The Writings of Chuang Tzu

Book 20: The Tree on the Mountain

Chuang Tzu

Shan Mû, or 'The Tree on the Mountain.'

1. Kwang-tsze was walking on a mountain, when he saw a great tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but he would not touch it, and, when asked the reason, said, that it was of no use for anything, Kwang-tsze then said to his disciples, 'This tree, because its wood is good for nothing, will succeed in living out its natural term of years.' Having left the mountain, the Master lodged in the house of an old friend, who was glad to see him, and ordered his waiting-lad to kill a goose and boil it. The lad said, 'One of our geese can cackle, and the other cannot;-- which of them shall I kill?' The host said, 'Kill the one that cannot cackle.'

Next day, his disciples asked Kwang-tsze, saying, 'Yesterday the tree on the mountain (you said) would live out its years because of the uselessness of its wood, and now our host's goose has died because of its want of power (to cackle);-- which of these conditions, Master, would you prefer to be in?' Kwang-tsze laughed and said, '(If I said that) I would prefer to be in a position between being fit to be useful and wanting that fitness, that would seem to be the right position, but it would not be so, for it would not put me beyond being involved in trouble; whereas one who takes his seat on the Tâo and its Attributes, and there finds his ease and enjoyment, is not exposed to such a contingency. He is above the reach both of praise and of detraction; now he (mounts aloft) like a dragon, now he (keeps beneath) like a snake; he is transformed with the (changing) character of the time, and is not willing to addict himself to any one thing; now in a high position and now in a low, he is in harmony with all his surroundings; he enjoys himself at ease with the Author of all things; he treats things as things, and is not a thing to them:-- where is his liability to be involved in trouble? This was the method of Shan Nang and Hwang-Tî. As to those who occupy themselves with the qualities of things, and with the teaching and practice of the human relations, it is not so with them. Union brings on separation; success, overthrow; sharp corners, the use of the file; honour, critical remarks; active exertion, failure; wisdom, scheming; inferiority, being despised:-- where is the possibility of unchangeableness in any of these conditions? Remember this, my disciples. Let your abode be here,-- in the Tâo and its Attributes.'

2. Î-liâo, an officer of Shih-nan, having an interview with the marquis of Lû, found him looking sad, and asked him why he was so. The marquis said, 'I have studied the ways of the former kings, and cultivated the inheritance left me by my predecessors. I reverence the spirits of the departed and honour the men of worth, doing this with personal devotion, and without the slightest intermission. Notwithstanding, I do not avoid meeting with calamity, and this it is which makes me sad.' The officer said, 'The arts by which you try to remove calamity are shallow. Think of the close-furred fox and of the elegantly-spotted leopard. They lodge in the forests on the hills, and lurk in their holes among the rocks;-- keeping still. At night they go about, and during day remain in their lairs;-- so cautious are they. Even if they are suffering from hunger, thirst, and other distresses, they still keep aloof from men, seeking their food about the Kiang and the Ho;-- so resolute are they. Still they are not able to escape the danger of the net or the trap; and what fault is it of theirs? It is their skins which occasion them the calamity.

'And is not the state of Lû your lordship's skin? I wish your lordship to rip your skin from your body, to cleanse your heart, to put away your desires, and to enjoy yourself where you will be without the presence of any one. In the southern state of Yüeh, there is a district called "the State of Established Virtue." The people are ignorant and simple; their object is to minimise the thought of self and make their desires few; they labour but do not lay up their gains; they give but do not seek for any return; they do not know what righteousness is required of them in any particular case, nor by what ceremonies their performances should be signalised; acting in a wild and eccentric way as if they were mad, they yet keep to the grand rules of conduct. Their birth is an occasion for joy; their death is followed by the rites of burial. I should wish your lordship to leave your state; to give up your ordinary ways, and to proceed to that country by the directest course.'

The ruler said, 'The way to it is distant and difficult; there are rivers and hills; and as I have neither boat nor carriage, how am I to go?' The officer from Shih-nan rejoined, 'If your lordship abjure your personal state, and give up your wish to remain here, that will serve you for a carriage.' The ruler rejoined, 'The way to it is solitary and distant, and there are no people on it;-- whom shall I have as my companions? I have no provisions prepared, and how shall I get food?-- how shall I be able to get (to the country)?' The officer said, 'Minimise your lordship's expenditure, and make your wants few, and though you have no provisions prepared, you will find you have enough. Wade through the rivers and float along on the sea, where however you look, you see not the shore, and, the farther you go, you do not see where your journey is to end ;-- those who escorted you to the shore will return, and after that you will feel yourself far away. Thus it is that he who owns men (as their ruler) is involved in troubles, and he who is owned by men (as their ruler) suffers from sadness; and hence Yâo would neither own men, nor be owned by them. I wish to remove your trouble, and take away your sadness, and it is only (to be done by inducing you) to enjoy yourself with the Tâo in the land of Great Vacuity.

'If a man is crossing a river in a boat, and another empty vessel comes into collision with it, even though he be a man of a choleric temper, he will not be angry with it. If there be a person, however, in that boat, he will bawl out to him to haul out of the way. If his shout be not heard, he will repeat it; and if the other do not then hear, he will call out a third time, following up the shout with abusive terms. Formerly he was not angry, but now he is; formerly (he thought) the boat was empty, but now there is a person in it. If a man can empty himself of himself, during his time in the world, who can harm him?'