritual transformations in his seminal work, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." Initially, there is the spirit of the "camel," enduring burdens and hardships, journeying into the desert where all irrational cultures, customs, and values must be endured. However, in the desert, humans slowly transform into "lions," beginning to say no to irrational traditions. Yet, the spirit of the lion is primarily destructive, which is not enough. Therefore, there must be a third transformation into a "childlike" state.

An Exploration of Chinese Zhuangzi Philosophy of Chen Guying (Part 1)

Hence, the journey of life entails a transformation from camel to lion and then from lion to childlike. If we apply Nietzsche's concept of the "three spiritual transformations" to the allegory of Kun and Peng, it would mean first accumulating and nurturing oneself deeply like "Kun" at the bottom of the sea, then transforming into "Peng." The process of transformation often involves a transition from "quantitative" to "qualitative." Therefore, as Zhuangzi says, the free soaring of the Great Peng covers a distance of ninety thousand li, but "if the accumulation of wind is not great, it will not have strength to support great wings." "If the accumulation of water is not great, it will not have strength to support a large boat." Thick accumulation is crucial; our learning process also involves gradually accumulating. As Laozi put it, "The tower of nine storeys rose from a (small) heap of earth; the journey of a thousand li commenced with a single step."

One step at a time, layer by layer of accumulation. Thus, "Kun" represents deep accumulation in the vast ocean, which then transforms into "Peng." The high level represented by Peng is the inner self. When the mind is deeply tranquil and still, it can then transform into a higher level of consciousness.

Similarly, in life, the journey of a thousand miles cannot be undertaken without years of perseverance and accumulation. Therefore, in Zhuangzi's "Kun and Peng allegory," there are two processes in life: first, one must be like Kun, accumulating deeply, and with thick accumulation, one can then soar like the Great Peng...

Written by Professor Chen Guying
Sponsored by Mei-Hua Hall