It seems logical enough to assume there can be no identity without existence, but can there be existence without identity? Is there existence without identity when there is no mind to think it? Probably; but it’s hard, if not impossible, for the mind to think it. Even so-called Non-Being and non-existence seem to have existence. Where there is thought, everything thought has an assigned identity. The “problem” of identity seems to be a creation of the discriminating mind.

This is a rock; and more than that, it is this specific rock, my pet rock. Previously, it was part of a boulder, and had no such identity. What does this tell me of its present identity? In the future, it will likely become many smaller rocks, sand, dust, atoms, and . . . ? What will have become of its present identity? Shall I mourn the future loss of this rock? Or can I instead imagine identity as a non-essential attribute somewhat more aligned with hardness or density so that its loss does not affect its continuity? I can’t; but I can learn something in the attempt.

Might I just as well mourn that it previously had no identity? What’s the difference between its previously not having been this rock and its future ceasing to be this rock? Why do I mourn my own likely loss of identity and not that I once had none? Who says I have an identity in any case? I do.

Are we really any different than this rock? Cosmically speaking, we are not. But wait! I most certainly am! The loss of my own identity is something I do not wish to entertain, cosmic perspectives notwithstanding. I must be an exception. Perhaps I am an eternal soul (at least going forward, going backward seems a bit more problematical). Or maybe there’s just One Identity, I AM, and that’s me (and you, too, if you wish). Whew! I feel better already.

Whatever “solution” we might devise to deal with the probable loss of our identity in death, it’s clear that we want one. “I haven’t a clue” is probably the most honest response. This leads Zhuangzi to suggest we “just hand it all over to the unavoidable”—in thankfulness and trust. No theory is going to change reality, in any case. But he also dabbles a bit is his own imaginative solution.

Since Transformation seems the universal way of things, why not simply identify with that? One with Change, what change could harm you? But this requires breaking our addiction to fixed-identity—identity as the essential, rather than as accidental. It requires imagining a kind of continuity completely innocent of identity. This is his no-fixed-identity—an experience that can only occur beyond the deliberating mind that cannot dispense with identity.

This “solution” led Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) to accuse Zhuangzi of “cooking up his own pot of Buddha-flesh” (Ziporyn, p 170)—dodging his own existential dangle. There could be some truth in this, but if we grant Zhuangzi the possibility of consistency, then his imaginative solution can be understood as but another self-aware coping strategy, and not a representation of the truth of things.


The concept of no-fixed-identity suggests that one can release one’s grip on one’s particular self-identity while still enjoying the same. The spirit of play can help to illustrate this arrangement. Play requires taking the game seriously, while simultaneously understanding that it is in fact just a game, something made up for our enjoyment. It’s only fun when not taken too seriously.

We can play at being a someone. There’s transcendence involved here. But who is “we”? There is always an assumed someone, it seems, and transcendence is a ceaseless dialectic—certainly beyond logic and maybe even time. We can imagine or experience the non-dual only because we remain dual. Self is essentially dualistic, and self is required if we wish to think and experience life. This is why I believe no-self means no-fixed-self.

This is intended as descriptive of an actual experience, of course, and not simply as an idea. Can one actually realize this? I, at least, cannot say for sure. I can only testify that the exercise (play) of attempting to do so yields some interesting and enjoyably incremental results. How does one attempt to realize it? Again, I can only speak of my own practice—imaginative meditation.

Clinging to a fixed-identity—one that can be lost and must forever be protected and propped up—let’s call it an egoic-self (a self trapped in itself)—is mostly just a bad habit. Self is an evolved habit—not an evil—just what’s happened. There’s no need to disparage it. But nor is there any reason why we shouldn’t wish to improve upon its performance when some aspects of it prove dysfunctional. Nothing’s perfect. Nothing’s “meant” to be. Imaginative meditation amounts to the consideration of other possible, more beneficial habits—new ways of thinking and being. It entails venturing forth into new experiences—mystical experiences.

Imagination takes place in the spirit of play. Nothing need be taken as “real”—it’s all just having fun because that’s the best we can do, and fun is fun. Religious-mindedness is taking things far too seriously, and that is the death of fun.


One of the most evocative metaphors that Zhuangzi uses to suggest releasing ourselves into Mystery is “hiding the world in the world”. If we hide our boat in a swamp, someone will eventually come along and steal it. There was somewhere into which the boat could be lost—somewhere out there in the broader world. But what if we were to hide our boat in the whole world? Where then could it be lost? Hiding the world in the world is hiding not only our boat, but also everything else, including our most precious selves, in the greater world (Mystery) where nothing can be lost.

Zhuangzi uses this metaphor in the context of our fear of death, the apparent loss of ourselves. If, instead of clinging to this particular identity, we release ourselves into the apparently ceaseless transformation of all identities, release into Transformation, where is there any room for us to be lost? This obviously requires loosening our grip on our self-identity. Just as we must be willing to “lose” the boat in order to never lose it, so also must we “lose” ourselves so as to have nothing to lose.

This, I think, is primarily what Zhuangzi has in mind when he entreats us to “just be empty, nothing more”. To be empty is to have no-fixed-identity. It is to enjoy our present identity as part of the larger context wherein all identities are forever transforming.

Is this simply a ploy, an intellectual and palliative sleight of hand designed to ease our passing? For the most part, I think it is. It is essentially a psychological strategy for coping with the existential dangle—our ever not-knowing despite our hunger for the same—of our inherent experience. However, given our point of departure that all is Mystery, such a strategy seems both intellectually and existentially honest. We must remember that none of this is about the “truth” of things, but only always about our experience of things. Such is life.

Still, this is more than just an intellectual exercise; there is mysticism involved here; and this entails transformative experience. Nice things happen when we release into Mystery. Thankfulness happens. (And thankfulness feels good.) Tranquility happens. (Of which I can at least testify to some fleeting approximation—let’s not get all absolutist and silly, not to mention dishonest.)


Zhuangzi’s mysticism is quite simple. Finding ourselves embedded in Mystery, we affirm it so completely for that to amount to releasing ourselves entirely into it. And this amounts to a sense of oneness with it. One with Process, what process could possibly harm us?

Mystery is as much “in here” as it is “out there”. Absolutely everything is Mystery. The totality of our experience is Mystery. Thus, releasing into Mystery is releasing into ourselves, our most immediate experience of Mystery. It’s the affirmation of our entire human experience.  It’s shouting “Yes!” to life.

There is much in life that we do not particularly like; suffering, death, harm done to others, and our own failings top the list. Affirming the Totality entails affirming these as well. This is what makes such a movement so difficult, especially in the case of evil. Yet, affirming these as the expression of Mystery does not mean complete acquiescence to them. This is the importance of “walking two roads at once”, the ability to hold to a cosmic view and a human view simultaneously. The former informs the latter so as to insure our concerns do not destroy our peace and thankfulness. We rightfully attempt to extend life, prevent suffering, curb harm to others, and improve ourselves. Only now these are done in the light of a broader context.

On what basis can we justify affirming the Totality? Isn’t this just an arbitrary determination? From the point of view of reason, it is. But from the point of view of life, it is not. This is what life is and does. Life is affirmation. It is its own celebration. With reference to the protestations of reason, Zhuangzi suggests we not “add to the process of life”. Let the broader experience of life guide us, rather than the worries of the deliberating mind. Reason might call this “circular”, but then so is reason’s own self-justification. That’s why it’s all Mystery.


There is mysticism in Zhuangzi’s suggested response to life. This mysticism does not, however, fit within the standard representations of mysticism. One of these is the belief that one can “unite” with some ultimate reality. In the case of most representations of Daoism, this would be “the Dao”, the Source that interpenetrates all reality. There is also qi (ch’i), the “vital force” that gives life (and being) to all things. This can be “accumulated” by the sage, extending her life and giving her inner power. The relationship between these two is unclear.

Secondly, when one unites with this ultimate reality, one gains insight into the Truth. Since Dao interpenetrates all things, communion with Dao enables an understanding of all things. This can lead to powers of prognostication.

Thirdly, this union with metaphysical Dao and accumulation of qi is accomplished through the practice of breathing meditation whereby one empties one’s mind of all thought and emotion.

If this is the mysticism of Daoism, then Zhuangzi was clearly not a Daoist. His mysticism takes the absence of any and all imagined metaphysical realities as its point of departure. It begins and ends in not-knowing. This is fundamental; absent this and his philosophy collapses. As for meditative practice, he may very well have done some, but its purpose and importance would have been much different. Reliance on any “technique” is depending on something, and for Zhuangzi dependence on nothing lies at the heart of his mystical movement. We need only witness the near obsession of those who do advocate such practice, to see that Zhuangzi did not share this commitment. His allusions to meditative practice, like his narratives generally, seem designed more to suggest positive outcomes than the means to their realization.

Alternatively, we could broaden our understanding of Daoism to include Zhuangzi’s skeptical branch. But he does, in fact, seem to be such an anomaly within the context of Daoism that it might be best to remove him altogether. Daoists, needless to say, would find no need to do so, since they have thoroughly molded him to their purposes.

This is not about the right way versus the wrong way, or even the correct way to interpret Zhuangzi. What is important to me is to preserve the way in which I have molded him to my purposes. This is not to suggest that there are no textual justifications for my understanding of Zhuangzi, but only that these are prejudiced by my experience. Nor do I wish to depend on however I understand Zhuangzi; having caught my fish, I’d rather eat it than the fish trap.


The declaration that I am doing a new philosophical Daoism sounds pretentious to say the least. But I say so only because I am unable to discover an old one. Several are there to be sure, but I cannot be sure what they are. Nor do I believe that anyone else can, however more scholarly. Indeed, scholarship might easily be an impediment. Scholarship easily misses the forest for the trees; and scholarship often fears the subjective commitment that alone can discover the spirit behind the words. Thus, everyone who thoughtfully engages with Daoism is creating their own new philosophical Daoism.

Whoever is reading this is likely doing so out of an interest in Daoism or some parallel philosophy. To my thinking, you too are creating your own unique philosophy of life. And that is about the best we can do. If there is no one, true solution to life’s contingencies then whatever response we formulate will be our own. But we don’t build from nothing; we make use of all the materials at hand. I like to make use of Zhuangzi. His sense of things speaks well to my experience. Or, at least, my experience finds that sense in him.

The proclamation of the “death of God” offends many, but I think Nietzsche wasn’t so much trying to offend as to bear witness to a cultural paradigm shift. This represents a great parting of ways. Is Truth out there waiting to be discovered, or are we required to create our own? My experience leads me to choose the latter. It’s a scary and daunting task, but such is life. It’s also liberating. There is no Truth. That’s one less thing to worry about. (This is not to say there is no Truth, but only that there is none for me.)

Everyone’s building their own philosophy of life; everyone’s just trying to cope. Perhaps those who can believe find it easier than others, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps those who don’t question much find it easier than those that do. This seems more likely. Indeed, these, like newborn babes, may be reflections of sagacity.

Socrates’ famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is as false as it is true. If every life is not worth living, then no life is. Still, for those so disposed—those who need to question—an inquiry into what can make for a happier life is well worth the effort. And quite frankly, it seems likely that the benefit lies more in the effort than in the results. Thinking can be fun. And it helps one get through the day.


“Daos are made by walking them.” Is there anyone who does not have a dao? We all walk a dao. Daos are unavoidable. Can we walk another’s dao? We can try. This is what we mostly do. Only now it is an inauthentic dao. Now it is a dao that fails to express our own individual experience; and this amounts to a flight from our own self-experience.

Are there then authentic and inauthentic daos? There are. But of course there is also neither. There are only daos that more closely approximate one or the other. Perfection and purity are only ideal abstractions—only helpful when understood as such; only full when empty.

Can we be authentically inauthentic? Sure; that’s called honesty. Can we be inauthentically authentic? Sure; that’s called hypocrisy and self-deception. Can we be both at once? Could we be otherwise?

“Daos are made by walking them.” Zhuangzi says so because he wishes to show their relative nature. We create our own unique daos. All daos are human creations. There’s no true Dao (Guidance) out there that we can discover. Heaven will not guide us. Any spoken Dao is not-Dao, but just another dao. In this he agrees with Laozi. Why is it that so much “Daoism” also agrees, only to once again speak of “attaining the Dao”? This Dao, though ineffable, is a something that can guide us mysteriously, mystically. Not to worry—there is True Guidance after all.

This is not Zhuangzi’s dao. In Zhuangzi’s dao, Dao remains silent; it is present only as an absence. It is Yin to our yang. It entices us to release into Mystery. Mystery cannot be yang-ed. It does not guide. It provides no answers.

Because Dao provides no one dao, no single dao alone reflects Dao. All daos are human creations; and in this sense they are all equal. All daos are Dao, where Dao is this apparent Happening and the mystery of this Happening. In this they are also all equal.

For Zhuangzi, psychological Dao is the only attainable Dao, and this entails the convergence of all daos; the realization of a oneness. This is the equalization of all daos, and the “attainment of Dao”.

All daos, whether authentic or inauthentic, are equal and affirmable. But they do not all equally contribute to human flourishing. We can therefore also judge between them. But can we judge for others? How much authenticity can any particular person take? How much inauthenticity is unavoidable and even necessary? We can only find out for ourselves by consciously walking our own daos.


This series is largely inspired by my need to make periodic disclaimers. For all my often apparently unequivocal pronouncements regarding the character of Zhuangzi’s Daoism, I wish to make clear that I do not believe I or anyone else can be sure of what we speak. This, I believe, is precisely how Zhuangzi would have had it. (Here I go again.) This is his whole point. Depend on nothing. Release into not-knowing. Live life as it manifests in you, not as you might otherwise wish it to be. Add nothing to the process of life. Don’t flee from the actual experience of being human, but rather make creative use of it. Let your inherent adriftedness be an occasion for your wandering, rather than for clinging to chimeric moorings.

Do this. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter all that much. All is well in any case. Isn’t it? It is or it isn’t. But from the cosmic perspective it is whether it is or it is not. Isn’t it?

Every presentation of Daoism, at least of the philosophic variety, is a new philosophical Daoism. There is no such thing as a fixed definition and experience of Daoism. Why would we wish it to be otherwise? Why would we wish to follow rather than to lead? Because, unless we are self-deceived, we know we can only lead ourselves, and that is a lonely experience. Why would we wish to believe in the already-fixed rather than to create anew? Because, unless we are delusional, we know that whatever we create is as ridiculously tenuous as we know ourselves to be. It’s so much easier and more comforting to abrogate responsibility to external authorities which somehow escape the scrutiny of doubt.

Then there is the problem of personal reality. I realize little of my own blabber. But surely the blabbering sages realized their own blabber. That’s why they’re sages, right? We can believe that what we believe is real, because we believe that it was real for someone else. This is called begging the question, placing the conclusion in the premise. Sages exist because they say they do (and sages don’t lie)—or more sagaciously, someone else says they do.

“The ancients called this, ‘fleeing from the Lord’s dangle’.” I call it fleeing from your real experience. Whether there actually are or were sages who realized their own blabber, we live more authentically when we leave the question moot.


If we take all within the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi as the work of Zhuangzi, there is considerable internal evidence that he was aware of the beliefs and practices of, if not the Nei Yeh (“Inner Training”) chapter of the anthology called the Kuanzi, than at least the school of thought of which it is representative. Some of “Confucius’s” instructions to his disciple Yan in Chapter Four could be taken as clear allusions to this likely contemporaneous work. (Some have apparently questioned the authenticity of this passage, though I have only read Liu Xiaogan’s (Classifying the Zhuangzi Chapters) dismissal of these doubts.) Zhuangzi makes use of these as he does other materials at hand. But, as a scholar (whose identity I do not have permission to share) has recently pointed out, he also speaks of Confucian virtues without being a Confucian, uselessness without being a Mohist, and “white horses” without being a Logician. If Zhuangzi “released [his] mind to play in the harmony of all de”, then he could make use of any of them without our having to believe he fixedly attached to any particular one.

Zhuangzi may very well have practiced some form of breathing meditation; only I would contend that this would not have included the metaphysical beliefs of his contemporaries who also did so. The difference is between religious-mindedness and utterly unfixed openness. This distinction is important because, at my reading, Zhuangzi’s entire vision turns on making use of our (useless) utter not-knowing. The practice of non-dependence, which I take to be an overarching attribute of his proposed dao, includes not relying on any beliefs about the nature of reality. We do not become “empty” in order to be filled by a “something”, but because empty is what we most fundamentally are and what we must remain if we wish to live authentically.

Admittedly, Zhuangzi is largely what we make him to be. This is how I make him to be because this is what I need him to be if he is to be of use to me, someone who cannot do the religious thing. However, in having taken him as I have, I can now make use of him as I believe he made use of others. In this sense, the “truth” of this representation of Zhuangzi’s philosophy does not matter. This is what I mean by “a new philosophical Daoism”; one that makes use of the materials at hand so as to evolve a uniquely personal strategy for the enjoyment of life.

Thanks for the leg up, “Zhuangzi”—I can take it from here.


Zhuangzi is clearly taking us for a ride. He’s having us on. Missing this is missing the spirit of his philosophy. Consider his use of Confucius. Sometimes he is the protagonist advocating for something suggestive of Zhuangzi’s philosophy; other times he’s the arch-Confucian, the voice of an imposed morality. There is method in this madness. There is a message in this medium. And part of that message is that we should not take any of it too seriously. Seriousness and literalism are the antithesis of the spirit of Zhuangzi, the spirit of play.

When we play, we take things both very seriously and unseriously at once. We agree to follow arbitrary rules and to give our all to win. We agree to pretend that it matters whether we win or lose. But we know that winning and losing are of no ultimate value at all. It’s how we play the game that counts. This is called good sportsmanship. The Zhuangzian sage is a good sportsperson; she takes life very seriously even while knowing it isn’t serious at all. And sages are extremely rare.

When Zhuangzi has a few of his made-up characters discuss the likely facticity of a fantastic sage who subsists on only wind and dew, and who rides on the backs of dragons, what is he up to? In agreement with the madman who proposed such a sage and his belief in him, the most sagacious interlocutor seems to suggest that this is entirely possible. Are we also meant to believe? Or are we simply meant to open our minds to the possibility of experiences beyond the conventional?

These are subject of Zhuangzi’s “big words”—“useless” from the point of view of “winning” the game of life. But if winning is the all-in-all, then life becomes so serious an affair that it is no fun at all. It is the useless understanding that life need not be taken so seriously that becomes the most useful thing of all.

When Zhuangzi speaks of qi, the supposed stuff of which all things are composed and the most rarefied form of which the sage accumulates so as to become “spiritual”, is he telling us he believes in any such thing or project? Or is he simply making use of the materials at hand to make another point altogether?

When we take Zhuangzi literally we make of him yet another overly serious advocate for fixed religious beliefs and projects. We destroy his message and rob him of the spirit of play.