“This”, a subjective point of view, creates “That”, the view that it is not. “Self” creates “Other”. Without the one there would not be the other. “This is the theory of the simultaneous generation of ‘this’ and ‘that’.” (Ziporyn; 2:16) But just as they create one another, so also do they destroy one another. Every “this” is also a “that”, and every “that” is also a “this”. Is there really then any “this” or “that”?

Whether there is or there is not, it is possible to “unite them to form a oneness”. It is possible to imagine an experience in which all things “bask in the broad daylight if Heaven”, an experience of the non-dual.

“When ‘this’ and ‘that’—right and wrong—are no longer coupled as opposites—that is called the Dao as Axis, the axis of all daos.” (2:17) Dao is the confluence of all daos—yours, mine, everyone’s. Dao is the equalization of all theories about things and of things themselves, not because their sameness trumps their differences, but because we can imagine it thus.

This is the essence of Zhuangzi’s argument in the second of the Inner Chapters. It’s worth “trying on”, he thinks, because it can transform how we relate to the world. It can issue in greater inner and outer peace.

“It is only someone who really gets all the way through them that can see how the two sides open into each other to form a oneness. Such a person would not define rightness in any one particular way but would instead entrust it to the everyday function [of each being]. . . It’s just a matter of going by the “rightness” of the present ‘this’.” (2:23) We might describe this as openness and tolerance.

The experience of the view from Dao enables an appreciation of all daos. It’s a bit like an appreciation of Nature that allows for an appreciation of all its expressions—cobras as well as meerkats—deserts as well as forests.

This conceptual experiment is only a tool the intent of which is to bring us to the point of needing no such thing. “To do this without knowing it, and not because you have defined it as right, is called ‘the Dao’.” Imaginative exercises are just training wheels. But even these help us to go somewhere.


Looking at things from the point of view of their sameness is a relatively easy way to imagine the oneness of things. Zhuangzi’s argument for “uniting opposites to form a oneness” is more complicated. This, in part, is because it is a step in a larger argument deconstructing the use of reason as a means to understanding ourselves in the world context.

Zhuangzi makes use of the terminology and techniques of the Mohists and Logicians to push their arguments beyond what they themselves had in mind. The former used logical argument to demonstrate what was “admissible” and what was not. This would lead to an understanding of how best to fulfill the first principle of their political strategy: love (care for) all things equally. There’s some suggestion of Dao here, only its expression is not Dao in that it remains only conceptual and is actively applied. Love, in this instance, became tyrannical.

The Logicians used logic to demonstrate its internal contradictions through the use of the paradoxes that our discriminations about time, space and size naturally suggest. (“The south is both bounded and boundless, so you can go to Yue today and arrive yesterday.” (33; Ziporyn; p 124)) This led Huizi to exhort: “Love all things without exception, for heaven and earth are one body.” (33; p 124) The breakdown of our ability to logically divide up the world, led him to a declaration of its unity.

For Zhuangzi, both made a good start, but failed to go far enough—they never left the realm of reason, “the understanding consciousness”, but rather continued to “take their minds as their teacher”. What’s the alternative? A mystical re-integration with the life-experience.

It’s curious how all three arrived at essentially the same conclusion. After a series of his own paradoxes, Zhuangzi declares: “Heaven and earth were born together with me, and the ten thousand things and I are one.” (2:23) The difference is that for Zhuangzi this is an ecstatic experience while for the other two it remained an intellectual concept, something to apply to the world rather than something to be.


Zhuangzi is big on oneness. A sense of the oneness of things is the experience of Dao. It is this that releases us to play among all things, unencumbered by the divisive fetters of discrimination. Where this is good and that is bad, this is beneficial and that is harmful, this is beautiful while that is ugly—where these are in play, we cannot.

Yet the spirit of play also requires that we not fetter ourselves to a fixed idea about oneness. The idea of One certainly suggests itself, but we have no business making sweeping statements regarding the ultimate nature of reality. Here again our inviolable not-knowing is the axis upon which our orientation to our human experience turns. This, too, is the usefulness of the useless.

For Zhuangzi, oneness is a beneficial psychological experience that requires no belief in metaphysical certitudes. Never do we leave the realm of ambiguity. Ambiguity is our freedom—should we wish to make it so. We wander when there is no particular place to go, and no need to go anywhere at all.

As a means to the experience of oneness Zhuangzi suggests an imaginative journey of perspective shifting: “Looked at from the point of view of their differences, even your own liver and gallbladder are as distant as Chu in the south and Yue in the north. But looked at from the point of view of their sameness, all things are one.” (Ziporyn; 5:5)

Take your pick. Both perspectives are possible. Both are legitimate. Indeed, can we not experience and appreciate them both? Wouldn’t this be walking two roads at once? In this way we can choose to experience a sense of oneness because it is beneficial without that involving us in a contradiction. Differences are as much a part of our human experience as sameness can be made to be.

I call this kind of movement imaginative meditation—not so much as to make it sound profound as to suggest that it is more than simply thinking about it. It is an exercise that can help us to actually experience something—something beneficial.


Nothing of the human is negated with the relativizing introduction of a higher point of view despite the fact that that point of view reveals a sense in which all these human activities are nonsense if taken too seriously. This holds true in two senses.

Perhaps most importantly, nothing that happens is not the Great Happening. Whatever humans do is as affirmable as anything else. If we look again at Chapter One of the Laozi we see that though any spoken dao is not the ultimate Dao, every spoken dao is nonetheless an expression of Dao. “They are the same.” It is not possible to “stray from the Dao”. If there is straying, then that straying is Dao.

This is the principle behind my personal mantra: I am perfect by virtue of my being perfectly who I am. I could not be otherwise. Nothing more is required. All is well even in my own personal mess. There is a great deal to achieve in the cultivation of myself, but nothing has to be achieved. Total affirmation is unconditional. Realizing this fully would be my idea of enlightenment, if there is any such thing.

Secondly, what humans do is what humans are. There is no ideal humanity, but only the humanity that is. This is who we are. We are not “better than this”. If we are a mess then it is presently our nature to be so. We love, we hate, we rejoice, we grieve, we do “good”, we do “evil”; all these things are human qualities and understanding that sense in which they are the same and equal, does not eliminate them.

What the introduction of a higher road, the view from Dao, does is allow us to live out our humanity in greater self-awareness. And that awareness releases us from the burden of taking ourselves and our world so seriously that we cannot play and wander within them.


It is because there is no definitive boundary between the heavenly road and the human road that we are able to walk them both at once. What they have in common is ambiguity, and it is through this that both roads pass. Zhuangzi admits that it would be great if there was such knowledge, if Heaven could give us clear guidance (dao us), but he concludes that it cannot (6:1-5).

If Heaven could tell us the right thing to do, then our only responsibility would simply be to do it. This is the consolation of religion. The path is clear. Things are black and white, without too much of the fearsome ambiguity of grey.

If, on the other hand, Heaven is understood as a Chaos in which questions of right and wrong have no meaning, then we are required to figure things out for ourselves in awareness of our lack of sufficient knowledge to definitively do so. We are cast into a world of uncertainty and doubt. The world is all grey, and our humanly acts of distilling a black and white from it is revealed as relative to personal and cultural contexts.

Zhuangzi sees this as an opportunity. Though we are pretty much obliged to have opinions, we can also understand them as only that. This allows us to “follow along with” the opinions of others, even when they are likely to be considered more than that. We are freed in having no-fixed-opinions, and this leads to tolerance.

The ambiguity of Heaven informs our human quest for the unambiguous such that we recognize the ambiguous nature of our unambiguous opinions. We walk the latter in the light of the former.

Ethical questions naturally raise their angry heads when we relativize right and wrong in this way, but we’ll have to leave them for another time.


The question of the relationship between the “Heavenly” and the Human is an important one to early Daoist philosophy, and there are decidedly different takes on the issue. We might best begin by getting an idea of what Zhuangzi means by the term “Heavenly” since it carries a lot of culture baggage in our present context. For him it simply refers to the inescapably unknowable Mystery of origins and “purpose” that the human mind seems to require. Originally, the term had more theistic, or at least volitional implications, as it might for us today, but in Chinese thought it evolved toward a more Zhuangzian point of view, though his tended to the extreme end, namely that it is only present as an absence and without cognitive content.

Since for Zhuangzi the Heavenly is an entirely ambiguous concept the relationship between it and Humanity is similarly ambiguous. It is unknowable. Humanity is itself therefore unknowable. Humanity is as much Mystery as Mystery.

The importance of this relationship is determined by our desire for guidance, a dao. Can Heaven guide us? In a radical departure from conventional thought, Chapter One of the Laozi declares that it cannot. Any dao that daos (guides) is not the authentic Dao. Yet daos unavoidably remain, and can be affirmed as necessary. They are themselves mystery (given their ultimate groundlessness) and can therefore be taken as “the same” as the Mysterious Dao.

For some this might have suggested the abandonment of the Heavenly (Dao) altogether, but for Daoism it means that we can only “understand” ourselves in the context of Mystery. This represents a momentous movement into the realm of ambiguity, of not-knowing, that Zhuangzi fully embraces and to and by which he makes a creative response. This is making the useless the most useful thing of all.

Walking Two Roads can be understood as the practical application of this relationship between the Heavenly and the Human. All that we do upon the human road is done in an awareness of the implications of the heavenly road, which he takes as equalizing in its indeterminacy.


The purpose of the story of the trainer and his monkeys, Zhuangzi tells us, is to illustrate the folly of trying to prove the oneness of things. “But to labor your spirit trying to make all things one, without realizing they are all the same [whether you do so or not], is called “Three in the Morning.’” (Ziporyn; 2:23)

This is most likely a reference to Zhuangzi’s sparring buddy Huizi who did precisely this. As a conclusion to his many paradoxes was the pronouncement: “Love all things without exception, for heaven and earth are one body.” (33; Ziporyn, p 124) Zhuangzi obviously does not disagree with the sentiment, but only with the means of realizing it. Indeed, he exclaims the same sense after his own series of paradoxes: “Heaven and earth are born together with me, and the ten thousand things and I are one.” (Ziporyn 2:32)

Some scholars take this to be an ironic dig at Huizi, that it does not actually express Zhuangzi’s opinion. I disagree. The difference between the two is that for Huizi it was a logical conclusion and for Zhuangzi it was an ecstatic experience. If we apply his story of the monkeys here, we see that he does not disagree with the conclusion per se, but only that it never leaves the realm of reason. Huizi always and only took his mind as his teacher.

Huizi is likened to the monkeys, worrying himself about immediate differences without intuitively (phenomenally) realizing that there is no need to do so. Zhuangzi, of course, is the monkey trainer, at least in his imagined scenario. He experiences the oneness of things such that he can walk two roads at once—he can flexibly follow along with every parochial expression while never clinging to any one, including his own.


There is hardly a post in which I do not mention “walking two roads” or feel I could do so. It so neatly conveys the paradoxical relationship between the “heavenly” and the human that obtains whenever we imagine humanity outside its immediate anthropocentric context. It enables us to be informed by a “higher” point of view without negating the more parochial human point of view. By it we can care without caring, hope without hoping, grieve without grieving, fear without fearing, and nourish life without fearing its loss.

Zhuangzi actually uses the term only once, and then somewhat differently, and in a more complicated sense. I have, therefore, adopted it more broadly to describe what is nevertheless an important part of his overall vision.

In the story called Three in the Morning (2:23-4) a monkey trainer tells his monkeys that he’ll be giving them three nuts in the morning and four in the afternoon. The monkeys are outraged. Okay, says the trainer, I’ll give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon. The monkeys are delighted.

Several conclusions are drawn from this simple story. The first is that, “This change in description and arrangement caused no loss . . .” In the vastest arrangement, where all things are equalized, just as 3+4 is the same as 4+3, so also are all things.

But more germane to our current topic is the observation: “Thus, the sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonize with others and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter’s Wheel. This is called ‘Walking Two Roads.’”

There is the human world of rights and wrongs and there is the higher perspective that understands their relative nature and ultimate dis-valuation; they too can be united to form a oneness.

The sage can live in, appreciate and make use of both points of view simultaneously.


Zhuangzi’s “vastest arrangement” is realized by “hiding the world in the world”, yet another imaginative exercise. “When the smaller is hidden in the larger, there remains someplace into which it can escape. But if you hide the world in the world, so there is nowhere for anything to escape to, this is an arrangement, the vastest arrangement, that can sustain all things.” (Ziporyn; 6:28)

Essentially, Zhuangzi suggests we so completely identify with the Totality that there is no place left for us to be lost. This does not guarantee a continuity of individual identity, but then we have presumably simultaneously accepted that we have no-fixed-identity in any case.

Is it possible for there to be some form of continuity that does not entail a continuity of identity? If so, it would seem to be beyond the ability of the mind to fathom, for words imply identity. The world as it manifests is one of constant change, Transformation, and this, we must conclude, precludes the perpetuation of any identity.

There is the story of the ship Janus that had so many refits that every last bit of her was replaced; how then could she still be called the same ship Janus? What’s in a name? It seems rather arbitrary.

On the question of what becomes of us at death Zhuangzi is essentially mute. It doesn’t matter; if we have handed all over to the unavoidable. This seems like a very logical act when you think about it. It is very much like the Skeptic’s ataraxia, a state of peace and tranquility consequent to resting in what we do not know and cannot change. To what extent this is for them a mystical experience I do not know; it most definitely is for Zhuangzi. It is equivalent to wandering free and unfettered within the world with which we have identified.


One of four soon-to-be friends said, “Who can see nothingness as his own head, life as his own spine, and death as his own ass? Who knows the single body formed by life and death, existence and non-existence? I will be his friend!” (Ziporyn; 6:40)

Own the whole ball of wax.

This imaginative exercise is simple enough. Indeed, there is really nothing that profound about Zhuangzi’s vision at all. It’s simply a chosen response to the raw human experience.

Addressing the bondage of “Confucius” to conventional thinking, “Laozi” asks, “Why don’t you simply let him see life and death as a single string, acceptable and unacceptable as a single thread, thus releasing him from his fetters?” (Ziporyn; 5:13)

The point is to take one’s mind beyond its insular focus on the immediate, purely human context, so as to realize its broader context. Zhuangzi calls this recontextualization “the vastest arrangement”. It can only remain the vastest, however, when it is entirely open-ended. Imagine “limitlessness”. Is it possible? It is, it seems, only if something new and different happens to the mind. And that’s the ultimate point of the exercise.

There is, however, also a more immediate and mundane benefit. Taking life and death as a single string, one body, our attitude toward both life and death can be approximatingly transformed. “The proof that one is holding fast to the origin can be seen in true fearlessness.” (Ziporyn; 5:10) It may be that we are unable to realize total release from the debilitating fear of death, but we can realize incremental freedom.

It is important to keep the ideal in mind, but never to the point of undermining the ultimate value of the real and immediate. We want to be able to walk these two roads at once.