When most people think of classic Taoist writings, likely they'll recall the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu. But there's a third classic, the Lieh-tzu.
Eva Wong has written an eminently readable translation of the Lieh-tzu: Lieh-tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living.
Here's how she describes "The Voice of Lieh-tzu" in that portion of her introduction.
What then, is the voice of the Lieh-tzu? To me, it is a friendly voice, a casual voice, and not the voice of an all-knowing sage or master. It is the voice of someone who gives advice not because he is an expert, but because he has made mistakes and learned from them. It comes from a person who allows us to listen. He speaks, pauses, and when we respond, he speaks again.
I do not get the same feeling when I read the Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu speaks as a sage who presents his ideas in an organized manner. I can almost imagine him lecturing from a podium. Moreover, when the lecture is over, there is no question period. It is up to us to understand him.
The Chuang-tzu conveys yet a different feeling. Chuang-tzu is an eccentric who chuckles to himself and is not concerned about being understood. Chuang-tzu wanders in a world different from ours, completely removed from everyday affairs. He lives in a world where things come and go in fleeting moments, and the ground of reality is always changing. We can catch a glimpse of him now and then, but it would be impossible to stay at his side and talk to him.
The Lieh-tzu is different. Lieh-tzu lives in our world. He talks about experiences we can understand. He speaks about life and death, fortune and misfortune, gain and loss, things we are concerned with, and problems we want to solve in our lives. He talks about the mad race for wealth and renown and the hazards of seeking social recognition.
He scorns social pressure and the empty pursuits of the rich and famous. He talks about friendship, human communication, dreams, reality, and learning. He speaks things we do not dare to speak of, but when we listen to him, we may smile, laugh, or nod in agreement. The awakening from ignorance is not rude but soft. It is as if someone gently shook us and woke us from a deep sleep.
Thus, while Lao-tzu talks at us and Chuang-tzu talks to himself, Lieh-tzu speaks to us.
...The Lao-tzu and the Chuang-tzu talk about the state of enlightenment. They describe what it is like to merge with the Tao and be filled with the undifferentiated breath of the origin. We are not told how these sages attained enlightenment or what they had to go through.
On the other hand, the Lieh-tzu shows us the struggles of a person who tries to become enlightened. We see Lieh-tzu fumble in his attempts; we see him laughing at himself. We see the kind of training he had to go through and the obstacles he had to overcome. We are shown what it is like on the path to enlightenment rather than what it is like after we get there.
...Many people do not take the stories of the Lieh-tzu seriously and write them off as fairy tales. But it is precisely because some stories are so removed from our everyday reality that they can talk about things we would otherwise find hard to accept.
If the Lao-tzu is poetry and the Chuang-tzu is prose, then the Lieh-tzu is a series of comic strips. By exaggerating the ridiculous aspects of human actions, it portrays the human condition as humorous and pokes fun at social taboos. When we laugh at humor in comic strips, we are in essence laughing at ourselves.
Thus, while the Lao-tzu is the voice of serious wisdom and the Chuang-tzu is the voice of crazy wisdom, the Lieh-tzu is the voice of humorous wisdom.
The philosophy in the Lao-tzu comes from above us; we can admire it and hope to follow it, but it is hard to reach. The philosophy in the Chuang-tzu comes from a world that is very different from our own; we may try to grasp it, but it is too elusive to catch. The philosophy in the Lieh-tzu comes from where we are. It speaks to us at our level and talks about experiences we can relate to and understand.
Like, drinking wine and enjoying sex. That's the only story in the Lieh-tzu that I've shared so far on this blog. As I continue re-reading Wong's book, I may share some other stories that appeal to me.
Well, here's one I read this morning. Enjoy...
King Shun asked his minister, "Can I possess the way of heaven and earth and make it go according to my wishes?"
His minister replied, "Even your body is not your own; how can you think about bending the way of heaven and earth to your will?"
"If my body does not belong to me, then to whom does it belong?"
"Your body does not belong to you; its form was lent to you by heaven and earth. Your life does not belong to you; it came into existence with the interaction of the energies of heaven and earth. Your mind and your spirit are not yours to control; they follow the natural way of heaven and earth. Your children and grandchildren are not yours to possess; they are like flakes of your skin, for procreation was granted to you by heaven and earth.
"A person who understands this is one who is not bound by the ideas of what a mind is and what a body is. Forgetting his body, he can travel anywhere in the world without knowing where he goes. Forgetting his mind, he can succeed at everything he does because he does not think about how it is done. He follows the way of heaven, going when he needs to go, staying without knowing what made him stay, and eating without knowing how he is fed.
"Life is but the coming together of the energies of heaven and earth, and the source of these energies has no beginning and no end. How can one ever possess the way of heaven and earth?"