When Kung Wen Hsien saw the Commander of the Army, he said in surprise, « I wondered who it was, and it’s you. That one foot — is it the work of man or of Heaven? » The Commander replied, « It was Heaven’s, and not man’s work. Essentially, a man’s form is determined. From this, I know that being one-footed, too, is the work of heaven, and not of man. «
The Commander’s words are followed with : « A pheasant that lives in a marsh walks ten paces for one beakful of food and a hundred paces for one sip of water, but it doesn’t want to be kept in a cage. Though a bird may be filled with vitality there, it cannot enjoy its life. »
Chuang-tzu broke the various cages that environ people’s lives : the attachment that comes from being ruled by the things around you, the sense of values that goes against life, partial philosophies that hinder the development of life. He demands that we should step out from these prisons and conveys the Buddhist priest’s spirit of renouncing the world by casting off all attachments.
Again, Yun-men wondered why a priest should robe himself at the sound of the bell, when the world, so full of splendours, is very wide ; and there was the European thinker who threw away all his books and possessions.
« Common people breathe from their throats. Those who are slaves to the world choke out their words as though they were vomiting… Human life —is it in its essence as murky as this ? Is it I alone who see it as murky ? And is there someone who does not see it as murky ? »
Is it not because people don’t comprehend the pleasure a pheasant has from walking ten paces for a beakful of food and a hundred paces for a drink of water ? Is it because the children of men do not enjoy the fate of having no place to rest their heads ?
Because past knowledge is attached even to a single action like raising a hand or kicking out with a foot, human activity lacks buoyancy. Because with every breath drawn in and breathed out people vomit for joy or anger, or love or hate, human life lacks transparency.
When, as soon as someone spreads his wings, he injures them, it is because he is in a cage. To spread your wings is life’s demand. So long as they remain shrunken, without spreading their wings, human beings do not become strong. Breathe expansively and get out of the cage that hinders you from doing so. Throw off the weight of duty and act buoyantly. This is what cultivating life is. Chuang-tzu never stopped hoping that human beings would live actively without being hindered by anything.
« Life arises from death and death from life. What comes into existence passes out of it, what passes out of existence comes into it. » As for Chuang-tzu’s thoughts on the problem of what happens after death, he believed neither in the immortality of the soul, not in eternal life. « At one time, I may become a rooster… or a bullet.., or an insect. » In the one real world, there is nothing but the continuation of ceaseless change as various forms of life disperse and come together.
The last sentence of the chapter entitled « The Spirit of Cultivating Life » goes : « Although there is an end to the fingers putting fuel on the fire, the fire endures and we don’t know the end of it ». These words should be understood in the light of what has just been said. Chuang-tzu points to the continuity and flow of life, conceived of as fire, not for a moment entertaining the idea of any opposition between mind and body.
It is an especially interesting point that this chapter ends by broaching the question of death.
( to be continued )