Saturday, August 16, 2008

Zhuangzi's Coffin and Liu Ling's Trousers

A friend asked me today about philosophical humor. Of course there are philosophical jokes that play on our jargon (e.g., a "goy" is a girl if observed before time t and a boy if observed after; compare "grue"), but are there philosophical jokes with a deeper point? For some reason the two examples that leapt to mind were both from the Daoist tradition. Their similarity is, I'm sure, not at all accidental.

When Chuang-tzu [a.k.a. Zhuangzi, 4th c. B.C.E.] was dying, his disciples wanted to give him a lavish funeral. Said Chuang-tzu

"I have heaven and earth for my outer and inner coffin, the sun and the moon for my pair of jade disks, the stars for my pearls, the myriad creatures for my farewell presents. Is anything missing in my funeral paraphernalia? What will you add to these?"

"Master, we are afraid that the crows and kites will eat you."

"Above ground, I'll be eaten by the crows and kites; below ground, I'll be eaten by the ants and molecrickets. You rob one of them to give to the other; how come you like them so much better?" (Graham 1981 trans., p. 125)
Liu Ling [3rd c. C.E.] always indulged in wine and let himself be uninhibited. Sometimes he would take his clothes off and stay in his house stark naked. When people saw this, they criticized him. Ling said: "I take Heaven and Earth as my pillars and roof, and the rooms of my house as my trousers. Gentlemen, what are you doing by entering my trousers?" (Goldin 2001, p. 117.)
I suppose it's natural for the anticonventional Daoists to use humor to help knock loose people's presuppositions. Interestingly, though, the best-known Daoist, Laozi, doesn't employ much humor. In this respect, as in many others, the tone and spirit of Laozi and Zhuangzi differ immensely, despite the superficial similarity of their views.

[Note: Revised and updated Aug. 17.]


Justin (koavf) said...


I always appreciate a good Zhuang-Tzu joke, but you put "above ground" twice and really threw off the rhythm.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Whoops, thanks for catching that! It's fixed!