Chuang Tzu or Zhuangzi (369—298 BCE) was one of the earliest, and arguably the most influential, Taoist philosophers. He was a superb writer and his thought had an impact on the whole of Chinese philosophy, including Buddhism.
Lin Yutang (1895-1976), also a influential writer, and a translator of classic Chinese texts, called Autumn Floods “the most beautifully written” of all Chuang Tzu’s many writings. This excerpt is essentially his translation. I have replaced some words and sentences with those from Burton Watson’s where I feel that the latter’s phrasing is clearer. Links to both translations follow the excerpt.
In the time of autumn floods, a hundred streams poured into the Yellow River. Its racing current swelled to such proportions that it was impossible to tell a cow from a horse on the opposite banks or on the islets. Then the Lord of the River laughed for joy, believing that all the beauty in the world belonged to him alone. Following the stream he journeyed east, until he reached the North Sea. There, looking eastwards and seeing see no end to the water, his countenance began to change.
And as he gazed over the ocean, he sighed and said to North-Sea Jo (the Spirit of the Ocean), “They say, `He has heard the Way a mere hundred times but he thinks he’s better than anyone else.’ It applies to me. Formerly when I heard people detracting from the learning of Confucius or underrating the heroism of Po Yi, I did not believe it. Now, however, I have seen your unfathomable vastness. If I hadn’t come to your gate, I should have been forever a laughing stock to those of great enlightenment!”
To this North-Sea Jo replied, “You cannot speak of ocean to a well-frog, which is limited by his abode. You cannot speak of ice to a summer insect, which is limited by his short life. You cannot speak of Tao to a pedagogue, who is limited in his knowledge. But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.
“There is no body of water beneath the canopy of heaven which is greater than the ocean. All streams pour into it without cease, yet it does not overflow. It is being continually drained off at Wei-lu yet it is never empty. Spring and autumn bring no change; floods and droughts are equally unknown. And thus it is immeasurably superior to mere rivers and streams. Yet I have never ventured to boast on this account. For I count myself, among the things that take shape from the universe and receive life from the yin and yang, but as a pebble or a small tree on a vast mountain. Only too conscious of my own insignificance, how can I presume to boast of my greatness?
“Are not the Four Seas to the universe but like ant-hills in a great marsh? Is not the Middle Kingdom to the surrounding ocean like one tiny grain in a great storehouse? Of all the myriad created things, man is but one. And of all those who inhabit the Nine Provinces, live on the fruit of the earth, and move about in cart and boat, an individual man is but one. Is not he, as compared with all creation, but as the tip of a hair upon a horse’s body?
“What the Five Emperors passed along, what the Three Kings fought over, what the benevolent man grieves about, what the responsible man labors over – all is no more than this! Po Yi refused the throne for fame. Confucius discoursed to get a reputation for learning. This over-estimation of self on their part — was it not very much like your own previous self-estimation in reference to water?”
. . .
“Therefore, the truly great man does not injure others and does not credit himself with charity and mercy. He seeks not gain, but does not despise the servants who do. He struggles not for wealth, but does not lay great value on his modesty. He asks for help from no man, but is not proud of his self-reliance, neither does he despise the greedy. . His actions differ from those of the mob, but he makes no show of uniqueness or eccentricity. He is content to stay behind with the crowd, but he does not despise those who run forward to flatter and fawn. The titles and stipends of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace. He knows that no line can be drawn between right and wrong, no border can be fixed between great and small.
“I have heard said, ‘The man of Tao has no concern for reputation; the truly virtuous has no concern for for possessions; the truly great man ignores self.’ This is the height of self-discipline.”