Chuang Tzu: The Ideal Person

Knowing that which is divine, and knowing that which is human; that is reaching the pinnacle.

Knowing Heaven’s actions, he/she lives in accord with Heaven. Knowing the human realm, he/she uses that knowledge to cultivate knowledge of the unknown, and lives out their natural full lifespan without perishing halfway through; – this is the perfection of knowledge.

However, there is a difficulty. Knowledge is dependent upon something before it can be applicable, and that which it waits for is never certain. How, then, can I know that what I call Heaven is not really man, and what I call man is not really Heaven? There must first be a ‘True Person’ (the Taoist human ideal) before there can be true knowledge.

What do I mean by a True Person? The True Person of ancient times did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his affairs. A person like this could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show. A person like this could climb the highest places and not be frightened, could enter the water and not get wet, could enter the fire and not get burned. Such had their knowledge advanced to the Way (the Tao).

The True Person of old slept without dreaming and woke without care; ate without savoring and their breath came from deep inside. The True Person breathes with their heels while the mass of humanity breathe with their throats. Crushed and bound down, they gasp out their words as though they were retching. Deep in their passions and desires, they are shallow in the workings of Heaven.

The True Person of ancient times knew nothing of loving life, knew nothing of hating death. Emerging without delight; returning without a fuss. He came briskly, went briskly, and that was all. He didn’t forget where he began; he didn’t try to find out where he would end. He delightedly accepted what he was given, and gave it no more thought when it was gone. This is what I call not using the mind to repel the Way, not using the human to help out Heaven. This is what I call a True Person.

Being so, his mind was forgetful; face calm and forehead broad. Cool as autumn, mild as spring, his joy and anger flowed naturally as though through the four seasons. He went along harmoniously and no one knew his limit.

Though such a one may overthrow nations, he will not lose the hearts of the people. His blessings may enrich ten thousand ages but not out of benevolence to men. Therefore one who delights in success is not a sage; he who has preferences is not benevolent; he who schemes is not worthy; he who is not impervious to gain and loss is not great; he who worries about his stature does not have understanding; and he who is not true to himself can never be a leader of men. Innumerable personages of history slaved in the service of other men, took joy in bringing other men joy, but could not find joy in any joy of their own.

This was the True Person of old: his bearing was lofty and did not crumble; he appeared to lack but accepted nothing; he was dignified in his correctness but not insistent; he was vast in his emptiness but not ostentatious. Mild and cheerful, he seemed to be happy; reluctant, he could not help doing certain things; annoyed, he let it show in his face; relaxed, he rested in his virtue. Tolerant, he seemed to be part of the world; towering alone, he could be checked by nothing; withdrawn, he seemed to prefer to cut himself off; bemused, he forgot what he was going to say. He did without striving, yet people thought he tried very hard.

Therefore what he liked was the One, and that which he did not like was also the One, for both the One and the not-One are one. In knowing the One, he is of Heaven; in not knowing of the One, he is of men. Thus, someone in whom Heaven and man are not in conflict with one another; such a one is like the True Person of old.


Chuang Tzu 61; adapted from a translation by Burton Watson