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Taoist Tales

A Rose by any other name...
A Rose | © rachels1221 | Creative Commons Licence
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Fragrance of a Rose

The disciples were absorbed in a discussion of Lao-tzu’s dictum:
“Those who know do not say; Those who say do not know.”

When the master arrived her students asked her what the words meant.
The master asked turned the question back to them: “How many of you knows what a rose smells like?”
All of them indicated that they knew.
Then she said, “How many of you can put the fragrance of a rose into words?”

Every last one of them remained silent.

– Ancient Taoist Tale


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Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly | © Lu Zhi (1496–1576) | Public Domain Mark
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The Butterfly

“Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” (vii.6 – transl. Watson)

– Chuang Tzu (369—298 BCE)


The Turtle

Chuang Tzu’s job entailed only a few duties so he was able to spend much of his time as he pleased. One day, he decided to take the afternoon off and go fishing in the river P’u. He was enjoying himself, minding his own business, when two messengers from the King of Ch’u found him. The messengers prostrated properly, presented Chuang Tzu with gifts, and then delivered the King’s message: “I would like you to come to Ch’u and accept the honorable position of State Administrator.”

Chuang Tzu frowned, bobbed his bamboo fishing pole, and said, “It is said that the State of Ch’u has a sacred tortoise that has been dead for over three thousand years. The king supposedly has it wrapped in silk and in a box and placed in a position of honor on his ancestral altar. Now, let me ask, if you were this tortoise, would you prefer to be dead and kept in a box, or would you rather be alive and dragging your tail in the mud?”

One of the messengers replied, “I would rather be alive dragging my tail in the mud.”

“So would I”, said Chuang Tzu. “Now go home and leave me here to drag my tail in the mud.”

[Even though the job of State Administrator was honorable and prestigious, Chuang Tzu (369—298 BCE) preferred life surrounded by nature where he was free to follow his own inclinations. But he realised that not all people can be free of the cares of the world, some must assume responsibility and leadership. That’s why Chuang Tzu once said,

“Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects; do not be a proprietor of wisdom. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail. Hold on to all that you have received from Heaven but do not think that you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all. The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror—going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing. Therefore he can win out over things and not hurt himself.” (vii.6 – transl. Watson)

* More accurately, ‘wu wei’ is pure effectiveness or creative quietude:
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” – Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15 ]