c. 335 BC | Meng

Circle of Life

“Trying to feed a bird on what you eat rather than what a bird needs.”

Confucius said, “Have you never heard this story before? Once upon a time, a seabird alighted in the capital city of Lu. The earl of Lu carried it in procession to the ancestral shrine, where he played Shao music and offered the offerings of the sacrifice to it. However, the poor bird just looked confused and lost and did not eat a single piece of meat, nor did it drink even one cup of wine, and within three days it died. The problem was trying to feed a bird on what you eat rather than what a bird needs.

“To feed a bird so it survives, let it live in the midst of the forest, gambol on the shores and inlets, float on the rivers and lakes, devour mudfish and tiddlers, go with the flock, either flying or resting, and be as it wishes. Birds dislike hearing human voices, never mind all the other noises and trouble! If you try to make them happy by playing Shao music in the area around their lakes, when the birds hear it they will fly away. If the animals hear it, they will run away and hide, and if the fish hear it they will dive down to escape. Only the people if they hear it will come together to listen.

“Fish can live in water quite contentedly, but if people try it, they die, for different beings need different contexts that are right and proper for them. This is why the ancient sages never expected just one response from the rest of the creatures nor tried to make them conform. Titles should not be overstretched in trying to capture reality, and ideas should be only applied when appropriate, for this is not only sensible, it will bring good fortune.”

Liezi was following the Dao, and one day he was eating by the roadside and saw a hundred-year-old skull, which he pulled clear of the weeds and addressed, saying, “Just you and I know that you never died nor were you ever born. Does this distress you? Do I really enjoy myself?”

Where does everything come from? From the water come creeping plants, from the water’s edge comes Frog’s Robe, this gives birth to Hill Slippers, and these in turn produce crowroots, and crowroots become maggots, and the leaves become butterflies. The butterflies change and become insects to be found below the stove, which are similar to snakes and are called Zhuduo. A thousand days later they become birds called Dried Old Bones. From the spit of the Dried Old Bones comes a type of bug and these bugs turn into Vinegar Drinkers. Other bugs are born from the Vinegar Drinkers and Huangshuang insects are born from Jiuyou insects, which themselves are born from Mou Rui maggots, and Mou Rui maggots are born from rotting maggots, which themselves are born from Sheep’s Groom. Sheep’s Groom comes together in intercourse with bamboo that has not put forth any shoots for years, and they give birth to Green Peace plants. These give birth to leopards, leopards give birth to horses, horses give birth to humans, humans eventually sink back to what was in the beginning. All the multitudes of life arise from the mystery of beginning and return there.



From the Zhuangzi. The book bearing Zhuangzi’s name remains one of the most influential in the Daoist canon. After he requested that his body be left to nature upon his death, his disciples cautioned that birds might pick at him; he replied, “Above the ground it’s the crows and the kites who will eat me; below the ground it’s the worms and the ants. What prejudice is this, that you wish to take from the one to give to the other?”