The Text of the Month No 12

By Jos Slabbert

Do you understand?

The perfect man has no self;
The spiritual man has no merit;
The holy man has no fame.

(The Book of Chuang Tzu, Chapter 1)

Explanation and comment

When Chuang Tzu wrote these lines, he was going against all conventional ideas of his day. It is amazing how relevant his comments still are several thousand years later, for even today these illusions of perfection still cloud the modern person’s mind.

The "perfect man" today is often seen as someone who has developed his "self" to perfection. It is someone who presents to the world a perfect picture of what a perfect person is supposed to be. Of course, people differ tremendously on what qualities a perfect person is supposed to have. In modern times, the focus is often on appearance and "personality", a word often entailing photogenic qualities and showmanship, as well as the ability to present oneself in an impressive or desirable form.

Even when people try to penetrate the surface and look at the "real person", they will often still get stuck on presentations of the "self", which in fact are nothing but artificial constructions created in a person’s mind and then enacted convincingly. How else can you explain why people have so often been taken for a ride by confidence tricksters posing as "holy men", who through the media create their own fame, and use this to nurture their egos and satisfy their greed. People are blinded by fame, as if fame is some form of immortality. It is almost as if fame turns someone into a godly person - and people will often search for perfection among the famous, whereas the perfect person might be their unseemly next-door neighbour.

What Chuang Tzu is saying is clear and will shock a society focused on the self:

The perfect man has no self.

It is eloquent and simple, yet profound. The movement towards perfection is a movement towards selflessness; it is not the development of ego, but its destruction.

The humble man close to Tao
becomes less every day.
When he has lost himself completely,
only his true self remains.

(The Tao is Tao, 55)

You only find your "true self" once you have ridden yourself of all those illusions of identity, and this "true self" is essentially selfless.

True development towards perfection is also a movement away from fame:

The holy man has no fame.

The truly perfect person will be unnoticed by a society focused on the superficial and the glamorous. In a society mistaking vanity for "holiness", the truly "holy person" will be obscure and unnoticed. But more than that: the truly holy person will shun fame and prefer obscurity, for it is in humility that the spirit is at its most powerful.

Chuang Tzu is indeed emphatic when he emphasizes that there is nothing to be gained from being spiritual:

The spiritual man has no merit.

No merit! Isn’t this a bit harsh?

This statement is easily understood on a materialistic level. A truly spiritual person will spontaneously follow the path of his own spirit, even if the path is one of material loss or poverty.

On a social level, this statement could also mean that an ignorant society are incapable of recognizing a truly spiritual person who will therefore have no merit with them. In fact, his spirituality could even serve as a handicap in his social and professional environment. At the worst, he could acquire notoriety, and he might be derided and persecuted, even crucified.

But within the context of what Chuang Tzu has written, this line has an even more profound meaning: the spiritual person is not interested in acquiring merit of even a spiritual nature. The spiritual person helps her neighbour not because she wants to improve herself; neither does she give food to the hungry because she wants to go to heaven. No, she helps her neighbour because her neighbour needs help, and she gives food to the hungry because they are hungry. What she does is selfless compassion, pure and simple. She does not have a hidden spiritual agenda.

This kind of pure compassion is only possible if one has no self to serve.

No matter how imperfect you may be,
you are perfect
when you act in pure compassion.