Losing the Child Heart: Zhuangzi, the Bird, the Mantis, and the Cicada

a few words from stuart alve olson Mar 20, 2023

By Stuart Alve Olson

In the Zhuang Zi, a parable tells about how after a visit to Tiaoling Park one day, Zhuang Zi felt as though he had lost himself completely. The events leading up to this started when he first encountered a very large bird, with a seven foot wingspan, and very large eyes.

The bird flew very close past Zhuang Zi’s head and then alighted in the chestnut grove, paying Zhuang Zi no attention whatsoever.

It just sat there, and Zhuang Zi thought, what a strange bird. It has such large wings but doesn’t fly away, with its large eyes it does not really seem to see.

So Zhuang went after the bird with his bow, anxiously wanting to get a shot at it. But just then he saw a cicada enjoying itself in the shade. Forgetful of the danger around it, a mantis sprang up and seized it.

The mantis also became forgetful after having seized the cicada, and then the large strange bird flew forward and seized the mantis. This likewise caused the strange large bird to forget its own self and nature, and so lacked awareness of Zhuang Zi and his bow.

Zhuang at this point considered aiming his bow at the large bird. All three—the bird, cicada, and mantis—were guilty of forgetting their own self and nature in situations of gain.

Zhuang Zi then cried out, “Alas, all creatures injure one another. Loss follows the pursuit of trying to gain.”

Just then a park-keeper angrily approached Zhuang and questioned him as to what business he had there in the chestnut grove. So Zhuang was forced to drop his bow and quickly head home before some injury occurred to him.

Zhuang Zi did not leave his house for three months. His disciple Lin Chu came to question him at length about this behavior, asking him, “Master, how is it that you have not been out for so long.”

“While trying to protect my physical body,” Zhuang replied, “I lost sight of my real self. I was just gazing at muddy water, I lost sight of the clear abyss.1

“Besides, I have learned from the master [Lao Zi], ‘When you go into the world, follow its customs.’ When I strolled into Tiaoling Park, I forgot my real nature and self.

“The strange bird that flew so close to me in the chestnut grove forgot its nature and self, as did the cicada and the mantis. The keeper of the chestnut grove took me for a thief. Consequently, I have not left my house.”

Zhuang Zi was a follower of Lao Zi philosophy, and even Mencius [Meng Zi] who was a follower of Confucius [Kungfu Zi] agreed with Zhuang Zi’s conclusion that we lose something within the pursuit and business of philosophy; that is, we need to discover and recover that which we have lost, and that specifically is “our child’s heart [or Mind of a Child].”

Mencius said, “A great person is someone who has not lost the heart of a child.” The ill effects of the world stem from the artificial life society and civilization casts upon us. Consequently, the youthful heart that was naturally born within us is lost, just as we deforest the land to make room for progress, we do the same to our child heart.

We too hack away at our spirit, like chopping down trees, to make room for acquisition of material gain and to satisfy our Six Sense Desires.2

In disappointment of how life treats us we often turn to philosophy, but philosophy is sterile if we lose sight of our own true nature, and forget to follow our child heart. We cannot really understand Taoist philosophy if we’ve lost our child heart.

Lao Zi instructed that we keep to the child-like nature3, and this is what Zhuang Zi lost when he went into the chestnut park with his bow. So he went into retreat within his own house for three months to rediscover and recover his child heart.

This parable of Zhuang Zi is very important because it is a reminder to all of us that we must learn to adhere to our child-like heart if we expect to obtain the state of an immortal.

The thought is, what is the child-like heart? For that we need to rediscover and recover our true self. This is what Zhuang Zi was alluding to when explained he did not leave his house for three months. He went into retreat.

All of Taoist philosophy is really about returning, not advancing. Your child-like heart is something you had, but then lost, or better said, has been so covered up and concealed that we become almost totally unaware of it.

If you want it back then you need to cultivate yourself so that this child-like heart can return of its own accord. There is so much that can be said here about cultivating yourself because Taoism is entirely all about cultivating one’s true self, true nature, and child-like heart—all aspects of immortality.

Like Zhuang Zi, do something to lose your excessive obsession with the acquisition of material gain and create unrestrained satisfaction of your Six Sense Desires. As my teacher always advised, “The Taoist Way is to learn to be moderate, never excessive, and then you can more easily arrive at immortality.” 


  1.  Gazing at the muddy water means being obsessed with the “turbidity” aspects of life, and lost sight of the clear abyss is saying that Zhuang Zi had lost all “clarity” of his true nature. See Clarity and Tranquility by Stuart Alve Olson.
  2.  Six Sense Desires: 1) Desires associated with the six sense organs—eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. 2) Sexual desires. Generally speaking, these desires are about always wanting life to be comfortable, easy, and unhindered by retribution (karma), always seeking reward. In other words, constantly seeking a state of satisfaction rather than dissatisfaction from the material world.
         So great is this tendency in human nature that we disregard spiritual cultivation and adhere to physical satisfactions instead. Spiritual cultivation is about seeing what we truly value in life from our child-like heart. And it's about seeing that the only true satisfaction comes from spiritual connection, not from the outside world. We lose connection with ourselves and our true nature the more we chase after injurious and short lived false desires.  
  1. Lao Zi makes many allusions to the spiritual benefits of the infant-childlike state. Zhuang Zi being a follower of Lao Zi teachings would have been greatly affected by Lao Zi’s statements, such as those that occur in the following chapters:
  • “Concentrate your breath to attain softness. Can you be like an infant?” [Chapter 10]
  • “Not departing from the Constant Virtue, once again you will return to the infant.” [Chapter 28] 
  • “Those who maintain virtue fully, are comparable to an infant.” [Chapter 55]


If you’re interested in more like this on Zhuang Zi, join us for the Member Talks every other Sunday. Starting on March 19th, Stuart will begin giving his commentary on the Zhuang Zi (a key Taoist text named after the author), followed by Q&A and discussion. We would love to see you there.



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