My Spin on Zhuangzi


You are invited to read the ruminations on the philosophy of Zhuangzi posted here and to offer your own observations on them and that philosophy generally.

I have published a second book (THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi) which is a compilation of posts which have appeared here. It can be found at:

or at Amazon:


My adaptation of Zhuangzi can be found at by tapping the image to the left or at Amazon:





I am not sure where in the Zhuangzi  Guo Xiang (c. 252-312) found occasion to develop his idea of “traces”, but it might easily have been from the story in the Outer Chapters of a wheelwright instructing a duke on the folly of clinging to the words of ancient sages. (Since Guo mostly made use of the Zhuangzi as a means for the development and elaboration of his own philosophy of life rather than making a careful commentary on it, it hardly matters what passage inspired him.) Since these sages are long dead, their words are nothing more than the sheddings marking their passing. Because they are dead so too are their teachings. These are radical and powerful words indeed. But of course we don’t have to take them too seriously in as much as they also qualify as traces.

Zhuangzi tells us we would be much better off following our own daos rather than that of the so-called sages. A dao is made by walking it. Everything the sages said and everything we think we know about them are empty traces. The wheelwright could not even teach his own son how to make a wheel because it was a matter of having a knack, not of learning a technique. But perhaps his son, in applying himself to the art of wheel-making, could discover a knack in himself. So too can we learn from the sages without that being a dependence upon them. There’s guidance there. There’s a wheel to be made there. But our success in creating it will be in discovering our own unique knacks, not in attempting to emulate theirs.

We are invited to do as Guo did—make use of Zhuangzi—without following him by rote. Thankfully, we are often not even sure what he was saying. How then could we follow him too closely? Brook Ziporyn has described my scribblings in these terms, just as he would of any and every use of the “wisdom of the ancients”. The point is to engage, and in that engagement, to realize a new and personal application based upon one’s own unique self-experience. But if this is the way of it then there can be no single true interpretation of Zhuangzi or anyone else. That’s good news, for now our engagement can always and only be open-ended, ever-transforming, never-trace-full.


Who am I? That is not an easy question to answer. There are numerous levels and means by which I attempt to reify my sense of being this particular self. Among these is my past. I define my present self by reference to past events, passive and active, that I pick out as defining “me”. I am, in effect, my past. But this selection process is far from unbiased. There are those, no doubt, who mostly pick out interpreted events from the past that give them a positive image of themselves. I, on the other hand, tend to choose those things that make me feel bad about myself. There isn’t anything truly sordid or hurtful back there—just a lot of stupidity. How can I make that work for me?

I’m engaging in all this me-talk because I would like to share something of how an understanding of traces can help us to understand our self-imaging and thus provide a tool by which to reframe it.

Traces are concepts by which we interpret the world. As applied to past events they are like footprints, a sign of something having passed, but not the thing itself. What was it? To a large extent it is only what I imagine it to have been. Calling it “stupid” is really just adding a trace on top of a trace. Defining oneself by reference to the past is thus twice removed from both the “real” event and one’s actual self.

Understanding that our every assessment of ourselves constitutes a trace—a phantom creation of the imagination, a mere echo of what might have been the case—opens us up to wander among every and all traces. The past is not negated but rather our clinging to any one interpretation of it is. We can learn from it without being defined by it.

When we don’t answer the question “Who am I?” with “Who was I?” we are free to return to the present. And when there we discover that “I am a ‘Who’?” When we realize that we haven’t a clue who we are or who we were, there are no traces to which we need to cling, though traces there will be.

Ziqi lost his “me” when he realized that he was a “Who?” and not a concrete someone. Who causes the forest to sway and sing? The “Who?” of “creation” is really no different from the “Who?” of ourselves. Both we and the world are self-so, an inexplicable happening, an arising encompassed by mystery. Zhuangzi suggests we trustfully and thankfully ride the wave of our not-knowing and enjoy our arising as it is, and not as we would like it to be. If, on the other hand, we “take our mind (understanding) as our teacher” we will be forever entangled and encumbered by traces.


There are numerous ways in which we use traces (fixed ideas) to define ourselves. The most fundamental of these is the posited “me” in the I-me relationship. Without this relationship it is hard to imagine how self-consciousness could persist. It seems to be a necessary attribute of our human experience. Even Zhuangzi’s imaginary sage Ziqi, who has lost his “me”, seems to still have it enough to engage in self-reflection. “‘I’ have lost my ‘me’” is self-contradictory, for without “me” there can be no “I”. And vice versa. Thus, the loss of one’s “me” must be a shifting of perspective where the “me” is both there and transcended. No-self is not the absence of self, but a perspectival shift—a view from Dao—that does not cling to self as to a fixed and real thing. It is no-fixed-self.

As an aside, it is worth noting that this means that the emptiness at our core, that gap between “I” and “me” that makes self-consciousness possible, is unavoidable. But this is just some more “uselessness” that can be rendered most useful. It’s the empty hub in the wheel, the window that allows light to enter. It is the yin that can balance and illuminate our all-consuming yanging. This is what philosophical Daoism is all about—just factoring nothingness/emptiness into our view of the world and ourselves.

I am me, but who is me? Brook Ziporyn suggests that much of Zhuangzi’s philosophical argument in Chapter 2 can be summed up with just this: Who? The power of Who? resides in its unanswerabilty. Who is the Blower that makes the ten thousand things move and sing? We cannot know, so it seems that nothing makes them exist at all—they are self-so, spontaneously arising. Who am I? I am a Who-ing?—an unanswerable question, an inexplicable happening with emptiness at its core. More uselessness—more opportunity to make it work for us.

This is a classic Zhuangzian shift toward yin. Who is the Blower? What is the ultimate Yang? There is no answer, so let it be Yin. Turn the question on its head. Cease the yanging and try a bit of yinning. Do not posit a Creator, but rather open up into openness. Embrace the emptiness of Who?.


All things are in flux and traces are our attempt to stop their ceaseless transformation by naming them. In naming them we give them a specific, fixed identity. Even if I am not at this moment the same as I will be in the next or in the previous, it’s convenient to think and say so. (No doubt Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle [the position and velocity of a particle cannot both be accurately measured at the same time] and quantum physics would agree, but I won’t pretend to understand them well enough to say so.)

So traces are a means by which to bestow identity to things despite that aspect of them that defies all identity. Thus, if we are interested in exploring how we might transcend identity—our own especially—then the idea of traces becomes an important tool in that project. The realization of no-fixed-identity is, as I tirelessly (and perhaps tiresomely) assert, at the heart of Zhuangzi’s vision of obtaining freedom from all fear and peace-robbing entanglements. No-fixed-identity is the experience of both being and not-being oneself. This puts us back on two roads at once. I enjoy being “me” while not taking this “me” as something real and fixed—something to lose—that’s the scariest loss.

But beyond these two is a different level of experience. My unidentifiable me-ness is in some way identifiable with the unidentifiable Great Happening—the unimaginable Totality of all things. “I and the ten thousand things are one.”

That’s the theory, at least. But trace-full though it be, it is easily approximated. We are not, after all, talking about complete and unsurpassable enlightenment here. It’s just a thought experiment. It’s imaginative meditation. And it feels good.


Heraclitus (b. 544 BCE) observed: “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it will be neither the same river nor the same man.” Zhuangzi would certainly agree. Everything seems to be in flux. Nothing is fixed. The most obvious thing about reality is that it is continually transforming. This is hua. I like to call it the Great Happening.

Traces are our attempt to stop this flow, if only momentarily. “This is the Nile.” There you have it—a fixed identity that has persisted for millions of years no matter that its water is ever new and its path ever-changing. “I am me”—there is someone here who persists through time. Sure, I will have an end (presumably), but at least until that eventuality arises I have a fixed identity. But this is just a trace, a convenient way to stop the flow and make sense of the world. And it works. If we forget that it is merely a convenience and not the truth of things, however, psychological and social dissonance arises.

If I am someone, why am I forever trying to be someone—and always coming up short? This question is at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project. When he critiques the folly of those who try to be someone through political power, self-possession, or spiritual attainment he is describing us all. Because like everything else we are forever transforming, we depend on various ruses—traces—by which to make us feel concrete and fixed. Ultimately, we are denying both the insurmountable lack at the heart of our self-awareness and the inevitability of our own death.

But what if, Zhuangzi asks, we depended on nothing—no self-esteem, no project, no achievement, no public acknowledgement—what would that be like? Might it not allow for free and easy psychological wandering through life where neither success nor failure, praise or blame, life or death could touch the heart of our joi de vivre? When there’s nothing to be gained there’s nothing that can be lost. Thus, “fearlessness is the proof of sagacity”.

“Thus I say,” concludes Zhuangzi, “the sage has no-fixed identity . . . no merit . . . no name.” In other words, the hypothetical sage is able to see herself as a transforming happening within the Great Happening, which in effect makes her the Great Happening itself. “I and the ten thousand things are one.” At least this is how it feels.

Who am I? Whatever answer I might give will be a bundle of traces, fixed and static ideas that are not me at all. It might very well be that such a bundle of ideas is necessary, but knowing them as such opens a path to wandering in and beyond them.


The Neo-Daoist Guo Xiang (252-312), in his commentary on the Zhuangzi, makes much of the unreal cognitive images by which we conceive and order our realities. He calls these “traces” (or “footprints”). There is, in fact, nothing thought or imagined that is not in some sense a trace, a mere representation of reality that must of necessity fall short of reality itself—whatever that might “be”. Truth be said, we “know” nothing, or perhaps more truly, we do not know whether we know anything or not. This is a matter of epistemology I suppose, but for Guo and for Zhuangzi both it is simply an honest description of the human condition. And given that we want to make the most of this incredible experience of being human they both turn this apparent negative, this “uselessness”, into an invitation to experience the world in an altogether different way. There is nothing useless that cannot be rendered useful. Indeed, the greater something’s apparent uselessness the greater its potential usefulness.

This is familiar ground. When words and ideas are transcended our experience of the world is transformed. Words divide. In their absence, the world is one. The experience is “mystical”. Guo calls it “vanishingly merging into things.” Zhuangzi exclaims, “All things and I are one.” Call it being empty. Call it being full. There’s no real difference between them.

This is not about truth, of course. It’s just a way of experiencing the world that feels good. And our every pronouncement upon it is also just another trace. Trace-making is unavoidable but essentially as valuable as its opposite. Indeed, without trace-making there would be no alternative, just as without yang there would be no yin, without uselessness there would be no usefulness, and without death there would be no life. And vice versa. The point is to embrace both. When opposites are transcended without their negation, Zhuangzi tells us, this is the experience of Dao.

Why only try to go around full when you could also, simultaneously, go around empty? The alternative is a life lived half-full—or half-empty.


I try to keep this blog about philosophical Daoism rather than about me, though ultimately it is of course always necessarily about me. Nevertheless, I try to avoid trivial reference to my doings. This post is an exception since I am about to start posting again after a long hiatus.

I have left my boat in Mexico and am presently staying with my 97 year old father in Oregon, USA. This puts me back on the worldwide grid.

I close with a picture of the boat in my favorite summer anchorage.


A summation of what it means to be a “genuine pretender” can be had in a consideration of Zhuangzi’s pivotal conclusion to his opening argument: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name.” (1:8; Ziporyn)


Again, the historical/philosophical context for this declaration is of first importance. Zhuangzi was responding to self-improvement projects presently in vogue. Chief among these was Confucianism, a most laudable project of moral growth (merit). Everyone is a someone (a fixed identity), and every someone is defined by the roles in which she or he finds her- or himself. The proper performance of these roles (as handed down from the Zhou dynasty) constitutes moral rectitude when there is “dual correspondence” between performance (behavior) and intention. One does what is right not because it is right, but because one is right. Such a one is a
“steadfast knight” (consummate person), a sage with a name—a Moral Someone. (All this is as per Moeller and D’Ambrosio as I have understood them).


Another contemporary self-improvement project was Neidan, Inner Training, a proto-Daoist regime of meditation intended to fill oneself with qi, the vital energy that constitutes all things. The goal was to become a Spiritual Someone like Liezi who could “ride the wind” (1:8).  These are the roots of dao jiao, religious Daoism. (Though the authors allude to the relevance of this to Zhuangzi’s response, they do not develop it in any depth. To my knowledge, I alone make this case.)


Zhuangzi says that these (and other) achievements are indeed praiseworthy, but the point is to go beyond the desire for praise altogether. The point is to have no need to be someone at all, that is, to depend on nothing. He does not prescribe this, however; he simply asks a hypothetical question: “But suppose you were to chariot upon what is true both to Heaven and to earth, riding atop the back-and-forth of the six atmospheric breaths, so that your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (1:8) What would it be like to entertain this possibility?


The key to Zhuangzian wandering is to abandon the idea of being a fixed-self and thus every project of self-improvement. We may be someone, but who that someone presently is is of no great consequence. We can be anyone as necessary. Because we can be anyone, we can also be everyone. The “genuine pretender” is she who has no-fixed-identity and thus has no real investment in becoming any special someone. She can thus play every role required of her without taking any of it too seriously.


Is this possible? How could I know? Is there practical value in entertaining the possibility? I think so. But isn’t even this a project of self-improvement? How could it be otherwise? “Thus I say”, the Consummate Person wanders in her inability to wander, laughs at her own ceaseless attempts to achieve merit and fame.


A second position of the authors of Genuine Pretending is that the Zhuangzi can be legitimately interpreted in any number of ways. They simply choose to interpret it as I do. This squeezes my mind between a sense that Zhuangzi actually had one clear message and the sense that that message affirms the legitimacy of interpreting him in any way one chooses. Thus, in interpreting Zhuangzi as I do, I am obliged to concede the point which seems to negate the legitimacy of that interpretation. Or does it? If it does, that can only be helpful inasmuch as every idea is best when self-negating.


This is great stuff because it gets at the heart of Zhuangzi’s dao. The sage “lets them all bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”. (2:15; Ziporyn) She affirms all de. “Once upon a time, ten suns rose in the sky at once, and the ten thousand things were all simultaneously illuminated.  And how much better are many Virtuosities [de] than many suns?” (2:38)


It is great stuff because it taxes and befuddles the mind. And that was very much what Zhuangzi wanted to do. As I have said elsewhere, his work is intended to act very much like a koan—“understanding” it might be a good first step, but not until that and all discriminating understanding is shattered has it done its intended work. And that work is to move us from narrow- and close-mindedness to a vast openness. I say “vast” because it is meant to be a transformation of radical proportions—a quantum leap beyond the merely incremental on a scale of openness.


Also, as in Zen, there is an inherent paradox. One must pass through the gate of the gateless barrier. One must try not to try, understand how not to understand, know how not-to-know.


I wrote above that Zhuangzi had one clear message. That message, however, is that there is no such thing as a clear message, if by that we mean a cognitively sustainable dao, and this was communicated through the media of ironic humor, the hyperbolic and the bizarre. No wonder his work is open to so many different interpretations.


There are essentially two ways to interpret Zhuangzi: religiously or non-religiously. (The reader is reminded that I understand religiousness as any view that believes anything is absolutely true. Science and rationalism are typically very religious.) The authors make frequent mention of the views of those who pursue a religious form of Daoism, and many scholars are among them. And though they affirm the validity of such an interpretation, they also make clear that these two approaches are mutually exclusive. The difference is as between Something and Nothing.


What difference does this make in practice? Probably very little. My guess is that practitioners of a religious dao have the satisfaction of believing they are becoming more “spiritual” (though I remain skeptical), while we few practitioners of a radically empty dao have the satisfaction of  thinking we are “right”. But that puts us in the same pot of egoistic soup. Let’s let that “bask in the broad daylight of Heaven” and wander there.



As previously stated, I am in pretty much full agreement with the authors’ take on Zhuangzi (which no doubt would elate them immensely should they get wind of it). Nevertheless, I do have some questions about several of their assumptions. The importance of these issues probably lies more in the ambiguity to which they give rise than in any possible resolution.


The first of these issues may be the least ambiguous, namely the presumption that there is a single philosophy to be found in the Zhuangzi. The reader will know that I take the Inner Chapters as representing one philosophy—possibly that of Zhuangzi, though whose philosophy it is really doesn’t matter. As for the rest, though some are very sympathetic with the Inner Chapters, none of the remaining chapters completely capture the spirit and intent of “Zhuangzi”. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, I will say that this matters hugely. If, for instance, Zhuangzi advocated for complete non-dependence, then the introduction of some sort of dependence by subsequent writers would completely overturn his dao. If he eschewed all metaphysics, then the later introduction of qi (chi) as some form of substance to appropriate would be another dao altogether. If he did not recognize the existence of a reified self, then any talk of “original nature” would be anathema.


All this might seem nit-picky, and if we were only talking philosophy it would be. (And that I assume is all that Moeller and D’Ambrosio are doing.) But we are not. This is a philosophy of life with a mystical twist. I feel compelled to reiterate that by “mysticism” I mean only that something deeply transformative is intended to occur—it has no reference to anything extra-mundane, but remains entirely psychological. Indeed, it is this understanding upon which the whole thing turns. As the Xin-Xin Ming says: “Separate by the smallest amount and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth”. I always appeal to Zen in this regard. You can’t mess with Zen and have it remain Zen. This is not an evolving philosophy but a single, radical point of view intended to issue in a point of view that embraces all points of view. But you’ve got to pass through the gate to get there.


Moeller and D’Ambrosio explicitly renounce all knowledge of authorship and temporal sequence of any of the Zhuangzi, and we cannot but follow their lead to some extent. If any of this absolutely mattered, then we would be depending on knowledge and off the dao of non-dependence. Nevertheless, this dao begins in understanding it, and understanding it requires discernment and discrimination. Much in the Zhuangzi is antithetical to the dao of the Inner Chapters and it seems somewhat disingenuous to plow ahead, even when acknowledging this, and speak of a single philosophy of the Zhuangzi.


This piece is full of self-contradictions and I am not entirely comfortable with it. In the end, we must all make intellectual compromises; we must choose a point of view if we are to speak at all. Now seems like a good time to practice some Zhuangzian Daoism and equalize all argument.