Wisdom of the Ridiculous

In this lecture, Alan Watts outlines the philosophy of Chinese thinker Zhuang Zhou, who believed in the value of useless things, relativity, and aligning with nature through “wu wei” or non-action. He used exaggeration and humor to argue against controlling life. Stories illustrate his ideas on uselessness and flowing with life’s currents. Zhuang Zhou’s approach contrasts with Western notions of God and law. Overall, his playful philosophy advocates not resisting the natural Tao or way of things.



During the last two sessions I’ve been talking to you principally about the philosophy of the Lao Tzu book, the Tao Te Ching, and now I want to shift over today to Zhuang Zhou. This Zhuang Zhou, so far as we know, lived about 300 B.C., maybe a little earlier than that. And he is a very, very remarkable person, because the Zhuangzi book—he’s also, more exactly, his name is “Zhuang Zhou.” But his book, sometimes called simply the Zhuangzi book, is quite unique in the whole history of philosophy. Because he’s almost the only philosopher from the whole of antiquity who has real humor, and therefore he’s an immensely encouraging person to read. But part of his humor is the art of exaggeration. And you always have to allow for that. You always have to realize that he’s slightly pulling his own leg. He is—as in a group of people who are enthusiasts for something, but have humor, you very often find that when they’re talking among themselves, they carry their own ideas to ludicrous extremes and roar with laughter about it. And Zhuang Zhou does that.


Now, for example, he has a great deal to say about the value of the useless life. The whole notion of something, of life, any moment in life or any event in life, being useful—that is to say, serving the end of some future event in life—is, to a Taoist, absurd. Because nothing is useful at all. The universe is viewed as purposeless and useless through and through. Because it’s a game. More than that—“game” doesn’t really convey the sense of this. When a Taoist sage is wandering through the forest, he isn’t going anywhere, he’s just wandering. When he watches the clouds, he loves them because they have no special destination. He watches birds moving around. He watches the waves lapping on the shore. And just because all this is not busy in the way that human beings are busy, because it serves no end other than being what it is now, it is for that reason that he admires it, and it is for that reason that you get the peculiar styles of Chinese painting in the Tang, Song, and later dynasties, where nature in its wayward wandering nature is the main subject.


When we say that something is without purpose, that’s a put-down phrase. We say, “Well, there’s no future in it. What’s the use?” You know? We say, “What’s the use?” And we need very much to realize that that question reflects our insanity. What’s the future in it? What’s the use? The joy for the Taoist is that things have no use, and the future is not important. Now, you can exaggerate this—and Zhuang Zhou does in a very humorous way—by describing the ideal useless man: he’s a hunchback, and he’s so deformed that his chin rests on his navel and so on. But he says: now, this man is very admirable. He’s found the secret of life. Because when the social service workers come around, he’s the first to get a free handout, and when the military officers come around to conscript people for the army, he’s the first to be rejected. Therefore, he lives long.


And then he also describes a case of some travelers, who came across an enormous tree—fantastic thing. And they said: never did anyone see such a tree! So they went up and looked at it. And first they tested the leaves and found that they were rough and disagreeable and no good to eat. Then they looked at the branches and found that they were all twisted and absolutely no good for using as sticks. Then they examined the wood and found that it was full of pith and absolutely useless for a carpenter. So nobody had disturbed this tree. It was not used for cutting down or any purpose whatsoever, and so it grew to an enormous size and was of great age.


Now, Zhuang Zhou is here pulling our legs. He is not exactly asking us to take all that literally. But this is his way of doing things. Then, also, he describes the behavior of the high form of man, and he says, “The man of character”—that is in this case the word de we were discussing yesterday—


The man of character lives at home without exercising his mind and performs actions without worry. The notions of right and wrong and the praise and blame of others do not disturb him. When within the four seas all people can enjoy themselves, that is happiness for him. When all people are well provided, that is peace for him. Sorrowful in countenance, he looks like a baby who has lost its mother. Appearing stupid, he goes about like one who has lost his way. He has plenty of money to spend and does not know where it comes from. He drinks and eats just enough and does not know where the food comes from. This is the demeanor of the man of character.


Then, by contrast:

The hypocrites are those people who regard as good whatever the world claims as good, and regard as right whatever the world claims as right. When you tell them that they are men of Tao, then their countenance is changed with satisfaction. When you call them hypocrites, then they look displeased. All their lives they call themselves men of Tao, and all their lives they remain hypocrites. They know how to give a good speech and tell appropriate anecdotes in order to attract a crowd. But from the very beginning to the very end they do not know what it’s all about. They put on the proper garb and dress in the proper colors and put on a decorous appearance in order to make themselves popular, but refuse to admit they’re hypocrites. Torn.


But this explanation of the man who is stupid in countenance and appearance, and is wandering about as if he had lost his way and doesn’t know anything—of course, it’s based on the text in Lao Tzu, where he says:

The people of the world are merry-making,

As if partaking of the sacrificial feasts,

As if mounting the terrace in spring.

I alone am mild, like one unemployed,

Like a newborn babe that cannot yet smile.

Unattached like one without a home.

The people of the world have enough and despair,

But I am like one left out.

My heart must be that of a fool, nemuddled, nebulous.

The vulgar unknowing luminous,

I alone am Tao, confused.

The vulgar are clever, selfish, assured.

I alone depressed, patient as the sea,

Adrift, seemingly aimless.

The people of the world all have a purpose.

I alone appear stubborn and uncouth.

I alone differ from the other people,

And value drawing sustenance from the Mother.


Capital “M”—that’s mother nature. So there is about, you see, the character of the Taoist sage (as depicted by Zhuang Zhou) something of the fool. Because the fool is the person who doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain, who doesn’t compete. Everybody else gets before him to the material prizes of life, and even to the spiritual prizes. The fool is, you see, the person who isn’t going anywhere. He sits by the road and goes bwee blebbl bwobb wobblwl bee bee blweebbl bwee blebbl beebeede beebeede. The fool is like a Mongolian idiot child, who isn’t interested in survival, who will take a plate of food and run his finger round in it, and make a wonderful slosh with the stew, and then watch it drip from the tip of his finger, and he won’t eat for quite a while, and then he’ll play with it in all sorts of ways. Then his attention will be distracted by something else, and he’ll chase after that, you see? But so long as you don’t cross him—this is the case of the Mongolian idiot—he remains the most wonderfully friendly, swinging kind of a cat. But he has no ambition. He doesn’t fight for himself. And nobody can ever get him to.


So the fool has always been used as a kind of analog of the sage. There’s a Hindu verse which says:

Sometimes naked, sometimes mad.

Now as a scholar, now as a fool.

Thus they appear on Earth:

The free men.


And if you read the biographies of the early life of Sri Ramakrishna or Sri Ramana Maharshi, they are absolutely wild.


Now, not all of this, you see, again—just as in reading Zhuang Zhou—you mustn’t take it too literally. These things are said by way of a kind of over-stress to correct another kind of over-stress in the opposite direction. When a Japanese scholar many years ago explained the teaching of Buddhism to me, he said something I had never heard anybody else say: that the Buddha taught, for example, that life is suffering in order to correct the wrong view that it ought to be pleasure. He said that everything is impermanent in order to correct the wrong view that reality lasts forever in time. So the idea of the Middle Way is set up in this fashion by going to one extreme in order to correct another.


And this is a very common Asian technique, and it is found especially in Zen, where teachers, when they are asked about something sacred, will always answer in terms of something secular. “What is the Buddha?” “The tree in the garden.” Then, when you ask about something secular, they answer in terms of something sacred, you see? There’s a master and his student working in the field, and they’re using a knife to prune. And the student suddenly says to the master, “Give me the knife,” and he gives it to him point first. And so he says, “But please, let me have the other end.” The teacher says, “What would you do with the other end?” You see? The question immediately turns into a kind of metaphysical thing.


So this play back and forth between the extremes has as its interior design the awakening of the mind to polarity that I was talking to you about yesterday; this thing of mutual arising. Zhuang Zhou tells a story about this. He says a certain keeper of monkeys said with regard to their ration of nuts that each monkey should have three in the morning and four at night. But at this the monkeys were very angry. So the keeper said they might have four in the morning and three at night, with which arrangement they were all well pleased. Now, the number of nuts was the same, he goes on to say, but there was an adaptation to the likes and dislikes of those concerned. This, then, he says is the way of conduct of the sage.


Basically, Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy is a philosophy of relativity. He makes a great deal of the point that there is no absolute standard of great or small, of important or unimportant. There is a story, for example, of a sort of enfant terrible at a banquet, and the speeches are being made after dinner, and somebody gets up and says that the human being is the highest of all creatures; that the whole world serves humanity, and a lot of pompous nonsense. And the small boy gets up and says that, since tigers feed on human beings, it’s quite obvious therefore that human beings exist for the service of tigers.


For Zhuang Zhou, you must get the point of view that small things are as big as big things can be, and big things are as small as small things can be. Everything can be looked at as great or small, important and unimportant, and all the steps between, because his conception of the world is essentially cyclic. In his idea of the circle—and Taoist and Zen teacher have a whole method of teaching by circles, and drawing circles—the center of a circle is any point on the circumference. You can begin anywhere. There’s a kōan in Zen Buddhism which asks the question, “Indra built the seamless tower. Where did he start?” Now, a seamless tower is like a sleeve with no seam on it. It’s a continuous cylinder of cloth. So the continuous cylindrical tower is the seamless tower. Where do you start? So, in the same way: where does the circle start of the circle of life, the cycle of life? The interdependence of the bees and the flowers? The interdependence of long and short, you see? It’s all circular. And so there is nowhere and there is everywhere that it can begin. In the same way, when he discusses the organs of the body, he makes a catalog of all these organs and says, “Now, which do you prefer?” He says, “Which one comes first and which one follows? Which one rules and which ones are servants?” He said it seems that there may be a governor in all this, but nobody could ever find it.


This is a very strange passage in Zhuangzi, which I’ve seen translated in many different ways. There is an absolutely absurd translation of Zhuangzi on the market now, published in Mentor Books by a professor of Chinese at Harvard, and it is absolutely ridiculous. The whole thing is made by a man who is, I’m sure, an ex-missionary, and keeps talking about god. Well, there is no expression in Zhuangzi for god. There is this expression tiān-ran, which has almost the same meaning as ziran—“spontaneity,” “of itself so.” This means something is so through the power of heaven.


Now, heaven (tiān) means simply the universe. As you look out from Earth—which is, as it were, the center or the base—everything else, the whole expanse of the cosmos, is tiān: “heaven.” And there is no connection in the idea of heaven with some sort of personal ruler of the universe. So the notion of god, you see, as we understand it is really very foreign indeed to Taoist thought. And when you see somebody translating this as “god,” it gives a very wrong impression of this teaching.


For example, there is a passage in which Shun asked Jiang, saying, “Can one get the Tao so as to have it for one’s own?” And the sage answers, “Your body is not your own. It is the delegated image of tiān.” And, you know, missionaries translate “god,” because they read in the Bible man is made in the image of god. “Your life is not your own, it is the delegated adaptability of heaven. Your offspring are not your own, they are the delegated seeds of heaven. You move, you know not how. You are at rest, you know not why. These are the operations of the ways of Tao. So how could you get Tao so as to have it for your own?”


Similarly, there’s a passage which says, “When a drunk man falls out of a cart, though he may suffer, he does not die. Because his spirit is in a condition of security, he does not suffer from contact with objects of existences. If such security may be got from wine, how much more from tiān-ran”—from being in accord with the spontaneous rhythm of the universe. That’s really what it means. But in the anxiety of missionaries—and missionaries have been, you see, the great Western… they’ve been the foundation of Chinese scholarship in the West, translate the scriptures into Chinese; they were the first people to study Chinese—and they have constantly, therefore, had an interest in slipping Christian ideas into Chinese classics just in the same way as, when you read Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit Dictionary (which is the base dictionary for Sanskrit study for centuries), it’s all made up with a missionary bias.


But this notion, you see, of god in the sense of the personal ruler of the world is totally foreign to Chinese thought. There isn’t even an idea in Chinese thought of the law of nature as we have it. See, the motions of the body, the harmony of the organism, is not what it is in obedience to a law. The Chinese do have an idea of law—this is the word zi. This is an interesting character, nowadays written this way, but originally written like this. Zi. This is a drawing of a sacrificial iron cauldron with a knife beside it, and it comes from a time when the laws were inscribed on the sacrificial cauldrons, so that when people came to offer their sacrifices, they would read the laws. Certain sages objected to this and said: if the people know what the laws are in the fixed terms of writing, they will develop a liturgist spirit—that is to say, they’ll start haggling about what it really says. And, as you know, that is the principal occupation of lawyers. And they said the thing is that you mustn’t write it down like that.


And so the Tao is described as wuzi. We would translate literally “lawless,” but it means, of course, transcending this kind of law, which is specific law—positive law, I think, is the correct legal term. So there is no notion in the Taoist philosophy—or one might almost say in Chinese philosophy as a whole, for this certainly includes Confucianism—no notion whatsoever of the world as responding to a boss. So the body, in other words, does not have in it a ruling organ. Its order is the consequence or the operation of every part of it existing together simultaneously, arising mutually. There is no governor.


Now, the difficulty, you see, in Zhuang Zhou’s philosophy, the difficulty with human beings, is: they begin to think in terms of governing and ruling. And they set out to dominate themselves and their surroundings. And invariably this leads to a mess. He tells the story of an ancient man by the name of Polo. Polo was a great horse trainer. This is where we get the word “polo” from. But he said Polo absolutely ruined the nature of horses. Horses were nice, charming creatures, like [???], but before Polo interfered and ruined their nature. Then he says in other places: a good carpenter doesn’t need a square or a compass. He works without it. And this is fantastically true of Japanese carpenters. You should see: one of the fascinating things in going to Japan is these old-style carpenters, working from the roughest architectural plans you could imagine, and with the strangest instruments. But they have an uncanny knack of fitting things by feel and by eye.


A great story is told of a ceremonial raising of the ridge pole of a new temple. And it was being done by a certain guild of carpenters, and there was a rival guild in town which had not got the contract, and they were very sore about it. So during the night, one of the members of the rival guild came, and he chopped off six feet or so of the ridge pole. And so when the master craftsman came in the morning, and all the priests had arrived for the ceremony of raising the roof beam, he looked at it and said, “Somebody has interfered with this. It must be our enemy guild. They cut off six feet of the roof beam. Anyway,” he said, “never mind. I will put it right.” And he took his hammer and ceremonially struck the beam, then said, “Raise it.” And it was raised, and it fitted exactly. So the story is, of course, that the master carpenter knew that this would happen, and he made the beam too long!


Those sort of stories are always associated with the art of carpentry. He needs no square, you see, because his sense of skill that is in his organism, in his nerves, in his senses, is much more subtle than anything that could be made with instruments. There are all kinds of stories about the artists of the Far East excelling in this kind of thing—of knowing with tremendous precision exactly where something should go. So a master is decorating a ceremonial tea room, and he’s with his student, and the student wants to know where to put a hook for hanging a bamboo vase for flowers on the wall. And the master says, “There,” and the student makes a little mark. Somewhat later, the student rubs out the mark, gets rid of it, but he remembers by a tiny little secret prick in the cloth where it should go. And then he says to the teacher, “Excuse me sir, but I forgot where you said that thing should go.” And the teacher says, “It was there,” and he puts his finger exactly on the same spot, you see? That’s the sort of thing that is admired. Without the slightest calculation, you see?


Now, he goes on and says—Zhuang Zhou explains at length that music has been ruined by the five notes. He says: “the five notes will make a man deaf and the five colors will make a man blind.” Now what does this mean? It’s… well, the thing is that if you think there are only five notes, you can’t hear. If you think there are only five colors, you can’t see. The moment you say—this is a problem we have in music: that we’ve got a notation which is our chromatic scale, and the stave, the way we can write music, is limited to that possibility. But there are all kinds of subtleties between every one of our notes. Same way in writing our rhythm: we have to go in steps from whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, so on. And we can increase the value of each by one half by dotting it. But that’s the limit of our rhythmic expression. Whereas in all Oriental music you have an infinite continuum, both of tone and of rhythm. They make the most extraordinarily complicated rhythms. And the way you learn music is not from notation, not from measures, but from the living body of your teacher demonstrating the way they’re playing instruments. So you follow the teacher, the man, instead of what it says in a book.


So the whole principle, then, is one of success in life through not pushing it around, through not trying to govern it. He tells a story—as a matter of fact, Zhuang Zhou has a very funny trick. A lot of his wisdom he puts into the mouth of Confucius. And he said that Confucius was one day doing this, and he ran into Lao Tzu, and they had an argument, and Lao Tzu won. But then the next time he talks about Confucius teaching Lao Tzu’s doctrines—and this to the immense confusion of everybody. But it’s said one day Confucius was standing by a river where there was a tremendous cataract plunging down. And he suddenly saw an old man coming out of the forest who fell into the river, and suddenly disappeared into the cataract. And he said, “Oh dear! Too bad. Probably some old fellow tired of life who wanted to put an end to it all.” The next moment, way downstream, the old man gets out of the water and starts bouncing along. And Confucius is amazed. And he sends one of his disciples to catch this fellow before he disappears. He said, “Sir, I was thinking that you were going to commit suicide. And I suddenly find that you came out of that cataract alive. Do you have some special method by which you do this?” “No, I have no special method,” said the old man. “I just go in with a whirl and come out with a swirl, because I don’t resist the water, I entirely identify myself with water.” So, you see, here he is, utterly relaxed, just rolling around in the torrent, and not resisting in any way—and so he is preserved. He goes with the stream, rolls with the punch, or whatever you want to call it.


Again, of course, there is exaggeration in a story of this kind, just as there’s exaggeration in the story of the hunchback and the tree and so on. Because true wú wéi (or letting go, non-interference) doesn’t mean, for example, flabbiness. A lot of people, when they think they’re relaxing, merely become flabby. And if that is so, you know, the perfectly relaxed person would slowly become jello and would spread out on the floor and finally drip through into the basement. Relaxation, you see, is simply something that happens when there’s too much yang in you, too much of the positive, you need to balance off with the yin. And the trouble is that human beings, in their anxiety to control things, exhibit too much yang, too much aggressiveness, too much of the male principle. They need the balance of the female. And so all these exaggerations in the direction of let things go, let things happen, don’t interfere are stressing the yin point of view to compensate for the excess of yang.


And furthermore, the difficulty always comes—I remember reading a book called You Must Relax—the difficulty always arises when one feels “I must relax,” “I’ve got to let go and let things happen.” How on Earth do I do it? Even in trying to relax I’m all tense because I’m anxious that it must happen, and maybe it won’t, and how do you do it? You see? You can’t achieve wú wéi like that. What you have to understand is that you don’t have to do anything. There is no method, as the old man said. The meaning of wú tse, when you call the Tao is wú tse, or lawless, it means there is no method in it that you can master and do it. What you have—it’s all based on understanding, or what our psychologists call insight. That you have to find out that there is nothing that you do as a source and cause of action separate from everything else. When you know that—that there is no separate acting “you”—then there is no need to try to relax.


The thing you have to see is that the flow of the Tao—as I said yesterday with the illustration of the people swimming in a strong stream—the flow of the Tao goes on anyway, just like the flow of time. For example, you can’t get out of the present moment. You can think about the past and you can think about the future. But since you do that thinking now, the present is inescapable. Alright, now the present moment—doesn’t it?—it has a sense of flow. Time is going along, life is going along. Time, actually (the clock time), is simply a measure of flow, a way of going tick-tick-tick-tick and counting the ticks, and saying: well, we’ve lived through so many ticks. But nevertheless, the real time (as distinct from this ticking thing) is a flowing, and yet it’s still. Isn’t that fascinating? It moves, but you’re always there, it’s always now. You never get out of now.


Alright, now, if you can feel that, see—that you can’t get out of now and you never will, see? Now realize that what we call “now” is the same thing as Tao. The Tao, the course of things, the eternal now, the presence of god—anything you want to call it, see? That’s now. And you can’t get out of it. So there’s no need to get rid of it, because you can’t get out. See? That’s beautiful. You just relax and you’re there.


So that’s the principle of flowing. You can make all kinds of very clever ways of postponing finding this out. It’s terribly simple. If you can say: well, this is a very spiritual matter, and I’m an unevolved person, and it’ll take me a great deal of time to realize this in a more than an intellectual way. That’s an excuse for playing your own game and not finding this out. There are all sorts of elaborate ways of doing that, and you can put it off by indulging in the most complicated systems of spiritual culture and yoga and so on and so forth. And that’s alright. I have no objection to your putting it off if that’s what you want to do. But actually, it’s always here and now. Just as you can’t get away from now, you can’t get out of the Tao.


That’s the humor of the whole thing. And that’s why Zhuang Zhou has this beautiful light touch. He says: “The heron is white without a daily bath. The crow is black without being painted in ink.” And this is the same saying, you know, as in Zen: “In the spring landscape there is nothing superior, nothing inferior. Flowering branches grow naturally; some short, some long.” Or they say: “A long thing is the long body of Buddha, a short thing is the short body of Buddha.” There are therefore, you see, blondes and brunettes, fat people and skinny people, tall people and short people, cultured people and vulgar people. Even a Christian hymn says: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.” You know? We don’t sing that now because you’ve got too much social conscience. I think I probably read this passage yesterday. Maybe I didn’t. But, you see, Zhuang Zhou has this to say about it.


Those who say that they would have right without its correlate wrong or good government without its correlate misrule do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation. One might as well talk of the existence of heaven without that of Earth, or of the negative principle (yin) without the positive (yang), which is clearly impossible. Yet, people keep on discussing it without stop. Such people must be either fools or knaves.


And, of course, one could always reply to Zhuang Zhou that there have to be fools and knaves so that we can recognize the existence of sages!


Speech is not mere blowing of breath, it is intended to say something. Only, what it is intended to say cannot yet be determined. Is there speech indeed, or is there not? Can we or can we not distinguish it from the chirping of young birds? How can Tao be so obscure that there should be a distinction of true and false? How can speech be so obscured that there should be a distinction of right and wrong? Where can you go and find Tao not to exist? Where can you go and find that words cannot be proved?

The Tao is obscured by our inadequate understanding and words are obscured by flowery expressions. Hence the affirmations and denials of the Confucian and the Mòzǐan schools, each denying what the other affirms and affirming what the other denies. Each denying what the other affirms and affirming what the other denies brings us only confusion. There is nothing which is not this. There is nothing which is not that. What cannot be seen by that (the other person) can be known by myself. Hence I say: this emanates from that, that also derives from this. This is the theory of the interdependence of this and that. Nevertheless, life arises from death and vice versa. Possibility arises from impossibility and vice versa. Affirmation is based upon denial and vice versa.

Which, being the true case, the sage rejects all distinctions and takes his refuge in heaven (that’s in the universe). For one may base it on this, yet this is also that, and that is also this. This also has its right and wrong, and that has its right and wrong. Does, then, the distinction between this and that really exist or not? When this (the subjective) and that (the objective) are both without their correlates, that is the very axis of Tao. And when that axis passes through the center at which all infinities converge, affirmations and denials alike blend into the infinite one. Hence it is said that there is nothing like using the light.


See, the axis of the opposites is the perception of their polarity. The difference between them is explicit, but the unity of them is implicit. The explicit difference between two ends of the stick, but the implicit unity that they are ends of the same stick, you see? So that’s the axis: the axis of Tao is… you might call it the secret conspiracy that it lies between all poles and all opposites—which is implicit, esoteric, or whatever you want to tall it; that they’re fundamentally one.


So that unity—whether it’s between you and the universe, or whatever polarity you want to take—is not something that has to be brought into being. If one brings it into being, one assumes that it doesn’t exist. That’s called in Zen “putting legs on a snake” or “a beard on a eunuch.” There’s something unnecessary, you see? So it exists. It is always there. And you can see it so vividly—and actually almost put your finger on it and sense it, if you understand that the movement of the Tao is exactly the same thing as the present moment.


Now, of course, if you try to grab the present moment and get ready, get ready with your clapper and say, “Now!” it’s gone. The finer and finer you draw the hairline on the watch so you know exactly when now is, you eventually get to the point where you can’t see it at all. See? But if you leave it alone and you don’t try to grab the moment as it flies—well, it’s always there. See? You don’t have to mark it, don’t have to put your finger on it, because it’s everything that there is. And so the present moment suddenly expands, and it contains the whole of time—all past, all future. Everything. You never have to hold on to it.

Alan Watts


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