Thomas Merton on Chuang Tzu’s ‘Perfect Joy’

Perfect Joy is a short piece of prose writing by Chuang Tzu where he explores whether any of us can find ‘a fullness of joy’ while on earth or whether there is no such thing.

He begins with a series of questions about if there is such happiness to be found how do we go about finding it – in other words what do we have to do to attain this? Any search immediately raises the next question which is what is this ‘happiness’ and what is ‘joy’. Merton translates and interprets this into the values of the world: what does the world see as joy and happiness: ‘money, reputation, long life, achievement’ and joy is ‘health and bodily comforts with good food, nice clothes, beautiful things to look at and lovely music to listen to’. And so the reverse of all these things is what the world condemns or sees as misfortune, so we strive to keep our lives on track with these good things and yet even when we have these things we have anxiety that our health will be taken away or we worry that we need more money and more things to keep us happy.

Chuang Tzu on the rich:

‘The rich make life intolerable, driving themselves in order to get more and more money which they cannot really use. In so doing they are alienated from themselves, and exhaust themselves in their own service as though they were slaves of others’.

Similarly the ambitious seeking success: ‘are alienated from themselves, exhausting their real life in service of the shadow created by their insatiable hope’. As we grow older Chuang Tzu sees we become stupider as in trying to avoid death we become incapable of living in the present. He’s particularly interesting about the dilemma of leading a sacrificial life and so receiving honour for being a ‘good’ person and seen as upright which he writes still leads to unhappiness and or even ruin, disgrace and death. Is being ‘good’ really so good? Is it rather a source of unhappiness – perhaps to have to maintain such a reputation?

Chuang Tzu rejects all these definitions and standards – he sees no meaning at all in any of it. Instead he writes:

‘My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it. My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness: and this, in the minds of most people, is the worst possible course.’

He holds to the saying that: ‘Perfect joy is to be without joy’ and ‘Perfect praise is to be without praise.’ He has the experiences that if he ceases striving what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ become apparent all by themselves. This is the idea of wu wei – non-doing and Chuang Tzu says that if we practice this we will have happiness and well-being but ends asking who is the person ‘who can attain to this non-doing’.