--2 Chuang Tzu Who?
Jan. 19, 2017

Chuang Tzu Who?

March 3, 2009, 12:00 am
By Patricia Sauthoff
Stephen Mitchell discusses his latest book, The Second Book of the Tao, at 5 pm Monday, March 9 at Garcia Street Books, 376 Garcia St., 986-0151. SFR caught up with Mitchell to talk Tao.

SFR:Why do you think Lao-tze is so much more well known than Chuang-tzu?
You know, I don't know the answer to that, if I had to take a guess, if someone held a pistol to my forehead and said you must guess, I would say that it's the form of the Tao Te Ching that is so easily digestible for people, although not necessarily understandable. Here's a wonderfully concise and shapely book in 81 chapters and, at least in my version, people love to buy it in the pocket edition and put it in their pockets and their purses and carry it around everywhere. It's so elegantly shaped. With Chuang-tzu, the unabridged Chuang-tzu takes up several hundred pages and the material is extremely mixed, ranging from the profound and brilliant and witty to the very dull and ponderous. So I think that's probably pretty forbidding for people.

How did you pull the abstraction of Chuang-tzu out for The Second Book of the Tao?
What I tried to do was to take the clearest of the clear and the most profound of these chapters and the most witty and put them in a form that is as easy to digest and as endless in depth as the Tao Te Ching.

I was surprised by the layout. I've read Chuang-tzu before but, suddenly, here had his writing in bite-sized snippets. It definitely made it accessible in a new way for me.
That's what I hoped it would do. I really should be receiving a commission from Chuang-tzu beyond the grave. I'm serving as his literary agent.

One thing that always strikes me in Chuang-tzu's work is his focus on friendship and what those relationships mean. You pulled a lot of those dialogs out for this book.
They're marvelous stories, aren't they? They're so alive. That's one of the complementary things about this book; in the way it complements the Tao Te Ching, because in the Tao Te Ching there are no characters. It's all wisdom, apothems and very dense, concise perceptions about life. Here, the fact that there are, say, 15 stories and dialogs makes it alive in a different way. A lot of people can connect with some of the basic insights of Chuang-tzu or Lao-tze through the story form who might have more trouble with the poetic chapters. I'm just delighted that these wonderful characters, so full of life and so much an embodiment of what it feels like to live in harmony with the way things are, are part of this book.

There are 64 chapters. Is that in conjunction with the I Ching?
Well, you know it wasn't but it turned out that way. My intention was to create a companion volume to the Tao Te Ching that would have 81 chapters, like the Tao Te Ching, but I found that it was impossible to collect 81 chapters of the highest quality. Some almost got there but didn't quite make it and I ended up with the number 64 as the next elegant number—basically 8x8 versus 9x9—and there are a lot of other really quite marvelous qualities to that number in a purely mathematical sense. Only after I chose it as the largest practicable number for the chapters that I had collected did I realize that there are 64 chapters in the I Ching and 64 squares on a chess board and not only that but 64 sexual positions in the Kama Sutra and then finally it dawned on me that 64 was the only two digit number ever to star in a Beatles song, so that was kind of the icing on the cake.

You've written a lot about different religions around the world. What has gotten you into looking into these different religions and their literature?
It's always a question, for me, of falling in love with a text—that is to say with a consciousness. I discovered the Tao Te Ching in 1973, right before I plunged into intensive Zen practice after, really, bumping into a Zen master. At that time, which was a very fruitful period for me, I discovered the Bhagavad Gita and the dialogs of the ancient Chinese Zen masters so it was all coming together. Only later did these projects appear to me.

Where did you start your journey?
The first one I ever did was The Book of Job and I did that because at the time I knew nothing of Buddhism or Taoism or Hinduism, I was wholly within the Western tradition and The Book of Job, at one point, was magnetically compelling to me because it seemed to most deeply address the condition of human suffering from within our Western tradition. I learned Hebrew to get closer to it. From beginning to end it took me 17 years to finish that project.

Are you working on any projects now?
I'm actually translating the Iliad as we speak. It's a wonderful project.

One of the things that's always struck me about Taoism is that it's own entity but it seems to fit so nicely with Buddhism, even though they're separate traditions...

Isn't it? That's a wonderful thing about it. You could say that the Zen masters are the confluence of Taoism and Buddhism. There's that incredibly witty quality to them and ability to sluff off anything that smacks of metaphysics—the Buddhist divinities and all the Buddhist schemes of hierarchy and the afterlife. All that's left is the essential.

Who is the other writer in The Second Book of the Tao? I don't know anything about Tzu-ssu...
Neither does anybody else. All that we know is that he was Confucius' grandson and that's about it. There are no facts known except for probable years of birth and death. And then there's his text, which is translated as The Central Harmony, but if we can glean his mind through that text, he was very much following in the tradition of his grandfather and had that kind of very clear, orderly mind. A lot of the book is his concern with what the Confucians are often concerned with, ritual and hierarchy and the proper ordering of society, and yet there a dozen chapters in it that are just dazzlingly clear descriptions of the Tao and how it is to live in harmony with that. That's why I felt it was so appropriate to include that with the chapters of Chuang-tzu.

Is there a reason the text only says in the notes which writer wrote which passage?
My intention was to create a text where they were indistinguishable but you wouldn't have a sense that there are two people writing, you'd have a sense that there is one consciousness at work here. We think of Confucianism and Taoism but they wouldn't understand the words. They would have just said We're just two guys writing about the Tao and the whole sense of rigid traditions that you'd have to cross over the lines of wouldn't have been in their world.


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