From Thomas Merton’s introductory essay to his The Way of Chuang Tzu (=Zhuangzi):
That Chuang Tzu should be able to take one side of a question in one place, and the other side in another context, warns us that in reality he is beyond mere partisan dispute. Though he is a social critic, his criticism is never bitter or harsh. Irony and parable are his chief instruments, and the whole climate of his work is one of tolerant impartiality which avoids preaching and recognizes the uselessness of dogmatizing about obscure ideas that even the philosophers were not prepared to understand. Though he did not follow other men in their follies, he did not judge them severely—he knew that he had follies of his own, and had the good sense to accept the fact and enjoy it. In fact he saw that one basic characteristic of the sage is that he recognizes himself to be as other men are. He does not set himself apart from others and above them. And yet there is a difference; he differs “in his heart” from other men, since he is centered on Tao and not on himself. But “he does not know in what way he is different.” He is also aware of his relatedness to others, his union with them, but he does not “understand” this either. He merely lives it. (7)
The key to Chuang Tzu’s thought is the complementarity of opposites, and this can be seen only when one grasps the central “pivot” of Tao which passes squarely through both “Yes” and “No,” “I” and “Not-I.” Life is a continual development. All beings are in a state of flux. Chuang Tzu would have agreed with Herakleitos. What is impossible today may suddenly become possible tomorrow. What is good and pleasant today may, tomorrow, become evil and odious. What seems right from one point of view may, when seen from a different aspect, manifest itself as completely wrong.
What, then, should the wise man do? Should he simply remain indifferent and treat right and wrong, good and bad, as if they were all the same? Chuang Tzu would be the first to deny that they were the same. But in so doing, he would refuse to grasp one or the other and cling to it as to an absolute. When a limited and conditioned view of “good” is erected to the level of an absolute, it immediately becomes an evil, because it excludes certain complementary elements which are required if it is to be fully good. To cling to one partial view, one limited and conditioned opinion, and to treat this as the ultimate answer to all questions is simply to “obscure the Tao” and make oneself obdurate in error.
He who grasps the central pivot of Tao, is able to watch “Yes” and “No” pursue their alternating course around the circumference. He retains his perspective and clarity of judgment, so that he knows that “Yes” is “Yes” in the light of the “No” which stands over against it. He understands that happiness, when pushed to an extreme, becomes calamity. That beauty, when overdone, becomes ugliness. Clouds become rain and vapor ascends again to become clouds. To insist that the cloud should never turn to rain is to resist the dynamism of Tao.
One of the most famous of all Chuang Tzu’s “principles” is that called “three in the morning,” from the story of the monkeys whose keeper planned to give them three measures of chestnuts in the morning and four in the evening but, when they complained, changed his plan and gave them four in the morning and three in the evening. What does this story mean? Simply that the monkeys were foolish and that the keeper cynically outsmarted them? Quite the contrary. The point is rather that the keeper had enough sense to recognize that the monkeys had irrational reasons of their own for wanting four measures of chestnuts in the morning, and did not stubbornly insist on his original arrangement. He was not totally indifferent, and yet he saw that an accidental difference did not affect the substance of his arrangement. Nor did he waste time demanding that the monkeys try to be “more reasonable” about it when monkeys are not expected to be reasonable in the first place. It is when we insist most firmly on everyone else being “reasonable” that we become, ourselves, unreasonable. Chuang Tzu, firmly centered on Tao, could see these things in perspective. His teaching follows the principle of “three in the morning,” and it is at home on two levels: that of the divine and invisible Tao that has no name, and that of ordinary, simple, everyday existence.