I begin this series with some trepidation. Though most all I write here goes beyond my actual scholarly knowledge (not to mention experience), this that follows can only be more so. The concept of ziran, typically translated “spontaneity”, but more literally as “self-so”, is too complex for me to imagine that I can do it justice. For this reason I will, in this case especially, fall back on the comforting fuzziness of calling these reflections.

I have been accused (by an off-blog commenter) of being overly influenced by the philosophy of Guo Xiang (252-312) (who made much of self-so) in my interpretation of Zhuangzi. This may be true. But let us assume that our every take-away from Zhuangzi is necessarily interpretive and that, therefore, there is no definitive Zhuangzi for us to discover. In that case, the “overly” in “overly influenced” loses much of its power to censure.

The ambiguity of Zhuangzi is intentional. Why? Think about it. If it were otherwise, he would have betrayed his own philosophy. We are required to engage with him as he would have us engage with life—in the context of an unavoidable adriftedness. We will nowhere discover a safe and sure “holding ground” wherein to plant our existential anchor. Better (happier) to enjoy the drift.

Let go the mooring;
Loose the lines.
The great void awaits—
A vast and empty sea.
—Chen Jen

2 thoughts on “ON BEING SELF-SO (ZIRAN) I”

  1. There is a book available titled “Early Zhuangzi Commentaries: On the Sounds and Meanings of the Inner Chapters” by Professor David Chai.
    I haven’t actually read it myself, because of the huge price tag, but I had a quick look at my friend’s copy.
    It contains a full translation of the inner chapters, accompanied by commentaries of 5 different commentators. Surprisingly none of the commentators is Guo Xiang.
    So for the first time it’s possible to read an English translation which hasn’t been influenced by Guo Xiang.
    Has anybody read this book? If so, are there any significant differences worthy of discussion?

    1. Hi. Thanks for commenting. I, too, found it outside my budget (and reason). Why he left out Guo, I can’t imagine, since, if Ziporyn’s sampling is typical, commentators frequently respond to Guo. He’s the first (extant) and primary commentator and has influenced everyone since.

      Ziporyn does have a wide selection in his translation — if you don’t already have it. Also, his “Penumbra Unbound” is all about Guo, but I suspect you know and have that.


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