Insights from Thomas Merton’s ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’

The Way of Chuang Tzu written by Thomas Merton is an attractive text where he brings to the Western reader Merton’s appreciation of an influential Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu (399 – 295 BCE). Chuang Tzu writes in parables but in an accessible and easy style and Merton’s interpretations of different translations helps the reader accept the surface but also look deeper at the latent meaning. It all seems rational but underneath it is mystical. The writings are full of the meeting of opposites and their complementarity which is at times transcended although always grounded in everyday life. Chuang Tzu is at peace whilst at the same time as Merton explains moving through the world. This is Tao which passes through ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and ‘I’ and ‘Not-I’ where all is in flux and everything is continual development and change.

This is Thomas Merton’s interpretation of:  Great and Small

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 be seen 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’.

If you measure differences,

What is greater than something else is ‘great’,

Therefore there is nothing that is not ‘great’;

What is smaller than something else is ‘small’,

Therefore there is nothing that is not ‘small’.

So the whole cosmos is a grain of rice,

And the tip of a hair

Is as big as a mountain –

Such is the relative view.

So in Chuang Tzu’s writing he is putting up positions as if they can be endorsed and then reflectively taken down again. Merton says what should we do with this? Is it that the answer is to remain indifferent and treat right and wrong, good and bad as if they were the same? But no, Chuang Tzu, despite the above, would be the first to deny that they were all the same, but in his doing so he would refuse to grasp one or the other and cling to it as if it were an absolute.

The underlying message here is in line with the thinking of Carl Jung too which is that if we hold on to a limited and conditioned view of what is ‘good’ then it becomes in our minds raised to the level of an absolute. Once in this position it immediately becomes an evil, because it excludes certain complementary elements which are required if it is to be fully good – here Jung would see that for it to be whole it has to include the good and the bad. Merton writes:

‘To cling to one partial view, one limited and conditioned opinion, and to treat this as the ultimate answer to all questions is simply to “obscure the Tao” and make oneself obdurate in error.’