You don’t have to get it right to get it.

This series is inspired by my current reading of Harold Roth’s Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. I have long been pushing back against the near ubiquitous tendency to conflate Zhuangzi’s philosophy with that of more religious forms of Daoism that preceded and followed it. Roth’s project is to do precisely this. “Daoism”, its many diverse expressions notwithstanding, is woven into a single cloth. Breath meditation, the “attainment of the Dao”, the inner accumulation of something called qi (ch’i)—all of them essentially religious practices and conceptions—are taken to be the foundation for all classical Daoist mystical philosophies. This is equivalent to equating the three “great” monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because they all speak of “God”.

My understanding of Zhuangzi leads me to believe that he consciously wished to offer an alternative kind of mysticism, one free of all metaphysical hocus-pocus and definitive technique. When he suggested we depend on nothing, he meant it.

Thus, if there is something to “get”—an experience of freedom, oneness and tranquility—then it does not require any particular knowledge or method. It is something that is inherently possible for human beings to experience quite apart from any imagined extra-mundane “realities”. And the means to that experience are many. There is no “right way”. You don’t have to get it right to get it.

Why Zhuangzi chose this way of non-dependence I do not know. I do know that it speaks to my own need for a post-religious means of coping with the unavoidable existential dangle of the human experience.

Yes, it is all just coping. That’s the point. It’s not about realizing the Truth. It’s not about being saved. It’s not about realizing our “true” self or purpose. It’s about being human.

This philosophical Daoism is likely not Zhuangzi’s philosophical Daoism, though it is an attempt to be approximatingly so. It doesn’t matter.


Zhuangzi’s intended ambiguity means that any interpretation of him must of necessity involve a personal engagement that can only lead to a unique perspective. This, of course, is precisely what he wanted us to understand through his argument for perspectival relativism. Our cognitive responses to the world arise from our position within it. In this blog I attempt to share my own take on Zhuangzi’s philosophical Daoism, and this can only be a new (different) philosophical Daoism. It cannot be “the” new philosophical Daoism, but can nonetheless contribute to the evolution of other points of view just as it is itself so evolving.

Zhuangzi invites us to understand how our perspectives are all different and unique. He also suggests we realize how they are the same. All things can be “seen from the point of view of their sameness”. How are my views on Zhuangzi the same as every other? They are all both right and wrong. They are all right from the perspective of the individual, and wrong from the perspective of some other. But as one scholar has pointed out, this trajectory toward sameness leads Zhuangzi to imply more emphatically that they are all wrong. They are all wrong to the extent that they think they are right—and that they think they are right is at the most immediate level unavoidable. This broadening perspective helps us to “release the mind to play among the harmony of all de [expressions]”. Their harmony is their sameness in all being wrong; and in their all being right as equally affirmable happenings within the Great Happening.

Knowing we are unavoidably wrong enables us to make the best use of whatever “fish trap” we fabricate while simultaneously “forgetting” it. To be “empty” is not to contain nothing, but to contain everything in unfixed and ungrasping openness. Liu Xianxin (1896-1932) sees this as defining the difference between Buddhist and Daoist sensibilities: “The main principle of Buddhism is Emptiness: nothing is wanted; all is to be abandoned. The main principle of Daoism is vastness: everything is wanted; all is to be included” (Ziporyn, p 137).

How are they the same? From the Zhuangzian point of view, they are both simply upayic strategies, the values of which can only be determined by their effectiveness as judged by their respective adherents. They are both wrong to the extent that they think that they alone are right. And they are both wrong to the extent that they think they represent the truth of things.

Both have their benefits; both deliver some goods. Fortunately, we don’t have to get it “right” to get it—whatever “it” may be.


I have come to the conclusion that the best way to present my take away from Zhuangzi is to admit that it cannot claim to represent even an approximately definitive interpretation of his intended meanings. These must forever remain matters for informed guesses. And this, again at my reading, was precisely the purpose of his intended ambiguity. There are several reasons why such a strategy is necessary and effective from the point of view of Daoist sensibilities.

There are parallels here with Socrates’ maieutic method (his tutorial midwifery) and Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication” (his adoption of various pseudonyms for the purpose of presenting different perspectives on one idea). The point is to make us engage in a kind of critical thinking that is itself a kind of existential engagement. It’s as much about doing and being as it is about knowing. The knowing arises from the being and the doing.

Among Zhuangzi’s descriptive representations of the attributes of sagacity is the wonderful suggestion that we “release the mind to play among all expressions (de)”. Where there are set beliefs and formulae there can be no such play. An absolutist position on the nature of Zhuangzi’s Daoism would be as antithetical to this freedom as any other. We must hold our position lightly. We must forget the fish trap, the words, in our having obtained the fish, our freedom, lest we lose it once again.

Though Zhuangzi critiques the sectarian positions of the Confucians and Mohists, and replaces theirs with a more inclusive one of his own, we understand that he understood that sense in which his and theirs were the same. His was “better” by virtue of its inclusiveness—the formation of a sense of oneness being his understanding of Dao—but it could only be so when it self-effaced in an appreciation of the sameness, the equanimity and oneness, of all de.

In this context, we can critique the positions that others take vis-à-vis the nature of Zhuangzi’s Daoism without that becoming sectarian.  I feel strongly that many, if not most, very knowledgeable scholars miss the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy entirely. The presumption of such an opinion does not escape me. Nor am I unaware of the dangers of sectarianism in this regard. It is these concerns that have inspired this series.


Zhuangzi was in no way a systematic philosopher. “Vague! Ambiguous!” (33; Ziporyn). He did not definitively weigh in on any cosmological or ethical issues. This was by design, and leaves his readers to come to their own conclusions. Thus, “The guidelines within them [his writings] are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones” (33; Ziporyn).

We cannot therefore make definitive statements regarding his position vis-à-vis the character of human nature. We can only deduce a position after considering his larger concerns and advocacy. But even here we must remember that he wished to go beyond the need for any such declarations. We want it to all fit together and make good sense. We want a system, and he suggests we free ourselves from this need. We want a moral system, and he tells us that this stands in the way of our being truly moral. A prescriptive morality is an oppressive morality. And counter-productive. Witness the desire of the religious to impose their values on others despite the harmlessness of the behaviors in question.

On my reading, Zhuangzi suggests we reconnect with our most immediate and unmediated self-experience. Life does not ask Why? It simply lives. So, live. Life is its own enjoyment. So, enjoy. On this basis we can assume that Zhuangzi believes that human nature is “good” in a non-ethical sense. Whether we do “good” or “evil” is of only secondary importance. We do best when we trust Nature as it arises. Questions regarding the ethical belong to an altogether different sphere (road). As some Zennist has said, concern for morality simply evinces a continued bondage to morality.

But we want to know that this all leads to moral behavior. Like a scratched record, we inevitably fall back into the same groove. So here’s the song in my groove: Zhuangzi suggests we become sages—is a sage an immoral person? Perhaps Zhuangzi’s Daoism should come with a warning: Performed by a sage—do not try this at home. In other words, don’t put the cart before the horse. Let your amorality arise from your growth in non-dependent sagacity. My guess is that that will make you very moral in the eyes of the world.


Before giving a brief summary in the post to follow of what I believe Zhuangzi’s position on the character of human nature is, it might be helpful to suggest what it is not, whatever its character. “Human nature” does not mean “innate nature” (hsing/xing), a term that is not found in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi or the Laozi, and only appears in the 3rd Century BCE. The difference is that the former speaks phenomenologically—it is descriptive of the human expression—the latter is essentialist—it reifies the human self-experience, makes it a something, and gives us something to believe in.

Does this matter practically? Perhaps not; but since I personally understand Zhuangzi’s entire vision as pivoting on radical non-dependence on any fixed reality or idea, this belief, should it become the object of self-cultivation—an attempt to discover or realize one’s “true nature”—then it can only serve to hinder his appeal to complete openness (=emptiness).

Human nature is how we behave, not what we essentially “are”.


Zhuangzi’s rebuttal to Xunzi’s assertion that the former knew much about Heaven but little about humanity would likely be something like: Yea rather my brother, what I know from Heaven is that I do not know, and knowing that we do not know is the most important thing we can know about being human. (Some sticklers on the nature of Zhuangzi’s skepticism would add that he does not know whether he knows or not.) This leads to an altogether different approach to the improvement of our admittedly dysfunctional individual and societal circumstances.

For Zhuangzi, as for most Chinese philosophers of his time, Heaven is essentially equivalent to Nature; it is not an active agent at work in the world, but simply represents the seemingly necessary larger context for apparent reality. Nature does not only refer to what “is”, but to what lies behind its isness. The Laozi’s assertion that “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone” puts this succinctly, albeit somewhat paradoxically.

In the previous post I declared that “Nature is not moral” and was subsequently asked if this was not itself a moral judgement. There is no lack of Daoist “authority” on this issue (Laozi 5: “Heaven and earth are not humane; they treat the things of the world as straw dogs. The sage is not humane; he treats the people as straw dogs.”), but I do not wish to rely on authority. My reply was that the vulnerability of this statement resides more in the epistemological realm than the ethical. Declaring Nature to be amoral is quite different than declaring it to be moral or immoral. But still, how do I know this?

I do not. The best I can do is to say that it seems so. Nature does not appear to have any concern with moral issues and thus cannot be taken as lending any moral guidance to humanity. It is this last that was the real issue for Zhuangzi—our moral judgements, whatever their value to humanity, do not objectively derive from Heaven and thus no appeal can be made to Divine authority or to any fixed and sure standard. Our moral judgements are species, culturally, and individually relative. (So let’s loosen up on things upon which we do not have near universal agreement.) This is important to Zhuangzi primarily in that it can help release us into non-dependence and free and carefree wandering. The world could go to hell in a handbasket and the sage along with it, but still her joy would not be diminished even as she works to avoid such an end.

In the end, declaring Heaven to be moral or immoral would be “adding to the process of life” and fleeing “the illumination of the obvious”. Understanding Heaven to be amoral is equivalent to admitting that one does not know anything beyond the seemingly obvious, which is a purely practical kind of knowledge.


The Confucian Xunzi (Hsün Tzu, c. 310-c. 220 B.C.E.) wrote of Zhuangzi that he knew a great deal about Heaven, but little about humanity; he was a “nook and cranny scholar”, as the Tiantai chapter of the Zhuangzi would have it. He, on the other hand, dismissed Heaven as irrelevant given our not knowing anything about it, and believed he understood humanity well enough to prescribe a cure for its ailments. What he did not understand of Zhuangzi, however, is that for him Heaven represents our omnipresent not-knowing which militates against all definitive prescriptions.

Xunzi took the opposite track of Mencius; he held that human nature tends toward disharmony and chaos. Though admitted as overly simplistic, these two are often juxtaposed as one declaring human nature good and the other as declaring it evil.

Philosophers enjoy Xunzi because he is among the first to actually attempt a systematic presentation of his philosophy. I like him for his clear antithesis to Daoist sensibilities and his wonderfully outrageous statements, one of which I paraphrase here: “Humans are by nature warped and must be straightened by use of straightening boards.” Thank you, Xunzi!

Thus, whereas Mencius was able, in agreement with Daoist thinking, to advocate for a return to our most essential selves, Xunzi advocated for external restraints—laws, punishment and rewards, and totalitarian government (beneficent, of course!).

In terms of an assessment of the moral character of human nature, I lean more to the side of Xunzi. I’m rather pessimistic about the ability of humanity to behave “humanely” and intelligently. I offer history and our present circumstances as my only “proofs”. (My belief in my own essential goodness I will keep to myself since it is likely shared by most others but nevertheless does not appear to radically affect the prevailing mayhem except perhaps as a limiting factor.) Unlike Xunzi, however, and thanks to Zhuangzi, this does not lead me to similar practical solutions.

Zhuangzi invites us to consider humanity as we would any other natural phenomenon. Is the Universe wonderful, or is it not? If chaos, impermanence, death and apparent meaninglessness are evil, then the Universe is evil and so is everything within it. If it is wonderful, then so also is all that happens within it. Such a happy saying. Such an impossibly hard saying. If we can break upon this moral stumbling-block, however, we can still return to our concern for our individual and collective flourishing without that requiring a mortifying fear of the “warped”.

Affirming apparent reality requires a suspension of moral discrimination. Nature is not moral. This does not mean that we should not be moral, but only that our moral concerns can be understood in a wider context. To be released from the bondage of this addiction only means that we can now better enjoy and make better use of that to which we were previously addicted.


Mencius, like Confucius, wanted to transform society and believed the best way to begin was through the education of individuals. The chief content of this teaching was how to live humanely, which is to say humanly. But this means that we can trust our humanity, our nature, to naturally harmonize with the world, ourselves, and others given the opportunity to do so. Human nature is essentially good. We must re-connect with our inner-most selves.

Given his unexplained reference to his experience of “flood-like qi, some have said that Mencius was more a mystic than Zhuangzi. By some definitions of mysticism, this may be true. We needn’t, however, let such judgements obscure how they are very similar in their appreciation of the value of reconnecting with our precognitive selves. They differ in that, for Zhuangzi, this movement is not mediated by a belief in the “goodness” of human nature, but by its “isness”. Nature, for Zhuangzi, does not make moral discriminations, a purely human activity. This does not mean that Mencius was mistaken or that the result of such a mystical reconnection with one’s pre-cognitive self and through it with Nature itself does not lead to greater humaneness; it is simply that for Zhuangzi this outcome is incidental—a happy circumstance.

They may also differ in that Mencius may have thought of qi as a something. Typically, mysticism is defined as identification with something Other; and this would lend itself to thinking Mencius more a mystic than Zhuangzi whose mysticism turns on the emptiness of any concept of an Other. However, qi can also simply refer to Life and the life-experience, which is to say, an experienced mystery.

Zhuangzian mysticism does differ significantly from Mencius’ (I believe) in that his rests entirely on an emptiness of content. To depend on nothing means to depend on no one interpretation of reality, and no morally-inspired program. Be like experienced Nature itself. Be yourself. Look into the night sky (like Camus’ Stranger) and be like that. Vast and limitless. Morally indifferent. Now come back and live the particular, moral you.


Mencius (c. 372-289 BCE), the first great interpreter of Confucius, had a relatively optimistic view of human nature. Yes, humanity has made a mess of things, but despite our inclinations toward disharmony, we remain good at the core. Humaneness—empathy and fellow-feeling—is naturally embedded in the human heart. Anyone seeing a child about to fall into a well, he argues, will immediately jump to prevent it from happening. Our spontaneous caring reveals our true nature.

Unfortunately, society has developed in such a way as to distance us from our inner humanity. We have learned to value individual wealth, well-being and fame above our communal flourishing. It’s very much like a nearby mountain, he says. It was once covered with a beautiful forest, but over the years it has been so exploited by logging and goat herding that it is now a wasteland. Given time, the seeds of its goodness would sprout again and it would again flourish. Only, as soon as these sprouts arise, they are once again foraged by goats.

The answer to this disharmony is education as a form of moral cultivation. People can be taught to let their natural humanity predominate once again. I am not familiar enough with Mencius or Confucianism generally to say what formal structure this education was intended to take, but it seems enough to know what humanness is and to cultivate it in one’s daily interactions with others.

This self-cultivation, because it looks within and attempts to reconnect with the inner self, lends itself to a form of mysticism. We experience ourselves through a release into ourselves beyond words. It also follows that if human nature is good then Nature (Heaven, Everything) as a whole is also good. Reconnecting with our unmediated self-experience organically reconnects us with the Totality. It gives one a sense of joyous oneness. This is likely what Mencius experienced when he spoke of being overwhelmed by “flood-like qi” (vital energy).

We will continue this discussion of Mencius, especially as he might be compared to Zhuangzi, in the next post. In closing here, I would like to point out the simplicity of this model. Releasing into yourself you release into Everything. What could be more natural? What does one need to “know”?


In order to understand mountain gorillas we study their behavior. Through history, anthropology, and sociology we attempt to do the same with humans, but for obvious reasons fail to attain the same objectivity. Nor should we expect or aspire to do so; the complete objectification of anything is to close oneself off from the infinite mystery that everything is. Nevertheless, there is value in taking a sober look at things as they manifest.

The classical Chinese philosophers found it necessary to objectively consider the character of human nature because they were most concerned with societal change. How can we best collectively flourish given human nature? What is human nature? These inquiries arose in the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) when things weren’t going so well. There was need for change, and the means to effect that change should be predicted on the essential character of humanity.

In this series I will be reflecting on the generalized responses of three philosophers (Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhuangzi) to this challenge. Mencius and Xunzi were Confucians and framed the question of human nature in moral terms. Are humans inherently good (harmonious with their collective flourishing) or evil (disharmonious)? They held to opposing views.

Zhuangzi did not think in terms of the moral character of humanity but rather thought that doing so was part of the problem. I will argue that his more “cosmic” perspective, his view from Dao, allowed him to approach the problem very much as we do when considering the behavior of mountain gorillas—phenomenologically.

Still, he was a human being and as such wished for the collective and individual flourishing of our species. He, too, was required to make assumptions about the ability of humanity to realize these ends, albeit in the light of a larger context which relativized the value of even that.