According to H. G. Wells, humanity attained to adolescence in the 6th century b.c. It is hard to recognise the truth of this statement for even to-day nations behave as selfish and imprudent children, ignoring the law of philanthropy and believing in the supreme efficacy of physical force—blind to the operations of the moral and spiritual laws which determine the rise and fall of nations, as well as of individuals. Creating physical wants and finding new means to satisfy them is the preoccupation of present day civilisation. We have made little progress in morality, far less in spirituality. We are as much subject to greed and slaves to vanity, as in the days of Thales.
The 6th century b.c. was marked by an unprecedented upheaval in the world of philosophy. Discarding the old and no longer suitable authoritarianism of the ancient writers, humanity made reason its sole guide and entered the reaim of investigation with an open mind. It has been said that Socrates “ brought down philosophy from the’ clouds to the earth,” meaning that he freed the human mind from the fetters of orthodoxy and authority, ushering in a new era of scientific investigation. While Socrates was exposing the grandeur of morality and the beauties of Justice and Truth, Shakyamuni Buddha was inaugurating in India an era of revolt against the meaningless rites of the Vedas, and exposing the mischievousness of the caste system, preaching equality, mercy, benevolence and freedom of thought. In renouncing a position of the highest opulence for that of abject poverty, Shakyamuni was demonstrating the supreme value of love of truth and the unity of life.
At this time, China was in a state of disintegration and degeneracy. The lofty idealism of Yao and Shun, and the spirit of self-sacrifice of Yu the Great, had been completely forgotten. Dissensions, unbridled passions and ignorance ruled the hearts of the people. It was at this time that a great sage appeared in China who put morality above all worldly considerations and enjoined the need for gentlemanly conduct under all circumstances. Such was Confucius. Observing reticence on the disputed questions of life after death and the mysteries of the human soul, he taught the simple principles of considerateness and propriety, filial piety and devotion to duty. “ If our parents tell us to do what is obviously wrong, should we do it ? ” asks a disciple. The sage bursts out : “What did you say ? What did you say ? Even if an august Prince commands his ministers to do what is not right, they must not obey him ! ”
While the sage of Lu was thus teaching politics and ethics, another great philosopher, Li or, Lao Tzu, was teaching the philosophy of spiritual well-being. He believed in quietude, peace, retirement and absolute inaction, and laughed at the teacher of music and rites. It is said that he was keeper of the Imperial archives at Loyang, and on record is an account of the interview which Confucius had with him there, in the course of which the old philosopher smiled at the ignorance of the young Confucius and advised him to study Tao to realise the truth. Apparently Confucius was deeply impressed by the widom of Lao Tzu, for on a subsequent occasion, though fundamentally in disagreement with him, Confucius compared himself to him in his fondness for antiquity and in disclaiming any originality or innovation in his teachings. In the “ Book of Rites ” Confucius is quoted as saying : “ Transmitting but not inventing, believing in and loving antiquity, I venture to compare myself with Lao Ping.” Lao is no other than Lao Tzu.
Lao Tzu loved obscurity. He lived and taught more by example than by precept, and after giving to the world his book Tao Teh Ching, containing some five thousand words, he mysteriously disappeared. He entered the high valleys and did not return. His teachings left a mark on the thought of the China of his day, provoking speculation on mysticism and life, but it was left to Chuang Tzu, who came over two hundred years after him, to propagate the teachings of the old philosopher in his brilliant and dashing style, obtaining for them a permanent position in the history of Chinese philosophy.
Very little is known of the life of this brilliant philosopher. Ssu-ma Chi’en, the great Chinese historian of the Han dynasty, devotes one short paragraph to Chuang Tzu in his History. We learn from him that Chuang Tzu was a native of what is now Ho-nan, that he once held a petty office under the Duke, and that, collecting round him a few devoted philosophers, he retired to a beautiful spot where nature smiled in flowers and trees, and passed his life in contemplation of Tao. Hearing of his profound scholarship and virtuous life, the Duke sent two officials, who presented the Duke’s respects to the sage and asked him in the name of their master to come to the capital and accept a high office. The following was Chuang Tzu’s reply : “I have heard that in Chu there is a sacred tortoise which has been dead for some three thousand years, and that the prince keeps this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest on the altar of his ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud ? ”
“ It would rather be alive,” replied the two officials, “ and wagging its tail in the mud.”
“ Be gone ! ” cried Chuang Tzu. “ I too will wag my tail in the mud.”
Chuang lived in a hut constructed by himself in a beautiful spot on Mount Nan-hua, enjoying the singing of the birds and the play of rivulets, merged in the contemplation of the Infinite, free from the cares of the world. When he was about to die, his disciples expressed a wish to give him a splendid funeral. But Chuang Tzu said : “ With heaven and earth for my coffin and shell ; with the sun, moon and stars as my burial regalia ; with all creation to escort me to the grave—are not my funeral paraphernalia ready to hand ? ”
“ We fear,” argued the disciples, “ lest the carrion kite should eat the body of our Master.” To which Chuang Tzu replied : “ Above ground I shall be food for kites ; below I shall be food for mole-crickets and ants. Why rob the one to feed the other ?