Lieh Tzu

Doctrines The Chinese title of the book attributed to Lieh Tzu is Ch'ung-hsu Chih-te Chen-Ching or The Pure Classic of the Perfect Virtue of Simplicity and Vacuity. This collection of stories, sayings and short essays is considered to be the most easily accessible of the Taoist classics. Although obscure in parts it does not contain the infinite possibilities of misunderstanding common to the Lao Tzu itself. The stories of the Lieh Tzu often seem to contradict its philosophy, but the notion that there are wondrous things which are beyond our ordinary knowledge is an important aspect of Taoist philosophy. By 300 C.E. there were cults which emphasised physical immortality, mainly through physical techniques and the elixir of immortality. The relationship between these cults and philosophic Taoism remains obscure.
The eight chapters deal with different themes
  1. Reconciliation with death.
  2. Principles of action.
  3. Sense perception as illusion (a non-Taoist theme that would suggest the influence of Buddhism).
  4. Critique of the Confucian belief in 'knowledge'.
  5. Taoist delight in the wonder of nature and human imagination contrasted with what they considered to be the impoverished Confucian view.
  6. An unusual fatalistic view of destiny, which appears to contradict other Taoist views.
  7. Yang Chu.
  8. Heterogeneous texts which are not all from Taoist sources.
Particularly noteworthy is the contentious Yang Chu chapter. Yang Chu is the philosopher criticised by Mencius (7A: 26) as not willing to sacrifice a hair from his head to benefit the empire. This chapter may contain some of the teachings of Yang Chu (440-360 BCE ?) but there is no work that can be directly attributed to him. The inclusion of this chapter is certainly interesting as the hedonistic tone would seem to directly contradict the Taoist idea of 'having no desire'. The Lieh Tzu as a whole is often presented as purely negative Taoism.
There is a strong element of scepticism, especially regarding death and immortality. The Yang Chu chapter talks of the "myriad creatures being different in life but the same in death. In life they may be worthy or stupid, honourable or humble. This is where they differ. In death they all stink, rot, disintegrate and disappear. This is where they are the same." This chapter also preaches a hedonism that is out of keeping with the rest of the text, and Taoist teachings generally. The other chapters are considered to be the most important Taoist text after the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu.

History Lieh Tzu lived in the fifth century BCE but the book which bears his name is considered to be a work of the third century C.E. There are no works that can be attributed directly to Lieh Tzu and little is known about his life. The importance of Lieh Tzu is due to the stories which are found in the Chuang Tzu and many of these passages are incorporated into the Lieh Tzu itself. Indeed the majority of the material in the Lieh Tzu is found elsewhere. The best that we can do is to consider the book itself as an anthology produced during the decline of the Han Dynasty.
The placing of the text in the third century C.E. locates it at the beginning of the second great creative period of Taoism known as the Hsuan Hsueh (dark learning) or Neo Taoism.This is a difficult text to interpret in terms of 'Classical Taoist' thought. The late date leaves it open to influences that were not present at the time the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu were compiled. The Buddhist influence seems to be particularly pervasive, especially in chapters three and six. The inclusion of the Yang Chu chapter is still a mystery. Nevertheless it is an important and valuable work that may represent the view of those who sought a way of life outside the 'politics' of the rulers of the time. The decline of the Han Dynasty brought about a great upsurge of Taoist studies and led ultimately to the creation of Religious Taoism through the teachings of the Heavenly Master sect in the West, and the T'ai Ping sect in the East.
The status of the Lieh Tzu as a major text in the Taoist canon was confirmed in 742 CE when when the T'ang emperor Hsuan-tsung bestowed upon the text the title Ch'ung-hsu chen-ching (The True Classic of Vacuity). In 1007 the Sung emperor Chen-tsung enlarged the title to Ch'ung-hsu chih-te chen-ching (The True Classic of Supreme Virtue and Vacuity).

Symbols None.

Adherents There is no extant group concerned specifically with the study of the Lieh-tzu. Nevertheless, like the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu, the work remains of central importance to the tradition and continues to be widely read.

Main Centre
 So little is known about the life of Lieh Tzu that it is not possible to identify a region that is associated with him.