Texts of Taoism
Chuang Tzu

Introductory Notes


'The Lord of Life' is the Tâo. It is to this that we are indebted for the origin of life and for the preservation of it. Though not a Personal Being, it is here spoken of as if it were,—'the Lord of Life;' just as in the preceding Book it is made to appear as 'a True Governor,' and 'a True Ruler.' But how can we nourish the Tâo? The reply is, By avoiding all striving to do so; by a passionless, unstraining performance of what we have to do in our position in life; simply allowing the Tâo to guide and nourish us, without doing anything to please ourselves or to counteract the tendency of our being to decay and death.

Par. 1 exhibits the injury arising from not thus nourishing the life, and sets forth the rule we are to pursue.

Par. 2 illustrates the observance of the rule by the perfect skill with which the cook of the ruler Wän-hui of Wei cut up the oxen for his employer without trouble to himself, or injury to his knife.

Par. 3 illustrates the result of a neglect of one of the cautions in par. 1 to a certain master of the Left, who had brought on himself dismemberment in the loss of one of his feet.

Par. 4 shows how even Lâo-dze had failed in nourishing 'the Lord of Life' by neglecting the other caution, and allowing in his good-doing an admixture of human feeling, which produced in his disciples a regard for him that was inconsistent with the nature of the Tâo, and made them wail for him excessively on his death. This is the most remarkable portion of the Book, and it is followed by a sentence which implies that the existence of man's spirit continues after death has taken place. His body is intended by the 'faggots' that are consumed by the fire. That fire represents the spirit which may be transferred elsewhere.

Some commentators dwell on the analogy between this and the Buddhistic transrotation of births; which latter teaching, however, they do not seem to understand. Others say that 'the nourishment of the Lord of Life' is simply acting as Yü did when he conveyed away the flooded waters 'by doing that which gave him no trouble;'—see Mencius, IV, ii, 26.

In Kwang-dze there are various other stories of the same character as that about king Wän-hui's cook,—e. g. XIX, 3 and XXII, 9. They are instances of the dexterity acquired by habit, and should hardly be pressed into the service of the doctrine of the Tâo.

Book III
Part I Section III

Yang Shang Ku, or 'Nourishing the Lord of Life1.'

1. There is a limit to our life, but to knowledge there is no limit. With what is limited to pursue after what is unlimited is a perilous thing; and when, knowing this, we still seek the increase of our knowledge, the peril cannot be averted2. There should not be the practice of what is good with any thought of the fame (which it will bring), nor of what is evil with any approximation to the punishment (which it will incur)3:—an accordance with the Central Element (of our nature)4 is the regular way to preserve the body, to maintain the life, to nourish our parents, and to complete our term of years.

2. His cook5 was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wan-hui5. Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, and employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin, and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of 'the Mulberry Forest6' and the blended notes of 'the King Shau6.' The ruler said, 'Ah! Admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!' (Having finished his operation), the cook laid down his knife, and replied to the remark, 'What your servant loves is the method of the Tao, something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but the (entire) carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I 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. Observing the natural lines, (my knife) slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membranous ligatures, and much more the great bones.

'A good cook changes his knife every year;—(it may have been injured) in cutting; an ordinary cook changes his every month;—(it may have been) broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no (appreciable) thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the interstice is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough. Nevertheless, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed anxiously and with caution, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated, and drops like (a clod of) earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand, I look all round, and in a leisurely manner, with an air of satisfaction, wipe it clean, and put it in its sheath.' The ruler Wan-hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'

3. When Kung-wan Hsien7 saw the Master of the Left, he was startled, and said, 'What sort of man is this? How is it he has but one foot? Is it from Heaven? or from Man?' Then he added8, 'It must be from Heaven, and not from Man. Heaven's making of this man caused him to have but one foot. In the person of man, each foot has its marrow. By this I know that his peculiarity is from Heaven, and not from Man. A pheasant of the marshes has to take ten steps to pick up a mouthful of food, and thirty steps to get a drink, but it does not seek to be nourished in a coop. Though its spirit would (there) enjoy a royal abundance, it does not think (such confinement) good.'

4. When Lao Tan died9, Khin Shih10 went to condole (with his son), but after crying out three times, he came out. The disciples11 said to him, 'Were you not a friend of the Master?' 'I was,' he replied, and they said, 'Is it proper then to offer your condolences merely as you have done?' He said, 'It is. At first I thought he was the man of men, and now I do not think so. When I entered a little ago and expressed my condolences, there were the old men wailing as if they had lost a son, and the young men wailing as if they had lost their mother. In his attracting and uniting them to himself in such a way there must have been that which made them involuntarily express their words (of condolence), and involuntarily wail, as they were doing. And this was a hiding from himself of his Heaven (-nature), and an excessive indulgence of his (human) feelings;—a forgetting of what he had received (in being born); what the ancients called the punishment due to neglecting the Heaven (-nature)12. When the Master came13, it was at the proper time; when he went away, it was the simple sequence (of his coming). Quiet acquiescence in what happens at its proper time, and quietly submitting (to its ceasing) afford no occasion for grief or for joy14. The ancients described (death) as the loosening of the cord on which God suspended (the life)15. What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted (elsewhere), and we know not that it is over and ended16.


back 1 See pp. 130, 131.

back 2 Under what is said about knowledge here there lies the objection of Taoists to the Confucian pursuit of knowledge as the means for the right conduct of life, instead of the quiet simplicity and self-suppression of their own system.

back 3 This is the key to the three paragraphs that follow. But the text of it is not easily construed. The 'doing good' and the doing evil' are to be lightly understood.

back 4 A name for the Tao.

back 5 'The ruler Wan-hui' is understood to be 'king Hui of Liang (or Wei),' with the account of an interview between whom and Mencius the works of that philosopher commence.

back 6 Two pieces of music, ascribed to Khang Thang and Hwang-Ti.

back 7 There was a family in Wei with the double surname Kung-wan. This would be a scion of it.

back 8 This is Hsien still speaking. We have to understand his reasoning ad sensum and not ad verbum. The master of the Left had done 'evil,' so as to incur the punishment from which be suffered; and had shown himself less wise than a pheasant.

back 9 Then the account that Lao Tzu went westwards, and that nothing is known as to where he died, must be without foundation.

back 10 Nothing more is known of this person.

back 11 Probably the disciples of Lao Tzu.

back 12 Lao had gone to an excess in his 'doing good,' as if he were seeking reputation.

back 13 Into the world.

back 14 See Chuang Tzu's remarks and demeanour on the death of his wife, in Book XVIII.

back 15 This short sentence is remarkable by the use of the character Ti (###) 'God,' in it, a usage here ascribed to the ancients.

back 16 The concluding sentence might stand as a short paragraph by itself. The 'faggots' are understood to represent the body, and the 'fire' the animating spirit. The body perishes at death as the faggots are consumed by the fire. But the fire may be transmitted to other faggots, and so the spirit may migrate, and be existing elsewhere.