Ethics in the Zhuangzi

This morning on the bus (it was raining), I was re-reading a section from the book “Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi”. One passage in particular stuck with me, and I’d like to share it. It’s about desires and preferences, and Taoist/Buddhist reactions to them.
You may have heard the old story, which this passage reiterated about the Zen master who, when called upon to perform a miracle, says, “My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirty I drink.”

The essay I was reading by Joel Kupperman attempts to expand on that koan-ish wisdom by talking about the concepts of “Education of the Emotions” and “Spontaneity” in our preferences. I think he makes a good point that what that story is meant to illustrate is that a truly wise person knows themselves, and knows how they feel– whether they are hungry, horny, slothful, or eager; they always respond smoothly and honestly to that feeling, rather than trying to be other than what they are, “even in some cases in which norms of good manners might seem to dictate otherwise.” Kupperman goes on to say, “It should be emphasized that the Daoist sage is not someone who always acts on impulse or, in the vernacular of the 1960s, “let’s it all hang out.” But he or she will be someone whose preferences will not be at war with basic wishes or urges.”

Bam. That’s spot on with some of my feelings from the Chang-Tsu and the Tao Te Ching. It’s a hard standard to live up to, sometimes. Especially when it comes to other people. Then, you start balancing your preferences and impulses and feelings with your knowledge that your actions will affect the other person. I mean, what if you feel crabby and anti-social and it’s your best friend’s birthday? Hard balancing act. I don’t think kindness towards others is just one of the “norms of good manners” which a Daoist sage should rightly ignore, I think kindness is a basic principle of right living. But then, how can you be true to your emotions and express kindness in action?

Just some thoughts.

9 Responses to “Ethics in the Zhuangzi”


So would Michael Jackson’s violation of social norms be in keeping with these principles? 🙂

Owen - April 27th, 2005 at 8:53 am

I don’t think pedophilia and kindness are anywhere near the same principles, myself.

Moreover, the pedophilia would probably be defined as an “uneducated emotion”… the true desire, which the sage would obey, would be a longing for innocence or a caring relationship or what have you that is being MIS-expressed as sexual feelings towards children.

Paradoxdruid - April 27th, 2005 at 9:38 am

PD: Jackson claims he was only seeking a return to innocence (and did not practice pedophilia) 🙂

I think that Teisha hits a good point: Foresaking material concerns in this day and age is next to impossible, and without that sort of freedom you have to walk a balance between the sagacity of pursuing your true wants, and prioritizing those wants. Could you say “well, the work is just a step in the pursuit”? Sure, but then you’ve got to draw a line where on one side you’re merely being rational, and on the other you’re deluding yourself.

Owen - April 27th, 2005 at 7:06 pm

I think it’s worth noting that most Daoist sages have been hermits with very little in the way of material possessions. Now, whether that’s a line I would ever want to cross, I don’t now.

And yeah, Teisha– American Beauty does touch on some of these themes. Hmm. Actually, I should re-read John Stuart Mills, who has a whole lot of philosophy devoted to “long-term vs short-term happiness”.

Paradoxdruid - April 27th, 2005 at 7:24 pm

Who comes to my mind is the father from “American Beauty.” He realizes his work is soul-draining and so quits to pursue something that he actually _wants_ to.

I of course would never do this because I’d _want_ some money to make me happier in the long-term… there’s a question of how much short-term happiness one should sacrifice for long-term happiness. Of course one has to have fun with life in the present, but you’ve got to build a bright future too, right? Just my thoughts…

Teisha - April 27th, 2005 at 4:53 pm

Hermitage requires a steady supply of food. In America, at least, every acre of land is owned, so any collection of food is poaching, and anything like a sufficient diet to keep you alive is impossible to get because all of the land that’s able to support a person already has a person living on it and farming it.
I wonder if you’d have to go to the rain forest to find a place that can be feasibly hermitted.

Owen - April 29th, 2005 at 3:57 am

Isn’t the issue of finding balance what buddhism refers to as ‘the middle path’? One of the few concepts I know from buddhism, but a helpful one….
On the story of the miracle (“My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink”) — I have been reading so much African literature lately, that I can’t help but consider another interpretation of the ‘miracle’ — that to have food to eat when you are hungry, and something good to drink when you are thirsty, can be a miracle to many. I think this would be considered a “materialist” interpretation of the story, wouldn’t it?

Meg - May 3rd, 2005 at 7:14 am

I think that the idea of being true to one’s desires is generally a good principle. The trick is in actually applying it in the real world, since you’re right there seems to be a need to balance conflicting desires.

As far as the idea of conflicts with material needs go this is a good example of needing to find a balance. I think the trick is to find where an action is no longer a means to obtain a desire, but rather becomes an obstacle to obtaining desires. I’m not sure if I really like the way I put that cause it seems almost a bit circular, but I’ve been trying for a couple days to figure out what it is I’m trying to get at here.

mcmillan - May 2nd, 2005 at 7:24 pm

My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink

I’m unconvinced that there’s a fundamental difference between “preference” and “basic urges”, although I do understand a gradient of near- to long-term fulfillment.

One interpretation:
“I” is an integrated (via eating and drinking) part of everything, which is the miracle.

Josh - June 27th, 2005 at 11:13 am

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