Zhuangzi was once fishing beside the Pu River when two emissaries brought him a message from the King of Chu: “The king would like to trouble you with the control of all his realm.” Zhuangzi, holding fast to his fishing pole, without so much as turning his head, said, “I have heard there is a sacred turtle in Chu, already dead for three thousand years, which the king keeps in a bamboo chest high in his shrine. Do you think this turtle would prefer to be dead and having his carcass exalted or alive and dragging his backside through the mud?” The emissaries said, “Alive and dragging his backside through the mud.” Zhuangzi said, “Get out of here! I too will drag my backside through the mud!” (Translation, Brook Ziporyn: Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries)
Those two emissaries disturbing Chuang-Tzu’s reverie at his favorite fishing hole were delivering a message from the Emperor asking him to become the Prime Minister of his entire realm. In true Chuang-Tzu fashion he just shrugs it all away by telling them to bugger-off! It’s not that he was a lazy person who shirked responsibility just to indulge in his favorite pastime; no, but as stated at the outset of this series Chuang Tzu thoroughly distrusted any form of politics. He was never concerned with any “outward show of power” –and no one could ever box-him-in to that kind of category. The following is from the book and resource, Zhuangzi, Text and Context by Livia Kohn:
The Zhuangzi accordingly rejects systematic cultivation in favor of resting in natural tranquility and prefers self-emergence over completion (Møllgaard 2007, 136). As “selflessness prevails over self-centeredness,” one works “on the self as an atmospheric totality as opposed to the attitude that focuses solely on outward goals” (Graziani 2009, 456). Cultivation means freeing one’s being from “obstructions and focalizations of the vital, thereby reestablishing communication both within itself and with the world, reinciting and breathing new life into itself” (Jullien 2007, 72). In the course of practice, identity shifts toward pure vital cosmic energy, personal subjectivity is lost, and a more natural, instinctual, animal way of being emerges (Goh 2011, 114; see also Graziani 2006, 87). [Kohn, pg.125]
Chuang Tzu’s response to those officials is that he did not want to play a major role in the wily designs of the Status Quo; his imagery is priceless—he’s stating that he would prefer not to be like some mummified relic stuffed-away in the back office of some bureaucratic machine—indeed, it’s better to live simple and free rather than being extolled as some kind of a captive artifact! He was not the suit and tie kind of guy. One can imagine him simply abhorring that kind of life. Heck, they’re even buried in those crazy zoot-suits! All spruced-up and propped-up for show surrounded by the lurid-sweet smell of all those direful beds of flowers! I used to pity the poor-soul who, in life, would never wear all that Madison-Avenue kind of regalia, yet at their wake and funeral and eventual burial, there they were—all prim and proper and looking like a complete fool, and usually holding a rosary although they never prayed one a day in their life. And, of course, later stuffed-away in the vault where in the ground their rotting carcass will still eventually just be food for the maggots. Chuang Tzu had an interesting take on his own funeral:
Chuang Tzu’s Funeral
When Chuang Tzu was about to die, his disciples began planning a splendid funeral.
But he said: “I shall have heaven and earth for my coffin; the sun and moon will be the jade symbols hanging by my side; planets and constellations will shine as jewels all around me, and all beings will be present as mourners at the wake.
What more is needed? Everything is amply taken care of! ”
But they said: “We fear that crows and kites will eat our Master.”
“Well,” said Chuang Tzu, “above ground I shall be eaten by crows and kites, below it by ants and worms. In either case I shall be eaten. Why are you so partial to birds?”
I’m with Chuang-Tzu. I prefer to be cremated and my ashes strewn in a wonderfully serene and contemplative forest pond—food for the turtles. Chuang Tzu often used that turtle-imagery. He must have loved them. In another story he talks about a tortoise called Dark Spirit “for whom spring and autumn each lasts five hundred years.” They are indeed such lovely and con-templative creatures; if you look closely (click-on) at today’s accompanying image you will discover a Buddha’s face in that tree beside the tortoise. An apt image, I think, to conclude this Chuang-Tzu series. He was a grand contemplative person, not a mystic in the esoteric sense, but rather a Mystic of the Tao, bearing no fixed position, and just being responsive to the breath of the Unborn Spirit.