The Woman Crookback and the Way of the Sage


Sarah Whitworth

"The Woman Crookback and the Way of the Sage" is an old story or parable from an ancient Chinese text called the Chuang Tzu. The Chuang Tzu was compiled in the Tan Dynasty (202 B.C.E. - 220 A.D), and is considered to be the second most important Taoist classic after the Tao Te Ching. Many of the stories in this collection focus on the adventures of Master Chuang, or "Chuang Tzu," however a number of other Taoist teachers are mentioned, and one of them is mysteriously named "the Woman Crookback." The illustration here (from ASIAN ARTS) of an old rabbit turning around to view the moon represents what is called in Taoism "return to the primal self."

The Woman Crookback & the Way of the Sage

arranged from the translation by Burton Watson, "Chuang Tzu/Basic Writings" (NY: Columbia University Press, 1964).

The Way has its reality and its signs
but is without action or form.
You can hand it down but you cannot receive it,
you can get rid of it but you cannot see it.
It is its own source, its own root.
Before heaven and earth existed it was there,
from the ancient times.
It gave spirituality to the spirits and to God,
it gave birth to heaven and to earth.
It exists beyond the heighest point,
and yet you cannot call it lofty;
it exists beneath the limit of the six directions,
and yet you cannot call it deep.
It was born before heaven and earth,
and yet you cannot say it has been there for long,
it is earlier than the earliest time,
and yet you cannot call it old.

Hsi-wei got it
and held up heaven and earth.
Fu-hsi got it
and entered into the mother of breath.
The Big Dipper got it
and from ancient times has never wavered.
The Sun and Moon got it
and from ancient times have never rested.
K'an-p'i got it
and entered K'un-lun.
P'ing-i got it
and wandered in the great river.
Chien Wu got it
and lived in the great mountain.
The Yellow Emperor got it
and ascended to the cloudy heavens.
Chuan Hsu got it
and dwelt in the Dark Palace.
Yu-ch'iang got it
and stood at the limit of the north.
The Queen Mother got it
and took her seat on Shao-kuang -- nobody knows her beginning,
nobody knows her end.
P'eng-tsu got it
and lived from the age of Shun to the Five Dictators.
Fu Yueh got it
and became minister to Wu-ting,
who extended his rule over the whole world;
then Fu Yueh climbed up to the Eastern Governor,
straddled the Winnowing Basket and the Tail,
and took his place among the ranks of stars.

Nan-po zu K'uei said to the Woman Crookback,
"You are old in years and yet your complexion
is that of a child. Why is this?"

"I have heard of the Way!"
"Can the Way be learned?" asked Nan-po Tzu K'uei.
"Goodness, how could that be?
Anyway, you aren't the man to do it.
Now there's Pu-liang Yi --
he has the talent of the Way but not the Way of a sage,
whereas I have the Way but not the talent of a sage.
I thought that I would try to teach him
and see if I could really get anywhere
near to making him a sage.
It's easier to explain the Way of a sage
to someone who has the talent of a sage, you know.

"So I began explaining
and kept at him for three days, and after that
he was able to put the world outside himself.
When he had put the world outside himself,
I kept at him for seven days more, and after that
he was able to put things outside himself.
When he had put things outside himself,
I kept at him for nine days more, and after that
he was able to put life outside himself.

"After he had put life outside himself,
he was able to achieve the brightness of dawn,
he could see his own aloneness,
he could do away with past and present,
he was able to enter where there is no life and death.

"That which kills life does not die,
that which gives life to life does not live.
This is the kind of thing it is:
there's nothing it doesn't send off,
nothing it doesn't complete.
Its name is Peace-in-Strife.
After the strife, it attains completion."

Nan-po Tzu Kuei asked,
"Where did you happen to hear this?"
"I heard it from the son of Aided-by-Ink,
and Aided-by Ink heard it
from the grandson of Repeated-Recitation,
and the grandson of Repeated-Recitation heard it
from Seeing-Brightly,
and Seeing-Brightly heard it
from Whispered-Agreement,
and Whispered-Agreement heard it
from Waiting-for-Use,
and Waiting-for-Use heard it
from Exclaimed Wonder,
and Exclaimed-Wonder heard it
from Dark-Obscurity,
and Dark-Obscurity heard it
from Participation-in-Mystery,
and Participation-in-Mystery heard it
from Copy-the-Source!"

Sarah L. Whitworth has created and maintains several pages on the Internet focusing on "early women masters," including Early Women Masters in Buddhism, Taoism & Zen and Early Women Composers. She is an artist, a feminist art historian, and has studied world religions and practiced zen meditation for the past fifteen years.

Email Sarah L. Whitworth

Early Women Masters in Buddhism, Taoism & Zen

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