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:





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.



The authors of Genuine Pretending make extensive use of Brook Ziporyn’s work on Zhuangzi, and that, not surprisingly, immediately endears me to their book since I think Ziporyn really gets what Zhuangzi was all about.


One theme of Ziporyn’s take on Zhuangzi is the idea of the sage being like a “wild card”. This can be found at Ironically, I have never really warmed to this explanation of the sage’s “genuine pretending”—largely because I find it too complicated for my not-so-philosophically-astute mind. The gist of this metaphor is that the sage, being unfixed from any point of view or identity can adapt so as to represent whatever is helpful in any given “hand”. She acts like a “wild card”.


Though the authors find this helpful, they prefer their own designation of the sage as a “joker”. This amounts to the same thing, though it adds the important dimension of the sage’s lack of seriousness as evinced in Zhuangzi’s own presentation of his philosophy. He too was a joker. And here again the authors turn to Ziporyn, specifically his translation of the title of the book from which Zhuangzi claims he got his first wild story about the flight of Peng from Oblivion to Oblivion—The Equalizing Jokebook. (1:3) The implication is that Zhuangzi’s entire work is itself a big joke—a joke with a purpose, an equalizing joke book.


Genuine Pretending thus devotes a great deal of time to a discussion of humor and irony to demonstrate that Zhuangzi used both to overturn the seriousness of the Confucians and with it all religious seriousness. But he did not just tear things down for fun; he wished to suggest another way of being in the world. He wished to suggest a way of carefree wandering unattached to dogma and egoistic self-building.


The psychological dynamic of irony is perhaps one of the most telling attributes of the Zhuangzian mentality. Whatever one thinks, says or does is always tempered by an internal distancing, an awareness that however serious one’s involvement in something is (and many things are very serious matters indeed), there is also the liberating realization of the equalization of all things in “the vastest arrangement” where all is well in this Great Mess.


Yes. Thankfulness arises.


The Confucian goal of complete seriousness, wherein the performance of one’s societal roles perfectly matches one’s actual character, does indeed closely resemble the goal of authenticity as found in our modern era. Zhuangzi’s zhen (genuineness), on the other hand, recognizes no fixed and sure definition of what societal norms are right and which are wrong (there being a multitude of different norms) and thus the sage—the one in the not-know—is able to play the many roles in which she finds herself without taking them too seriously. This is genuine pretending. Consider also how this might lead us all to greater tolerance and even harmony—though we wouldn’t want to take these too seriously either.

There is another, more fundamental, distinction between authenticity and genuineness, however. The Heideggerian idea of being authentic presupposes a fixed-self upon which to work. We are somebody and wish to be a better somebody. Zhuangzi’s zhen, on the other hand, is a response to the discovery that “‘myself’ has never begun to exist” and thus one’s sense of self becomes unfixed and flexible: “Sometimes he thinks he’s a horse, sometimes he thinks he is an ox. Such understanding is truly reliable, such Virtuosity [de] deeply genuine [zhen]. (Ziporyn 7:1)

The authors of Genuine Pretending make this point succinctly: “[T]he genuine pretender represents not a quest for self-creation but a quest for self-dissolution.” (33) There is, of course, an implicit contradiction here as there is in all such “quests”. One does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha. We are immersed in the waters of our egocentrism and every attempt to pull ourselves out is necessarily egocentric. The Zhuangzian solution, at least in part, is to wander in our egocentrism, which is to say, not to take the quest too seriously. Have fun walking your dao.

This awareness of “having” no-fixed-self spreads out and encompasses every aspect of our world perspective. The de-reification (de-being-ification) of the self leads to a refusal to reify anything: Truth, God, sages, immortals, daos, dao, life-purpose, right and wrong. When I speak of the religious, this is what I mean—the reification of anything—taking anything as fixed and true and getting all non-contingently serious about it.

Seriousness is necessary and commendable—caring deeply about our collective well-being is a genuine expression of our humanity—only to not also walk the meta-road wherein all is seen as well in any event is to torment oneself and, most likely, others.


As previously mentioned, Genuine Pretending is very much about wrestling “the” philosophy of the Zhuangzi away from the imposition of modern interpretive models that are largely inconsonant with the book in its historical context. Heidegger’s authentic being (self) is especially critiqued. A quote sums it up:

“One of our intentions in this book is to liberate Zhuangzi from Heidegger’s all-too-tight and all-too-constraining –and, even more uncomfortably, all-too-German and all-too-serious –embrace.”

The most telling aspect of this embrace is seriousness. Readers might remember that I have often spoken of seriousness as antithetical to Zhuangzian wandering. The whole point is to be free from all attachment to anything—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—Truth, belief, self, enlightenment. It is total unconditional non-dependence. This does not mean that we cannot care deeply about many things—we can, and to do so is to be human. Only we can also rest secure in the meta-perspective that, well, “all is well in the great mess”. We “hide the world in the world where nothing can be lost”, but our failure to do even this can be wandered in. We don’t depend on wandering; we can wander in our inability to wander. No need to get overly serious about any of this.

Seriousness is most germane to the authors’ argument because they understand Zhuangzi as responding to the Confucian seriousness that dominated the era. Confucian “role-ethics” not only required that one do the duties of a good son, for example, but also that one actually be a good son in the deepest reaches of one’s heart. This is to be serious. This sounds entirely affirmable on the surface, but the end result, according to the authors, is to put one in a perpetual bind of not living up to such a high standard. One should not do something because it’s right, but because one is right; yet we are all steeped in our inadequacies and hypocrisies. It is, moreover, an even greater transgression to do the right thing to at least appear to be good. Confucius’ project was thus doomed to failure. What’s to be done?

Zhuangzi (and other “Daoists”) replied that we can both play the game of doing what society believes to be the right thing and remain free from taking any of it too seriously. We can genuinely pretend. We can play the game of life, follow the rules as necessary, try our best, yet never depend on outcomes, whether winning or losing, for our enjoyment.

My analogy of a game of chess is worth repeating. Without a first level seriousness about the game wherein we try our best, wish to win, follow the rules and don’t cheat there would be no game. Yet on a second level, a meta-level where all things are equalized, there is no seriousness at all. Indeed, there’s nothing like a game of anything to bring us face to face with this possible dynamic. The egoic-self, which takes itself—its supposed being—far too seriously, is easily identified when our play is really no play at all.


The neologism Zhenuineness, Moeller and D’Ambrosiao tell us in Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi, better represents the essential character of the Zhuangzian sage than does the term authenticity. Since I have frequently made use of the latter term, I was curious as to how we might disagree. But as it turns out, we mean the same thing. Only these philosophers have a better grasp of the term as it is used in existentialist philosophy generally and Heideggerian philosophy especially, and it is that usage which they take to be a modern imposition upon Zhuangzi’s term zhen (genuine) in its historical context. Their point is that whereas Heidegger spoke of being an authentic self, Zhuangzi spoke of having no-fixed self. Since I see this as a core human experience—that no fixed-self can really be found—I have said that to be authentically human (on other than a metalevel where all things are affirmable as authentic, even when inauthentic) is to live in awareness of and harmony with this reality.

But wait. Before discussing this in greater depth, I’d like to speak more generally about the book. I agree with its arguments completely and would recommend it to anyone who wishes to have a better understanding of Zhuangzi, whether their take be similar to mine or otherwise. Its take is that the Zhuangzi recommends (if one wishes it to do so) a purely secular and mundane response to the life experience. This disallows any religious involvement, however subtle. It is not that a religious approach is not also possible, but only that they are mutually exclusive in practice.

Along those lines, let me reiterate that when we speak of “sages” only a hypothetical is implied. In the end, there are no sages. There is no one to believe in, no one to emulate, no one has “arrived”. The suggestion of sages merely allows our wandering to follow a trajectory without belief in any final attainable goal. This is what it means to “wander aimlessly”. Our authenticity, our zhenuineness, is in harmony with our persistent inauthenticity. It’s simply being human—nothing more.

Finally, this can matter. Whereas the authors of Genuine Pretending are apparently obliged by the rules of scholarship to remain in the realm of the intellectual, what is really on offer here is an invitation to practice a philosophy of life—not just philosophy. We are obliged to have some point(s) of view. Zhuangzi simple suggests we try this one on and see if it doesn’t help smooth our passage through this life.


Hello again.

I plan to write a few posts as a review of and reactions to Hans-Georg Moeller’s and Paul D’Ambrosio’s book Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi.

But first, I thought I’d give a quick update on my personal situation. I am still on my boat in Mexico where I have been working on her all winter while “on the hard.” I will be “splashing” in a couple of weeks and will sail from the mainland to Baja California where I will spend the summer spearfishing for my dinner and exploring on land.

This will be a solitary time for the most part, but close to nature (whales, dolphins and coyotes). Needless to say, this will also mean being “unconnected”. For me, “cruising” has always been a way of getting to those isolated and relatively untouched spots on the planet.

Posts to follow.



Since neither I nor friends received this post I re-sending it:

I thought I should let you know what’s up with me since I haven’t written for some time now.

The first reason is that I felt I needed to regroup after my “conversations” with Zhuangzi revealed a bit of religiousness in my treatment of him.

Secondly, I realized that I really didn’t have much more to say.

Finally, I’ve taken off sailing my boat in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, Mexico side) and am thus off the grid and away from the internet most of the time.

I think about writing again, but it may be awhile.

Cheers. Scott



Since neither I nor friends received this post I re-sending it

I thought I should let you know what’s up with me since I haven’t written for some time now.

The first reason is that I felt I needed to regroup after my “conversations” with Zhuangzi revealed a bit of religiousness in my treatment of him.

Secondly, I realized that I really didn’t have much more to say.

Finally, I’ve taken off sailing my boat in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, Mexico side) and am thus off the grid and away from the internet most of the time.

I think about writing again, but it may be awhile.

Cheers. Scott