Lieh Tzu

Lieh Tzu (Liezi) Augusto Shantena Sabbadini Lieh Tzu (Liezi)
Il classico taoista della perfetta virtù del vuoto
Augusto Shantena Sabbadini

Lieh Tzu – Introduzione (in Italian)

The third daoist classic, the Lieh Tzu, in my translation (in Italian) and commentary has been published by URRA/Feltrinelli in February 2014.

The text of the Liezi (Lieh Tzu in Wade-Giles) or Chongxu zhide zhenjing (The True Classic of the Perfect Virtue of Emptiness) that has come down to us, accompanied by a commentary of Zhang Zhan, can be dated approximately at 370 CE. But a character named Lie Yukou or Liezi, ‘master (zi) Lie’, frequently appears in old daoist texts, particularly in the Zhuangzi, where it is said that he “travels riding on the wind”. Therefore Liezi, assuming he really existed, could have been a shaman philosopher living between the sixth and the fourth century BCE. But as far as the origin and dates of the texts that compose his book there is a wide uncertainty. It is possible that some of them are from the fourth century BCE or older, i.e. contemporary of their supposed author. But equally possible is that the text commented by Zhang Zhan is a late elaboration of pre-existing materials, and that the parallelism with various passages of the Zhuangzi are simply quotes taken from that book.

A shaman philosopher

A striking aspect of the character Liezi is the importance of the magic-shamanic dimension in the tales concerning him. Liezi appears, both in his own book and in the Zhuangzi, sometimes as a shaman-philosopher, sometimes as a young adept, charmed and almost bewitched by the attraction of magic.

Various passages of the Liezi point to a super-human magic power and invulnerability. E.g., in fragment [4] of the second chapter Liezi asks Guan Yin: “The perfect human being can move under the water without drowning, can walk through fire without getting burned, can fly above the ten thousand things without being afraid. May I ask how is this possible?”

Guan Yin answers: “It is because the perfect human being keeps his vital spirit pure… Whatever has an aspect, a form, a sound, a colour is a thing. A thing cannot separate from other things, cannot be superior to other things. It is just a form, no more. But things originate from the formless and dissolve into the changeless. If you fully understand this, things cease to be an obstacle. If you fully understad this, you dwell in the balance of the unlimited secret and walk in the land where the ten thousand things have their beginning and their end…”

Philosophical daoism walks a fine line between a literal and a metaphorical reading of these portents. On one hand it looks with ironic detachment upon this fascination with magic, on the other it never completely parts ways with it. Liezi is typical in this respect: real or imaginary as he may be, it is in him that daoism fully explores this contradiction.

Particularly meaningful from this point of view is the episode narrated in fragmant [13] of the second chapter, in which we find the young Lie so charmed by the the magic powers of a diviner that he is ready to prefer them to the teachings of his own master, Huzi. But Huzi intervenes to put things in the proper perspective, and defeats the magician in a real ‘shamanic battle’. Then Lie understands the lesson, and the story closes with this description:

“After this, Liezi realised that he had not even begun to learn. He went back and for three years never left home. He would cook for his wife, feed the pigs with the same care as if they were human beings, and would remain aloof in whatever he was doing. From being a precious gem he went back to being a lump of earth. Firm in the uniqueness of his form and impermeable to life’s confusing events, he persisted in this state to the end of his days.”