The Way of Chuang Tzu
The Way of Chuang Tzu.|
Thomas Merton, translator.
New Directions, 2010.
193 pages, $11.95 (paperback).
The world is never without its sages. No matter what the failings, waywardnesses, or even destructive capacities of worldly institutions whether religious or scientific, there are always voices that speak to the universal with simplicity and expansiveness and openness. Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a monk at the Trappist monastery Gethsemani in Kentucky from 1941 until his death, was one such sage in modern times. Before his death he was a friend to the downtrodden, to soldiers, to teenagers, to the intelligentsia, to creative artists and social activists, to the everyday seeker, to politicians, and to worldwide religions and spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and D. T. Suzuki. Merton wrote seventy books and was a pacifist. The Dalai Lama introduces this reprint release of Thomas Merton's very personal "readings" of The Way of Chuang Tzu, one of the most significant of Eastern (and for that matter world) texts. In it the Dalai Lama recalls meeting Merton: "So, as a close friend—or as his brother—I always remember him . . . Since my meeting with him, and so often when I examine myself, I really follow some of his examples . . . And so for the rest of my life, the impact of meeting him will remain until my last breath."
Merton, one of the most unique and also significant religious thinkers of the 20th century, had a way of writing insightfully, yet humbly and intimately, beyond his Catholicism into poetry, Zen, Sufism, and social activism. Created from over five years of study and contemplation, Merton states that these readings "are not attempts at faithful reproduction, but ventures in personal and spiritual interpretation . . . I believe a certain type of reader will enjoy my intuitive approach to a thinker who is subtle, funny, provocative, and not easy to get at . . . This book is not intended to prove anything . . . it is not a new apologetic subtlety . . . in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat . . . [Chuang Tzu] is far too great to need apologies from me."
I have admired many translations of Chuang Tzu, but Merton brings his own monastic experience, good humor, simplicity, and sageness to these versions, and to his introduction which brings comparisons to Confucianism, Christian faith, St. Francis, and St. Paul. Zen Buddhism owes its heart to Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu's Taoism (for which Chuang Tzu was the prime spokesman). Chuang Tzu's way is one of growing quietly, of the simple ordinary life lived without striving for either hedonistic pleasures, or a "good" which becomes another thing to collect, strive for, or desire—wu wei, non-doing, non-action. Self-cultivation, even, "cuts one off from the mysterious but indispensible contact with Tao, the hidden 'Mother' of all life and truth . . . a tranquility which transcends the division between activity and contemplation by entering into union with the nameless and invisible Tao."
A reader familiar with Merton's work will recognize Chuang Tzu in Merton, and one can imagine Merton's attraction to the Chinese sage who so plainly defines Merton's own spontaneity, broad-mindedness, spirituality, and insight.
Chuang Tzu says: "The non-action of the wise man is not inaction. / It is not studied. It is not shaken by anything. / The sage is quiet because he is not moved, / Not because he wills to be quiet. / Still water is like glass. / You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin. / It is a perfect level: / A carpenter could use it." ("Action and Non-Action")