translation by Lin Yutang
In the time of autumn floods, a hundred streams poured into the river. It swelled in its turbid course, so that it was impossible to tell a cow from a horse on the opposite banks or on the islets. Then the Spirit of the River laughed for joy that all the beauty of the earth was gathered to himself. Down the stream he journeyed east, until he reached the North Sea. There, looking eastwards and seeing no limit to its wide expanse, his countenance began to change. And as he gazed over the ocean, he sighed and said to North-Sea Jo, "A vulgar proverb says that he who has heard a great many truths thinks no one equal to himself. And such a one am I. Formerly when I heard people detracting from the learning of Confucius or underrating the heroism of Po Yi, I did not believe it. But now that I have looked upon your inexhaustibility -- alas for me ! had I not reached your abode, I should have been for ever a laughing stock to those of great enlightenment!"
To this North-Sea Jo (the Spirit of the Ocean) 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 the Tail-Gate 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-holes in a marsh? Is not the Middle Kingdom to the surrounding ocean like a tare-seed in a granary? Of all the myriad created things, man is but one. And of all those who inhabit the Nine Continents, 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?
"The succession of the Five Rulers, the contentions of the Three Kings, the concerns of the kind-hearted, the labors of the administrators, are but this and nothing more. Po Yi refused the throne for fame. Chungni (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?"
"Very well," replied the Spirit of the River, "am I then to regard the universe as great and the tip of a hair as small?"
"Not at all," said the Spirit of the Ocean. "Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end. He investigates fullness and decay, and therefore does not rejoice if he succeeds, nor lament if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not constant. He who clearly apprehends the scheme of existence does not rejoice over life, nor repine at death; for he knows that terms are not final.
"What man knows is not to be compared with what he does not know. The span of his existence is not to be compared with the span of his non-existence. To strive to exhaust the infinite by means of the infinitesimal necessarily lands him in confusion and unhappiness. How then should one be able to say that the tip of a hair is the ne plus ultra of smallness, or that the universe is the ne plus ultra of greatness?"
"Dialecticians of the day," replied the Spirit of the River, "all say that the infinitesimal has no form, and that the infinite is beyond all measurement. Is that true?"
"If we look at the great from the standpoint of the small," said the Spirit of the Ocean, "we cannot reach its limit; and if we look at the small from the standpoint of the great, it eludes our sight. The infinitesimal is a subdivision of the small; the colossal is an extension of the great. In this sense the two fall into different categories. This lies in the nature of circumstances. Now smallness and greatness presuppose form. That which is without form cannot be divided by numbers, and that which is above measurement cannot be measured. The greatness of anything may be a topic of discussion, and the smallness of anything may be mentally imagined. But that which can be neither a topic of discussion nor imagined mentally cannot be said to have greatness or smallness.
"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. He acts differently from the vulgar crowd, but does not place high value on being different or eccentric; nor because he acts with the majority does he despise those that flatter a few. The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace. He knows that right and wrong cannot be distinguished, that great and small cannot be defined.
"I have heard say, 'The man of Tao has no (concern) reputation; the truly virtuous has no (concern for) possessions; the truly great man ignores self.' This is the height of self-discipline."
"But how then," asked the Spirit of the River, "arise the distinctions of high and low, of great and small in the material and immaterial aspects of things?"
"From the point of view of Tao," replied the Spirit of the Ocean, "there are no such distinctions of high and low. From the point of view of individuals, each holds himself high and holds others low. From the vulgar point of view, high and low (honors and dishonor) are some thing conferred by others. "In regard to distinctions, if we say that a thing is great or small by its own standard of great or small, then there is nothing in all creation which is not great, nothing which is not small. To know that the universe is but as a tare-seed, and the tip of a hair is (as big as) a mountain, -- this is the expression of relativity.
"In regard to function, if we say that something exists or does not exist, by its own standard of existence or non- existence, then there is nothing which does not exist, nothing which does not perish from existence. If we know that east and west are convertible and yet necessary terms in relation to each other, then such (relative) functions may be determined.
"In regard to man's desires or interests, if we say that anything is good or bad because it is either good or bad according to our individual (subjective) standards, then there is nothing which is not good, nothing -- which is not bad. If we know that Yao and Chieh each regarded himself as good and the other as bad, then the (direction of) their interests becomes apparent.
"Of old Yao and Shun abdicated (in favor of worthy successors) and the rule was maintained, while Kuei (Prince of Yen) abdicated (in favor of Tsechih) and the latter failed. T'ang and Wu got the empire by fighting, while by fighting, Po Kung lost it. From this it may be seen that the value of abdicating or fighting, of acting like Yao or like Chieh, varies according to time, and may not be regarded as a constant principle. "A battering-ram can knock down a wall, but it cannot repair a breach. Different things are differently applied. Ch'ichi and Hualiu (famous horses) could travel 1,000 li in one day, but for catching rats they were not equal to a wild cat. Different animals possess different aptitudes. An owl can catch fleas at night, and see the tip of a hair, but if it comes out in the daytime it can open wide its eyes and yet fail to see a mountain. Different creatures are differently constituted.
"Thus, those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong; or good government without its correlate, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation. One might as well talk of the existence of Heaven without that of Earth, or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly impossible. Yet people keep on discussing it without stop; such people must be either fools or knaves.
"Rulers abdicated under different conditions, and the Three Dynasties succeeded each other under different conditions. Those who came at the wrong time and went against the tide are called usurpers. Those who came at the right time and fitted in with their age are called defenders of Right. Hold your peace, Uncle River. How can you know the distinctions of high and low and of the houses of the great and small?'
"In this case," replied the Spirit of the River, "what am I to do about declining and accepting, following and abandoning (courses of action)?"
"From the point of view of Tao," said the Spirit of the Ocean.
"How can we call this high and that low? For there is (the process of) reverse evolution (uniting opposites). To follow one absolute course would involve great departure from Tao. What is much? What is little? Be thankful for the gift. To follow a one-sided opinion is to diverge from Tao. Be exalted, as the ruler of a State whose administration is impartial. Be at ease, as the Deity of the Earth, whose dispensation is impartial. Be expansive, like the points of the compass, boundless without a limit. Embrace all creation, and none shall be more sheltered or helped than another. This is to be without bias. And all things being equal, how can one say which is long and which is short? Tao is without beginning, without end. The material things are born and die, and no credit is taken for their development. Emptiness and fullness alternate, and their relations are not fixed. Past years cannot be recalled; time cannot be arrested. The succession of growth and decay, of increase and diminution, goes in a cycle, each end becoming a new beginning. In this sense only may we discuss the ways of truth and the principles of the universe. The life of things passes by like a rushing, galloping horse, changing at every turn, at every hour. What should one do, or what should one not do? Let the (cycle of) changes go on by themselves!"
"If this is the case," said the Spirit of the River, "what is the value of Tao?"
"Those who understand Tao," answered the Spirit of the Ocean "must necessarily apprehend the eternal principles and those who apprehend the eternal principles must understand their application. Those who understand their application do not suffer material things to injure them. "The man of perfect virtue cannot be burnt by fire, nor drowned by water, nor hurt by the cold of winter or the heat of summer, nor torn by bird or beast. Not that he makes light of these; but that he discriminates between safety and danger, is happy under prosperous and adverse circumstances alike, and cautious in his choice of action, so that none can harm him.
"Therefore it has been said that Heaven (the natural) abides within man (the artificial) without. Virtue abides in the natural. Knowledge of the action of the natural and of the artificial has its basis in the natural its destination in virtue. Thus, whether moving forward or backwards whether yielding or asserting, there is always a reversion to the essential and to the ultimate."
"What do you mean," enquired the Spirit of the River, "by the natural and the artificial?"
"Horses and oxen," answered the Spirit of the Ocean, "have four feet. That is the natural. Put a halter on a horse's head, a string through a bullock's nose. That is the artificial.
"Therefore it has been said, do not let the artificial obliterate the natural; do not let will obliterate destiny; do not let virtue be sacrificed to fame. Diligently observe these precepts without fail, and thus you will revert to the True."
The walrus envies the centipede; the centipede envies the snake; the snake envies the wind; the wind envies the eye; and the eye envies the mind. The walrus said to the centipede, "I hop about on one leg but not very successfully. How do you manage all those legs you have?"
"I don't manage them," replied the centipede. "Have you never seen saliva? When it is ejected, the big drops are the size of pearls, the small ones like mist. At random they fall, in countless numbers. So, too, does my natural mechanism move, without my knowing how I do it."
The centipede said to the snake, "With all my legs I do not move as fast as you with none. How is that?"
"One's natural mechanism," replied the snake, "is not a thing to be changed. What need have I for legs?"
The snake said to the wind, "I wriggle about by moving my spine, as if I had legs. Now you seem to be without form, and yet you come blustering down from the North Sea to bluster away to the South Sea How do you do it?"
"'Tis true," replied the wind, "that I bluster as you say. But anyone who sticks his finger or his foot into me, excels me. On the other hand, I can tear away huge trees and destroy large buildings. This power is given only to me. Out of many minor defeats I win the big victory. And to win a big victory is given only to the Sages."
When Confucius visited K'uang, the men of Sung surrounded him by several cordons. Yet he went on singing to his guitar without stop. "How is it, Master," enquired Tselu, "that you are so cheerful?"
"Come here," replied Confucius, "and I will tell you. For a long time I have not been willing to admit failure, but in vain. Fate is against me. For a long time I have been seeking success, but in vain. The hour has not come. In the days of Yao and Shun, no man throughout the empire was a failure, though this was not due to their cleverness. In the days of Chieh and Chou, no man throughout the empire was a success, though this was not due to their stupidity. The circumstances happened that way.
"To travel by water without fear of sea-serpents and dragons, -- this is the courage of the fisherman. To travel by land without fear of the wild buffaloes and tigers, -- this is the courage of hunters. When bright blades cross, to look on death as on life, -- this is the courage of the warrior. To know that failure is fate and that success is opportunity, and to remain fearless in times of great danger, -- this is the courage of the Sage. Stop bustling, Yu! My destiny is controlled (by someone).
Shortly afterwards, the captain of the troops came in and apologized, saying, "We thought you were Yang Hu; that was why we surrounded you. We find we have made a mistake." Whereupon he apologized and retired.
Kungsun Lung said to Mou of Wei, "When young I studied the teachings of the elders. When I grew up, I understood the morals of charity and duty. I learned to level together similarities and differences, to confound arguments on "hardness" and "whiteness", to affirm what others deny, and justify what others dispute. I vanquished the wisdom of all the philosophers, and overcame the arguments of all people. I thought that I had indeed understood everything. But now that I have heard Chuangtse, I am lost in astonishment. I know not whether it is in arguing or in knowledge that I am not equal to him. I can no longer open my mouth. May I ask you to impart to me the secret?"
Prince Mou leaned over the table and sighed. Then he looked up to heaven and laughed, saying, "Have you never heard of the frog in the shallow well? The frog said to the turtle of the Eastern Sea, 'What a great time I am having! I hop to the rail around the well, and retire to rest in the hollow of some broken bricks. Swimming, I float on my armpits, resting my jaws just above the water. Plunging into the mud, I bury my feet up to the foot-arch, and not one of the cockles, crabs or tadpoles I see around me are my match. Besides, to occupy such a pool all alone and possess a shallow well is to be as happy as anyone can be. Why do you not come and pay me a visit?'
"Now before the turtle of the Eastern Sea had got its left leg down its right knee had already stuck fast, and it shrank back and begged to be excused. It then told the frog about the sea, saying, 'A thousand li would not measure its breadth, nor a thousand fathoms its depth. In the days of the Great Yu:, there were nine years of flood out of ten; but this did not add to its bulk. In the days of T'ang, there were seven years of drought out of eight; but this did not make its shores recede. Not to be affected by the passing of time, and not to be affected by increase or decrease of water, -- such is the great happiness of the Eastern Sea.' At this the frog of the shallow well was considerably astonished and felt very small, like one lost.
"For one whose knowledge does not yet appreciate the niceties of true and false to attempt to understand Chuangtse, is like a mosquito trying to carry a mountain, or an insect trying to swim a river. Of course he will fail. Moreover, one whose knowledge does not reach to the subtlest teachings, yet is satisfied with temporary success, -- is not he like the frog in the well?
"Chuangtse is now climbing up from the realms below to reach high heaven. For him no north or south; lightly the four points are gone, engulfed in the unfathomable. For him no east or west - starting from the Mystic Unknown, he returns to the Great Unity. And yet you think you are going to find his truth by dogged inquiries and arguments! This is like looking at the sky through a tube, or pointing at the earth with an awl. Is not this being petty?
"Have you never heard how a youth of Shouling went to study the walking gait at Hantan? Before he could learn the Hantan gait, he had forgotten his own way of walking, and crawled back home on all fours. If you do not go away now, you will forget what you have and lose your own professional knowledge." Kungsun Lung's jaw hung open, his tongue clave to his palate, and he slunk away.
Chuangtse was fishing on the P'u River when the Prince of Ch'u sent two high officials to see him and said, "Our Prince desires to burden you with the administration of the Ch'u State." Chuangtse went on fishing without turning his head and said, "I have heard that in Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise which died when it was three thousand (years) old. The prince keeps this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest in his ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or would it rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?"
"It would rather be alive," replied the two officials, and wagging its tail in the mud."
"Begone!" cried Chuangtse. "I too will wag my tail in the mud.
Hueitse was Prime Minister in the Liang State, and Chuangtse was on his way to see him. Someone remarked, "Chuangtse has come. He wants to be minister in your place." Thereupon Hueitse was afraid, and searched all over the country for three days and three nights to find him.
Then Chuangtse went to see him, and said, "In the south there is a bird. It is a kind of phoenix. Do you know it? When it starts from the South Sea to fly to the North Sea, it would not alight except on the wu-t'ung tree. It eats nothing but the fruit of the bamboo, drinks nothing but the purest spring water. An owl which had got the rotten carcass of a rat, looked up as the phoenix flew by, and screeched. Are you not screeching at me over your kingdom of Liang?"
Chuangtse and Hueitse had strolled on to the bridge over the Hao, when the former observed, "See how the small fish are darting about! That is the happiness of the fish."
"You not being a fish yourself," said Hueitse, "how can you know the happiness of the fish?"
"And you not being I," retorted Chuangtse, "how can you know that I do not know?"
"If I, not being you, cannot know what you know," urged Hueitse, "it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know the happiness of the fish."
"Let us go back to your original question," said Chuangtse. "You asked me how I knew the happiness of the fish. Your very question shows that you knew that I knew. I knew it (from my own feelings) on this bridge."