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:





“Not here, not there—but everywhere always right before your eyes.” (Stanza 21)

This line says it all. Objectively, “this is it”. There is no second moon. There is only this moon, and it is it. Everything is it. And every thing is everything.

Subjectively, “I am it”. There is nothing else to be. There is nowhere else to go—nothing to discover—nothing to achieve. The “true self” is precisely the self that I am; there is no other. There is nothing to become. Between what I am and what I might become there is no difference.

This is how I understand the “gateless gate”. It leads nowhere, because it is precisely whatever and wherever this moment of experience “is”. “It is finished” precisely because nothing has ever needed to be done.

It all amounts to a “Yes!” so profound that it folds back into itself. It loses itself in itself.

Unfortunately, I mostly only think this. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. That’s the point; but it’s a point that stands before me. There is this gate, and although I do not pass through it, there remains no place else to go.

The context is a very Zhuangzian (and Huizian) reference to the sameness—oneness—of all differences. Any differences we might imagine within time and space, existence and non-existence, are completely irrelevant. But that’s their relevance. Without our imagining them, there could be no imagining of their oneness. “Here a single thought is as ten thousand years.” Think about it.

For the author of the Xin-Xin Ming, this is “the Dharma-truth”. For Zhuangzi, it’s just another way of imagining things that has happy psychological benefits.


To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

(Stanza 2)

If the inclination to discriminate between right and wrong is “the disease of the mind”, then humanity has fallen. Humanity is not as it should be. We need to be saved. The Universe likewise needs saving. There is a great rift between what is and what should be. There are Two. The author discriminates.

Satan rebelled and was cast from Heaven. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lost their innocence, and were cast out of Eden. Brahman sleeps and dreams what isn’t Itself. We need to awaken so that Self can be One again. Universal Mind is shattered and we are meant to merge mind with Mind so as to make ourselves and Mind whole once again. Chaos was destroyed with the arising of self-consciousness. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and needs to be put back together again.

All these cosmic scenarios are the product of the religious mind. Yet the religious mind is precisely what Zen ostensibly wishes to overcome. There is, it seems to me, a huge contradiction here. But of course there is contradiction in everything at some level or another.

Ironically, materialism seems to bring one closer to the threshold of pan-affirmation than does religious-mindedness. But materialism, born of rationalism, manifests as another side of religious-mindedness, close-mindedness.

If discrimination between right and wrong is the disease of the mind, then humanity is itself diseased. But it can be cured—or so Zen tells us. Pan-affirmation, on the other hand, says yes to all things just as they are. This is it. And given our discriminating mind, we have the inclination to either reject or affirm it. To affirm it is to trust in life, to release into Mystery.

All of this can be found right here in the Xin-Xin Ming. “When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way, there is no objection to anything in the world.” (Stanza 10) “If you wish to move in the One Way, do not dislike the worlds of senses and ideas. Indeed, to embrace them fully is identical with true Enlightenment.” (Stanza 14) “When you live this non-separation, all things manifest the One, and nothing is excluded.” (Stanza 20) “Not here, not there—but everywhere always right before your eyes.” (Stanza 21)

This is it. This mind, just as it is, is it. There is disease, and we do well to attempt to cure it. But disease is also not-disease. Nothing is fundamentally diseased—even disease. Having a discriminating mind is not to be diseased. Narrow-mindedly dwelling there is to have a disease, not to be one.


If you wish to know the truth,

then hold to no opinions for or against anything.

To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

(Stanza 2)

The first sentence of this verse borders wonderfully on the paradoxical. To know the truth, just have no opinions about what is true. An inviting hole, empty of what seems so fundamentally human, opens up to the imagination. Falling in there would be so refreshing—taking a break from oneself and the world—that’s what it would amount to.

Is this true, or is it also just a matter of opinion? I take it as the latter; but that doesn’t preclude attempting the experience. That, of course, is where I am of a different opinion than the author. For him, empty is the way things really are; I have no idea.

But having no idea includes allowing that he may be right. How could I possibly know—especially in as much as I have not experienced anything like what he has ostensibly experienced? Arguing with him is equivalent to arguing with the Buddha—or any other true believer, for that matter. But we all do that, do we not? We’re surrounded by contemporary buddhas—gurus and true believers—all of whom are absolutely sure of the truth of their contradicting opinions. Must we choose to believe one? Or can we choose not to choose at all?

Ah, skepticism. It’s easy to see this as a “disease of the mind”—living in continual rejection. But it can also be just the opposite—living in open-mindedness. That’s the kind of skepticism that Zhuangzi attempts. And that seems to lead right back to having no opinions for against anything.

Can we really accomplish this? I have no idea. But we can certainly have fun trying. If our trying isn’t fun, however, then something’s amiss. We’ve taken it far too seriously. We’ve chosen to believe.


Each thing reveals the One,

the One manifests as all things.

To live in this Realization

is to not worry about perfection or non-perfection.

(Stanza 22)

Can we call the projects of Zen and philosophical Daoism self-improvement? What else can they be? Yet both tell us that the most fundamental attribute of that self-improvement is the realization that no improvement is necessary. To be liberated is to realize that no liberation is necessary. How could anything be simpler? Why then do we find it so difficult?

It always seems to come back to our “natural human inclination” to judge between right and wrong, good and bad, affirmable and unaffirmable, perfect and imperfect. My original intention in this series was to look at many verses of the Xin-Xin Ming but its message is so singular and simple that most any verse will do. It’s all about having an experience of the non-dual, and that equates to transcending this inclination to judge.

There is that side of Daoism that would seem to suggest that what is “natural” in us is precisely what we should nurture. We should spontaneously be what we are. But this too simplistic; human nature is problematical. Being a self, for all its benefits, is burdensome. When compared to Nature generally, self-consciousness appears to be an anomaly—and a cruel joke. We seem to be more a “freak” of Nature, than its greatest work—the tyrannosaurus rex of the mammalian age.

We try and imagine just the opposite, of course. We are the apex of evolution. We are the leading edge of a purposively evolving Universe. We are the Omega. It’s all about us. We are the indispensable third term in the Triune nature of Reality—Heaven, earth and humanity. My mind must be Mind. My self must be Self. I am must be I AM.

But Zen and Zhuangzian Daoism primarily focus on the problematical side of our human existence. The real difference between them, it seems to me, is that Zen (Buddhism) (and Hinduism) attempts a cosmological resolution to the problem of our existential dangle, whereas Zhuangzi’s dao is considerably less ambitious. No definitive and final resolution is imagined, especially in the here and now, beyond a sense that some resolution will unavoidably transpire. Zhuangzi is more a psychologist than a religionist.

But again, the solution for both is that no solution is necessary. It all works out in the end. All is an apparent mess, but all is ultimately well in this Great Mess. We are perfect in our imperfections.


Each thing reveals the One,

the One manifests as all things.

(Stanza 22)

When you live this non-separation,

All things manifest the One, and nothing is excluded.

(Stanza 20)

Referring to the handily hypothetical sages of ancient times, Zhuangzi says, “Their oneness was the oneness, but their non-oneness was also the oneness.” (6:22) Dualism is also non-dualism, and non-dualism is also dualism. This was the final (?) conclusion of Buddhism: Samsara (illusion and attachment to the same) is Nirvana. It’s all good. It’s all affirmable.

This, we must assume, applies as equally to those who are completely uninformed of oneness as to those who are so informed. To be utterly fettered is to be as free as to be utterly unfettered—at a certain level. Getting that is to be unfettered—on a certain level.

Still, there are obvious advantages to being informed of oneness. It’s existentially better—happier—to be unfettered than fettered. Though these same “ancients” were able to equalize longevity and an early death, they were still desirous of the former. It’s a good thing to live a long and full life, even though it can be seen as equivalent to a life cut short. “No one lives longer than a dead child.”

So, we’re back to walking two roads. Zhuangzi continues his reference to the ancients: “In their oneness, they were followers of the Heavenly. In their non-oneness, they were followers of the Human. This is what it is for neither the Heavenly nor the Human to win out over the other. And that is what I call being both Genuine and Human, a Genuine Human Being.” (6:23) To be human is to be a dualistic phenomenon; from that there is no existential escape. But our dualism can be recontextualized by an experience of the non-dual (which is no “better” or “real” than dualism). That’s the project of philosophical Daoism in a nutshell.

So, there’s nowhere we need to go, but somewhere we can go that’s worth the effort.


Each thing reveals the One,

the One manifests as all things.

(Stanza 22)

To have an experience of non-duality is equivalent to experiencing the equality of all things. But this is impossible if we are not also able to suspend what Zhuangzi calls our “natural inclination” to see some things and good (right) and other things as bad (wrong). His buddy Huizi wants to know how someone could still be considered human if they lack this fundamental human attribute. The question is moot, of course—whatever humans do or can do falls within the definition of human. A psychopath is as human as you or I.

Still, there are practical considerations. Even if we assume that someone who has had a transformative experience of non-duality will naturally do what is right and best for our collective flourishing without considering it right in opposition to wrong, such a one is a great rarity, if they exist at all. Society must exercise the natural inclination to judge between right and wrong if it is to flourish. So too must you and I.

But let us assume that we have experiences of oneness—not as some imagined final and complete salvific enlightenment, but just as everyday incremental inklings. We would then have a sense of the relative nature of ethical discriminations even as we continue to exercise them. How would this change us? Might it not lead us to greater tolerance? And might it not free us from the tyranny of guilt and anger? Could there still be guilt and anger—two natural inclinations that have practical benefits—that do not destroy a deeper and more fundamental peace?

Zhuangzi thinks so. This is walking two roads at once. This is our humanity informed of a broader perspective, the view from Dao. This view does not abrogate our natural inclinations, but simply puts them in perspective so as to free us to exercise them even as we wander unfettered to them.


Each thing reveals the One,

the One manifests as all things.

To live in this Realization

is to not worry about perfection or non-perfection.

To put your trust in the Heart-Mind

is to live without separation,

and in this non-duality you are one with your Life-Source.

(Stanza 22)


The Xin-Xin Ming is all about the experience of non-duality.

But, ah, the power of capitalization! “The One” is Something. And where there is Something there is duality. The author is not unaware of this, of course. “Although all dualities arise from the One, do not become attached to even ideas of this One.” (Stanza 9) Nevertheless, it seems that he requires that there be Something that is the One. Our heart-mind (xin) is the Heart-Mind.

I take exception to this; but apparently it doesn’t matter. The author likely experienced a non-duality beyond anything I could ever hope to imagine. (Nor do I hope to do so. Realization (capital “R”) is a goal to which I do not aspire.) There’s power in religious-mindedness; make no mistake. For those who are willing and able, that path is always open.

The Zhuangzian approach is quite different, however. It may be possible to experience a oneness; but this assumes nothing about the nature of Reality. It doesn’t mean there is One. One’s heart-mind—one’s conscious experience—is taken just as it manifests—limited, clueless, and transient. The heart-mind is just the heart-mind.

Putting your trust in this heart-mind is thus putting your trust in Mystery, which is to say, in nothing-in-particular. It’s simply en-trusting yourself to the inexplicable Happening. It’s “handing it all over to the unavoidable”. It’s simply saying Yes to life—without regard to Resolution.

Saying Yes to life can be a visceral experience. There is release. Something happens. There is a sense of oneness. That feels good; but it doesn’t solve the riddle of life.

But it all hinges on being true to our actual experience. We can only entrust ourselves as ourselves. We entrust our cluelessness to Cluelessness. But there is no Cluelessness other than our own cluelessness. We are Mystery. In our duality we can say Yes to ourselves, which amounts to saying Yes to everything else.

There is only this moon; there is no second moon. Just as Zen tells us.


It’s amazing how varied the three characters in the title of this short treatise, the Xin-Xin Ming, are translated. Clarke has “Verses on Faith-Mind”. (They do in fact rhyme, and one can imagine monks reciting them from memory.) Other renditions are: “On Trust in the Heart” (Watson), “Inscribed on the Believing Mind” (Blyth), “Have Faith in your Mind” (Shih Shen-Lung), and “Faith in Mind” (Balcom).

In his short introduction Clarke suggests we not worry about what it means, just as he tells us to ignore the various mythological stories of miraculous events associated with its author. In this he evinces the spirit of Zen, I think. If the treatise is a vessel intended to help us get across the river, then not only must we abandon it when we get to the other side, but we must abandon it even as we use it. Every means is add odds with the end.

Still, the title is as much the message as anything else, so we might as well give it some thought. Indeed, how we understand it can be a great parting of ways, and I will take the path that is likely radically divergent from that which was intended.

What is “mind”? (Xin literally means “heart”, but the Chinese believed that we think with our heart. But it is our conscious experience that matters and whatever organ enables it is of no great importance.) Is it Mind—an expression of some great Universal Mind? Or is it simply an experience without grounding, adrift and groundless? The reader will know my bias. It is grounded in groundlessness. Trust in Mystery. Trust in mind is trust in Life. But Life has no answers.

Though the treatise is not definitive on the matter, I suspect it believes in Mind. “To seek Mind with the discriminating mind is the greatest of mistakes.” (Stanza 14 in Clarke) There is not simply an experience to be had, but a Something to realize.

Can we have something of the intended experience without belief that the experience is of Something? Why not? Or is the entire exercise dependent upon belief in something?


This series will be a loose commentary on what is believed to be the first Zen (Chan) document, the Xin-Xin Ming (“Treatise on Trust in Mind”). As with most every other document with which we treat, this one is also embedded in ambiguity. It is purported to have been written by the (legendary) Third Patriarch of Zen, Jianzhi Sengcan (Seng-ts’an) (529-613 CE), but this is widely disputed. Even the correct translation of the title and its meaning is completely ambiguous.


All this works to our advantage, needless to say. We can make of it whatever we wish. It’s of only scholarly interest what the author actually intended to say. We don’t believe in any case. This is not scripture. We care nothing for the passing of the torch of Truth. We take all claims of Realization of some Absolute as a mythical trap which can only entangle us in religious self-deceit. We slap Zen upside the head—just as Zen would have us do. We laugh at any offence taken, and take it as the proof of our assertion.

Yet what a beautiful document it is. It never ceases to inspire. Numerous translations can be found at: I will take Richard B. Clarke’s “provisional” translation (Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on Faith-Mind, White Pine Press, 1973) as my standard.

Though the work is Buddhist through and through, the vocabulary is distinctly Daoist, which serves to illustrate the origins of Zen as a confluence of Daoist and Buddhist thought. This commentary will be as through the eyes of Zhuangzi as I understand him; the Buddhism will thus doubtless suffer. And, of course, all I say will be completely innocent of any claims to practical personal realization and thus of the authority that that is thought to bring.

The goal is to be inspired and to inspire—and inspiration is an open-ended experience.


I have made frequent reference to Ernest Becker’s (The Denial of Death, 1973) observation that “man is the god that shits” because it so graphically describes the human condition that unavoidably leads to existential anxiety and dread. I’ve just given it a reread and recommend it to anyone who might wish to understand this condition and its psychological consequences from a “scientific” psychoanalytic perspective. It amazingly parallels (my take on) Zhuangzi’s analysis and proposed response.

Becker tells us that this human condition results in two unavoidable neuroses—repression and transference. Repression is essentially the denial of death, and though we do well to face it squarely and as “heroically” as we can, there will always be some degree of repression involved. Becker is careful to avoid the mistake of “psychoanalytical religionists” who suggest a possible end to all repression. Instead, he suggests a project of continual approximation of that ideal.

The great paradox of the human experience is seen in the inevitability of death, on the one hand, and the organismic impulse of the “life force” (qi?!) on the other. We wish to live, but must die. Our task is to create (not discover) a creative response to both without negating either. To do so is to live in authenticity.

Transference is our natural response to this paradox. (To be “normal” is to be neurotic.) Transference is the psychological act by which we attempt to resolve our need for the ultimate and sure grounding that we cannot find in ourselves. Religion has typically fulfilled this role, though there are innumerable other ways in which it manifests. A life-project (“making a difference”), trusting a guru or a psychoanalyst, stamp-collecting, foot-fetishism, and philosophizing are all types of transference. Some form of transference is both required and unavoidable. The trick then is to choose the object of one’s transference in full awareness of the necessarily illusory nature of the act. This too is to live in authenticity.

Becker makes much of Soren Kierkegaard’s psychological insights and response, putting him on a par with Freud and his greatest disciples. Kierkegaard recognized both this need for a seemingly religious transference and the inauthenticity of religious belief taken as objectively “true”. Thus his “leap of faith” and life lived in ambiguity and doubt. But Kierkegaard’s response still had the Judeo-Christian God as its object—and could not, therefore, be open and empty—the most authentic and consistent reflection of the human condition. Becker, unfortunately, seems to have been unaware of the possibility of a transference that has no object, but rather expresses itself as a release into the utterly unknowable, and is therefore empty. (He dismisses Buddhism out of hand, and correctly criticizes Jung for his religious forays into Eastern mysticism.) This was Zhuangzi’s response to the human condition—a trusting release into openness—as valid today as it was two and a half millennia ago. This is an open transference where some transference will happen in any case, and one that allows for greater existential authenticity than foot- or God-fetishism.