In Guo Xiang, the cosmological concept of self-so—that Dao is literally nothing and not the Source, and that things are therefore self-arising, uncaused and non-dependent happenings—seems a bit absolutist in tone. For Zhuangzi, it is merely a phenomenological description of how things appear to be. Dao is only experienced as an absence—and this says nothing about its existence or non-existence. The psychological impact of both statements is nevertheless the same. We are “ever not-knowing its [life’s] source”. Zhuangzi’s suggested response is that we release ourselves into this absence in openness and trust. And this amounts to simply releasing ourselves into the inexplicable upwelling that is Life as the life that we are. Ziran (self-so) realized is spontaneity in living.

Thus the cosmological, it turns out, is really no different than the existential—how we experience life. And thus Zhuangzi identifies a parallel phenomenon in ourselves—we are present to ourselves only as an absence. We search for a fixed-self, an immutable someone, but we cannot find it. We experience ourselves as a lack. And again, his suggested response is that we harmonize with our experience; that we release into our unfixed-ness. This is his no-self; not no self, but no-fixed-self.

Zhuangzi thinks that harmonizing with our experience leads to a happier life. That’s the practicality of the concept of self-so.

We speak of “releasing” ourselves because there is an activity involved here, and it goes against our default response to our existential dangle, our sense of being ungrounded. We “take our mind as our teacher”. We choose to pursue a Ground of Being—a purpose providing God (in a variety of forms—even atheistic ones)—rather than exploring the implications of our actual experience of ungroundedness. Or we speak of despair and the absurdity of existence upon our failure to find that Ground—because we never left the rationalistic pursuit at all.

Self-so-ness in us implies freedom to choose. Zhuangzi suggests we choose the “obvious”. And this means harmonizing with life as it manifests, not as we wish it to be. But this in itself is not his chief value; his value is the enjoyment of life.

Though this philosophy is in some sense universally applicable, it is also the case that its value is contingent on perceived need. Those that find their solace in belief—or despair—are best left to enjoy the same. No need for salvation was ever implied. All is well in the Great Mess.


Zhuangzi thinks it is important to squarely face our experience of the absence of any knowable First Cause, Dao, or Source. Positing a Something that makes sense of life is giving the mind priority over our existential experience. And this is an act of “bad-faith”, a flight from our own humanity. It sets us a path of inauthentic living. Where life as it has evolved in us seems to require mechanisms for coping, however, even this inauthenticity has its advantages. Belief is a powerful opiate, and we are in no position to deny people what they have chosen for the alleviation of their pain. Zhuangzi’s vision is simply for an alternative response to the life-experience, one that he believes leads to a greater enjoyment of life.

Zhuangzi is far from being an atheist. How could he possibly take such an absolutist position? We might call him an agnostic, but this still suggests an abiding in the realm of gnosis, knowing. His not-knowing is not about epistemology, but serves as a point of departure into a more immediate and primal experience of life. His agnosticism has wings. His flight is into Openness. And Openness allows life to freely flow in us as the whatever-it-is.

Such an experience is what he calls the Numinous Reservoir, the inexplicable experience of the self-arising of life within us. “That is what allows the joy of its harmony to open into all things without thereby 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” (5:16; Ziporyn). (Rather than attempting to parse and explain this incredible passage, we will just leave it with the reader.)

The importance of not-knowing-with-wings is seen 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 something that ‘understands’ them, 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” (2:36; Ziporyn, with some tweaking). Not-knowing is Openness.

This is being self-so; letting oneself happen, and in that letting, letting all things happen in others as in oneself. Thus, we see that it is not really about a cosmological explanation of origins at all, but simply being ourselves.


Lift your hand and you’ll likely see its shadow. Imagine it as just as “real”, substantial and free as your hand. Stand in the sunlight and consider that sense in which your shadow is as real and free as you are. (“Seen from the point of view of their sameness, all things are one.”) Our reluctance to do so is precisely what’s happening in the story of Penumbra questioning the self-arising of the shadow of which it is the shadow, only in the reverse.

We think of our shadow as utterly dependent upon our own existence and activities. It disappears the moment we step into the shade. It sits when we sit and stands when we stand. Nothing could be more obviously the case. But our shadow might laugh and ask of us how we are any different. How are we any less dependent? Do we not also depend upon an infinite number of conditions in order to exist? Do we know why we do what we do—truly? How are we any less ephemeral? Does duration make a difference? Is the tree Mingling that lives for thousands of years less ephemeral than the morning mushroom that knows nothing of the afternoon? (“No one lives longer than a dead child”.) From the point of view of our shadow, we are essentially the same.

Only in Zhuangzi’s story, Penumbra, like ourselves, assumes its own independence while questioning that of Shadow of which it is the shadow. Where things are united to form a oneness (the imaginative exercise of dao-izing the world), all opposites become reversible. (“Not-One is also One”.) Penumbra is fully aware of its own transcendent self-arising—sits when it wants to sit, stands when it wants to stand—but wonders about that of Shadow. The standing and sitting human being, who does not even merit a mention despite our thinking it the prime mover, must be utterly determined, dependent and inconsequential. Yet, “Reversal is the movement of the Dao”—dao-ing is the ability to reverse and to thereby “unite to form a oneness”. Thus, even the human being is as self-so as the shadow of its shadow.

Ziporyn has suggested that Zhuangzi sees all things as having a point of view. If we insist that this requires self-awareness, then this makes no sense at all. But if we grant things their own self-so emergence, their own inexplicable self-arising happening, then we are obliged to grant them that which we assign to ourselves. Having self-arisen, all things that “are” “seek” to continue to “be”. “Each selects out its own [way].”

So what? We explore this in the next post.


Ziporyn entitled his book on Guo Xiang’s philosophy “The Penumbra Unbound”, an allusion to a story in Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi and repeated in 27 with some interpretative emending. It is in his commentating here that Guo makes his strongest argument for all things being self-so, uncaused and self-arising. This is the story of a shadow’s conversation with its own shadow. The topic is why Shadow does what it does. Penumbra (the shadow of Shadow) wants to know. A third party, the ostensible concrete cause of Shadow, is only vaguely implied and seemingly irrelevant. Penumbra seems to assume its own non-dependence on Shadow; it only questions the reasons for Shadow’s behavior but not its own, just we typically assume our own volitional independence. Everything has a sense of its own non-dependence.

This story is about the possibility of a psychological release from the bonds of dependence as represented in the concept of causation. Utter psychological non-dependence, in our view, is the primary experiential expression of Zhuangzi’s vision for free and carefree wandering. Causation is but another word for dependence. Thus, just as we can realize non-dependence despite our being utterly dependent in every way, so too can we realize ourselves as non-caused (self-so) despite our being in every way caused. We hope that the word “transcendence” can help to make sense of this apparent nonsense.

The story preceding this one has a character allude to Ziqi’s analogy of the response to the wind by the trees: “Even though the transforming voices may depend on one another, this is tantamount to not depending on anything at all” (2:45; Ziporyn). They are all one in their transforming, being identified with Transformation. Non-dependence is not independence, but a psychological transcendence of all dependence facilitated by our trustful release into the whatever-may-happen of Mystery.

Similarly, realizing oneself as self-so, spontaneously arising, is not a denial of causation, but its transcending.

Our scientific-mindedness stumbles at this transcendence of causation, but it is curious that if we were discussing free-will—the ability to make choices that are not absolutely determined—we would not be quite so reticent. Even Zhuangzi and Guo could be seen as ultimately asserting determinism—we do what we are. Yet, even in this, is a vast freedom—the freedom to be what we cannot help but be:

“[E]very being without exception is released into the range of its own spontaneous attainments, so that each being relies on its own innate character, each deed exactly matching its own capabilities. Since each fits perfectly into precisely the position it occupies, all are equally far-reaching and unfettered” (Guo Xiang; Ziporyn, p 129).


There are two principal ways in which Zhuangzi suggests that reality presents as self-so (spontaneously arising)—cosmologically and existentially. Dao and self are both noticeable for their absence. They are present only through their absence. All we can say of the cosmos and ourselves is that they appear to happen. We can discover no cause, nor any rhyme or reason for their happening. Stuff just happens. Existence seems to have spontaneously arisen without any substantive Ground of Being anchoring it to Meaning.

Ziqi explains the loss his “me” through the analogy of the “piping of Heaven”: “It gusts through all the ten thousand differences, allowing each to go its own way. But since each one selects out its own [way], what identity can there be for their rouser” (2:5; Ziporyn)? “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone”. The absence of an identifiable cause for things to have arisen is echoed in our inability to discover a substantive self in ourselves. There’s no one home. True self is thus no-self, which is to say, it is the realization by one’s self that it has no reified “soul”. It “is” only as an “is not”. It is a something that is also a nothing. Losing one’s “me” is this realization. The loss of one’s “me” as that which makes us “other” to ourselves and to all “other selves” is, ironically, precisely what allows us a sense of oneness with all things. We’re all in this together—one big Happening.

Our most immediate experience of being self-so is this experience of being ungrounded. Rather than asking why we are here, a reason the “understanding consciousness” requires to its own disquiet, realizing ourselves as self-so, as spontaneously arising, sets the stage for living as such—spontaneously.


Guo makes several arguments for all things being self-so, uncaused and self-arising. We have already spoken of the problem of infinite regress created by the idea of causation, and its only solution being a beginning that is uncaused, which is to say the self-so-ness we were trying to avoid in the first place. Thus, “Heaven” is not a causative something other than all things, but precisely all things. There are not-two (heaven and earth); and where there is not-two, there is no causation.

Another of his arguments is that nothing cannot create something. He takes Non-Being as meaning what it actually implies—nothing. How can nothing cause something?

Arguments have their uses, but we must be wary of depending on them. Anything proven true is existentially untrue. Zhuangzi makes similar arguments that inspired Guo’s, but his differ fundamentally in intent. All he wanted to prove is that we can prove nothing. (Gotcha! This is self-contradictory! Exactly.) We are existentially a-dangle. This leads us to the examination of our actual experience so that we might harmonize our living with life, which, quite frankly, makes no sense. Get over it. That’s Zhuangzi’s vision in a nutshell—getting over it—getting so far over it that life becomes a playful romp.

We promised that we would show how this is something practically helpful, something more than just speculative blabber. We cannot—showing it would just amount to more blabber. We can, however, recommend an imaginative excursion into the possibility of your being the Great Happening. Not part of an endless line of caused events whose sum is the Great Happening, but the Great Happening as not-two. This is “hiding the world in the world”—not a Truth, but an activity. Not knowing, but living.


Being self-so means that everything spontaneously self-arises. This is equivalent to saying that everything has one foot in existence and the other in nothingness. Together they represent the experience of emptiness, the experience of being a something that is also a nothing.

“Self-arising” means that nothing causes anything to happen—nothing is caused—things simply happen of themselves. This seems so counter-intuitive that we might be inclined to dismiss it out-of-hand. Perhaps the best way to consider such a possibility, therefore, is to simply take it as a thought experiment—an imaginative journey into the world of unlogic. But be careful, you might just get dizzy and take an existential tumble.

It is common to think of metaphysical Dao as “the Source”—the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover. It’s all a great Mystery, but it’s There; the Mystery is Something. Not so, says Guo Xiang (252-312). Dao is quite literally nothing. (I would suggest that rather than such an absolutist statement we might instead say, Dao is for all practical purposes nothing.) Part of his argument for this position, as inspired by his reading of Zhuangzi, is that, if we follow the idea of causation back through time, we end up in an infinite regress. It’s turtles all the way down. Unless, of course, we decide to stop at an Uncaused Cause, the Source, God . . . But what is this, he asks, if not Self-so and Self-arising? Why not rather accept that all things are themselves self-so and self-arising? All happenings are not consequential parts of the Great Happening—they are the Great Happening. There is no space here for causation.

So what? If this has no practical impact for our being-in-the-world, it’s not worth the blabber. But it does make a difference, and we shall attempt to demonstrate how in the course of this series.

Guo Xiang was part of a movement that called itself xuanxue (“abstruse learning”), or as it has come to be known, “Neo-Daoism”. The other famous exponent of this renewed interest in Daoism as philosophy was Wang Bi (226-249) whose commentary on the Laozi made much of the distinction between Being and Non-Being. Oh boy! Metaphysics! This very much appeals to reasoning mind, and thus to philosophy, because, for all its non-being-ness, Non-Being is still something. Dao is Non-Being and we can rest assured that there is something there for us to think about and cling to. Guo Xiang saw through this sleight-of-mind.

We mention this difference to illustrate how our “natural human inclination” is to posit the “reasonable” so as to make the world make “sense”. Breaking these fetters was very much a part of Zhuangzi’s vision of realizing freedom to wander. “Just release the mind to play . . .”


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


We began this series by agreeing with Steve Coutinho (An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies) that the philosophically important word ming is better translated as “circumstance” than as “fate” or “destiny”. This is because the latter two can easily be taken as connoting fatalism, determinism, or even purposiveness. Any of these would, for Zhuangzi, be saying far too much. For him, ming is simply the circumstances in which we find ourselves and with which we must interact whatever their source or “reason”.

We have thus far been skirting the thorny issues of fatalism (the belief that what has happened had to happen) and determinism (the belief that we cannot change the course of events). Though the logical mind might want to insist that these come into play when Zhuangzi says “hand it all over to the unavoidable”, we think otherwise. Ziporyn, in his defense of Guo Xiang’s interpretation of Zhuangzi as not fatalistic, makes the point that a certain degree of self-contradiction is itself unavoidable. That’s the way of it.

Here’s the point: Total acceptance of what cannot be avoided (and I have stretched this to include absolutely every current circumstance however contingently determined) does not entail not trying to change their consequences. Not having our peace destroyed by them does not mean that we cannot work to change them. Their unavoidability is in the moment, and not (necessarily) in the future.

We will most certainly die; we can, nonetheless, work toward longevity even as we appreciate that long life and short life are equally “good”. (“No one lives longer than a dead child”.) (The sages “delight in early death; they delight in old age; they delight in the beginning; they delight in the end”.)

We can live carefree beneath the sword of tyranny (having nothing to lose), and still join the underground.

We can be free of self-condemnation, and still take responsibility for our actions when they negatively impact others and ourselves.

We can realize how that all is ultimately well and perfect, and still work to make things better here “beneath Heaven”, that is, within the human context.


Zhuangzi uses Song Xing’s appeal for non-dependence on external circumstances as a hinge that turns to his suggested non-dependence on internal circumstances. Not only do the opinions and behaviors of others toward us not matter, but neither do our own self-opinions. Song’s contrast is between a self-esteem that depends on what others think of us, and a self-esteem that is founded on our own self-assessment. Zhuangzi would have us abandon even that. No-self is having a self that requires no reifying projects at all; a self that does not need to be a self even as it enjoys being one. Consideration of what it means to fear the loss of nothing doesn’t take long to arrive here: the loss of the fear of losing oneself. This, I believe, is Zhuangzi’s no-self.

This is very much about self-image. How do I view myself? But viewing myself is not being myself; it is a mediating separation from myself; it is a relationship of dependence. No-self is unmediated self; spontaneous self; and that’s a whole lot of self. It’s free-self.

Whether we are proud of ourselves (I have a great ass; My team’s number one; I’m really smart; I drive a Beemer; I’m a success; I’m a very spiritual person) or dis- ourselves, it amounts to the same thing—we have a dependent self, a self in need of props. And this, Zhuangzi suggests, is what chains us to fear and renders us incapable of happily and playfully skipping through life.

Yeah, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not how we actually are. How we actually are is our present unavoidable circumstance whether we could theoretically be otherwise or not. But then this circumstance, like any other, is an opportunity to do a bit of self-cultivation. And this can be fun. It can occasion an enjoyable buzz. Transcendence feels good. And we can even transcend our inability to transcend—not eradicate it, but transcend it. Without pride and shame there would be nothing to transcend.

“Every enslavement is also an ennobling” (2:41; Ziporyn).