Lessons from three ancient masters: Laozi (LaoTzu); Kongzi (Confucius); Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu)
Life is about learning. Education is the key that opens millions of doors. Maybe because my mom had to leave school when she was twelve to support her family, she instilled such a drive for knowledge in me. And my father took great pride in being the first in his family to graduate from high school. I think we all are wholeheartedly lifelong learners. Great teachers can come from every walk of life: artists, musicians, philosophers, writers, cooks, …We all can learn something from everyone we meet. In that way, we all have had thousands of teachers in our lives. So, today I want to introduce one basic lesson for today from three ancient masters: Kongzi (Confucius); Laozi (LaoTzu); Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu).
A few years back, I was excited to read a book about the DaoDeJing (Tao Te Ching) by a famous self-help psychologist. I thought maybe he could make things more understandable for a Westerner. He went on at great length about his understanding based on various translations. But mostly he seemed to superimpose his spiritual thoughts atop the ancient writing of LaoZi. I felt that was okay up to the point in the book where he mistranslated the meaning of LaoZi as “Lao (old) Zi (man). I stopped reading. Lao (old) is correct but Zi – means master, revered sage. How could you profess to be an “expert” and not know that one very simple basic fact?
There are several ways to write Chinese with a western alphabet. Tao is the most commonly translated spelling, but I prefer to use Dao. That is closer to the way the word is pronounced, according to the hundreds of Chinese I have asked. I have been interested in the Dao for four decades. I think though, I was probably interested as a child in the ideas of The Way (Dao) even before I knew of the word. As LaoZi wrote in the DaoDeJing “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
I hope you can relate these lessons to your own life. Out of respect, I will start with the Old Master Laozi. Like Socrates, some “experts” say that Laozi was not a real person. Nonetheless he was the founder of philosophical Daoism (Taoism). It is said that Laozi become so disgusted with the country’s government he packed up and left. As he reached the final western gate, he was stopped by a guard YinXi. The guard asked Laozi to write down all his teachings. And that is where the origin of the DaoDeJing. One of Laozi’s greatest lessons for today’s world is:
Simplicity, patience, compassion. These are your greatest treasures. By being simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Have patience with both friends and enemies, by doing this you act in accord with the way things truly are. Being compassionate towards yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
Kongzi’s family name was Kong and so his name means Master Kong. I taught a little boy in China, with the English name Henry, who was the 77th great-grandson of Kongzi. Henry was a smart little turd. But many people know Kongzi by the name Confucius. The name Confucius comes from Kong (family name) Fuzi (Grand master). Confucianism is about social and political order, moderation and reciprocity. His book The Analects contains many of his teachings. Just as with the teachings of Jesus, Kongzi’s Analects are thought to have been written down by his followers. Some of Kongzi’s teachings are little dated for the present world, but many of his ideas on morals and moderation stand the test of time. One of his clearest lessons for today would be: Fix your mind on truth, hold firm to virtue, rely on loving kindness, and find your recreation in the Arts.
And, saving the best for last, we come to ZhuangZi (Chuang Tzu). ZhuangZi was a real person. His name was Zhuang Zhou 莊周, and he lived in the 4th Century BC. There are historical records of his life. I like Zhuangzi’s playful humorous, casual approach to teaching. I had success as a teacher by having a sense of humor and keeping things informal for the most part. Zuangzi, whose book is called The Zhuangzi, uses analogies and dialogues to teach. For example, Zhuangzi is walking with a friend, and he says the fish show they are happy by jumping around. His friend asks, since you are not a fish how do you know the fish are happy? To which Zhuangzi replies, you are not me, how do you know that I don’t know what makes fish happy? I know the joy of fish through my own joy. And I can intuit their happiness. And so the joyful fish story illustrates one of Zhuangzi’s greatest lessons: Learn to think intuitively. This is the understanding that comes from not knowing.
In all these stories from the three great masters, we can find one simple lesson: Be true to yourself and trust in your heart.
It is said that the ruler of the Chu kingdom wanted to give Zhuangzi a position in his administration. Zhuangzi said, “I know the King has a very ancient sacred turtle which he keeps wrapped in a box in his temple. Now do you think that turtle would prefer to be dead and honored in that way or be alive and dragging his tail through the mud?” The official said the turtle would prefer to be alive. Zhuangzi told him to go away so he could continue to drag his tail through the mud. So, be yourself and keep dragging your tail in the mud. Keep safe. Stay healthy.