Master Chuang, the Buddha’s Chinese cousin?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Known as Master Chuang, Chuang Tzu is a Taoist thinker said to have been active in the fourth century B.C.E. This great Taoist master’s ideas about the world contain deep insights, which can be likened to the Buddha’s, and hence deserve reexamination using the rational approach of systems science. Like his master, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu sees the universe as an integral whole unified by Tao, or the Way: “Things ribald and shady or things grotesque and strange, the Way makes them all into one. … No thing is either complete or impaired, but all are made into one again. … This is called the Way.”1

Chuang Tzu realizes that we need knowledge of the world around us as a guide for behavior in our daily lives. The problem is, however, that our knowledge is uncertain because the object of our knowledge is uncertain: “Knowledge must wait for something before it can be applicable, and that which it waits for is never certain.”2 Our knowledge is also flawed in that it is customarily expressed in terms of words, which fail to capture the changing reality of the world: “Words have something to say. But if what they say is not fixed, then do they really say something?”3

Realizing that words are unreliable in capturing the true reality of the world, Chuang Tzu rejects the rational mode of inquiry, which would certainly include the scientific method, relying, as it does, on the language of logic and mathematics. The only way to acquire the true knowledge of reality is, therefore, to remove the conscious act of acquiring knowledge and to become one with the universe by pure reflection: “Hold on to all that you have received from Heaven but do not think you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all. The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror—going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not restoring.”4

Like the Buddha’s “direct experience”, Chuang Tzu’s “pure reflection” is another example of the intuitive tradition of Eastern thought. As such, it is not easily accessible to us moderns, who are accustomed to the rational mode of inquiry. However, rephrasing Chuang Tzu’s thought in the language of systems science may make his thought more intelligible to us, for behind his metaphors and parables there is definitely a system of thought amenable to rational examination.

Understanding complexity and change in the world is the starting point of inquiry for Chuang Tzu, as is true for other masters of Eastern thought. To contrast with the Buddha’s thought analyzed in “The Buddha’s Thought and Systems Science”, it is useful to interpret Chuang Tzu’s thought using the same analytical framework as an effort to make linkages between the two worlds—the latent world (L) and the manifest world (M). The latent world is the ground for all the manifest phenomena in the world around us. To a Taoist like Chuang Tzu, this is the world of the transcendent Tao. On the other hand, the manifest world is the world of our everyday experience, namely, the world of the immanent Tao.

Three C’s—“coherence”, “correspondence”, and “complementarity”—can be chosen to represent Chuang Tzu’s thought. These three C’s can be regarded as summarily expressing Chuang Tzu’s ideas about how the universe is constituted, including the nature of the linkage between the two worlds.

“Coherence” expresses the idea that the universe is a coherent whole in that the essence of all things is basically the same in the latent world, which is Tao. Chuang Tzu’s term for this basic oneness of all things in the universe is “Heavenly Equality”, for Heaven equalizes everything, including such things as right and wrong: “So the sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in Heaven the Equalizer.”5

“Correspondence” expresses the idea that all things in the manifest world are also ruled by the same essence that rules the latent world because of the correspondence between the transcendent and the immanent Tao. The only way we can get to the transcendent Tao is, however, through its reality and its signs, which the immanent Tao leaves in the manifest world around us: “The Way has its reality and its signs but is without action or form. You can hand it down but cannot receive it; you can get it but you cannot see it.”6

“Complementarity” expresses the idea that things in the manifest world cannot exist as distinct and separate entities; the existence of one thing implies the existence of its complement. As Chuang Tzu puts it, “Everything has its ‘that’, everything has its ‘this’. From the point of view of ‘that’ you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say, ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’—which is to say that ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other.”7

Compare this statement by Chuang Tzu with the following statement by the Buddha recorded in the Majjhima Nikaya: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.”8 The idea expressed by Chuang Tzu seems almost the same as the Buddha’s paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”—almost the same only because the “causes and conditions” part of paticca-samuppada is missing, which is behind the emergence of things in the manifest world. Does not Chuang Tzu also need his “causes and conditions” part if he is to explain the emergence of “this” and “that” in the manifest world? The answer is that Chuang Tzu already includes a “causes and conditions” part in his concept of Tao. This is so because Tao is a dynamic, evolutionary principle that gives rise to and embraces all things in the universe.

“Complementarity” was chosen as one of the three key terms to represent Chuang Tzu’s ideas about the universe because his words quoted above can be formulated as his version of “complementarity principle” as follows:

(CP-i)  x is an element of M if and only if ~x, its complement, is an element of M

(CP-ii)  {x, ~x} is a non-empty set if and only if there exists F, which maps Tao into M

Reexamining Chung Tzu’s thought from the perspective of systems science leads to the same conclusion derived with respect to the Buddha’s thought, namely, that everything in the world around us is devoid of its own separate and independent self and, therefore, that the world is basically empty. The formalism employed here is a bit strained because Chuang Tzu does not intend his ideas to be represented by a logical scheme. Nevertheless, Chuang Tzu’s ideas as expressed by (CP-i) and (CP-ii) represent the same idea as the Buddha’s concept of sunyata, or emptiness. Thus, (CP) may be termed the “complementarity principle” in Chuang Tzu’s thought. While calling Chuang Tzu the Buddha’s identical twin would be going a bit too far, considering the different times and places in which they were active, we may perhaps be justified to call him the Buddha’s Chinese cousin in view of the remarkable parallels that exist in the ideas expounded by these two giants of Eastern thought.

Needless to say, Chuang Tzu would object to all this as an example of the rational mode of inquiry that he rejects, for, to him, all things in the universe, covering both the latent and the manifest worlds, exist as a coherent whole. If there appear to be distinctions among things, it is because we impose our own rationally conceived distinctions on them. Making distinctions between “this” thing and “that” thing is arbitrary because of the complementary nature of things in the universe. The way to the true knowledge of reality in the universe is, therefore, to overcome our tendency to discriminate among things: “The sage…illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a ‘this’, but a ‘this’ which is also ‘that’, a ‘that’ which is also ‘this’. … A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way.”9

Note that Chuang Tzu’s “complementarity” also applies to the relationship between the object of knowledge and the knowing subject, for something exists in the world as an object of knowledge only because there is someone—a knowing subject—who seeks knowledge of that something. The rational mode of inquiry, including modern science before the advent of quantum mechanics, since it presupposes the existence of a knowing subject who is independent of the object of knowledge, must be rejected, as it violates Chuang Tzu’s idea that the universe is an evolving whole, of which we are an integral part. If we are an integral part of the universe, the only way to true knowledge is to become conscious of the fact that we are already participants in the cosmic process that unfolds around us. This is where the Taoist concept of wu wei comes in, which means “non-action” only when we become mindful participants in that cosmic process.

  1. Watson, Burton, Complete Writings of Chuang-Tzu, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, p. 41.
  2. Ibid., p. 77.
  3. Ibid., p. 39.
  4. Ibid., p. 97.
  5. Ibid., p. 41.
  6. Ibid., p. 81.
  7. Ibid., p. 39. The original Chinese expression of “So I say, “that” comes out of “this” and “this” depends on “that”—which is to say that “this” and “that” give birth to each other.” is as follows: 「故曰、彼出於是、是亦因彼。彼是方生之説也。」
  8. “Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta”, Majjhima Nikaya 38.
  9. Watson, op. cit., p. 40.

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