Following the phenomenal success of his own version of the Tao Te Ching, renowned scholar and translator Stephen Mitchell has composed the innovative Chinese Wisdom for Today. Drawn from the work of Lao-tzu’s disciple Chuang-tzu and Confucius’ grandson Tzu-ssu, Chinese Widsom for Today offers readers a path into reality. It provides advice that imparts balance and perspective and teaches us how to work for the good with the effortless skill that comes from being in accord with the Tao-the basic principle of the universe.
Mitchell has selected the freshest, clearest teachings from these two great students of the Tao and adapted them into versions that reveal the poetry, depth, and humor of the original texts with a thrilling new power. Alongside each adaptation, Mitchell includes his own commentary, at once explicating and complementing the text.
Mitchell’s meditations and risky reimagining of the original texts are brilliant and liberating, not least because they keep catching us off guard, opening up the heavens where before we saw a roof. He makes the ancient teachings at once modern relevant, and timeless.
Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1943, educated at Amherst the Sorbonne, and Yale, and de-educated through intensive Zen practice. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching , The Gospel According to Jesus, Bbagavad Gita, The Book of job, Meetings with the Archangel and Gilgamesh Mitchell is married to Byron Katie and cowrote two of her bestselling books: Loving what is and A Thousand Names for joy.
"Chinese Wisdom for Today? There's no such thing! What did you do-pull it out of your hat?"
Well, yes, if that is defined as the treasury of recorded wisdom that is our common birthright. In that treasury, there is nothing more precious than the wisdom of the ancient Chinese.
The selections in this book have been adapted from two Chinese anthologies that were probably compiled between 300 and 100 BCE: the Chuang-tzu, parts of which were written by the eponymous sage, Master Chuang (c. 369 - c. 286 BCE), and the Chung Yung ("The Central Harmony"), which was ascribed to Confucius' grandson, Tzu-ssu (c. 483 - c. 402 BCE). I have anthologized these anthologies, picking from them the freshest, clearest, most profound passages. Facing each chapter there is a brief commentary, which is meant to clarify the text or to complement it. I have written these in the spirit of Chuang-tzu, for whom nothing, thank goodness, was sacred.
The first book of the Tao (written by the perhaps legendary Lao- tzu) is the Tao Te Ching, that marvel of lucidity and grace, the classic manual on the art of living. What I wanted to create here was a left to its right, a yang to its yin, a companion volume and anti-manual. The Chuang-tzu had the perfect material for that: deep, subtle, with an audacity that can make your hair stand on end. If Lao-tzu is a smile, Chuang-tzu is a belly-laugh. He's the clown of the Absolute, the apotheosis of incredulity, Coyoteamong the bodhisattvas. And the Chung Yung provided a psy- chological and moral acuity of comparable depth.
Readers who are familiar with the Tao Te Ching but don't yet know the Chuang-tzu or the Chung Yung-or who, having dipped into them, were discouraged by their unevenness-are in for a treat. aturally, since all three texts tell of the Tao that can't be told, there are passages in Chinese Wisdom for Today that overlap with the Tao Te Ching. But even these passages may strike you as revelations, as if some explorer had discovered a trove of un- known Lao- tzu scrolls buried in a desert cave. And there is much that will be entirely new: meditations on dreams, death, language, the I and the other, doing and not-doing, the origin of the uni- verse, the absolute relativity of things.
In addition to these descriptions, we meet a cast of vivid characters, most of them humble artisans or servants, who show us what it means to be in harmony with the way things are: the monkey trainer who turns on a dime in his hilarious, compassionate diplomacy; Ting, Prince Wen-hui's cook, whose one-pointedness elevates butchering to the level of the performing arts and be- yond; Pien the wheelwright, willing to risk his life to teach a ferocious nobleman that what is most valuable can't be taught; Ch'ing the woodworker, whose bell stand is so beautiful that people think a god must have made it; and Chi Hsing-tzu, trainer of champion gamecocks and virtuoso of patience. We also meet philosophers and fools: Lieh-tzu, who has an intimate chat with a skull; Hui-tzu, the epitome of logic and propriety, Chuang-tzu's friend and rival, straight man and foil; the ludicrous Marquis of Lu, who shows that the Golden Rule can be mere projected egotism; and Master Yu, who, even when afflicted with a grotesque deformity, never loses his cheerfulness and sense of gratitude. Finally there is Chuang-tzu himself. We meet him in a few delec- table stories and dialogues, as he wakes up (maybe) from the dream of a butterfly, refuses the post of prime minister, celebrates the death of his beloved wife, or discusses the usefulness of the useless and the happiness of fish.
Chuang-tzu has been called a mystical anarchist, and it's true that his words sometimes have a contrarian flavor that seems to put them at odds with Lao-tzu's concern for enlightened govern- ment. Given the least semblance of control, Chuang-tzu offers a whole world of irreverence and subversion. But if you look more closely, you'll see that he is neither a mystic nor an anarchist. He's simply someone who doesn't linger in any mental construct about reality, someone who lives as effortless action and peace of heart, because he has freed himself from his own beliefs. What he subverts is conventional thinking, with its hierarchies of judgment, its jors and against, betters and worses, insides and outsides, and its delusion that life is random unfair and somehow not good enough. Learn how to govern your own mind, Chuang-tzu says, and the universe will govern itself. In this he is in wholehearted agreement with Lao-tzu and with the meticulous Tzu-ssu, for whom attention to the innermost self is the direct path to a just society.
One of the qualities I most treasure in Chuang-tzu is his sense of the spontaneous, the uncapturable. This makes it easy to fol- low in his footsteps. Since there are no footsteps, all you can follow is what he himself followed: the Tao. He had confidence that in being true to his own insight he was being true to his teacher Lao-tzu. There was nothing to say and no way to say it, yet it had to be said. As a Zen poet-descendant of his wrote more than a thousand years later,
The moon floats above the pine trees
As you sit on the veranda in the cool evening air.
Your fingertips move lightly along the flute.
The melody is so lovely that it makes the listeners weep.
But wisdom's flute has no holes
And its ancient clear music is beyond emotion.
Don't even try to play it
Unless you can make the great sound of Lao-tzu.
What could be more useless than a flute with no holes? Yet, if you understand, you put it to your lips and the ancient clear music happens by itself. Had Chuang-tzu believed that there was anything to live up to, he would have been too intimidated even to try. There was nothing to live up to. There was only a passion for the genuine, a fascination with words, and a constant awareness that the ancient Masters are alive and well in the mind that doesn't know a thing.
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