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Impressions of “The Way of Chuang Tzu,” by Thomas Merton

To call Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu a translation of Zhuangzhi is probably like calling The Second Targum of Esther a translation of Esther. The Way consists of a long introduction that frames the material to come next. Then the material itself is edited down, in order to maximize the effect of the translation. What is left, The Way of Chuang Tzu, are the thoughts of Thomas Merton told through the grammar of Zhuang Zhou.

Which means it is brilliant.

Thomas Merton is a Catholic monk and thinker. His Seven-Storey Mountain is brilliant, an American version of Augustine’s Confessions. In this book, with an introduction by the Dalai Lama, Merton uses the same brilliance both to explore Christian mysticism through the lens of Zhuang Zhou, also transliterated as “Chuang Tzu.” As Merton writes:

This book is not intended to prove anything or to convince anyone of anything that he does not want to hear about in the first place. In other words, it is not a new apologetic subtlety (or indeed a work of Jesuitical sleight of hand) in which Christian rabbits will suddenly appear by magic out of a Taoist hat. Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, pg. 10

But just as Balthasar compared the Greek dramatists to Aristotle to emphasize the role of Greek drama in understanding the Scriptures, so Merton compares Chuang Tzu to Aristotle for similar effect. Whatever Chuang Tzu actually meant, for Merton we can read “Tao” as “Logos”:

I simply like Chuang Tzu because he is what he is and I feel no need to justify this liking to myself or anyone else. He is far too great to need any apologies from me. If St. Augustine could read Plotinus, if St. Thomas could read Aristotle and Averroes (both of them certainly a long way further from Christianity than Chuang Tzu ever was!), and if Teilhard de Chardin could make copious use of Marx and Engels in his synthesis, I think I may be pardoned for consorting with a Chinese recluse who shares the climate and peace of my own kind of solitude, and who is my own kind of person.
Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, pg. 10

Wu Wei

Merton compares Zhuang Zhou to both Ecclesiastes and Paul. Ecclesiastes and Paul were writing in the context of “Old Testament” Judaism, and Zhuang Zhou in the context of Confucianism, and were criticizing an idolization of the rules above the goal of the rules (God to the Jews, “The Way” to the Confucians). Focusing on “the Law” or rules of Confucians to please God or attain The Way meant reversing prioritizes. Therefore, Zhuang Zhou advocated wu wei, or “No Action.” This can be thought of as taking No Action towards the Good, the Right, or the Virtuous.

The more one seeks “the good” outside on self as something to be acquired, the more one is faced with the necessity of discussing, studying, understanding, analyzing the nature of the good. The more, therefore, one becomes involved in abstractions and in the confusion of divergent opinion. The more “the good” is objectively analyzed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes. As it becomes less real, it recedes further into the distance of abstraction, futurity, unattainability. The more, therefore, one concentrates on the means to attain it. And as the end becomes more and more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means become so demanding that all one’s effort must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.
Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu, pg. 23

I understood this in the context of the emphasis of God as a person from the Second Vatican Council. God is Love, is Truth, is the Way. That means an intellectual attempt to dismember love, truth or the way into various sub-components can be useful (as we can know someone’s anatomy by focusing on their members), but it’s also profoundly misleading. Consider Pilate’s famous question:

Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all.
John 18:38

What is the more accurate answer? That from the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia on “Truth”:

Truth (Anglo-Saxon treow, tryw, truth, preservation of a compact, from a Teutonic base Trau, to believe) is a relation which holds (1) between the knower and the known — Logical Truth; (2) between the knower and the outward expression which he gives to his knowledge — Moral Truth; and (3) between the thing itself, as it exists, and the idea of it, as conceived by God — Ontological Truth. In each case this relation is, according to the Scholastic theory, one of correspondence, conformity, or agreement (adoequatio) (St. Thomas, Summa I:21:2).

Or the personal immediacy implied by Christ:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
John 14:6

Neither Paul nor Ecclesiastes urge a repudiation of intermediaries between us and the Logos. But both emphasize the contingent nature of those intermediaries, compared to the everlastingness of God.

The Pivot of the Way

Merton sees Ecclesiastes, Paul, and Zhuang Zhou as advocating the the freedom of the Spirit (or Tao), in which all mediators are appropriate for this time, or that time, but are not permanent. Quoting Zhuang Zhou, Merton writes:

The pivot of Tao passes through the center where all affirmations and denials converge. He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point from which all movements and oppositions can be seen in their right relationship. Hence he sees the limitless possibilities of both “Yes” and “No.” Abandoning all thought of imposing a limit or taking sides, he rest in direct intuition. Therefore I said: “Better to abandon disputation and seek the true light!”
Zhuang Zhou, “The Pivot”

Merton sees the same pivot in Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Similarly, Merton sees Paul’s exhortation to “Christian liberty” in the same manner, that the passingness of the means not become an Idol of the Means.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage… For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!
Galatians 5:1,13-14

When I read The Way of Chuang Tzu I kept recalling Joseph Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology. Ratzinger gave the most explicit description of the Catholic view of time as a mediator that I ever read. I think Merton, through Chuang Tzu, has given the most poetic.


The Way of Chuang Tzu is a short and well written re-explication of Ecclesiastes and Paul, told through the history and sayings of a Chinese philosopher. The dangers of idolizing the Law are presently freshly. At the same time, that Chuang Tzu is skeptical of Confucius and Mencius (whose -us endings in Chinese betray the affection the Latin-speaking Jesuits had for those thinkers) helps ground the critique and gives Christians more understanding of the role of the Jewish Torah.

I read The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, in the Audible edition.

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