Chuang Tzu Goes Fishing

The election is finally over, Barack Obama is headed back to the White House, and the country is headed toward the fiscal cliff. But the good news is that the election is finally over. It’s worth repeating.

I heard something the other night I thought was amusing. Apparently, in 2008, after Barack Obama won his first bid for the presidency, The Onion, which describes itself as “America’s Finest News Source” (it’s really a news satire outfit) ran a headline that read: Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.

Rather prophetic, actually. Obama inherited the biggest mess the country had seen in decades, and the last four years have proved that being President of the United States is often a thankless job.

Which brings to mind a story about Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher.

Chuang Tzu, according to legend, was a minor official for a small town in China during the late 4th century BCE. While he had official duties to perform, like most of the celebrated sages in Chinese lore, he had a rather carefree disposition. He was a follower of the philosophy of the Tao, which teaches the principle of wu-wei, “not-doing,”

As D Howard Smith wrote in The Wisdom of the Taoists, Chuang Tzu “believed that wisdom lay in seeking for it in the inmost of one’s own mind, in a quietude beyond conceptual thought or reasoning . . . This is, perhaps, what he means by “non-activity” or “not-doing” (wu-wei), a spontaneous action without thought of result. Because virtue, happiness and the good life are not to be found by conscious striving . . .”

Because Chuang Tzu’s job entailed only a few duties, he was able to spend much of his time as he pleased. One day, he decided to take the afternoon off and go fishing in the river P’u. He was enjoying himself, minding his own business, when two messengers from the King of Ch’u found him. The messengers prostrated properly, presented Chuang Tzu with gifts, and then delivered the King’s message: “I would like you to come to Ch’u and accept the honorable position of State Administrator.”

Chuang Tzu frowned, bobbed his fishing pole, and said, “It is told that the State of Ch’u has a sacred tortoise that has been dead for over three thousand years. The king supposedly has it wrapped in silk and in a box and placed in a position of honor on his ancestral altar. Now, let me ask, if you were this tortoise, would you prefer to be dead and kept in a box, or would you rather be alive and dragging your tail in the mud?”

One of the messengers replied, “I would rather be alive dragging my tail in the mud.”

Chuang Tzu said, “So would I. Now go away and leave me alone.”

Even though the job of State Administrator was honorable and prestigious, Chuang Tzu preferred the natural life where he was free to follow his own inclinations. But not all people can be free of the world, some must assume the responsibilities of leadership. That’s why Chuang Tzu once said,

One who practices wu-wei does not actualize fame, nor does he see himself as the storehouse of all plans, nor as the owner of all wisdom. Wu-wei makes him fit for the burden of any office and the range of his action has no limit. Therefore, hold fast to all you have received, but do not think that you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all.”

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2 thoughts on “Chuang Tzu Goes Fishing

  1. Someone probably said once that knowing the right story to tell is half of storytelling (apparently I am failing at this at the moment.) Anyway, this is the perfect match, and very enjoyable. Bravo, David!

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