‘Yet here I am in my wretchedness’

The end of Chapter 6 of Chuang Tsu’s Inner Chapters is startling. It has been raining for 10 days, and one friend, Tsu Ysu, believes his friend Tsu Sang to be in a bad way. When he arrives at Tsu Sang’s house, he hears a lamentation. ‘O Mother! O Father! Is it heaven, or is it man?’

Tsu Sang claims to be a wretched man and the reason, he states, is that he does not know the source of his wretchedness. ‘Heaven,’ he exclaims, ‘provides shelter for things. Earth sustains things. Would Heaven and Earth single me out to be poor?’ ‘It must be fate,’ and thus the chapter ends.


What startles is how Chapter 6 ends. Up to now, we have read of those who are open to the Dao, of those who may be ready to learn, and of those who may be on the path to Sagacity. Discordantly, the final chapter spells out a different fate, the one befalling the wretched man.

In Tsu Sang’s state of wretchedness, one observes the kind of person who does not see and who is beyond the process of reasoning. What is strange is how he seems to be reasoning but in actuality is obfuscating. The interpretive key seems to lie in Tsu Sang’s claim to be ‘singled out.’ The natural teleology he assumes–the aim of Heaven is to provide a shelter for all things, the aim of Earth is to sustain all things–is very un-Daoist. For the Daoist, Heaven has no such aim and neither does Earth. Some things afford one shelter, others do not. Some shelters must be made before they can become shelters, as is evident in watching an ant work; others are not fit to be worked up. Moreover, Earth sustains some things but not others; things come into being and go out of being; everything grows and perishes sooner or later, but nothing is sustained (apart from the Dao itself but then only in a different way) forever. Consequently, no man can possibly be singled out, since the world is conceived otherwise. Only the man who is unclear can think to single himself out and fate himself to his wretchedness.

The wretched man believes himself worse off than the common lot. But the reason is that he poses all the wrong questions on the wrong ‘level’ and in the wrong ‘direction’; accordingly, his confusion can only grow. No one can disentangle him from his confusions, from his self-imposed wretchedness, so long as all his questions are so put. What startles, ultimately, is that the caring friend who comes over to visit cannot reach for the right words. He is brought to silence, and he had better go home.