Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: "The Way of Chuang Tzu" by Thomas Merton

tl;dr: The Way of Chuang Tzu is a fascinating look at Eastern philosophy from a Western, Catholic perspective, many of Tzu's writings as presented here are almost poetic, and do not require being read in sequence. Well worth reading to understand the commonalities in philosophy between two great religions and civilizations.

It may seem odd to read a book about Eastern philosophy written by, of all people, a Catholic monk, but I became interested in the intersection after being dragooned into watching Japanese anime such as Noragami and Kamisama Kiss and being surprised by what I initially thought were strong Catholic elements to the stories and morality.

But as I quickly learned, the Catholic influence on Japan was rather minute, as the Japanese government was not receptive to Catholic missionaries, and in fact banned them from the country, and killed those they found along with their converts.

The influence instead stems both from Japan's native Shinto, and from Zen Buddhism, the two dominant religions in the country. And Zen derives largely from Chinese Taoist philosophy, hence my interest in this book.

Two Chinese Men
Chuang Tzu was a Taoist writer who lived and wrote during the third and fourth centuries B.C., and is regarded as one of the greatest such writers, although he is not the most well-known. Tao () is a Chinese word meaning "way" (the Way of the title of this book), and while it has roots in the Hinduism from which sprung Buddhism, is more of a philosophy of living than a religion, although it clearly has religious aspects. It is the foundation of much of Chinese culture.

Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk who became quite famous in the middle of the 20th Century, and had a fascination with Eastern religious practices and philosophies.

As Merton states in his Introduction:
"The rather special nature of this book calls for some explanation. The texts from Chuang Tzu assembled here are the result of five years of reading, study, annotation, and meditation. The notes have in time acquired a shape of their own and have become, as it were, "imitations" of Chuang Tzu, or rather, free interpretative readings of characteristic passages which appeal especially to me. These "readings" of my own grew out of a comparison of four of the best translations of Chuang Tzu into western languages, two English, one French, and one German. In reading these translations I found very notable differences, and soon realized that all who have translated Chuang Tzu have had to do a great deal of guessing."
So far from being a primary source, it's is a translation twice removed, once from the Chinese, and once through Father Merton's unique lens.

Lest you think this makes this work less important, Amazon lists it as their #1 Best Seller in Asian Literature, and the it features an introduction by the Dalai Lama, who was a friend of Merton during his life, and a fan of this work.

Merton has a short discussion of Tzu and his work and influence at the beginning, but most of the text are from Tzu, or from his disciples.

Topic covered include "The Importance of Being Toothless", "The Need to Win", and the surprising "Flight From Benevolence":
"When justice and benevolence are in the air, a few people are really concerned with the good of others, but the majority are aware that this is a good thing, ripe for exploitation. They take advantage of the situation. For them, benevolence and justice are traps to catch birds. Thus benevolence and justice rapidly come to be associated with fraud and hypocrisy. Then everybody doubts. And that is when trouble really begins.  
"King Yao knows how dutiful and upright officers benefit the nation, but he does not know what harm comes from their uprightness: they are a front behind which crooks operate more securely. But you have to see this situation objectively to realize it. 
"There are three classes of people to be taken into account: yes-men, blood-suckers, and operators..."
A rather astute observation from 2,300 years ago!

Much of the book, however, revolves more around what it means to be a man of Tao, or a man of the way.
"For Chuang Tzu, the truly great man is therefore not the man who has, by a lifetime of study and practice, accumulated a great fund of virtue and merit, but the man in whom 'Tao acts without impediment,' the 'man of Tao.' Several of the texts in this present book describe the 'man of Tao.'"
Much of what is presented here will not prove at odds with Christianity, in fact the many commonalities are what drew Merton to his study of Eastern philosophy and religion.

It's a terrific introduction to a wide area of study and understanding, and for those not steeped in Chinese philosophy, Merton serves as an excellent guide.

Highly recommended.