Going Rambling without a Destination

Painting of the mythological bird Peng, inspired from the Chuang-tzu

The beginning of this chapter is well-known. It has inspired cartoons for Chinese children. So, it is the image of the Taoist sage they will carry in their memories when growing up. A rather sweet, lighthearted old man sauntering along, flying over mountains and seas, free as the wind, friendly with animals of all shapes and colours, jumping from pillar to post as he makes the weirdest of comparisons. It is certainly not the sort of behaviour advocated today by any established religion wherever you look. But it is undoubtedly one which will bring a smile on the faces of the children who watch it. 

“Soaring above the restricted viewpoints of the worldly”

“In the North Ocean there is a fish, its name is the K’un; the K’un’s girth measures who knows how many thousand miles. It changes into a bird, its name is the P’eng; the P’eng’s back measures who knows how many thousand miles. When it puffs out its chest and flies off, its wings are like clouds hanging from the sky. This bird when the seas are heaving has a mind to travel to the South Ocean. (The South Ocean is the Lake of Heaven). In the words of the Tall Stories, “When the P’eng travels to the Souch Ocean, the wake it thrashes on the water is three thousand miles long, it mounts spiralling on the whirling ninety thousand miles high, and is gone six months before it is out of breath’. (The Tall Stories of Ch’i is a record of marvels). Is the azure of the sky its true colour? Or is it that the distance into which we are looking is infinite? It never stops flying higher till everything below looks the same as above (heat-hazes, dust-storms, the breath which living things blow at each other).”

In a bracketed passage which Graham thinks is an afterthought or a later annotation, P’eng’s flight is noticed by a quail who laughs at it “saying ‘Where does he think he’s going? I do a hop and a skip and up I go, and before I’ve gone more than a few dozen yards come fluttering down among the bushes. That is the highest one can fly, where does he think he’s going? This was in disputation about the small and the great.”

A C Graham writes: “The pieces which the compilers of Chuang-tzu assembled in ‘Going rambling without a destination’ are all on the theme of soaring above the restricted viewpoints of the worldly. Escape the fixed routes to worldly success and fame, defy all reproaches that you are useless, selfish, indifferent to the good of the Empire, and a perspective open from which all ordinary ambitions are seen as negligible, the journey of life becomes an effortless ramble.” Commenting on Chapter 2 “The sorting which evens things out,” Graham also notes that Chuang-tzu’s rambling style “gives us the sensation, rare in ancient literature, of a man jotting the living thought at the moment of its inception.”

The light-hearted mood of Chuang-tzu’s ramble, enjoyable as it is, should not mislead us into doubting the seriousness of what Chuang-tzu is trying to convey to us. Commenting on the term “wandering,” Victor Mair who did take it seriously as his book on Chuang-tzu is titled “Wandering on the Way,” says that the term is “probably the single most important and quintessential concept of the Chuang-tzu, but often overlooked because it is presented in literary rather than philosophical terms. ‘Wandering’ implies a ‘laid-back’ attitude toward life in which one takes things as they come and flows along with the Tao unconcernedly. The word ‘yu’ is usually translated as ‘wander(ing)’ but is occasionally rendered as ‘play(ing)’, ‘strolling’ or ‘enjoy(ing) oneself.” Mair then brings up the episode of Master Chuang’s observing fish swimming, saying that they are “playing” and “wandering freely in their own element.”

Anticipating the argument against disputation found in Chapter 2 Chuang-tzu goes through a series of concrete examples where what is true for a particular animal is not for another, and points out the ensuing absurdity of a disputation that does not take into account diversity in beings and contexts. 

“Someone off to the green of the woods, with enough for three meals will be home with his belly still full; someone going thirty miles pounds grain for the days he will be away; someone going three hundred miles lays in grain to last three months. What do these two creatures know? Little wits cannot keep up with great, or few years with many. How would we know that this is so? The mushroom of a morning does not know old and new moon, the cricket does not know spring and autumn; their time is too short … “

The daemonic

Having made his point clear that no one size fits all, and all things are relative, Chuang-tzu turns to people in offices to praise Sung Jung who “refused to be encouraged though the whole world praised him, or deterred though the whole world blamed him.” For Chuang-tzu, that was a “first step to escape from the world,” but he also regrets that he still thought it his duty to get involved in politics for the good of the empire.” For Chuang-tzu: “The utmost man is selfless; the daemonic man takes no credit for his deeds; the sage is nameless.” 

The word “daemonic” is to be understood in the sense Socrates uses it when he claims to be guided from within by a “daimon” (also spelled “daemon”). It is, however, coming from the Power of the Tao, and internalised to refer to a state such as the Buddhist “no-mind,” an opening up the flow of undifferentiated reality, usually blocked off by conceptual thoughts. Such a state can indeed be described as “a soaring above the restricted viewpoints of the worldly,” that leaves behind at once the narrowly focused drives and attachments of the egocentred individual, and the layer of concepts that has been superimposed for centuries over reality, and now stand in the way of its “presencing” to us as it is in itself.  Hence Chuang-tzu’s statement that the daemonic man is selfless, takes no credit for his deeds, and is nameless. 

In a different piece, Chuang-tzu brings up the pre-dynastic emperor Yao, who, in a Confucian legend is said to have resigned when his time was over, and asked Shun, whom he regarded as the man best fitted for the task, to rule in his place. Graham explains that Taoists and Yangists “delighted in imagining a recluse Hsü Yu who disdained the offer of Yao’s throne,” adding, “in this and the next episode Chuang-tzu introduces a new refinement: Yao himself understood that the good order of his reign came not from his own policies but from individuals cultivating the Power in them in private. In ancient Chinese thought political order results directly from the mysterious influence of the Power in the ruler, and his political acts are merely its by-products.” In other words, the social fabric coheres or dissolves by the action of influences which have little to do with the deliberate policies of rulers, and which may be emanating from humble, publicly unnoticed individuals.”

Chuang-tzu writes: “Yao resigned the Empire, saying: When the sun or the moon is up, if the torch fires are not put out, aren’t we taking too much trouble to light the world? When the timely rains fall, it we go on flooding the channels, aren’t we working too hard to water the fields? While you, sir, are in your place the Empire is in order, yet here I still am in the seat of honour. In my own eyes I do not deserve it; let me make you a present of the Empire.”

Chuang-tzu continues: “If you order things as Emperor, it’s that already the Empire is in order; and if I were to see any point in taking your place, would it be for the sake of the name? The name is the guest of the substance. Would it be for the sake of the substance”? The tit that nests in the deep forest wants no more than one branch, the mole that drinks in the Yellow River no more than a bellyful. Go back where you belong, my lord, the empire is no use to me. Even when the chief cook does run a disorderly kitchen, the priest and the medium will not step over the jars and dishes to take his place.”

The useless tree

I am skipping two more pieces, and jump to the last one, which is well-known, that of the useless tree. This is one I first discovered in Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu, which has stuck to my mind. Merton, of course, could not read Chinese, so he relied on already existing translations, but his rewriting of the passage on the useless tree is a pleasure to read.

Said Hui Shih to Chuang-tzu:
“I have a great tree, people call it the tree-of-heaven. Its trunk is too knobbly and bumpy to measure with the inked line, its branches are too curly and crooked to fit compasses or L-square. Stand it up in the road and a carpenter wouldn’t give it a glance. Now this talk of yours is big but useless, dismissed by everyone alike.”
“Haven’t you ever seen a wild cat or a weasel? It lurks low in wait for strays, makes a pounce east or west as nimble uphill or down, and drops plumb into the snare and dies in the net. But the yak now, which is as big as a cloud hanging from the sky, this by being able to be so big is unable to catch as much as a mouse. Now if you have a great tree and think it’s a pity it’s so useless, why not plant it in the realm of Nothingwhatever, in the wilds which spread out into nowhere, and go roaming away to do nothing at its side, ramble around and fall asleep in its shade. Spared by the axe, no thing will harm it. If you’re no use at all Who’ll come to bother you?”

Wandering as a precursor to Dogen’s shikantaza (just sitting)

In his entry on Zhuangzi in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Chad Hansen says that “elements of Zhuangzi’s naturalism, along with themes found in the text attributed to Lao-tzu helped shape Chan Buddhism (Japanese Zen)—a distinctively Chinese, naturalist blend of Taoism and Buddhism with its emphasis on focused engagement in our everyday ways of life.” I can definitely see in Dogen’s distinctive practice of shikantaza an echo of Chuang-tzu’s line-up of jotted living thoughts caught at the moment of their inception, as noted above by Graham. This is how Shohaku Okumura describes the practice of shikantaza: “Just as the function of a thyroid gland is to secrete hormones, the function of a brain is to secrete thoughts, so thoughts well up in the mind moment by moment. Yet our practice in zazen is to refrain from doing anything with these thoughts; we just let everything come up freely and we let everything go freely. We don’t grasp anything; we don’t try to control anything. We just sit.” He adds that it is a “very simple practice,” but it is also a “very deep” practice, and not an “easy” one. In such a practice, “we let go of the individual karmic self,” that which constructs the narrative, and allow “the true self, the self that is one with the entire universe [to] ‘manifest’.” It is a practice of “letting go” that Uchiyama Kosho has referred to as “opening the hand of thought” in a book of the same name. As soon as one notices  that a thought or a train of thoughts has arisen, one is to come back to either the posture or the breath. This is an exercise in “presencing of things as they are.” Dogen had originally borrowed the method from Rujing, the “true master” he had met in China, and elaborated on it, careful not to alter its intent on avoiding any hard focus on a particular object, including one’s breath, and forcefully excluding all coming thoughts, as was the case in traditional meditative techniques. It was the practice transmitted in the Chinese Caodong Chan school, to which Rujing belonged, where it was known as “Silent Illumination.” 

Recent scholarship has shown that we are endowed with two kinds of consciousness, arising from the two hemispheres of our brains. Using neuroscientific data obtained through his experience as a neuropsychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist has now established that the layer of concepts that seemingly separates us from an unmediated experience of reality originates in the left hemisphere, whereas what Chuang-tzu refers to as the “daemonic,” and Zen as “no-mind,” originates from the right hemisphere. Humans share this asymmetry of the brain with all animal species, where it came about from a conandrum they have all faced: how to eat without being eaten. The left hemisphere allows an animal to focus on what it needs to catch – seed or prey – and the right hemisphere to remain aware of its surroundings to watch out for predators. For us, it has resulted in a similar asymmetry where the left hemisphere allows us to “grab” things, while the right hemisphere allows us to “comprehend” reality as a flow of interpenetrating phenomena. Our current mode of thinking has unfortunately become captive of the left hemisphere, where we can “get” stuff and manipulate reality to “get” even more, at the expense of a healthy awareness of the mayhem that addiction to “getting” things is causing in terms of destruction of our biosphere. McGilchrist has become a strong advocate of the need to reconnect with our experience of reality, and has familiarised himself with the contribution Taoism has made to guide us on this path. He also insists on a recovery of the use of “intuition” and “imagination” to restore the right hemisphere mode of thinking to its proper role. I see Chuang-tzu’s “rambling without a destination” as a practice that uses both intuition and imagination, to counter the deleterious effects of Cartesian representational calculative thinking. Chuang-tzu’s ramble allows reality to “presence” to us, whereas left hemisphere concepts only manipulate “representations” of reality.


A C Graham – Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters

Victor Mair – Wandering on the Way – Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu

Thomas Merton – The Way of Chuang-tzu 

Chad Hansen – Zhuangzi entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Shohaku Okumura – Realizing Genjokoan

Iain McGilchrist – The Matter with Things

Chuang-tzu drumming