During the Warring States Period, the King of Zhao was well known as a devotee of sword fighting. Swordsmen flocked to him, and about three thousand of them were granted residence at the palace. They battled one another every day for the King’s pleasure. Hundreds of them were injured or killed in numerous matches, but still the King wanted more.
This went on for three years, and the King’s neglect of his duties began to take its toll. Zhao began to weaken, and the King’s rivals saw an opportunity to plot his downfall.
The Prince of Zhao was worried. He needed to get the King away from his favorite pastime, but how?
His advisors told him Chuang Tzu was the sage who could do anything. The Prince sent gold to ask for Chuang Tzu’s help, but it was refused. Having no choice, the Prince visited Chuang Tzu himself, to make a personal appeal.
Chuang Tzu explained to the Prince that the gold was not the issue. If he failed to sway the King, he would be dead and the gold would be of no use to him. If he succeeded at such an impossible task, then his rewards would not be limited to the gold.
The Prince admitted Chuang Tzu was right. In any event, it probably didn’t matter because there was no way for Chuang Tzu to even approach the King. He said, “The only people His Majesty will see… are the swordsmen.”
“That is alright,” Chuang Tzu said. “I am skilled in using swords.”
The Prince remained doubtful. “The swordsmen His Majesty sees are rather crude — the type with messy hair sticking out from under the hat, wearing ill-fitting clothes, glaring at people, and unable to talk much about anything. Master, if you appear before His Majesty as a scholarly philosopher, it just won’t work.”
“Not a problem,” Chuang Tzu seemed quite confident. “Dress me up as a swordsman, and then we will visit His Majesty together.”
At the palace, the Prince presented Chuang Tzu to the King as a master of sword fights. The King asked with some curiosity: “Sir, what is your technique? How do you overcome your enemies?”
Chuang Tzu said: “Your Majesty, with my sword I can slay one man every ten steps, and keep going for a thousand miles.”
This certainly caught the King’s attention. He exclaimed: “That would make you the most invincible warrior in the world!”
The King could not wait to test Chuang Tzu’s prowess. He asked Chuang Tzu to stay at the palace while he organized a tournament to select his best fighters. After seven days and over sixty dead or injured men, half a dozen champions emerged.
The King summoned Chuang Tzu for the final round. The stage was set to pit him against seasoned warriors in a battle to the death. The King asked Chuang Tzu: “Master, what is the length of the sword you prefer?”
Chuang Tzu said: “Any length will do. However, I have three swords that I would like Your Majesty to choose — the Emperor’s Sword, the Noble’s Sword, and the Commoner’s Sword.”
The King was intrigued. He asked: “What is the Emperor’s Sword?”
Chuang Tzu said: “The Emperor’s Sword uses the Yen Shi Fortress as its tip, the Tai Mountain as its body, and the Jin and Wei Kingdoms as its edge. One holds it with the energy of yin and yang; one wields it with the force of the four seasons. When you thrust, no one can stop it; when you slash, no one can evade it. High up, it cleaves the clouds of Heaven. Deep down, it cuts the foundation of Earth. When this sword is used, its sovereign power unites the entire empire. That is why it is the Emperor’s Sword.”
The King didn’t know what to make of this. Chuang Tzu’s answer was unexpected, and yet it sort of made sense. Feeling a bit lost, he asked: “What about the Noble’s Sword?”
Chuang Tzu said: “The Noble’s Sword uses intelligent and courageous people as its tip, honest and honorable people as its body, and virtuous and good people as its edge. When you use this sword, it also cannot be stopped or evaded. High up, it encompasses the harmony of the sky. Deep down, it establishes the laws of the land. When this sword is used, its thunderous power brings everyone into alignment. That is why it is the Noble’s Sword.”
The King was beginning to get it. He asked: “And the Commoner’s Sword?”
Chuang Tzu said: “The Commoner’s Sword is the fighter with messy hair sticking out from under the hat, wearing ill-fitting clothes, glaring at people, and unable to talk much about anything. He battles others before your eyes, swinging high to cut off the head, thrusting low to pierce the torso. This Common’s Sword is not so different from a fighting cock. One day, his life will come to an end, and he will no longer be useful for anything.”
Chuang Tzu paused to let the concept sink in. Then, he concluded: “Your Majesty, you now possess the Emperor’s Throne, and yet you prefer the Commoner’s Sword. I personally feel that, for a great ruler, it is simply unworthy.”
Suddenly, the prospect of watching yet another duel seemed completely pointless to the King. He dismissed the swordsmen and ordered a royal feast for him and Chuang Tzu.
The King was deep in thought as the servants brought out the food. He walked around the banquet table three times without even realizing it. Observing this, Chuang Tzu said: “Your Majesty, let us both be seated. We are done discussing swords.”
Things were never quite the same from that point on. King Zhao was no longer interested in sword fights. He turned his attention to statecraft and the proper governance of the people. The three thousand swordsmen found themselves with nothing to do… and no longer needed.
This story seems to speak against the fixation on sword fights, or similar battles to the death. Does this apply to us? The Romans certainly had bloody gladiatorial combat, but that is a relic of the past. We no longer have that sort of savage entertainment, so is Chuang Tzu’s point still relevant?
Tao sages would say it is only a matter of degrees. We may not have warriors dismembering one another for our amusement, but we still have many forms of staged combat that are wildly popular. Boxing matches and mixed martial arts tournaments are big business, attracting millions of viewers all the time. We all know death and injury are real possibilities in such events, but that only increases, not dampen, the enthusiasm of the fans. Times may have changed, but the bloodthirsty part of humanity has not.
This is what Chuang Tzu is asking us to examine — the dark side where violence overshadows the productive aspect of life. For us, it can go beyond fighters battling it out in the arena. We also have movies, television shows, video games and sports that are increasingly violent. It is quite possible for us to focus too much attention on such things, thereby causing the productive side of life to suffer.
Since the Tao tradition is a peaceful path, one may assume that Chuang Tzu would condemn violence, but this is not the case. Rather than to criticize the King for being preoccupied with sword fights, Chuang Tzu showed him the greater levels of the sword. Clarity on what these levels mean will bring understanding that leads to enlightenment.
The Emperor’s Sword is the weapon of the ruler. In describing it, Chuang Tzu used metaphors that the King grasped immediately. The fast cavalry of the Yen Shi Fortress would naturally be the vanguard in an armed incursion. The Tai Mountain made sense as the body of the blade because the land itself was the sword. The fierce warriors from the Jin and Wei Kingdoms would naturally serve as the cutting edge of the Emperor’s army. This sword was the most powerful of all. With it, the King could unite the empire and maintain a lasting peace for the good of all.
You wield the Emperor’s Sword at the personal level as well, because your life is your empire. In this context, the Yen Shi Fortress is your initiative that serves as the tip of the sword. The Tai Mountain is the totality of your life — everything you have experienced and all the lessons you have learned. The Jin and Wei Kingdoms are the intelligent application of your wisdom, to cut through the problems you encounter. When you wield this sword effectively, you unify your life with your destiny, and create a lasting peace for yourself.
The Noble’s Sword is all about harnessing the power of the team. When people come together and collaborate in a spirit of harmony, they can accomplish the incredible. In such a team, different people have different strengths, and therefore different roles. Intelligent and courageous people lead the way, while honest and honorable people serve as the backbone of the group, to support the virtuous and good people in getting the job done. This sword is quite powerful in its own right. As Chuang Tzu points out, it is the one that brings everyone into alignment, focused on the same goal.
You wield the Noble’s Sword at the personal level whenever you find yourself leading or guiding a group. At work, you may need to harness the talents of your coworkers on a project. At home, you may need to bring everyone together for family activities. Whatever the situation may be, you need the right roles for the right tasks — some to scout ahead in advance, some to provide support, and some to work in the front line, pushing forward and making progress. When you wield this sword with harmony, you can accomplish anything beyond the power of a single individual.
The Commoner’s Sword is the lowest manifestation of humanity’s fighting spirit. It’s all about kill or be killed. In that regard, it is not so different from the battle for survival among animals. Why should we limit ourselves to that level when we can embody the meaning of the greater levels? This is the question that stunned the King when Chuang Tzu drew his attention to it. Why obsess over the Commoner’s Sword while leaving the Noble’s Sword and the Emperor’s Sword unused?
We all have to answer the same question too. Why focus so much attention on being a spectator in staged battles, when you can be an active participant in a much greater arena? You are the absolute ruler of your own destiny. You sit in the Emperor’s Throne of your life. Just as the three swords were presented by Chuang Tzu for the King to choose, they are now presented before you. Your hand is reaching out to them. Which sword will you grasp?