There is an argument for the existence of “God” that states that since we want “him” to exist, “he” must. Why else would we have been created thus? This reasoning is too specious and question-begging to require serious consideration. It presupposes what it “proves”. I mention it here only because it parallels the belief that, since we yearn for an ultimate purpose for ourselves and (consequentially) the cosmos, there must be such a purpose.

Zhuangzi’s admonition that we not “take our minds as our teacher” establishes what he sees as the frontline of the battle between authenticity and inauthenticity. Because we want to “understand” ourselves and the world does not mean that we can. We can certainly understand much about these, but we can never draw the sack closed; we can never reach the end that alone can justify the beginnings. What is the alternative? Living. Because we do in fact have minds that are intrinsically dualistic, as evinced in our belief that we have a life (rather than that we are a life), the movement back to more spontaneous living requires a mystical leap (where mystical simply means moving beyond the reasoning mind). I call this surrender in trust. Zhuangzi, more objectively, calls it “adding nothing to the process of life”. Thankfulness and unmediated joy arise from being the life that we are.

The yearning for an ultimate purpose, I would suggest, is a function of the reasoning mind and should likewise not be taken as our teacher. Life is its own “purpose”, and that has no obvious connection to a logically required ultimate purpose.

In many respects, Zhuangzi resembles a cold-blooded empiricist. Just the facts, ma’am. He is no airy-fairy romanticist or religionist. He arrives at his “free and carefree wandering” through yi ming, “making use of the light”. Ziporyn (self-admittedly “controversially”) translates “the Illumination of the Obvious”. His approach is phenomenological. He asks, How is life experienced, not, How can life be made to make sense?

This “battle” between authentic and inauthentic living needs, of course, to be understood in the light of a broader perspective that appreciates that sense in which they are both affirmable. The “petty-minded” dove and the vast-minded Peng are both simply living out their natures. Somewhere in here is the power to choose, but we are in no position to draw the lines too firmly. Our yearning for purpose is how we typically manifest, and although there is a better (happier) alternative, the more authentic view does not completely negate the lesser.  Living the lesser in the light of the higher is, in any case, perhaps the best we can do.


Translating ming as “circumstance” rather than as the more common “fate”, or even “destiny”, has the advantage of avoiding two misunderstandings which are decidedly not part of the Daoist worldview—purpose and fatalism. From the point of view of Daoism, nothing happens (exists) for a reason. Nor did anything that has happened have to happen.

Neither of these negations is intended as a definitive assertion of the contrary, but simply returns us to the real experience of our existential not-knowing. Perhaps there is a divine plan, and maybe everything is pre-determined. Who knows? The point is to authentically live in harmony with our actual experience.

The hunger for things to have a purpose is one of our strongest yearnings. Why are we here? Or vastly more importantly, why am I here? For this reason, religiously-minded formulae typically promise to reveal our “true purpose”. This serves to reify us as a forever someone completely integrated into a cosmic Plan. What a relief. What could be better? Since we clearly need comforting, why would we want to disabuse those of what comfort they find here? Would we snatch a teddy bear from a child because it is not “real”?

Let me be honest and admit that this present project is in many respects my own teddy bear. For this reason I call my blabberings a philosophy of cope. In my defense, I would point out that it is awareness of the fact that makes all the difference. The trajectory toward authenticity (sagacity) is in any case, as I repeatedly aver, an open-ended and messy business.

Since our yearning for purpose is so strong we might ask if it is not therefore “innate”. By Daoist reckoning, if it’s innate, it is to be affirmed and nurtured. I make the case for self-flourishing (which is inseparable from universal-flourishing) as the highest good, because it is innate to life. Life is the élan of self-flourishing. It needs no justification; nor can any be found. Can we say the same for the yearning for purpose? Should we encourage it rather than question it? This is an important question because it helps illuminate the frontlines of Zhuangzi’s fight for greater authenticity against those inclinations that contribute to the contrary. I will leave this issue for the next post.


[Though I continue to work on As the Cookie Crumbles, the shared installments on this blog often seemed a bit too truncated and tedious for this format. I may, however, share selected portions in the future.]

I’m re-reading Steve Coutinho’s An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies, which I highly recommend. So many “introductions” start off with wrong-footed presuppositions that one that does not is refreshingly helpful even if necessarily cursory.

The word ming is typically translated as “fate” or “destiny”, both of which can be taken to imply something quite different from Zhuangzi’s meaning. Coutinho suggests “circumstance”, a more neutral term that avoids the ill-fitting connotations of the former.

“Circumstance” is a concept of critical importance to Zhuangzian “Daoism”. It speaks to the “unavoidable” that surrounds and permeates our every existential moment. This constitutes our interface with the world as we experience it, and is thus relational. Circumstance is more than simply the objective conditions of life; it is also the manner in which we interact with them. This being the case, every circumstance is an opportunity to nurture our experience of life—to further realize its potential flourishing.

Coutinho quotes Zhuangzi in this regard: “To tend to your heart-mind so that sadness and joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to rest content in it as Circumstance, this is the height of potency” (Watson, p 60, with amendment).

In this series I hope to explore this pivotal activity in some depth. We might start by seeing that it is in fact an activity. It is work. Ideally, it would be no such thing in having been already fully accomplished, but we are not sages and thus have work to do. This is self-cultivation.

Though it can seem tediously repetitive, always it seems necessary to also suggest that we step back off the narrow road of human self-involvement and onto the road of a more cosmic perspective. Self-cultivation is best accomplished in the light of its being ultimately unnecessary. This is likely a condition for wuwei, doing not-doing. We are perfect by virtue of our being perfectly who we are, just as we are—an absolutely unavoidable cosmic circumstance. There are no conditions we are required to meet. All is well. Now that we have realized that we are perfect, we can get to work on getting “better”.


“Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

We can consider these attributes objectively and subjectively. Objectively, that is from the point of view of the observer, “the Sage has no name”. But this is somewhat nonsensical. In this way, the sage is a bit like Dao—suggested, but nowhere to be found—nameless. If there are true sages, it is very unlikely that we would know them as such. Many of the fictional sages in Daoist literature try their best to remain unrecognized, and fault themselves severely when they fail. This alone suggests we be wary of self-designated sages, gurus and the like.

Still, there are those who legitimately teach. Many of Zhuangzi’s “sages” have disciples, and even Zhuangzi is said to have had some, though this is in no way verifiable. Ambiguity applies here as it does everywhere else. What is required is discernment; and the best way to nourish that is to understand one’s own motivations. If one is attracted to a charismatic guru who clearly has “a name”, especially a hyper-active ego, then a sense of the implications of this in oneself might help one avoid making a co-dependent commitment.

This is likely to leave the field pretty empty, if not altogether so. But we already have our own best and most intimate teacher—ourselves. We have self-inquiry. True, this is unlikely to lead us to “complete, unsurpassable enlightenment”, but then those that follow this chimera are no more likely to find it than we, though they will have expended enormous amounts of life-negating energy in the pursuit. But that can also be fun in its own way, I suppose—and is as affirmable as any other species of tree in the forest.

Subjectively, that is in the experience of the sage herself, this also seems nonsensical. The sage says to herself, I have no name? Somehow this idea of having no name seems to vanish into itself. How can we name what has no name? But we get the point, so we can forget the names.

I like to say, there are no sages, just as I have said, there is no Dao. This is completely mistaken, of course, for its dogmatism if for nothing else. But it does have merit when understood as simply describing one side of a coin when the obverse side remains unseen and unseeable. At least we know that by his own criteria the man named Zhuangzi was no sage. Thank Dao!

Beware taking the pointing finger for the moon; beware taking the finger as pointing to the moon; and beware taking the moon for the moon—it does have its dark side, after all, and that just might be green cheese.


“Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

I previously made mention of Bodhidharma, the legendary “barbarian” (depicted with bulging round eyes and a gold ring in his ear) who came out of the West (India) and brought Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China. (Though surely Chan developed in China, it being a synthesis of Daoism and Buddhism.) His subsequent interview with the Emperor Wu is most enlightening. Wu was a devout Buddhist, and since he had done much to further the cause of Buddhism, he asked Bodhidharma how much “merit” he had consequently laid up for himself. “No merit at all,” replied Bodhidharma.

This was a nuclear reply. Its beauty could make one weep. Realizing the implications of this could be the full realization of the Buddhist vision. Yet every –ism quickly defaults to the “typical human inclinations”—the desire to be someone and the obsession with right and wrong. The religious-mind ever-triumphs. Karma. I admit that I have no right to say so, but I say it nonetheless: Karma is utter bullshit. The doctrine of karma is yet another form of religious self-oppression that needs to be put on the shelf next to “hell”. I think Bodhidharma would agree.

“The Spirit Man has no particular merit.” The sage is no better than anyone else. Get it? How could we get it when we are addicted to good, bad, better, and worse? The good news is that we don’t have to get it. It doesn’t matter. All is well. No merits or demerits are accumulating in our personal heavenly bank accounts. There is no Book of Life. We will not have our day in a celestial court. Samsara is Nirvana. It does not matter—except, of course, in terms of our enjoyment of life.

Emperor Wu was taken aback. “What then is the highest meaning of the holy truths!?” he exclaimed. “Vast emptiness, without holiness,” replied Bodhidharma. Damn! How then can we have Buddhism? We can’t have Buddhism if we insist on having it. Buddhism, just like Daoism, either self-immolates or simply becomes an empty, religious shell. Isn’t this what all the world’s “great” religions are—empty shells? Of course. But this is humanity; this is what humanity is and does. So let’s affirm and enjoy this mess, just as we might enjoy a scramble in the messy woods.

“Who the hell are you!?” asked the exasperated Emperor. “I don’t know,” answered Bodhidharma. “The sage has no name.”


“Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

Just as we can take these three as one “person”, so too can we take these three attributes as reflecting one experience. I will conclude this series with a few reflections on what these attributes can tell us.

Most translators have “no self” for “no fixed-identity”. This may be more literal, but I think Ziporyn’s reading better captures Zhuangzi’s sense. Identity there is, only it is not fixed; self there is, but it is not reified; it is not clung to as to some thing with which to identify. ‘Sometimes he sees himself as a horse, sometimes as a cow.” “Now a snake, now a dragon.” The fluidity of identity is essential to Zhuangzi’s understanding of how things manifest. The cosmos presents as endless transformation, and identifying with that rather than one’s present identity releases one to flow with change. This, too, is his answer to the fear of death.

However we take “no self”, it is important to remember that Zhuangzi is never about negating anything of the human experience. If there were a concrete self to negate, he would not attempt to negate it. He rather sees “self” as a relationship; “I” has its counterpart in “me”. This relationship is mutable, and he suggests one that makes for a happier and more carefree experience. He suggests we release our grip on “me”. What remains is not just self, but lots more self, a self that identifies with everything. Why be a frightened and pathetic “me”, when you can be everything?

We have not left the realm of a mutable relationship, however. We have not suddenly morphed into a fixed cosmic Self. A great “I AM” is no more suggested than is a concrete and fixed identity. It’s still just a way of imagining the world. That’s the best we can do.


We are considering Zhuangzi’s concluding statement concerning the nature of one who has realized non-dependence: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

This juxtaposition of non-dependence and the self-emptiness of the sage leads us to conclude that for Zhuangzi the concept of non-dependence is pivotal to his vision. Ultimately, not being dependent on being somebody is at the heart of sagacity. “Just be empty—nothing more.”

What makes this a particularly helpful correspondence is that we have arrived here through self-inquiry; this is concretely about how we go about being in the world. Zhuangzi takes us through three manifestations of dependence as a self-reifying project. We are invited to discover these in ourselves. Though understanding what we are about does not automatically make us otherwise, it does nonetheless provide us with a bit of transcendent space to envision an alternative. This space, I would maintain, is also that in which we can wander. There may be a greater wandering, but it’s nice to have this lesser and more realistic wandering in any case. If sagacity corresponds to adulthood, there is no reason to disparage the realization of adolescence. Humanity typically does not get even that far.

One of the things that can happen in this space is laughter. The ability to laugh at oneself is a sure sign of some degree of transcendence. One recently “enlightened” Zennist declares, “All that’s left is to have a good laugh.” This may well be laughing at the need to even laugh at oneself, but we have to start somewhere. I don’t know what “the Laughing Buddha” is laughing about, but I suspect her laughter is of the same genus as any other mirthful laughter.

We are suggesting that one method for approximatingly realizing sagacity is self-inquiry. Whatever other methods one might use, this one seems indispensable. If one does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha, then understanding how one is trying to become a buddha seems necessary. It is also likely that so much of the hypocrisy, so much of the judgmentalism of the self-designated or aspiring “spiritual” ones is a consequence of a lack of self-knowledge. We should, of course, be able to laugh at and about them (rather than condemning them), but can only do so wisely when we are also laughing at and about ourselves.


Zhuangzi concludes his case for non-dependence with his most definitive statement on the nature of a sage: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

This is apparently what I want to be when I grow up; but I gave up on that project long ago. But wait, maybe there’s a distant similarity between the two. Admittedly, most “giving up” remains squarely in the realm of “failure” (though little more so than “not giving up”). But isn’t there a Zen guy who was “enlightened” at just such a moment? Indeed, isn’t some kind of “giving up” a necessary precursor to satori?

Let’s move on to some de-mythologizing of this sentence. None of these three subjects require capitalization. Such non-grammatically required capitalization typically suggests the unique weightiness of something. A dao is just another dao; Dao is “the” Dao—the big one. (There is neither capitalization nor a definite article “the” in the original.) So let’s return them to the lower case, and let the sage be what the sentence says she is: no one special.

But Ziporyn has a real sense of the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy that often makes for some very subtle (and sometimes creative) renderings. Capitalization here can also so exalt the sage as to render her a hypothetical. Hyperbolic descriptions of the sage as remaining untouched by world conflagration similarly seem to beg an act of ridiculous credulity, but can also be an occasion to break the fetters of credulity altogether. (There’s method in this madness.) Zhuangzi’s Dao is also a hypothetical; it seems necessary, but cannot be found; it is the ever-receding incoherence that frames every attempt at coherence. It is always present as an absence, a lack. Yet without it, nothing has presence—nothing is “seen” without a background—nothing is anything without its not being something else. So, we can leave the sage a Sage, a big idea that functions as an insubstantial metaphorical lure—not a fixed, attainable reality—not something to believe in.

Let’s also recognize that these three titles identify only one “person”. Only the hyper-literal pedanticist would want to parse it otherwise. But he does us the favor of alerting us to more subtle expressions of literalism. Perfect (Consummate) person? Spirit Man? Like the one on Mt Guye who subsists on only wind and dew and flies on the backs of dragons? The Sage is the same as these, which is to say she is both a hypothetical no one in her experience, and really no one is reality. We will not find her; nor should we think we can be her, any more than we should think we can find “the Dao”.


In the final analysis, wanting to be a sage is wanting to be someone. Yet, the hypothetical sage is no one. What are we to do? We can be this contradiction. We can be this mess. We can wander in precisely that place in which we find ourselves. We can depend on the realization of nothing—including this . . . and this . . . If we can’t wander in our not-wandering, then we are unlikely to ever wander—for wandering is non-dependence, even on wandering.

Why is a sage no one? Because everyone is no one. This, at any rate, is what Zhuangzi concludes when he “illuminates the obvious”, when he considers his life-experience phenomenologically, just as it manifests, without the imposition of essentialist myths. When Yan practiced “fasting of the mind” he discovered that he had “yet to begin to exist” (4). He saw with his inner qi. What is qi? Emptiness. Becoming. The “space” in which things happen. There’s nothing substantial there. He experienced no bolt from Above. No union with some Ultimate thing took place. He did not realize the Great Dao. He did not become “spiritual”. He was not “enlightened”. He didn’t find his “true purpose”. “I AM” was not substantiated. The Cosmos was not illuminated. No one was saved.

Zhuangzi might be full of shit (I certainly am), but to my thinking, we at least owe him the courtesy of allowing him to speak without casting him into the mold of his religious-minded interpreters, ancient or modern.


Having suggested three increasingly subtle levels of dependence, Zhuangzi next asks how it would be to depend on nothing. Why, wouldn’t we be able to soar upon every possible circumstance? An insult would mean nothing; “failure” wouldn’t affect our inner peace any more than would “success”; the exercise of spiritual power might happen, but would have nothing to do with our sense of worth, “spiritual” or otherwise.

He poses this as a hypothetical. He only invites us to imagine such a possibility. If we were to take it as a fixed goal to be attained, wouldn’t that just set the stage for more dependence? If I wanted to be a sage, I’d want to be other than I am; I’d be dependent on certain outcomes; I’d judge myself according to predetermined expectations. I’d still be on the treadmill.

Here I must (again) repeat myself. There is a dialectic here that is very difficult to describe. It’s a perpetual self-effacement that effaces nothing. We aspire to sagacity while not-aspiring to sagacity, while aspiring to sagacity . . . This is an infinite regress of willing and not-willing, wanting and not wanting—affirming and negating. Isn’t this really just a reflection of the life-experience itself? Hope dawns eternal—life is a ceaseless series of disappointments and renewals of hope, because life is a perpetual élan. Life is becoming. Being is becoming. Becoming what? Nothing in particular; just becoming. Pure becoming has no fixed point of departure and no known end. “True-self” has no home here, except as its own self-effacement.

Why then do Zhuangzi’s most immediate interpreters begin speaking of a “true-self” and an “innate nature”? Because we want to be someone, to be substantive, and realizing ourselves as nobody is the last thing we want to do.

Zhuangzian non-dependence, it needs to be said, has nothing to do with independence. Quite to the contrary; it is because we are utterly dependent in every way that we can realize a psychological non-dependence through identification with the Great Becoming. All is transformation; in identifying with Transformation, what transformations can affect us? In identifying with Change, what changes can disturb us? No-one has nothing to lose.