BOOK REVIEW: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

The Way of Chuang TzuThe Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Way of Chuang Tzu is Thomas Merton’s take on Chuang Tzu’s lessons of Taoism. One might ask why a person should learn about Taoism from a Trappist monk any more than one would learn the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi from a Zen monk. Maybe you should and maybe you shouldn’t, but I think Merton did a remarkable job in putting this book together and that there’s a lot to be learned from it. Some may find a fresh fusion in Merton’s approach to Chuang Tzu.

What I like most about this version of Chuang Tzu’s teachings is that Merton doesn’t foul it up with a bunch of analysis. Because the lessons are short and—admittedly, in some cases—arcane, there’s a temptation to write in a bunch of explanation and analysis—both to hit a page quota and to prove how smart the translator is. Ironically, some don’t seem to see the irony of rambling on in explication of Taoism—a philosophy that advocates simplicity and rebukes the wordy for their arrogance. Merton doesn’t fall into this trap. He offers a few pages of introduction as context for the reader, and then moves straight into 62 lessons of Chuang Tzu.

I’d say the introduction is useful, particularly for individuals without a great deal of background in Taoism. In it, Merton gives insight into potentially confusing topics like wu-wei (actionlessness), the yin/yang dichotomy, and the divergence of Taoists from Confucian scholars on the four-fold Ju philosophy of virtue. However, the intro can also be skipped if you do know a about Chinese philosophy, and don’t care to read a commentary on Taoism inflected with Trappist worldview. (Taoists may want to skip the intro if they’re prone to becoming infuriated by an outsider proposing that their life philosophy took a wrong turn along the way. Merton suggests that one shouldn’t confuse Chuang Tzu’s Taoism with what the system has become, the implication being that it was a sound philosophy and became voodoo hokum in modern times.) Merton does inevitably project some of his own worldview as a Christian monk into Chuang Tzu’s teachings. Some might find this to make for a refreshing commentary on it, and others may find it a bit off the mark on occasion.

Merton’s poetic background serves him well here as many of the lessons are in poetic form—partially or totally. Translating poetry is one of the most difficult linguistic tasks imaginable. Merton has the added challenge of never having read the original. He doesn’t read any Chinese languages. He did, however, consult four different translations in three different languages (English, French, and German.) This, of course, means that besides Merton being in the text, there’s a further seepage of Western framing into these Eastern teachings. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this is a good or bad thing, and arguments could be made either way.

One of the strengths of Chuang Tzu’s lessons is his use of the narrative form. That is, the Taoist sage liked to use stories to impart his wisdom, like the wheelwright who insults the Emperor but then ends up teaching him a valued lesson. One of my favorites is the story about the Prince of Chu sending out high-ranking emissaries to appoint Chuang Tzu to a ministerial post. Chuang Tzu explains why he is turning down the offer by way of an allegory about a turtle.

Chuang Tzu also uses dialogue to get his point across in a way that is easy to follow and clear. A prime example of this is the discussion between Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu about the happiness of fishes, which has an almost Socratic ring to it. The combination of story and dialogue makes Chuang Tzu’s lessons sometimes easier to follow than the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu tends to be more arcane by way of his use of short, declarative statements that are more vague and abstract (that could be a good thing, but given vast loss of cultural context it might be confusing as well.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in Taoism. I enjoyed the Merton’s sparse approach, and think that he does a good job conveying Chuang Tzu’s lessons.

View all my reviews

2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

  1. Pingback: 2014 Reads: The Most Captivating and Profound Books I Read in the Past Year « The Tao of Loafing

  2. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland « Stories & Movement

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