Emptiness has its beginning and end in the most fundamental human experience. It is the third term where self-consciousness is necessarily dual. What lies between “I” and “me”?  Emptiness. Human self-consciousness comes at a price, and this is it.

In the “fasting of the heart/mind” passage of the Zhuangzi the whole point seems to be the rediscovery of this emptiness. See with qi (ch’i). Confucius tells his disciple Yan. What is qi? “[T]he vital essence [qi] is an emptiness waiting for [dai, depending on] the presence of beings. The Dao alone is what gathers in this emptiness. And it is this emptiness that is the fasting of the heart” (4:9; Ziporyn).

When Yan gives this fasting a try he discovers what this emptiness really means. “Before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real. But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist. Is this what you mean by being empty” (4:10; Ziporyn)? “Exactly”, replies Confucius.

What moves him into activity is the emptiness that creates a space for him to fill. But then it is not “he” that is the real activator, but emptiness. His sense of being a concrete self, it turns out, is only imagined. Self there is, only now it is unfixed, fluid, transitory, and negotiable. Now, any self will do. “Sometimes he thinks he is a horse, sometimes he thinks he’s an ox. Such understanding is truly reliable, such de is deeply genuine” (7:1). When Zhuangzi says, “Just be empty, nothing more” (7:13), this is what he means—have no-fixed-self. In this way we can wander in all things.

Still, emptiness “depends on” the presence of beings. Emptiness is not something out there that pre-exists things; it “exists” only because there are things. Or more specifically, because there is a human thing whose self-consciousness creates the occasion for emptiness to arise.

As always, this is all about the human experience. It is not a metaphysical theory of the nature of Reality. This too is being empty.

“Dao alone gathers in this emptiness.” The experience of Dao is the experience of this emptiness—an emptiness that is populated by all things, a vastness—“the vastest arrangement”.


Artists are often those who take the lead in addressing our essential sense of emptiness. The existentialist novel, Dada, surrealism, absurdism, and ‘pataphysics come to mind. It was in reflecting on the tentative definition of this latter that led me to this reconsideration of the empty center. That definition reads “the science of imaginary solutions and the laws that govern exceptions”.

This definition invites us to enter a realm of thought where there seems to be some sense in it, though none can really be found. It pulls us out of out of our knowing and into a sense of unknowable possibility. For the artist, this is the creative edge.

What it really comes down to is openness. Emptiness is the experience of a lack; but it is also an opportunity to expand and dissolve into the imaginary. Guo Xiang (252-312) speaks of “vanishingly uniting” with all things, and I think this is what he meant. His philosophy is very cerebral, but I suspect he also experienced something of which he wrote.

This imaginary movement has its focus on the Totality, but that has no real conceptual form. Openness is not so much openness to something as it is simply being open. It is, in effect, emptiness.

Emptiness is an experience. A human experience. It is not nothingness—who or what in nothingness could experience nothingness? Emptiness is self-awareness being its own lack. And this entails not the diminishment of the self-experience, but its infinite expansion. Only now it is not so insular—or fragile. Now it is not so completely identity-bound, but can be any identity without loss.


On the epistemological level the omnipresence of emptiness is a consequence of our absolute cluelessness. We haven’t a clue. There may very well be purpose, meaning, Truth, but the only ones we “know” are the ones we make up. On the ontological level, which is to say what we “feel” consequent to how we actually are in the world, these things naturally arise, though they cannot be rationally justified. Zhuangzi suggests we affirm and embrace this latter, though never to the point of knowing the truth of it. It’s a matter of trust. Entrust yourself to life. Entrusting oneself to life is no different than entrusting oneself to the Great Happening. They are the same.

Still, we are rational beings and the exercise of reason is as much a part of being human as anything else. Only when we do so, we are confronted with an omnipresent emptiness. All understanding is ultimately groundless.

If this is a problem, it is also an opportunity. It is our not-knowing that occasions our surrender in trust.

If we knew our Source, we would be well-grounded. But this “Source” is really only present as an absence. It seems “necessary”, but maybe it’s not. Maybe Guo Xiang was right and everything is self-so, spontaneously self-arising, without cause. “The Source” too is an empty concept.

Much of Daoism and most of its interpreters like to make Dao the Source. There’s lots of textual justification for doing so. Even Zhuangzi seems to dance around and flirt with the possibility. However, when we take Zhuangzi as consistent, we see that these flirtations, like his use of reasoned argument, are for the purpose of their own self-effacement. Whether there is a Source or not is immaterial in the face of our persistent not-knowing.

Nor, for Zhuangzi, is Dao a something with which we can unite or commune. Attaining Dao is a psychological experience, nothing more. Again, this is simply taking the fundamental sense of emptiness seriously and consistently. If we wish to think otherwise, this is fine; only it is an abandonment of emptiness.

Our hunger for grounding, our desire to fill the emptiness, is so strong that even those philosophies that make much of emptiness must constantly battle to remain true to this experience. They mostly fail.


The heart of philosophical Daoism is its acknowledgement and embrace of the empty center. The classic articulation is found in Laozi 11: “Thirty spokes make a wheel, but it is the empty center that makes it useful.” There is really no thing or concept that does not participate in this core emptiness. Daoism, therefore, seeks to make the best possible use of it. This is Zhuangzi’s “usefulness of the useless.”

If we could fill that emptiness, attempting to do so would be a worthy project. The underlying premise of Daoism, however, is that we cannot. That attempt would thus be a futile activity, and one that alienated us from our most essential experience. Zhuangzian Daoism is all about engaging with our actual experience so as to see how we might make the life experience as enjoyable as possible. It is not a flight from reality, but a flight through it.

For self-aware human beings this emptiness is omnipresent. This does not mean that it “exists”, but only that for beings that think of existence and non-existence it is unavoidable. It is a purely human phenomenon, and there is really no justification for objectively projecting it onto Reality and making it descriptive of the cosmos. Emptiness is, in this sense, just another empty concept. It is empty of itself.


The polar opposite of religious credulity is closed-minded disbelief. We can sympathize with Jian Wu’s dismissal of the madman Jieyu’s story of a sage who subsists on only wind and dew, but his scathing rebuke by the sage Lian Shu makes us think twice. “It is not only the physical body that can be blind and deaf; the faculty of understanding can also be so. If you were to then ‘agree’ with these words, you would be acting like a virgin girl who has just reached her time” (Ziporyn 1:13).

“Agreeing” with this story would indeed be just religious credulity because Jian has no personal experience that could possibly justify him doing so. Belief in such sages—fully realized masters and the like—can become a surrogate for our own actual lives. “Spiritual” reality becomes something other than our own reality. Whatever path we might be on, the reality of it is our present experience, not some hypothetical ideal that is likely only a chimera. This present experience is the truth of it. Authentic living is about right now, not tomorrow.

Jian is reminiscent of Huizi, Zhuangzi’s Logician debating buddy. Huizi dismissed Zhuangzi’s philosophy as “big and useless” because he couldn’t think outside the box. There is an alternative beyond credulity and disbelief. There are imaginative exercises possible that neither believe nor disbelieve.

Huizi had a huge gourd which, when it proved too big for conventional use as a water bottle or dipper, he smashed to bits. Why did he not use his imagination, asked Zhuangzi, and use it as a boat to wander on the rivers and lakes (a metaphor for spiritual freedom)?

Huizi had a vast stink tree from which nothing could be made, so he chopped it down. “Why not plant it in our homeland of not-even-anything, the vast wilds of open nowhere”, asked Zhuangzi? “Then you could loaf and wander there, doing lots of nothing there at its side, and take yourself a nap, far-flung and unfettered, there beneath it” (Ziporyn 1:15)?

This is the “uselessness of the useless”; if only we can break out of the box of truth and untruth and see what possibilities lay beyond.


When Zhuangzi uses the voice of a fictional sage to express his philosophy we are also invited to appreciate the fantastic character of what is said. Zhuangzi is a jokester and a trickster. He wants us to “get it” without giving us something to get. If there were some propositional truth to believe in, we would be back “taking our minds as our teacher”. “Just be empty, nothing more.” Experiential Dao is described as “the Great Openness”; openness attaches to no one “truth” but wanders freely among them all. A great openness stretches the self out and beyond its self-contained self. Give it an imaginative try—it’s easy enough.

Those familiar with Zen should have no problem appreciating this method. What is the Buddha? “A shit stick.” “The courtyard tree.” “Three pounds of flax.” Woe to the disciple that thinks his mind can penetrate these impenetrable surds. There is an experience quite different than “understanding” on offer here.

The point of Zhuangzi’s fantastic jokery is to align the method with the message. The method is the message. Having overturned the belief that dependence on the rationalizing mind can integrate us with the life experience, how could he then just dish out more of the same?


The madman Jieyu apparently has no difficulty believing there is a sage who subsists on only wind and dew. Is this a problem? Zhuangzi doesn’t suggest so; in fact his sage voice confirms this and more: “This man is harmed by no thing. A flood may reach the sky without drowning him; a drought may melt the stones and scorch the mountains without scalding him” (Ziporyn 1:13).

But clearly this must be hyperbole. The alternative is to engage in religious credulity in the extreme. Instead, we can turn it all on its head and say that the sage starves for lack of anything to eat or drink but wind and dew, is drowned by flood, and is burnt up by drought—and yet it does not harm him. This points us to the very heart of Zhuangzi’s vision, that we should so identify with the Great Happening—the “vastest arrangement”—that no happening can harm us. One with change, no change is unacceptable. This is “hiding the world in the world where nothing can be lost”.

But again, is religious credulity a problem? It is only if we wish to realize Zhuangzi’s vision. Rather than “handing it all over to the unavoidable”, we would depend upon particular outcomes. We would believe in “benefit and harm”; our happiness and security would be conditional.

Ultimately, however, religious credulity is no problem at all. If we affirm and identify with the Totality, no expression is unacceptable. Religion is but another coping strategy, not ultimately different in kind than Zhuangzi’s. It’s really a question of which strategy we find most compatible with our experience.


There is an interesting dialogue in the first of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi that I think can help us to get past literalism and closer to the actual spirit of what Zhuangzi has in mind. This applies not only to this passage, but also to much of his work as a whole.

Jian Wu, an apparent novice in things Daoist, relates the words of the madman Jieyu about a sage living on a holy mountain to the sage Lian Shu. Jian finds the words fantastic and ridiculous—unbelievable. Lian, however, chastises Jian for his spiritual blindness and goes on to further describe the amazing attributes of this sage.

For my part, I often refer to this account of an august sage as proof of the folly of taking Zhuangzi literally. Am I also spiritually blind? Perhaps. But maybe literalism is its own kind of blindness.

Here’s part of that description: “There’s a Spirit-Man living on distinct Mt. Guye with skin like ice and snow, gentle and yielding like a virgin girl. He does not eat the five grains but rather feeds on wind and dew. He rides upon the air and clouds, as if hitching his chariot to dragons, wandering beyond the four seas” (Ziporyn 1:12).

I take the madman Jieyu as religiously credulous, Jian as too dense to see beyond the words, and Lian, as the voice of Zhuangzi, pushing the allegory still further. There are important things being said here, but they are not what is said. This is Zhuangzi having fun as a vehicle for sharing an experience that words really can’t express.

Buddhism Goes to the Laundromat

[This is my four-star Amazon review of Robert Miller’s Buddhist Existentialism: From Anxiety to Authenticity and Freedom.]

This is a great read for anyone interested in what Buddhism has to offer but is put off by its ridiculous addiction to jargon and vast profundity. Siddhartha himself would probably prefer this book to all the sutras that purport to speak in his name. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for religion, then you’d best look elsewhere. Buddhist Existentialism is the antithesis of religion, which is to say, it walks the shunyata talk.

Still, one sometimes does get a whiff of essentialist stink when Miller goes on about Existence Itself, “original mind”, “original purity”, a definitive “cure” for the human predicament, and the like. One wonders if sometimes he has skipped the final rinse. But again, this is hardly fair since he makes clear that voidance is a never ending process, while words have to stop somewhere. Perhaps a final word would have been helpful—something like: Now burn this book.