Derived from Interviews with Bruce Frantzis

One of the most debated and well known quotes from Chuang Tse occurs at the end of Chapter 17
in the book Readings in Classical Chinese
by Philip J. Ivanhoe:
Chuang Tse and Hui Tse are wandering
across a bridge on the river Hao.
Chuang Tse: The tiao fish come out roaming, free and at ease. This is the joy
of fish.
Hui Tse: You are not a fish, how you can know what fish like?
Chuang Tse: You are not me, how you can you know what I know?
Hui Tse: I am not you and I do not know what you think, but I know you are not a
fish and therefore you cannot possibly know what fish think.
Chuang Tse: Let’s go back to the beginning. When you asked me what fish like, you
had to know I knew it already to begin with. I know it by the river Hao, that’s

The debate and intrigue surrounding this dialog goes beyond the clever rhetoric of a
skeptic that Chuang Tse used to debate his logistician friend Hui Tse. Essentially
the question of the passage is what Chuang Tse meant in his final line. What
form of knowledge is he referring to? Not surprisingly, it’s quite a difficult
concept to explain, and I have seen a variety of differing but very well
thought out answers to address it. Out of those, the best one I have seen thus
far is “Taoists believe in the flow of nature, and the fish are engaging in their
natural habits, therefore the fish are happy.”

The natural explanation is valid by the viewpoints of Taoism, but feels lacking in
comparison to its context. If there is really a different form of knowing that
exists, it feels like being cheated to be told to leave it simply at “do what
is natural.”

Fortunately, the topic doesn’t end there. Bruce Frantzis, as a lineage holder in the Taoist
tradition passed down from Lao Tse can move beyond this more obvious surface
interpretation and present a different version of this passage:
Chuang Tse and Hui Tse are wandering
across a bridge on the river Hao.
Chuang Tse: I felt like using a Taoist technique, so I can tell that the fish
enjoy what they are doing here.
Hui Tse: You just gave me an
opportunity to beat you through a logical argument and prove you wrong!
Chuang Tse: We have different methods of understanding things. I can see this
truth through the technique of emptiness. You do not have that ability.
Hui Tse: I missed the hidden interpretation of your point, and thus believe I
have cornered you in this argument, and hence I won.
Chuang Tse: You’ve already distorted
the truth through your mental framing of this. Let’s try to go back to where it
was clear. When you asked me what fish like, you made the assumption my form of
knowing is equivalent to yours. It is not. My understanding comes from being
able to see the emptiness inside the river and comprehend its essence.

This interpretation, however, opens up a much larger question. What is the meaning
of emptiness? This is a concept that is difficult for scholarly academics to
understand as it can only be known through direct experience..

All the great Taoist sages practiced mysticism rather than merely being intelligent
philosophers. Their writings tended to be in obscure metaphorical language, with
many hidden double meanings. Some of mystical ideas which constitute the intended
meaning are very foreign to Western forms of thought and language. Thus deciphering
the intended meanings of Taoist literature is quite difficult.

The skills of Chuang Tse and Lao Tse were admirable. Weaving a few double meanings into a
passage is difficult enough, but allowing radically differing interpretations
to coexist within the same text is a feat in of itself. Giving some of the
layers profound appeal to the general public allowed these texts to stay in the
public domain long enough for those who were ready to learn the actual
meditative practices to discover them from the deeper meanings in these texts. Thus
the Taoist tradition has been able to survive for centuries.

Next issue we shall focus upon the relationship between the meanings encoded within these
texts and actual Taoist meditative practices.

Article by Alex Frantzis

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