Chan Buddhism and the Philosophies of Laozi (老子) and Zhuangzi (莊子)

Among all Chinese philosophies and religions. the thoughts of Laozi and Zhuangzi are perhaps the most profound. It is often said that the Chinese have a tendency to put much weight on reality and are pragmatic by nature. Therefore, the systems of thought developed in China are usually addressed towards practical matters that can be directly applied in everyday life. While ethical and political ideologies abound in Chinese history, rarely can we find metaphysical views on life or thoughts inclined towards a craving for mystical truth.

Contrary to this dominant Chinese tradition are Laozi and Zhuangzi, figures who deal with the most profound problems of life, transcending the common-sense values and thoughts of average Chinese people. Living in times of unprecedented turmoil in China, the Age of the Warring States, Laozi and Zhuangzi witnessed constant war, where schemes and machinations were the norm. The lens of history shows that many instances of unprecedented philosophical and religious development appeared precisely within those countries suffering from chaos and hardships, as a result of efforts taken to overcome such adversity. Laozi and Zhuangzi are perfect examples of this.

When Buddhism was first introduced to China, local scholars tried to interpret Buddhism by borrowing concepts from pre-existing philosophies, mainly those of Laozi and Zhuangzi. For instance, in the Daodejing written by Laozi, there is a statement, “All the things of the world originate from being (有), and being (有) comes from nothingness (無).” The universe has a form and it is thought of as ‘being’ (有), and the origin of the universe without form is considered ‘nothingness’ (無). Accordingly, the concept of voidness1) in Mahayana Buddhism was translated and understood in terms of nothingness as used in the terminology of Laozi.

When Buddhist sutras were translated into Chinese for the first time, the word Nirvana was translated as ‘non-doing’, meaning ‘doing nothing,’ or ‘doing without deliberate manipulation.’ Bodhi was translated as ‘Tao,’ and Tathata (the truth as it is) as ‘Originally Nothing.’ Buddhism was thus regarded on its deepest levels through the template of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Of course, it would have been difficult for the pragmatic Chinese to accommodate the esoteric thought of Buddhism without borrowing from the conceptual framework of Laozi and Zhuangzi. However, the true meaning of Buddhist thought was somewhat distorted though this process, as it was not simply words, but an entire philosophy that was needing to be translated.

Furthermore, whereas Indians often employed meditation to transcend the suffering of the mundane world, leading to the development of a theoretical, epistemological logic, the Chinese, more active and realistic, preferred intuition to logic. Therefore, rather than the logical meditation into profound Buddhism as seen in India, Chinese Buddhism adopted a practical religious approach in pursuit of the dharma, that is, to experience the ultimate stage of Buddhism and cultivate the mind with intuition. This was the beginning of the Chan Tradition in China, and the subsequent Seon/Zen/Thien traditions in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, respectively.

Some Buddhist sects consider the intuitive stages of Zhuangzi, such as ‘Sitting in Oblivion(坐忘),’ ‘Seeing the stage of transcending the limitations of reality (朝徹),’ and ‘Seeing independence (見獨)’ to be consistent with Chan, but I would like to quote a critical retort (pingchang 評唱) in case 80 of , a book that reveals the innermost depth of the truth of Linji tradition, to argue that this is not, in fact, the case.

According to the contents of the pingchang, Chan meditation initially consists of our conscious mind (心識). When we proceed deeper into our being, we arrive at the margins of ‘no mind’ (無心 ), the absolute stage undiscerned from the universe or Nature. Chan does not stop here though. With more exertion and devotion, we earn the Panna Wisdom of Buddha that pervades the Store-house consciousness, and then transcends even Buddha, to be limitlessly free and dynamic. This ultimate stage of Chan is called ‘Tao, the mind of everyday life,’ which is to eat food when hungry, drink tea when thirsty, and to be absolutely free and dynamic, restricted by nothing.

Then what of the stage told by Zhuangzi? In the book titled after his own name, there is a story about ‘Sitting in Oblivion’ in the Chapter “The Great and Venerable Teacher.”

Yanhui, a pupil of Confucius, said “I have made some gain.” Confucius asked, “What do you mean?” Yanhui replied, “I forgot virtue and justice.” Confucius commented, “Good, but not enough.” After some time, he said to Confucius again, “I made further gain.” “What is it?” “I forgot civility and music.” “Good, but still not enough.” Several days later, he said to Confucius once more, “I have made an even greater gain.” Confucius asked, “What is it?” Yanhui replied, “I reached ‘Sitting in Oblivion.'” Amazed Confucius asked, “What is ‘Sitting in Oblivion’?” Yanhui answered, “It is forgetting hands, feet and body, forgetting the action of ears and eyes, leaving the distinction of form to discard wisdom and becoming one with Tao. This is ‘Sitting in Oblivion.'” Confucius praised, “When someone becomes one with Tao, there is no good nor evil. After undergoing transformation into becoming one with Tao, there is no attachment. Wise indeed. Now it is I who should be your follower instead.”

The ‘Sitting in Oblivion’ of Zhuangzi is no more than the severing of consciousness, resting in the margins of no mind (無心 ) where all discriminations vanish, whereas Chan breaks through conscious mind (有心 ), transcends 無心 (no mind), and rises above even Buddhahood to be unlimitedly free and dynamic. To reach Panna Wisdom, one must go beyond even the margins of no mind (無心), to the stage of the eighth sense.

I will give one more example about Zhuangzi, again from “The Great and Venerable Teacher”:

For three days, rising above the world, remaining beyond, I dwell in this stage. After the seventh day, I am beyond all things, and after the ninth day, I am beyond life. Already beyond life, I can see the stage that transcends the limitations of reality, and then I see independence. Then there is no past and present, and then after this stage, I enter the realm without life nor death.

Zhuangzi mentions being outside of all things, outside of life, and then seeing through the stage that transcends the realistic limitations of human beings. In conclusion, he speaks of transcending the limitations of consciousness.

Although people are prone to confuse Zhuangzi’s thoughts with Chan, the two lie in totally different spheres. Zhuangzi remains at the boundary of the eighth sense, the margins of unconsciousness, the margins of the great Nature where there is no deliberate human manipulation. Chan transcends this stage of Zhuangzi to reach Panna Wisdom, and transcending even Panna Wisdom, it arrives at the great freedom.

Of course, this analysis is but a brief summary of the very complex differences between Zhuangzi and Chan. All of you must practice more earnestly to see the reality for yourselves.

1) Voidness: Sunyata in Sanskrit. In the Indian Madhyamaka philosophy, it refers to the ultimate nature of phenomena. It is often used to describe either non-existence or the absence of all mental and physical sensation experienced at some stages of meditation.

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