My spin on Zhuangzi

After years of ruminating on the philosophy of Zhuangzi I have finally published my spin. I say “spin” because it is, of course, but one possible interpretive take–the one that arises from my own personal experience and needs. Perhaps it might inspire you in the pursuit of your own.

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We are told that Laozi “took the cords of restraint [as] his regulating thread.” (p 123) But if Laozi actually lived his philosophy (which is highly unlikely) then he did no such thing. This would not be wuwei, but wei. It would be forgetting the second part of his suggestions regarding desire:

“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest.” (Laozi 1)

But how do we both have and not-have desires? Zhuangzi, I think, hit on an essential attribute that facilitates this possibility: non-dependence.

If I fall ill, I naturally desire to get well. If, however, I do not recover, my inner peace is not disturbed since that peace does not depend on getting well. I have “handed it all over to the unavoidable”. And I can do this because I have “hidden the world in the world”, which is to say that I have so completely identified with the Great Happening that there’s nowhere left to be lost. Whatever Happens is good. If health is good, then so too is ill-health. If my life is good, then so too is my death.

All is well in the Great Mess. The Tianxia seems to believe Laozi came to a similar conclusion: “Somehow or other it will work out all right.” This is said in the context of his relationship with desire: “Everyone else sought to get what they wanted, but he found completeness in the indirect twists and turns [of life].” There is completeness in all eventualities, because, in the “vastest arrangement”, nothing can be other than complete.

In the view from Dao it will not, of course, “work out all right”, because there was never anything not already so. From the human point of view, however, this psychological movement—the adoption of a point of view—seems necessary. Our sense of the not-rightness of some things is not obviated by our understanding of their ultimate rightness. Our movement between the two creates the ambiguity of “neither of the two” (=Penumbra; cf. 2:47-8 and note 36).


“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest.” (Laozi 1)

This translation would be considered very controversial in the unlikely event that any scholar cared about my opinions, in as much as the traditional rendering has it imply that we should eschew desires altogether. However, to my thinking, this rendering is entirely consistent with and is implied by the rest of the chapter.

This simultaneous experience of freedom from desire and its apparent opposite, the exercise of desire, wonderfully illustrates the middle way that Madhyamika Buddhism later developed to a science. Not this; not that; both and neither. Empty, yet full; full, yet empty.

There is dialectic here—thesis, antithesis, synthesis . . . thesis, antithesis, synthesis . . .

It is dynamic and unending. We don’t discover the middle way, the final and clear guiding principle. Rather, we are cast into perpetual motion, drift and unfixedness—an emptiness (shunyata) in motion.

Philosophical Daoism covers this ground through a via negativa, the way of wu: Dao that is not-Dao, doing that is not-doing, knowing that is not-knowing, hope that is not-hope, desire that is not-desire, being that is not-being.

The concept of wuwei, not-doing, is taken as the signature virtue of the Daoist sage. But what is it? It is not not-doing, but a way of doing that is also not-doing. We struggle to define it, but by definition, to define it is to miss it. To stop the motion and say, “this is it”, is to say what it is not.

This is not to say that we should not say it, for this too is part of the process. Only we should not think that our saying says it.

In the end, wuwei is a way of living, and living is an inexplicable spontaneous arising.


“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source though they have different names. Together they are Mystery. Mystery within Mystery—this is the gate into all that is subtle.” (Laozi 1)

I have suggested that this point of view is quite the contrary of the Tianxia’s representation of Laozi as “regarding the hidden root as the finest quintessence and its manifest reifications as the cruder part . . .” (p 122)

This has to do with the familiar “the Heavenly” versus the human debate. It would be great, Zhuangzi tells us, if Heaven could unambiguously guide us, but it cannot. In the end, we must let the two inform one another while not allowing either to subordinate the other. Here again we see the importance of walking two roads simultaneously. But this can be done only as in a perpetual condition of inherent ambiguity—“drift and doubt”. These two roads can never completely converge. The only resolution to this “problem” is to require no resolution.

The “subtle” (heavenly, “spiritual”) and the “manifest” (things) are both the same and different. They are different in that they have different names. To identify them is to divide and separate them. This is the nature of the words that we cannot do without.

There is original Chaos. The compromise of Chaos does not come with the creation of things, but from the naming of things. Absent the mind and all returns to Chaos. From the human point of view, however, the compromise of Chaos has as much value as Chaos—they have equal validity.

Indeed, every single thing or event, including Chaos itself, no matter how “absolute” or ephemeral and transitory, explains everything else, is everything else, is the Center of all things. All things are the Center. This is Ziporyn’s omnicentrism and, I think, the inevitable conclusion to Zhuangzi’s sense of oneness as expressed in the uniqueness of each thing. (cf. Ziqi’s metaphor of the wind and the trees; 2:1-5)

There is no room here for an ultimate distinction to be made between “the subtle” and “the manifest”. This is the unnamably subtle.


Among the attributes of the “ancient Art of the Dao” that Laozi is said to have realized is: “Regarding the hidden root as the finest quintessence and its manifest reifications as the cruder part . . .” (p 122)

Again, I see this as completely contrary to the spirit of Laozi. It is in complete harmony with other proto-Daoist sensibilities, however. In the Guanzi is the Neiye (Inner Training) chapter, a work likely written just prior to or contemporaneous with Zhuangzi’s work, and one in which we see just this pre-occupation with cultivating the “quintessential”, the purest “something” of the Universe.

This inevitably leads to some form of spiritual/physical, mind/body dualism. There is the purest and the crudest. The physical world is inferior to the spiritual world.

This point of view wins the philosophical and religious wars hands down. Where we fear the dissolution of the body in death, it stands to reason that we would want to believe in something incorruptible that is our truest self. Where reason and “names” are “peculiarly unfixed” without reference to extra-mundane Truth, we will posit that Truth. When all in the world seems “accidental”, we will grasp for the “essential”.

Yet the opening chapter of the Laozi is very careful to avoid just this form of dualism.

The Source is “nameless”, while “naming” is the “Mother of all things”. Yet neither trumps the other:

“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source though they have different names. Together they are Mystery. Mystery within Mystery—this is the gate into all that is subtle.”

In other words, walk two roads. They have equal validity. It’s walking but one road—whichever one—that is contrary to our actual life experience.


Ziporyn argues that chang and its cognate heng, used in the first line of the Laozi, mean something more like “ordinary” or “everyday”, rather than “constant” in the sense of unchanging, hence “eternal”. (p 213)

They also suggest a normative value: “authentic”—consistent with our experience. Bringing these two together he suggests that a more accurate translation would be “sustainable”.

“A dao that is spoken is not a sustainable dao.” A spoken dao is a fixed dao, but all things are in flux, including our opinions on what is Dao. Every “Dao” is only just a dao. There’s no need to imply “the Dao” is even mentioned here.

“Zhuangzi said to Huizi, ‘Confucius went along for sixty years and transformed sixty times. What he first considered right, he later considered wrong. . . .’ Huizi said, ‘Confucius certainly devoted himself to the service of knowledge.’ Zhuangzi said, ‘No, Confucius had let go of such things. . . . Let’s just say I am no match for him!’” (27; p 115)

This curious apocryphal exchange gives us a sense of how our spoken daos can be informed of their unsustainability and be thereby returned to their validity. Their validity rests in their self-understanding that they are but temporary and tentative understandings. Daos are unavoidably spoken; the point is to not cling to them as fixed, sure and true.

Ziporyn offers: “Guiding courses [daos] taken as explicit guides cease to provide sustainable guidance.”

This was at the heart of the Daoist revolution. With the political world in chaos everyone was looking for the True Dao—absolutely reliable Guidance. Daoism realized there is none.  It does not just say that there is none, however, but also that the lack of such Guidance can itself guide us. (Following some personal dao—guidance—is unavoidable.) Stepping through this gate can be a mind-expanding experience, an adventure in “our homeland of not even anything”. We are released into “far and unfettered wandering”.

Returning to the Tianxia’s representation of Laozi as having founded his dao on “the constancy of Nonbeing”, we see that the author did not understand how this renders this dao unsustainable. But then he was at heart a sympathizer with the more historical Confucius who was indeed “devoted to knowledge” fixed and sure.


How we translate the opening line of the Laozi (Daodejing) determines which of two radically opposing trajectories we take it to follow.

Ziporyn discusses this in his treatment of chang in his “Glossary of Essential Terms”. (p 213) Its cognate heng appears in the aforementioned line, and has sometimes been translated “Eternal”: “A dao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Dao.” [This and other quotes from the Laozi will be my own synthesis from several translations, and thus will appear without attribution.]

This implies that there is an Eternal Dao. An alternative translation has “Constant Dao”, but this amounts to the same thing. Whether this is the same word used by the Tianxia when it says of Laozi that he founded his way on “the constancy of Nonbeing”, I cannot say. [A clear example of my lack of scholarly tools.] Nevertheless, its implication is the same: Dao is a metaphysical Something. We cannot identify it, but it is there nonetheless; as such we can experience “it” in some mystical way.

This is pretty much the standard understanding. And this, in my parlance, amounts to a religious understanding. There is something to believe in. But what we believe in is simply something we have thought up. This is “taking one’s mind as one’s teacher”—being behoven to the “understanding consciousness”. Ironically, this apparent irrationalism (belief in what cannot be rationally demonstrated—spoken) is itself a kind of rationalism. The object of belief is a creation of the mind.

Why do we seemingly most always default to such beliefs? Because when “the understanding consciousness” truly admits that it cannot know, the bottom falls out of our existence. We are left adrift in an empty void. Yet, it is in this experience that the gate into Zhuangzi’s vision opens. And yes, it can be an experience, and not just an idea.

The great thing about emptiness as an experience is that it is ever near at hand—it is, after all, our most authentic and core experience. That’s the sum of it—just being what we are—empty.

In the next post we will consider the alternative translation of this first line in the Laozi.


The Tianxia’s interpretation of Laozi is metaphysical. It tells us about extra-mundane realities; and understanding these can show us how best to live. “They founded their way on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it on the supreme Oneness.” (p 122)

The previous post spoke to the very un-Zhuangzian belief that we can take Nonbeing (“non-existence” in Zhuangzi’s parlance) as “a constant Dao”—one that can definitively guide us. It will be necessary, I think, to take a close look at the first chapter of the Laozi in order to get a fuller sense of how this differs radically from Zhuangzi’s philosophy and vision, and quite possibly that of Laozi himself.

Before we do, however, we can consider the second part of this statement as a means to further demonstrating our thesis that this does not agree with Zhuangzian Daoism. They centered their dao on the “supreme Oneness”. I have often spoken to the fact that Zhuangzi never actually commits to the existence of such a Oneness. Indeed, he makes a point of dismissing any possibility of doing so. One can enjoy a psychological experience of oneness, but this does not imply a belief that there actually is such a thing. That would be to depend on something known, when no such knowledge is possible.

Ziporyn (p 16; note 18) quotes A. C. Graham in this regard: “It may be noticed that [Zhuangzi] never does say that everything is one (except as one side of a paradox), [but rather] always speaks subjectively of the sage treating [all things] as one.” (Graham; Chuang Tzu, p 56)

This discussion, like most, leads me to ask what difference any of this makes. My interest is not academic; if that is all that is at stake here, then these inquiries have gone completely off the track. But this implies that these nuances actually do make a difference. Is that belief justified?

The real question is whether Zhuangzi’s vision of utter non-dependence as a means to a happier life works—and secondarily, whether it works better than the alternative. The answer to these questions can only be subjectively determined.

My fallback position is that, for me, whatever its efficacy, there really is no alternative if I wish to pursue a conscious strategy for coping with the life experience. I cannot believe. I cannot follow what amounts to religious belief.

In the end, it is this “pursuit” in its dialectic between being and not-yet-being, which is to say in its becoming, that is the sum of its “working”. And this, I suspect, differs little from the experience of those who pursue the alternative.

Ideally no “pursuit” is necessary at all, of course. My actuality, however, is other than ideal.


The Tianxia attempts to completely affirm and absorb the teachings of the Laozi and can easily do so—provided it follows a certain reading of it. This reading, for the most part, is what others have understood and that which likely agrees with the interpretation followed in the popular imagination.

The Laozi is sufficiently ambiguous to allow at least two radically different takes. Whichever one we follow must therefore be largely subjectively determined. For my part, I interpret it in the light of Zhuangzi’s “Daoism”, while allowing that there still remain significant differences between them.

These differences are as important in the fact of their existence as in their content. There is no singular, cohesive “Daoism”. So many scholarly presentations of the philosophy of Zhuangzi in particular make him conform to such a presupposed over-arching philosophy and thus effectively mute his more radical vision. One needn’t agree with that vision, but at least one should allow him to share it.

Passing over for the moment those attributes of the Dao that Laozi and Guan Yin are said to have realized, let’s consider what they purportedly taught: “They founded their way on the constancy of Nonbeing and centered it on the supreme Oneness.” (p 122) However profound this statement might seem, it is the polar opposite of the position of Zhuangzi.

The Neo-Daoist philosopher Wang Bi (226–249), whose commentary on the Laozi became the standard interpretation is in essential agreement with the assessment of the Tianxia. Laozi is understood to have shifted our focus away from Being to Nonbeing. This embodies the Daoist revolution—the realization that the incoherent and empty forms the context for every presumed coherence and completeness. In the context of our addiction to yang (knowing, Being), it introduced the importance of yin (our not-knowing, Nonbeing).

Where this view goes astray from the Zhuangzian perspective is in that it now takes Nonbeing as itself a known something. “The constancy of Nonbeing” now simply replaces the constancy of Being. It fails to self-efface.

Furthermore, Dao is now equated with Nonbeing and (as we will see) thus fails to include Being which is subsequently subordinated to Non-Being.

Through infinite regress, Zhuangzi makes a point of demonstrating that we can never arrive at any such constancy. (2:31) And another renowned Neo-Daoist, Guo Xiang (252-312), in agreement with Zhuangzi, in my estimation, completely dismisses any equation of Dao with Nonbeing, and the instead returns them both to utter emptiness


The Tianxia next turns to Laozi and Guan Yin, for whom it has nothing but praise. If it were not for its conspicuous decision to exclude Confucius and his disciples from critique altogether, one might conclude that the author was a syncretist of primarily Daoist sympathies. Many have come to this conclusion because of this exclusion; I, as previously stated, take the opposite view, namely that the exclusion of Confucius is because he did in fact embody “the ancient Art of the Dao”, now mostly lost, and was thus above criticism. His introductory statements and carefully crafted positive allusions to Confucians and their teachings support this conclusion.

Nevertheless, this synthesis still attempts to fully absorb Daoist thought. Is this possible? My sense is that it proved impossible, at least as regards Zhuangzian “Daoism”. The Confucian Dao is fixed and sure; the Zhuangzian Dao is fluid and perpetually self-effacing.

Guan Yin is the legendary Keeper of the Gate who insisted that Laozi write down his teachings, before he could pass into India. For some this serves to excuse Laozi for writing the Daodejing (Laozi) despite its teaching that “those who speak do not know”. To my thinking, however, there is no reason to think that he believed he knew; indeed, that’s the whole point.

There is a book that bears his name, the Guanyinzi (not to be confused with the Guanzi) but it is universally considered a spurious work of as late as the 7th Century. That the Tianxia is able to quote him must therefore remain something of a mystery, there now being no known work by him, even if he did exist.

I also take Laozi to be an entirely legendary figure, at least as represented, while the book that bears his name is a compilation of the evolved thought of a growing “Daoist” philosophy, probably contemporaneous with the work of Zhuangzi.

None of this really matters all that much to our purposes here, of course. We are only considering ideas, and have no need for authoritative historical pedigrees. No one needs to have existed. Nothing has to be true.


In the end, the Tianxia completely dismisses these three worthies: “What they called the Dao was not really the Dao, so even what was right in their words could not but turn out wrong. Peng Meng, Tian Pian, and Shen Dao did not really know the Dao.” (p 122)

We must assume, therefore, that the Dao is not as “all-embracing and non-partisan” as we were led to believe.

The author of the Tianxia apparently failed to fully appreciate the implications of his own professed understanding of Dao. But there are, of course, two levels at which to view this. There is Dao as all-embracing, and there is Dao as practically expressed. On one level we cannot stray from Dao, since it is all-embracing—whatever we do or believe is Dao—the Happening; but on the practical level we can, and most likely do stray.

Zhuangzi’s Dao is the confluence of all daos. Every human expression is Dao. From this perspective, everyone represented in the Tianxia is equally “in the Dao”. If, however, we fail to appreciate and actualize this, then we would be straying from the Dao.

Though it is likely that we do just that, it needn’t worry us overmuch in as much as Zhuangzi’s Dao is just another dao. For Dao to be Dao it must also perpetually not-be “the” Dao.

The author of the Tianxia has every right to judge between these daos, but one gets the sense that his judgements are not also informed of their sameness. The reason for this is clear from his introduction where he declares there is a True Dao that can at least be partially articulated and thus can serve as an absolute standard by which to critique all daos. His Dao fails to self-subsume. It is, in the end, precisely the kind of Dao that Zhuangzi suggested needs to see itself as just another dao.

Informed of this, it can critique other daos to its heart’s content and still remain “all-embracing and non-partisan”.