Chuang Tzu: The Wind Envies the Eye, the Eye Envies the Mind

The walrus envies the millepede
(for its many legs and nimble gait),
the millepede envies the snake
(which moves without any legs),
the snake envies the wind
(for moving far more quickly even without a body),
the wind envies the eye
(which travels without moving),
and the eye envies the mind
(which can observe more than just what is in front of it).

The walrus said to the millepede, “I have this one leg/trunk that I maneuver along on, though I make little progress. Now how in the world do you manage to work all those ten thousand legs of yours?”

The millepede said, “You don’t understand; it’s not like I consciously direct each one. Have you ever watched someone spew their drink? Out it comes; some drops as big as pearls, some as fine as mist, raining down in a jumble of countless particles. All I do is put in motion the heavenly mechanism in me – I’m not aware of how it all works.”

The millepede said to the snake, “I have all these legs that I move along on, but I can’t seem to keep up with you who have no legs at all. How is that?”

The snake said, “It’s just the heavenly mechanism moving me along – how can I change the way I naturally am? What would I do with legs if I had them?”

The snake said to the wind, “I move my backbone and ribs and manage to get to where I am going, but I still have some kind of body. But now here you come whirling up from the North Sea and whirling off again to the South Sea, and you do it without even having a body. How is that?”

The wind said, “It’s true that I travel far and wide. But if you hold up a finger up against me you’ve defeated me, and if you trample on me you’ve likewise overcome me. On the other hand, I can break down big trees and blow over great houses – this is a unique talent I happen to have. So I take the mass of little defeats in stride and make them into a Great Victory. To make a Great Victory simply with what I have/am – only the sage is capable of that!”

-Chuang Tzu (circa 369-286 BCE), excerpted from chapter 17, “Autumn Floods”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *