mountain_tree

Zhuangzi  莊子 chapter 20 (Shan Mu 山木) excerpt (opening passage)

Translated by Burton Watson p. 209-10 (slight modification)
(Cf. Ziporyn p. 84, Mair p. 185-6. This story also appears in the Lüshi Chunqiu 14.8)

莊子行於山中,見大木,枝葉盛茂,伐木者止其旁而不取也。問其故,曰:「无所可用。」

莊子曰:「此木以不材得終其天年。」

“Zhuangzi was walking in the mountains when he saw a huge tree, its branches and leaves thick and lush. A woodcutter paused by its side but made no move to cut it down. When Zhuangzi asked the reason, he replied, “There’s nothing it could be used for!” Zhuangzi said, “Because of its worthlessness (不材), this tree is able to live out the years Heaven gave it (終其天年).”

夫子出於山,舍於故人之家。故人喜,命豎子殺鴈而烹之。豎子請曰:「其一能鳴,其一不能鳴,請奚殺?」

主人曰:「殺不能鳴者。」

Down from the mountain, the Master stopped for a night at the house of an old friend. The friend, delighted, ordered his son to kill a goose and prepare it. “One of the geese can cackle and the other can’t,” said the son. “May I ask, please, which I should kill?”

“Kill the one that can’t cackle,” said the host.

明日,弟子問於莊子曰:「昨日山中之木,以不材得終其天年;今主人之鴈,以不材死;先生將何處?」

The next day Zhuangzi’s disciples questioned him. “Yesterday there was a tree on the mountain that gets to live out the years Heaven gave it because of its worthlessness. Now there’s our host’s goose that gets killed because of its worthlessness. What position (處) would you take in such a case, Master?”

莊子笑曰:「周將處夫材與不材之閒。材與不材之閒,似之而非也,故未免乎累。

Zhuangzi laughed and said, “I’d probably take a position halfway between worth and worthlessness (材與不材之閒). But halfway between worth and worthlessness, though it might seem to be a good place, really isn’t – you’ll never get away from entanglements there (未免乎累).

若夫乘道德而浮遊則不然。无譽无訾,一龍一蛇,與時俱化,而无肯專為;一上一下,以和為量,浮遊乎萬物之祖;物物而不物於物,則胡可得而累邪!此神農黃帝之法則也。

It would be very different, though, if you were to climb up on Dao and its De and go drifting and wandering (浮遊), neither praised nor damned (无譽无訾), now a dragon, now a snake, shifting with the times, never willing to hold to one course only. Now up, now down, taking harmony for your measure (以和為量), drifting and wandering with the ancestor of the ten thousand things, treating things as things but not letting them treat you as a thing – then how could you get entangled (累)? This is the rule, the method of Shen Nong and the Yellow Emperor.

若夫萬物之情,人倫之傳,則不然。合則離,成則毀;廉則挫,尊則議,有為則虧,賢則謀,不肖則欺,胡可得而必乎哉!悲夫!弟子志之,其唯道德之鄉乎!」

“But now, what with the forms of the ten thousand things and the codes of ethics handed down from man to man (人倫之傳), matters don’t proceed in this fashion. Things join only to part, reach completion only to crumble. If sharp-edged, they are blunted; if high-stationed, they are overthrown; if ambitious, they are foiled. Wise, they are schemed against; stupid, they are swindled. What is there, then, that can be counted on? Only one thing, alas! – remember this, my students – only the realm of Dao and its De! (唯道德之鄉)”


This parable works on the assumption that living out one’s natural lifespan (終其天年) is desired/valued. Passing between the extremes of being useful and useless is a fairly good course of action, but avoiding all entanglements can only be achieved by being extremely flexible, elusive and unpredictable and “taking harmony for your measure” (以和為量). Likewise, “avoiding entanglements/attachments” (免乎累) is valued as well.

goose honk