Chuang Tzu . . . believes that the whole concept of ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’ is ambiguous from the start, since it is situated in the world of objects. This is no less true of more refined concepts like virtue, justice, and so on. In fact, it is especially true of ‘good and evil,’ or ‘right and wrong.’ From the moment they are treated as ‘objects to be attained,’ these values lead to delusion and alienation. Therefore Chuang Tzu agrees with the paradox of Lao Tzu, ‘When all the world recognizes good as bad, it becomes evil,’ because it becomes something that one does not have which one must constantly be pursuing until, in effect, it becomes unattainable.
Merton noted that Chuang Tzu, who seldom worked with reasoning but spoke in pictures, said:
When the shoe fits
The foot is forgetten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
‘For’ and ‘against’ are forgotten.
Merton is accused by many critics of being against technology and not valuing the great conquests of objective science. Especially after the publication of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, some were disappointed by Merton’s relativizing of the great discoveries of modern humanity. His statements come, however, out of a very different source than one might think. He is not the monk who looks down with contempt on the busy, complicated, technical world and lives rather in virgin nature. He is instead one who asks himself whether what we win with the right hand is not lost by the left. Merton had studied not only Chuang Tzu but also Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist and founder of structuralism.
His ideas of the Western technological culture had also sparked Merton’s interest in the question of whether the modern means by which we try to reach our ends really lead to human advancement. This question preoccupied him until his death. In his diary he wrote: ‘Today with a myriad of instruments we can explore things we never imagined. But we can no longer see directly what is right in front of us.’ (Conjectures, 281).
The core of this problem lies in the Western tendency toward objectivizing and externalizing. Is it perhaps that the most valuable things we want to gain with technology are already present within ourselves? Chuang Tzu expressed this in his own poetical manner:
If a man steps on a stranger’s foot
In the marketplace,
He makes a polite apology
And offers an explanation
(‘This place is so terribly Crowded!’)
If an elder brother
Steps on his younger brother’s foot,
He says, ‘Sorry!’
And that is that.
If a parent
Treads on his child’s foot,
Nothing is said at all.
The greatest politeness
Is free of all formality.
Is free of concern.
Perfect wisdom is unplanned.
Is without demonstrations.
Perfect sincerity offers
– “Encounters with Merton” (1972) by Henri Nouwen; pages 116-118; Discovery of the East