“What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” –Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 January, 1963)

If there is a problem with idolatry from the point of view of Zhuangzian Daoism it is primarily in that it robs us of the opportunity to experience a sense of openness and limitlessness. These correspond to emptiness in that they are not in any sense definitively specifiable events—there is no “thing” called limitlessness. These terms must self-efface to retain their meaning.

Again, Zhuangzi believes that such an experience makes for a happier life. That’s pretty much the whole of it.

Openness, to my thinking, can be taken as the whole of Zhuangzi’s vision—just as it can be understood as synonymous with the goals of other similar approaches. I will attempt a quote from possibly the earliest Daoist/Zen treatise, Xin-Xin Ming, from a faulty memory: “Openness is easy; just hold no opinions about anything.” Here also is one from a more secular source: “Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinion at all.” (Georg Carl Lichtenberg).

Easy? I think not. Possible? Who knows? But certainly well with the effort to explore its psychological and practical implications. Like so many characterizations of the psychology of sagacity, the first-order value of this one resides in its direct challenge to our typical inclinations. It rubs us the wrong way in a variety of ways, and that is our opportunity to explore the why of it. We needn’t even have to agree with it to get an inkling of openness in considering it.

The introductory quote inspired this series and it speaks to the practical and social consequences of openness that I will consider anon.


“What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” –Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 January, 1963)

Concern about idolatry may seem tangential to a study of Zhuangzi’s Daoism, but when we understand it as any act that establishes a circumscribed coherence that must necessarily exclude other coherences, it speaks directly to the overall vision of Zhuangzi. Everything said leaves out something else—and that absence becomes the most important thing of all. We cannot say or understand without it being a prelude to idolatry.

Why is the left out the most important thing of all? In a world of ceaseless Yang-ing, it is only Yin that can frame the whole. But Yin is Mystery—the unframeable.

The Daoist appeal for the inclusion of Yin/Dao is a call to openness. It is an appeal to let everything “bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”. Openness is a synonym for emptiness. It is not a void, but a voiding. It has its point of departure, its yang, and it does not eradicate itself. The inclusion of Yin is not the exclusion of Yang.

Taking Dao for Something is idolatry. It is circumscribing (drawing a circle around) Openness. It is simply more Yang-ing. True Openness is an experience, not an idolatrous idea.


This is a “review” of a book I have not read. It is more a visceral response to the genre than a comment on this particular manifestation. The book is Livia Kohn’s latest, Science and the Dao. Here is a quote from the release blurb from Three Pines Press: “Science and the Dao presents a comprehensive examination of core Daoist facets from the point of view of modern science. Exploring its cosmology, physiology, psychology, cultivation, and visions of immortality in the light of astrophysics, particle physics, paleoanthropology, behavioral kinesiology, cell biology, and more, the book enhances the credibility of traditional Daoist ideas and practices, thereby making them more accessible to modern people.”

It’s natural to wish to demonstrate the compatibility and overlap of one’s beliefs with the findings of science; one would hope that they do in fact overlap. It is the deep and likely unexamined motivation that underlies this universal need to prove the validity of religious belief that interests us. “[T]he book enhances the credibility of traditional Daoist ideas and practices.” This need for “credibility” is perfectly legitimate within the context of religious Daoism. Ironically, science and religion, not to mention atheism, have a great deal in common when it comes to requiring “proofs” for their claims. All belief in “truth”, scientific or otherwise, ultimately depends on proof, imagined or “demonstrated”.

The permutations of this religious dependence on proof are many. Here it uses science to give “credibility” to something so incredible as immortality. Testimony of personal transformation is a common example. Supposed miracles work. Hyper-charismatic gurus do the trick. Pronouncements about being the “oldest”, “purest”, “richest”, “biggest”, “best”, “fastest growing”—all attempt to give credence to belief and subtly evince a dependence on “truth”.

Zhuangzian “Daoism”, on the other hand, neither seeks nor requires any proofs, for it does not depend on anything being “true”. There being nothing to believe, there is nothing to prove. This is at the very heart of Zhuangzi’s vision. It reveals a radically different fork in the road, and this fork is not one that “modern people” are inclined to take. The religious mind is the default coping mechanism through which human beings typically respond to their irremediable existential dangle. Belief in immortality can be most comforting. Who are we to abuse them of their chosen dao?

Is philosophical Daoism therefore “better”? It is for those who cannot believe, but not for those who can. It too is just another dao, albeit one that sees Dao not as “the Dao”, a metaphysical Something, but as the imagined confluence of all daos. The point of this “review” is not to prove that philosophical Daoism is better than religious Daoism, but simply to remind the reader that they are not at this level the same, though as human coping mechanisms they most certainly are. The real question is which one most authentically harmonizes with the human experience of adriftedness and cluelessness.


[A note on voice: I started using the more formal “we” to speak of my opinions while writing “As the Cookie Crumbles” with a view to making things appear less personal. Though I like that it does so, it also seems a bit pretentious and thus I have wavered between “we” and “I”. I’m now going back to “I”, as an admission that these are, after all, just my personal opinions based on my own biases.]

“That is what allows the joy of its harmony to open into all things without losing its fullness, what keeps it flowing on day and night without cease, taking part everywhere as the springtime of each being. Connecting up with This, your mind becomes the site of the life-giving time. This is what it means to keep the innate powers whole” (5:16-17; Ziporyn).

What this passage appears to be telling us is that the celebration of one’s one unique life experience can become a celebration of all life (and being) experiences. In fact, the more one enjoys one’s own self-arising, the more one is able to participate in the joy of every self-arising. We doubtless are immediately concerned that this is some form of egoism, but it is quite the opposite in that our openness to (“opening into”) whatever happens also enables our opening into all others. Again, omnicentrism speaks to this.

Ziporyn capitalizes “This” (shi) so as to link it with its technical usage in the Second Chapter where “this” and “that”, the opposites of subjectivity and objectivity (self/other) and the moral discriminations (right/wrong) that arise from this fundamental dualism, are understood as susceptible to being united to form a oneness. This unity is “This”, the totality of experience including the “something” that is always left out. Embracing the whole of experience enables one’s mind to become “the site of the life-giving time”. In this sense, the Numinous Reservoir is a shared experience. All things are happening together in one great riot of joyous self-arising.

This again brings us back to the logically irreconcilable mutual validity of the One and the Many that omnicentrism suggests.

This passage is an important one because it puts some very specific flesh on the bones of Zhuangzi’s vision of sagacity. Since this is a purely psychological affair, its “truthfulness” lies entirely in the possibility of its being experienced. And that can only be determined when one commits to seeing if it can. But since it remains in the sphere of exploration, it need not require a commitment of belief or hopeful expectation. The advantage of looking for a pot of gold on the other side of the mountain is not in finding it, but in discovering what is actually there.


“That is what allows the joy of its harmony to open into all things without losing its fullness, what keeps it flowing on day and night without cease, taking part everywhere as the springtime of each being. Connecting up with This, your mind becomes the site of the life-giving time. This is what it means to keep the innate powers whole” (5:16-17; Ziporyn).

“That is . . . .” What is? Not allowing the vicissitudes of life to enter your Numinous Reservoir (mind-experience) in such a way as to disturb your peace. All that happens is embraceable, because the Totality is ultimately affirmable. (All is well in the Great Mess.) In this way, one is in harmony with oneself and the world, and this makes for joy.  Joy is something worth having. And this joy in utterly non-contingent—it depends of nothing. It is life allowed to be itself. It is not happiness as mutually arising with its opposite unhappiness, but a kind of non-happy happiness.

Not discriminating between events as affirmable or unaffirmable carries over into a sense of unity with “all things”, an experience of the loss of one’s “me” as the transcendence of the I/other dichotomy.  It allows one to “open into all things”. Guo Xiang calls it “vanishing into things”.

Yet this vanishing into unity does not mean the loss of one’s own special self-so-ness, one’s “fullness”. This suggests Ziporyn’s “omnicentrism”, a difficult concept, yet a potentially mind-expanding one. The Totality is not the center, an exclusive center that would negate differences. Things do not have their value by virtue of their being (solely) part of the “One”, but the “One” (also) has its value by virtue of the many. Every individual thing is the center, a non-exclusive center. Every individual thing is and explains Everything. It’s infinite worm-holes into Unity.

This has practical implications in that one realizes the greatest unity with the world through the cultivation of one’s own uniqueness as the gate into that unity. And this holds true for everyone else, as well. Differences are respected and honored.

These are a few brief personal reflections on this passage. I’ll conclude in the next post.


We will finish this series with a consideration of a passage recently mentioned in our discussion of the opportunities for self-cultivation that the unavoidable circumstances of life provide. Zhuangzi has “Confucius” tell us that we need not allow these circumstances to enter our “Numinous Reservoir”, and then tell us what this means for our experience:

“That is what allows the joy of its harmony to open into all things without losing its fullness, what keeps it flowing on day and night without cease, taking part everywhere as the springtime of each being. Connecting up with This, your mind becomes the site of the life-giving time. This is what it means to keep the innate powers whole” (5:16-17; Ziporyn).

This amazing passage seems to promise an experience of the celebration of Life itself in opening up to the “life” found in all happenings (things and events). This is an exciting prospect, and well worth pursuing. But let us begin by sobering ourselves up a bit. The passage is obscure and difficult to translate. This may not be what Zhuangzi had in mind at all. So what? Is this scripture? Is Zhuangzi’s intended meaning the truth of things? Did Zhuangzi actually experience it, and if so, in what sense? Could we possibly experience it even if it is not what he had in mind?

All these questions are important principally because they serve to shift our relational focus away from belief and toward open-minded, imaginative exploration. “Release the mind to play.” It’s all psychological. It’s all about how we can experience life, not what life and reality really, really are.

We are not “followers” of Zhuangzi. We find his philosophy an incredibly insightful and inspiring point of departure for our own exploration of the possibilities for enjoyment that life provides us. And in the end, it is the exploration itself which must be that enjoyment, irrespective of any imagined discoveries or destination. It’s all about the journey; the final destination is unavoidable however we get there.


From the fragments of his writings that have survived we understand that Shen Dao (395-315 BCE) was a Legalist (one whose pessimism about human nature led him to discard the idea of societal order through self-cultivation, and instead advocated for strong laws). As he is represented in the Tianxia (“The World under Heaven”) chapter of the Zhuangzi, however, he sounds much more like a proto-Daoist. It is he that said, “Just become like an inanimate [unconscious] object. . . . Indeed, a clump of soil never strays from the Dao” (33; Ziporyn, p 122).  This led his detractors to declare: “Shen Dao’s dao is no practice for the living, but it is a perfect guideline for the dead!”

To my thinking, Shen Dao was on to something important, especially if we take his statement as speaking to ontological reality—it is impossible for anything to stray from metaphysical Dao if Dao is whatever happens. With respect to the ideal of fully realizing spontaneity, on the other hand, his statement serves to illuminate a fundamental problem, namely, how we can act spontaneously while remaining self-reflective. We are told that Shen Dao “was like a twirl in the breeze, like a spinning feather”—he let himself go without reflection. This would indeed be a good dao for the dead.

(I cannot resist making mention here of the apparent belief that because Shen Dao advocated something, he actually realized it. When we see how ridiculous this is, we can bring that discernment to bear on every such advocacy. I certainly apply it to Zhuangzi. The religious mind hungers for a fixed ideal—“the way”, the sage, the Buddha—so as to escape the inescapable unfixity of the human condition.)

This long-winded introduction is intended to make the case for an appreciation of the dialectical character of spontaneity. Even in spontaneity there is always self-reflection; we are not yet dead. The dialectical is non-linear; it is an organic process that does not lend itself to final and definitive statements. And it is applicable across the board—it speaks to every aspect of life and every project of self-cultivation. It projects no arriving, only growing. It suggests no final realization, only approximation. If one were to stumble into a theoretical buddhahood, it would (likely) be because one had truly let go into the dialectical nature of the human experience.


Self is a relationship. This, at least, is how it presents without our presuming some essentialist explanation—a soul, a true nature, a universal I Am, etc. We commune with ourselves. A prerequisite for self-awareness is dualism. “I” have my counterpart that I call “me”. Ziqi said he lost his “me”. Did he cease to be a self? No, he continued to speak about himself and to explain his experience—he was still self-reflective. Yet he was now also able to experience a sense of oneness with all things—he was not only an utterly unique self-so tree, but also the forest. This is omnicentrism—everything is Everything by virtue of its being its unique and distinct self. Everything explains everything else.

Imagining viewing ourselves in a mirror with another mirror behind us might give a metaphorical sense of what this experience entails. The reflection continues into theoretical infinity, so we now see it in a broader context; we see it at work and realize something of its ephemeral nature. Ziqi tweaked and expanded his self-relationship; he did not eliminate it.

We have said that the Numinous Reservoir is the mind of the sage and this involves a relationship with her own self-arising. We all share this experience; what differs is the qualitative character of that relationship. It’s a matter of attitude. Having released herself from the need to know the why or what of it, she can release herself into an unmediated experience of life. This is spontaneous living.

But spontaneity suggests acting without reflection. Is that even possible or, if so, desirable? We think not, and will speak to this next.


We have essentially agreed with Ziporyn that Zhuangzi’s Numinous Reservoir refers to the mind of the sage. It is openness to the whole of the life experience as it upwells within us. Openness amounts to complete affirmation of life just as it arrives. The passage previously quoted tells us that it is consequent to allowing the reasoning mind to come to rest in what it does not know. We can then be the unmediated experience that we are. This is the full extent of Zhuangzian mysticism. We don’t ask and worry about the why of it; we simply enjoy it. In my (approximating) experience, thankfulness is an essential part of this enjoyment.

It is “numinous” (spiritual, mysterious) because it just happens—it is not experienced as made-to-happen by us or any known “source”. But this not to say that it is anything other than the entirely natural. Mystery is what the reasoning mind cannot penetrate, and that is quite simply everything. There is no special something that is numinous—everything is numinous and invites our unmediated enjoyment.

There is that “place” in us, however, that is our most immediate experience of the numinous happening we call ourselves. It is simply the experience of self-arising, self-aware existence. If the mind of the sage is different than our own, it is in how it interfaces with this experience. There’s nothing in the sage that is different from what is in all of us. The sage does not have more qi or extra-mundane anything than we do. She simply has a different attitude than we do. And attitude is as ephemeral as anything else. It changes nothing relative to ultimate outcomes; it just makes for a happier existence. This, at any rate, is how I understand Zhuangzi’s vision. This is not a religion. It’s a philosophy of life.

Since we all share this experience of self-awareness, we can all explore how it manifests in us and how we relate to it. Self is a relationship; we can work on that relationship. We’ll explore some of what this means and involves in the next post.


The term “heavenly reservoir” (tianfu) and its apparent synonym “numinous reservoir” (lingfu) appear once each in the Inner Chapters. We will henceforth refer to them in the singular. There is also mention of a “numinous platform” in the Zhuangzian-ly sympathetic 19th chapter, which we will not consider here. This series will consider just what this term might mean.

In this post we will look at the broader meaning of the term and in subsequent posts we will parse out its various implications. So as to provide context, we offer one passage here:

“Hence, when the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know, it has reached its utmost. The demonstration that uses no words, the Dao that is not a dao—who ‘understands’ these things? If there is someone who is able to understand them [in this sense], it can be called the Heavenly Reservoir—poured into without ever getting full, ladled out without ever running out, ever not-knowing its own source. This is called the Shadowy Splendor” (2:36-7; Ziporyn).

Ziporyn takes this term to denote “the ideal state of mind of the Zhuangzian person”, a “Daoist subjectivity” (p.37), and his translation attempts to establish this. I have taken it as referring to something a bit more organic, namely that “place” of the upwelling of life within us—that place where we experience ourselves as self-so—the “unthinking part of ourselves”. I may be wrong, and it may be that it comes to the same thing in any case, since this too is about our psychological interface with this inexplicable self-so happening—ourselves.

What Ziporyn dismisses is the common belief that this Heavenly Reservoir refers to “the Dao that is no dao”. There is a similar metaphor in the Laozi that speaks of Dao as just such a limitless reservoir (4). But, unlike Laozi (apparently), Zhuangzi does not believe in “the Dao” and does not entertain ideas of communing with Dao. It thus refers to the mind of the sage, a mind that is open to Happening where no specific happening is required. It is a mind open to the totality of experience, for it does not deem some circumstances acceptable and others unacceptable.

This is the Shadowy Splendor—really great stuff that is no stuff at all—a wonderful self-so experience without apparent cause or reason. It’s like a fireworks display—bang, wow, gone. Why does that bother us?