Skip to main content

Zhuang Zi

As many of you know, I love the stories from Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). He was a sage that stood apart from others in Chinese history. He was a unique presence, who was well known for his deep understanding of the Dao (Tao) and sense of humour. A great mind that lived twenty-four hundred years ago, during the warring states period in China.

Zhuang Zi loved to teach through stories. The tales he created drew his students in, captured their imagination, and conveyed the Dao in unforgettable ways.

This is another one of my favorites, wonderfully translated by Derek Lin in his book, The Tao of Happiness:

The Mantis Hunts The Cicada

One day, Zhuang Zi was walking through the woods near a chestnut orchard. He was enjoying the day and admiring the scenery when he heard a sound from above. He looked up and saw a strange bird flying toward him.

Zhuang Zi had never seen a bird quite like it before, with such a wide wing-span and huge eyes. He was trying to figure out what to make of it when it dipped low and brushed his head as it flew past, much to his surprise.

“What kind of bird is this?” Zhuang Zi asked himself. “It has such large wings but can’t seem to keep itself up in the sky. It has such large eyes but can’t seem to see me in its way.”

Zhuang Zi took out his sling shot and went after the strange bird. He saw it landing on a chestnut tree, so he approached silently, intending to hunt it down.

As Zhuang Zi got closer, he saw an interesting scene unfolding before him. There was a cicada chirping away in the tree, blissfully unaware of a mantis sneaking up on it, ready to pounce. The mantis itself, totally focussed on getting the cicada was also unaware that the strange bird had just landed close to it and was getting ready to snap it up.

Zhuang Zi saw the irony in the situation. The bird was not aware of Zhuang Zi’s approach, just as the mantis was not aware of the bird, and the cicada was not aware of the mantis.

“This is clearly a pattern of the Dao in life,” Zhuang Zi though to himself. “All living things are looking to gain advantage for themselves, but the process also imposes a burden on them. Generally speaking, the potential gain right in front of you causes you to forget the potential disaster right behind you. The two are connected.

Zhuang Zi targeted the bird and was congratulating himself for his new insight about the Dao when a voice behind him made him jump: “You! What are you doing in my orchard?”

It was the gardener in charge of the chestnut orchard. In going after the bird, Zhuang Zi did not realize he was trespassing into private property. He was so preoccupied that he did not hear the gardener coming up behind him. He dropped his slingshot and made a hasty exit out of the orchard. The gardener, still thinking Zhuang Zi was there to steal chestnuts, continued yelling after him angrily.

This experience had an effect on Zhuang Zi for days. One of his students noticed and asked: “ Master, you seem rather unhappy. Is something wrong?”

Zhuang Zi related his experience and sighed. “I was fixated on the external appearance and lost sight of the internal essence. Lao Zi always said that no matter what place you go to or visit, you should always be mindful of the rules of the environment. I forgot all about that when I went into the chestnut orchard. “

The student thought about this and said: “Master, that seems like a minor mistake anyone can make.”

“The issue goes deeper than that,” Zhuang Zi explained. “The cicada, mantis, and bird were all unaware of the danger lurking behind them. This was a great lesson for me, but I did not learn it well enough. I, too, was unaware of the gardener behind me, who thought I was stealing from him. That is why I am unhappy with myself – I can see I still have a long way to go in cultivating the Dao.”

Derek Lin’s Commentary

To be mindful of where you are is to have situational awareness. Dao cultivators blend in with the environment by observing local laws, customs and social norms. They go with the flow and draw no attention to themselves, so that they can be comfortable and relaxed in any place, facing any situation.

The insight is not unique to the East. St. Ambrose, one of the most influential figures of the fourth century, was the source of the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Even though St. Ambrose was separated by Zhang Zi by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, the wisdom he expressed was the same lesson taught in this story.

Zhuang Zi admitted he was quite human and capable of making mistakes. Although he new the lesson taught by Lao Zi, he still fell short when the time came to apply it. This was a powerful reminder that he is still a student, just like everyone else. His reputation as a great teacher made no difference in this regard. His admission of this mistake demonstrated his humility.

As we dig deeper, we uncover more wisdom from the story. Its central image is the hunter who is also the prey, represented by the mantis, the bird, and Zhuang Zi himself. They were so focussed on hunting and they did not realize they were also being hunted. In general, being overly attached to something causes you to be blind about your situation, and it not just about the hunter-prey dynamic. In describing this pattern, Zhuang Zi is pointing to a common failing in all of us.

There are many examples because it is something that happens all the time. Think of the people who gossip about others, while unaware that they themselves are the subject of other peoples gossip. Think of the person who tells others not to judge, while unaware that he is being judgmental. Most of us see what is in front of us, but not what is behind us.

This is why Zhuang Zi described the bird as being strange. Its wingspan meant it should be able to fly high in the sky and yet it was dipping low. Its large eyes suggest it could see clearly, and yet it could not. This is a way to say we all have the potential to soar far above the pettiness of the mundane bickering, and yet we bring ourselves down to the lowest common denominator. We all have the potential to clearly discern truths and falsehoods, and yet we seem to have blindspots, especially when looking at ourselves.

How can we solve this problem? The answer is in the story. Zhuang Zi has written not only a description of what is wrong with us but also a prescription for the cure. That prescription is the following:

1. Awareness

Simply by being aware of the mental blind spot, we can take a significant step toward not being quite so blind. We all have spiritual eyes that can see clearly, if only we would look through them. Thus, we begin by practicing mindful awareness at all times, on what is in front of us, behind us, and all around us.

2. Internal Focus

When Zhuang Zi fixated on the external appearance, he lost sight of the internal self. The same thing can happen to us, particularly as we become increasingly mired in the sights and sounds of daily life. Thus, we must always remember to turn the gaze inward, to allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on reality. Those who practice this consistently can never be overwhelmed by the illusions of the material world.

3. Discussions

Zhuang Zi ends the story with an exchange between himself and his student. This is his way to point out that we can all benefit from other perspectives. Oftentimes, we find out that we can see others more clearly than we can see ourselves. By the same token, others can often see in us problems that have eluded our attention. The best travel companions in your journey are the ones that have your back just as you have theirs. Value your connection with them – cherish your conversations with them. None of us can do it alone. Together we can do anything.

Do not be the strange bird, flying too low and seeing too little. Listen to Zhuang Zi’s words:

“Soar far above the fray and see clearly. Pay attention not just to external appearance but also the internal essence. Look ahead of you even as you remain mindful of what is behind you. Journey safely, free from danger – you still have a long way to go.”

The Tao of Happiness has 18 stories from Zhuang Zi with commentary. Derek Lin does an excellent job! Highly recommended!

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.


  • Daniel Pschaida says:

    Great story! Used it in my Intro. to Religion course today as I introduced Daoist scripture.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Daniel, thanks and great! I was introduced to Daoism through a similar course way back when I was studying engineering in my first university degree. I was fascinated in the connection between modern quantum physics and what the ancient Daoist sages had in common. That started my path to Chinese Medicine! Wonderful!