The Wisdom of the Tao
Ancient Stories to Delight and Inspire
Imagine old-time China when people heard their news and tales from wandering storytellers. In the villages, these chroniclers might have shouted for people to gather under a shady tree. In the cities, they might have banged on a cymbal to attract people moving through parks or marketplaces. They were the journalists, entertainers, dramatists, and comedians of their day, and they jostled for attention among acrobats, fortune-tellers, bards, minstrels, commentators, healers, and mendicants. Whoever was the most exciting, the most informative, and the most intriguing was the winner who drew the largest crowds.
They expressed great wisdom by fusing anecdote with philosophy. The stories were frequently humorous, ribald, irreverent, pithy, or sarcastic—but they always spoke to great and universal truths. Their form often took on the guise of tall tales—distances and measurements were highly exaggerated, time was indistinct (the better to put us in an eternal present), historical personages were made into tropes or used for poking fun, fictional characters were thrown in willy-nilly, and an age of legendary kings was invoked as a utopian ideal.
In keeping with that, much of the wisdom of Taoism was conveyed through storytelling. The majority of these 144 stories are taken from two Taoists, Zhuangzi (370–287 BCE) and Liezi (c. fifth century BCE).
Here’s one of the most famous of Zhuangzi’s stories, “The Butterfly Dream”
In the past, I, Zhuangzi, dreamed that I was a butterfly, happily flitting and fluttering here and there and doing as I pleased. I did not know that I was Zhuangzi.
Suddenly, I awoke and I was again Zhuangzi. I did not know whether I had been Zhuangzi, dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether I was now a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi.
But between Zhuangzi and a butterfly, there must be some difference. This is called the transformation of things.
If you want to know more about the profound philosophy of Taoism, there is no more easy way than through these wonderful stories.