Taoist teachings from the book of Lieh Tzŭ/Book 3
In the time of King Mu of Chou, there was a magician who came from a kingdom in the far west. He could pass through fire and water, penetrate metal and stone, overturn mountains and make rivers flow backwards, transplant whole towns and cities, ride on thin air without falling, encounter solid bodies without being obstructed. There was no end to the countless variety of changes and transformations which he could effect; and, besides changing the external form, he could also spirit away men's internal cares.
King Mu revered him as a god, and served him like a prince. He set aside for his use a spacious suite of apartments, regaled him with the daintiest of food, and selected a number of singing-girls for his express gratification. The magician, however, condemned the King's palace as mean, the cooking as rancid, and the concubines as too ugly to live with. So King Mu had a new building erected to please him. It was built entirely of bricks and wood, and gorgeously decorated in red and white, no skill being spared in its construction. The five royal treasuries were empty by the time that the new pavilion was complete. It stood six thousand feet high, over-topping Mount Chung-nan, and it was called Touch-the-sky Pavilion. Then the King proceeded to fill it with maidens, selected from Chêng and Wei, of the most exquisite and delicate beauty. They were anointed with fragrant perfumes, adorned with moth-eyebrows, provided with jewelled hairpins and earrings, and arrayed in the finest silks, with costly satin trains. Their faces were powdered, and their eyebrows pencilled, their girdles were studded with precious stones. All manner of sweet-scented plants filled the palace with their odours, and ravishing music of the olden time was played to the honoured guest. Every month he was presented with fresh and costly raiment; every morning he had set before him some new and delicious food.
The magician could not well refuse to take up his abode in this palace of delight. But he had not dwelt there very long before he invited the King to accompany him on a jaunt. So the King clutched the magician's sleeve, and soared up with him higher and higher into the sky, until at last they stopped, and lo! they had reached the magician's own palace. This palace was built with beams of gold and silver, and incrusted with pearls and jade. It towered high above the region of clouds and rain, and the foundations whereon it rested were unknown. It appeared like a stupendous cloud-mass to the view. The sights and sounds it offered to eye and ear, the scents and flavours which abounded there, were such as exist not within mortal ken. The King verily believed that he was in the Halls of Paradise, tenanted by God Himself, and that he was listening to the mighty music of the spheres. He gazed at his own palace on the earth below, and it seemed to him no better than a rude pile of clods and brushwood.
It seemed to the King as if his stay in this place lasted for several decades, during which he gave no thought to his own kingdom. Then the magician invited him to make another journey, and in the new region they came to, neither sun nor moon could be seen in the heavens above, nor any rivers or seas below. The King's eyes were dazed by the quality of the light, and he lost the power of vision; his ears were stunned by the sounds that assailed them, and he lost the faculty of hearing. The framework of his bones and his internal organs were thrown out of gear and refused to function. His thoughts were in a whirl, his intellect became clouded, and he begged the magician to take him back again. Thereupon, the magician gave him a shove, and the King experienced a sensation of falling through space. . . .
When he awoke to consciousness, he found himself sitting on his throne just as before, with the selfsame attendants round him. He looked at the wine in front of him, and saw that it was still full of sediment; he looked at the viands, and found that they had not yet lost their freshness. He asked where he had come from, and his attendants told him that he had only been sitting quietly there. This threw King Mu into a reverie, and it was three months before he was himself again. Then he made further inquiry, and asked the magician to explain what had happened. 'Your Majesty and I,' replied the magician, 'were only wandering about in the spirit, and, of course, our bodies never moved at all. What essential difference is there between that sky-palace we dwelt in and your Majesty's palace on earth, between the spaces we travelled through and your Majesty's own park? During your retirement from public affairs, you have been in a perpetual state of doubt as to the reality of your experience. But in a universe where changes are everlasting in progress, and fast and slow are purely relative conceptions, how can the Ideal ever be fully attained?'
Lao Ch'êng Tzŭ went to learn magic from the venerable Yin Wên. After a period of three years, having obtained no communication, he humbly asked permission to go home. Yin Wên bowed, and led him into the inner apartment. There, having dismissed his attendants, he spoke to him as follows: 'Long ago, when Lao Tzŭ was setting out on his journey to the West, he addressed me and said: "All that has the breath of life, all that possesses bodily form, is mere illusion. The point at which creation begins, the change effected by the Dual Principles — these are called respectively Life and Death. That which underlies the manifold workings of Destiny is called Evolution; that which produces and transforms bodily substance is called Illusion. The ingenuity of the Creative Power is mysterious, and its operations are profound. In truth, it is inexhaustible and eternal. The ingenuity of that which causes material form is patent to the eye, and its operations are superficial. Therefore it arises anon, and anon it vanishes." Only one who knows that Life is really Illusion, and that Death is really Evolution, can begin to learn magic from me. You and I are both illusions. What need, then, to make a study of the subject?'
Lao Ch'êng Tzŭ returned home, and for three months pondered deeply over the words of the Venerable Yin Wên. Subsequently, he had the power of appearing or disappearing at will; he could reverse the order of the four seasons, produce thunderstorms in winter and ice in summer, make flying things creep and creeping things fly. But to the end of his days he never published the secret of his art, so that it was not handed down to after generations.
The Master Lieh Tzŭ said: 'A dream is something that comes into contact with the mind; an external event is something that impinges on the body. Hence our feelings by day and our dreams by night are the result of contacts made by mind or body. It follows that if we can concentrate the mind in abstraction, our feelings and our dreams will vanish of themselves. Those who rely on their waking perceptions will not argue about them. Those who put faith in dreams do not understand the processes of change in the external world.
"The pure men of old passed their waking existence in self-oblivion, and slept without dreams." How can this be dismissed as an empty phrase?'
Mr Yin of Chou was the owner of a large estate who harried his servants unmercifully, and gave them no rest from morning to night. There was one old servant in particular whose physical strength had quite left him, yet his master worked him all the harder. All day long he was groaning as he went about his work, and when night came he was reeling with fatigue and would sleep like a log. His spirit was then free to wander at will, and every night he dreamt that he was a king, enthroned in authority over the multitude, and controlling the affairs of the whole State. He took his Pleasure in palaces and belvederes, following his own fancy in everything, and his happiness was beyond compare. But when he awoke, he was servant once more. To some one who condoled with him on his hard lot the old man replied: 'Human life may last a hundred years, and the whole of it is equally divided into nights and days. In the daytime I am only a slave, it is true, and my misery cannot be gainsaid. But by night I am a king, and my happiness is beyond compare. So what have I to grumble at?'
Now, Mr Yin's mind was full of worldly cares, and he was always thinking with anxious solicitude about the affairs of his estate. Thus he was wearing out mind and body alike, and at night he also used to fall asleep utterly exhausted. Every night he dreamt that he was another man's servant, running about on menial business; of every description, and subjected to every possible kind of abuse and ill-treatment. He would mutter and groan in his sleep, and obtained no relief until morning came. This state of things at last resulted in a serious illness, and Mr Yin besought the advice of a friend. 'Your station in life,' his friend said, 'is a distinguished one, and you have wealth and property in abundance. In these respects you are far above the average. If at night you dream that you are a servant and exchange ease for affliction, that is only the proper balance in human destiny. What you want is that your dreams should be as pleasant as your waking moments. But that is beyond your power to compass.' On hearing what his friend said, Mr Yin lightened his servant's toil, and allowed his own mental worry to abate; whereupon his malady began to decrease in proportion.
A man was gathering fuel in the Cheng State when he fell in with a deer that had been startled from its usual haunts. He gave chase, and succeeded in killing it. He was overjoyed at his good luck; but, for fear of discovery, he hastily concealed the carcass in a dry ditch, and covered it up with brushwood. Afterwards, he forgot the spot where he had hidden the deer, and finally became convinced that the whole affair was only a dream. He told the story to people he met as he went along; and one of those who heard it, following the indications given, went and found the deer. On reaching home with his booty, this man made the following statement to his wife: 'Once upon a time,' he said, 'a wood-cutter dreamt that he had got a deer, but couldn't remember the place where he had put it. Now I have found the deer, so it appears that his dream was a true dream.' 'On the contrary.' said his wife, 'it is you who must have dreamt that you met a wood-cutter who had caught a deer. Here you have a deer, true enough. But where is the wood-cutter? it is evidently your dream that has come true.' 'I have certainly got a deer,' replied her husband; 'so what does it matter to us whether it was his dream or mine?'
Meanwhile, the wood-cutter had gone home, not at all disgusted at having lost the deer. But the same night, he saw in a dream the place where he had really hidden it, and he also dreamt of the man who had taken it. So, the next morning, in accordance with his dream, he went to seek him out in order to recover the deer. A quarrel ensued, and the matter was finally brought before the magistrate, who gave judgment in these terms: 'You,' he said to the wood-cutter, 'began by really killing a deer, but wrongly thought it was a dream. Then you really dreamt that you had got the deer, but wrongly took the dream to be a reality. The other man really took your deer, which he is now disputing with you. His wife, on the other hand, declares that he saw both man and deer in a dream, so that nobody can be said to have killed the deer at all. Meanwhile, here is the deer itself in court, and you had better divide it between you.'
The case was reported to the Prince of the Chêng State, who said: 'Why, the magistrate must have dreamt the whole thing himself!' The question was referred to the Prime Minister, but the latter confessed himself unable to disentangle the part that was a dream from that part that was not a dream. 'If you want to distinguish between waking and dreaming,' he said, 'only the Yellow Emperor or Confucius could help you. But both these sages are dead, and there is nobody now alive who can draw any such distinction. So the best thing you can do is to uphold the magistrate's decision.'
Yang-li Hua-tzŭ, of the Sung State, was afflicted in middle age by loss of memory. Anything he received in the morning he had forgotten by the evening, anything he gave away in the evening he had forgotten the next morning. Out-of-doors, he forgot to walk; indoors, he forgot to sit down. At any given moment, he had no recollection of what had just taken place; and a little later on, he could not even recollect what had happened then. All his family were perfectly disgusted with him. Fortune-tellers were summoned, but their divinations proved unsuccessful; Wizards were sought out, but their exorcisms were ineffectual; physicians were called in, but their remedies were of no avail. At last, a learned professor from the Lu State volunteered his services, declaring that he could effect a cure. Hua-Tzŭ's wife and family immediately offered him half their estate if only he would tell them how to set to work. The professor replied: 'This is a case which cannot be dealt with by means of auspices and diagrams; the evil cannot be removed by prayers and incantations, nor successfully combated by drugs and potions. What I shall try to do is to influence his mind and turn the current of his thoughts; in that way a cure is likely to be brought about.'
Accordingly, the experiment was begun. The professor exposed his patient to cold, so that he was forced to beg for clothes; subjected him to hunger, so that he was fain to ask for food; left him in darkness, so that he was obliged to search for light. Soon, he was able to report progress to the sons of the house, saying gleefully: 'The disease can be checked. But the methods I shall employ have been handed down as a secret in my family, and cannot be made known to the public. All attendants must, therefore, be kept out of the way, and I must be shut up alone with my patient.' The professor was allowed to have his way, and for the space of seven days no one knew what was going on in the sick man's chamber. Then, one fine morning, the treatment came to an end, and, wonderful to relate, the disease of so many years' standing had entirely disappeared!
No sooner had Hua-Tzŭ regained his senses, however, than he flew into a great rage, drove his wife out of doors, beat his sons, and, snatching up a spear, hotly pursued the professor through the town. On being arrested and asked to explain his conduct, this is what he said: 'Lately when I was steeped in forgetfulness, my senses were so benumbed that I was quite unconscious of the existence of the outer world. But now I have been brought suddenly to a perception of the events of half a lifetime. Preservation and destruction, gain and loss, sorrow and joy, love and hate have begun to throw out their myriad tentacles to invade my peace; and these emotions will, I fear, continue to keep my mind in the state of turmoil that I now experience. Oh! if I could but recapture a short moment of that blesséd oblivion!'
There was once a man who, though born in Yen, was brought up in Ch'u, and it was only in his old age that he returned to his native country. On the way thither, as they were passing through the Chin State, a fellow-traveller played a practical joke on him. Pointing to the city he said: 'Here is the capital of the Yen State'; whereupon the old man flushed with excitement. Pointing out a certain shrine, he told him that it was his own village altar, and the old man heaved a deep sigh. Then he showed him a house, and said: 'This is where your ancestors lived'; and the tears welled up in his eyes. Finally, a mound was pointed out to him as the tomb where his ancestors lay buried, whereupon the old man could control himself no longer, and wept aloud. But his fellow-traveller burst into roars of laughter. 'I have been hoaxing you,' he cried; 'this is only the Chin State.' His victim was greatly mortified; and when he arrived at his journey's end, and really did see before him the city and altars of Yen, with the actual abode and tombs of his ancestors. his emotion was much less acute.
- 'This was the region of the Great Void, where all is dim and blurred, assuredly not meant to be traversed by the ordinary man. The dizziness of brain and eye was the effect produced by the Absolute.'
- Looked at from the standpoint of the Absolute, both palaces were unreal.
- The sky-palace was only some degrees finer than the King's, just as the King's palace was only some degrees finer than the hovel of a peasant. To strive for something that shall satisfy man's desires and aspirations once and for all is only labour lost. The story continues with an account of the King's marvellous journey to the West. But though he drained the cup of pleasure to the dregs, the upshot of it all was that he never truly attained to Tao. We may seek the moral in a saying of Lao Tzu: 'Without going out of doors, one may know the whole world; without looking out of window, one may see the Way of Heaven. The farther one travels, the less one may know.'
- The 'Creative Power', of course, is Tao; but how widely the conception of Tao, differs from that of a personal God may be seen from the commentator's note: 'How should the Creative Power possess a conscious mind? It is its spontaneity that constitutes the mystery. Spirit and matter eagerly come together and coalesce into perceptible forms. Following the path of evolution they proceed on their way, and before long relapse into nothingness.'
- 'If a person wishes to make a study of illusion, in spite of the fact that his own body is an illusion, we are reduced to the absurdity of an illusion studying an illusion.'
- This refers to a previous passage, omitted in the present selection. Contrary to the received opinion of his own day, Lieh Tzu held that dreams were not just arbitrary manifestations portending future events, but the effects of regular antecedent causes, without any further significance. They are produced by certain processes of the mind, and if these processes can be checked (as Lieh Tzu believes they can) by means of abstraction, dreaming will also cease.
- For he thought the whole thing must have been a dream.
- Of course, it is implied that there is no real distinction between the two.
- 'If this is the sentiment of a man whose mental infirmity bears some resemblance to the Highest Principle [Tao], how much stronger will be on entering the realm of the Absolute itself!'
- Yen was the northernmost State of ancient China, while Ch'u was bounded by the left bank of the Yangtsze.