The most important thing that the light of reason demonstrates is its own limitations, and this reveals that the entirety of the human experience is suspended in ambiguity. I call this our existential dangle.

“Hence, the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map. He makes no definition of what is right but instead entrusts it to the everyday function of each thing. This is what I call the Illumination of the Obvious.” (Ziporyn; 2:29)

The illumination of this ambiguity creates its own illuminating radiance. We can make use of it. We can chart our course by it.  It can become the defining trajectory of our dao. This again is the usefulness of the useless.

Like Buddhism, Zhuangzi’s philosophy critiques the human condition and discovers its essential emptiness. Yet, whereas Buddhism largely takes this as a negation of “existence”, all of which is suffering, Zhuangzi takes it as an opportunity for the affirmation of all things. This is “letting them all bask in the broad daylight of Heaven. And that too is only a case of going by the rightness of the present ‘this’.” (2:16) All is well. All things are affirmable just as they manifest.

Affirm New York City as you would a hill of ants. Do you see how this point of view can break us out of the cocoon of our anthropocentric preoccupation with right and wrong, affirmable and unaffirmable?  Once released, we do not abandon our concern for the self-flourishing of humanity; only now its incredible dysfunction need not overwhelm us. After a good laugh, we can get busy helping our fellow-ants.


Following Ziporyn’s interpretive rendering of yiming as “the Illumination of the Obvious” we can ask what then is the obvious, and what can it teach us?

All three of Zhuangzi’s uses of yiming concern his extended argument for the relative and perspectival character of our opinions and the possibility of thereby imaginatively unifying them. (2:15, 18, 29) What is obvious is that there is no fixed determinate of value. There is no discernible Idea of the Good written in Heaven. If we take Dao to mean an unambiguous “Way of Heaven”, then this is not Dao as Zhuangzi imagines it. Dao, for Zhuangzi, is the unifying and equalizing in indeterminacy of all ideas of fact and value.

This implies the self-effacement of this view as well. I say that Zhuangzi “imagines” Dao thus because it is itself a chosen perspective which must ultimately dissolve into indeterminacy. It is not the “true” Dao, but just another dao. This is the best we can do, and we have no choice but to do something—we can choose our dao, but we cannot choose to have no dao. We can choose our “operating system”, our world-view, but we cannot function without one.

Why choose this one? Because it obviously aligns with our experience. And this alignment, in Zhuangzi’s view, makes for the most authentic and happiest way to live. Given our obvious circumstances, these are his ultimate values. They require no more justification then does existence itself.

This dao is not for everyone. It is remedial, and thus only for those who find themselves afflicted by a specific sickness, the one the illumination of the obvious itself creates—an uncompromising awareness of our suspension in ambiguity, the experience of our existential dangle. And there are doubtless other remedies for even this.


Yiming (“making use of the light”) can indicate using the light of reason to illuminate things or the things that are thereby illuminated. This latter is what inspires Ziporyn’s rendering: The Illumination of the Obvious. Let your actual experience show you how best to live.

Some of Zhuangzi’s arguments can be hard to follow; some of his mystical leaps can seem otherworldly. But in point of fact he never suggests anything other than what common sense implies. This is the whole point of his dictum: “add nothing to the process of life”.

Nothing he says requires belief, where this means something has to be true. That would be to depend on something, and that renders one’s life contingent and mediated. Rather, he suggests we entrust ourselves to “the everyday function” of life. Suspended in innate ambiguity, this immediacy requires no justification. It is this shift away from the mediation of having to know why to the immediacy of living that is the heart of Daoist practice.

Know thyself. This is the Obvious. Illuminate the self-experience. Illuminate the self-context, the “world”. Live in alignment with things as they manifest, not as you would have them to be. This is Zhuangzi’s philosophy in a nutshell.


Zhuangzi uses the term yiming (“using the light”) three times in the Second Chapter in a clearly technical sense; it describes his present method and its justification. Ziporyn controversially translates “the Illumination of the Obvious” and provides an extensive justification for doing so. (Ziporyn; pp 217-8) Others have suggested “the light of Reason” or “intuitive insight”. The former is compatible with Ziporyn’s take, with some qualifications. The latter is not, and makes for an important distinction in the parting of ways.

Those who translate “intuitive insight” have something like the clarity of understanding realized in “enlightenment” in mind. Ziporyn correctly suggests I think that this is incompatible with Zhuangzi’s overall philosophy which never overturns the essential ambiguity of our experience. Indeed, this insurmountable ambiguity is precisely what “using the light” demonstrates. Anything else is “taking one’s mind as one’s teacher”.

Yiming does imply making use of reason. The Second Chapter is Zhuangzi’s reasoned argument for the limitations of reason. He does not disparage the use of reason, but warns against its misuse. If we think that only reason can teach us how best to live, then we will sever ourselves from the more immediate and organic aspect of our human experience. “Let your mind spring to life from its rootedness in the unthinking parts of yourself.” (23; Ziporyn, p 99) This lies at the very heart of the Daoist vision: Allow and affirm the full expression of your humanity in spontaneity.

“Hence, when the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know, it has reached the utmost.” (2:36) Reason is a wonderful tool, but like everything else it has its limits. Finding those limits by “using the light” of reason itself is both the fulfillment of reason and the opportunity to experience an existential immediacy that reason cannot provide.


Socrates understood something of the value of non-being the change. When the Delphic Oracle declared him the world’s wisest person, he set out to find out how this could be given his understanding that he knew nothing for sure. This, it turns out, was the heart of his wisdom. This echoes “Confucius’” instruction of Yan in the previously mentioned “fasting of the heart” passage: “You have learned the wisdom of being wise, but not the wisdom of being free of wisdom.” (Ziporyn; 4:10)

Socrates thus made it his mission to find someone who was wiser than he, someone who knew things for sure. It was an ironic mission, needless to say. It soon became clear that no one knew what they were talking about. One young man on his way to court to accuse his father of murder for the killing of a slave is sure what justice is—until he meets Socrates. But Socrates does not tell him he does not know; he simply asks questions until the young man realizes for himself that he does not know. This is the Socratic method—midwifery.

The maieutic method (intellectual midwifery) does not deliver the conclusion; it does not declare the truth; it facilitates the self-realization of truth. Like Zhuangzi’s unique spin on qi (ch’i), it is “an emptiness awaiting the presence [arising] of beings”. (4:9) It creates the occasion for a self-aware understanding of one’s true situation.

True truth is subjective in that it is self-realized and self-aware. Self-awareness, from the Zhuangzian point of view, is inseparable from an awareness of one’s suspension in utter ambiguity—one’s essential emptiness. Self-realization is not the discovery of one’s “true self”, but rather of one’s no-fixed-self.



The fifth of the Inner Chapters is full of examples of fictional sages non-being the change. The fact that they are all misfits in some sense or another helps to highlight the fact that there are forces at work that go beyond typical yang-ist human values. They are not rock stars. They are not charismatic gurus. For the most part they simply go about their own business, and that suffices to change others.

One of these sages has lost a foot as punishment for some unspecified crime, and yet people “go to him empty and return filled”. If he can be said to have a method, it is “wordless instruction”. Words are the embodiment of yang. Yin is the emptiness that fills others. (5:1-11)

“Hunchback Limpleg the lipless cripple” so impressed a duke that he thought physical normality an impediment. “Thus, when Virtuosity [de] excels, the physical form is forgotten. But people are unable to forget the forgettable, and instead forget the unforgettable—true forgetfulness!” (Ziporyn; 5:20)

What is the unforgettable most always forgotten? It is the other side of the coin that we always leave out. It is not what is said, but what wasn’t said because it can’t be said. It is the ever-receding horizon of our understanding. To remember it is to remember that we always forget it. And that gives us a transforming inkling of our own emptiness which, paradoxically, enables our fullness.

Philosophical Daoism turns conventional values on their head. We typically value physical beauty, success, fame. Yet Dao, like water, seeks the lowest places, those despised by the world, even while transforming all things. It’s not that the lowly and deformed are superior to the honored, but that in honoring them we are helped to remember the other side of the coin.

Still, it seems that Zhuangzi is telling us that our own physical afflictions can be our best friends; for it is by them that we can soar. These physical misfits are the lucky ones. We cannot take flight in a vacuum; flight requires resistance. “Every enslavement is also an ennobling.” (2:41) Or at least it can be.


Do we need to justify our caring about the state of human affairs and our wanting to improve things? When we express skepticism about the universal applicability of our ethical norms or go still further and declare all ethical questions moot from the perspective Dao, we are told that we must then justify our caring. But this is rationalism speaking. Zhuangzi uses reason to overturn the belief that reason can show us how best to live; why then should he be required to provide reasoned justifications for his proposed alternative?

That alternative is simply to live out our humanity as it manifests. We care. What other justification is required? In the final analysis, this is the only foundation upon which we live, whether we cling to rationalism or not. This is the point of Zhuangzi’s critique of reason—its validity rests entirely in human belief. For this reason we do well to make use of it, but not to the point of letting it trump the unmediated expression of our humanity.

This is what spontaneity is all about. It is living our lives in immediacy. It is trusting ourselves. And this is nothing other than entrusting ourselves to the Totality. The affirmation of the self-expression is the affirmation of all things; there cannot be the one without the other. Saying yes to our human experience is saying yes to everything.

The Daoist strategy for change-making arises from our self-experience and our understanding of how the world manifests. We and the world are a happening without an apparent Cause. We are a becoming that lacks any claim to being. It is the emptiness at our core that moves us. It is our emptiness that moves others. “Dao does nothing, but nothing is left undone.” (Laozi 37)

This is non-being the change.


In the Inner Chapters the celebrated fourth chapter passage recommending “fasting of the heart” has a practical emphasis that is often overlooked in our zeal to find a method for “spiritual enlightenment”. The title of the chapter, “In the Human World”, though likely an editorial add-on, should, however, alert us to its broader context. This, and other passages in this chapter, concern how to effect change in the political world.

Confucius’ favorite disciple, Yan, wants to go to one of the “Warring States” to change the behavior of a young ruler who cares nothing for the misfortunes of his people. Confucius has grave doubts as to the likelihood of his success and worries that Yan will just get himself killed. He must first transform himself if he wishes to transform others.


Yan is actually a good Confucian. He knows what is right and believes it is his job is to teach it to others. He is all about yang-ing. Yang is knowing, doing, self-asserting. Zhuangzi’s Confucius, on the other hand, is a thorough-going Daoist. He believes that yang can only repel yang, while yin will attract it. Yin is the emptiness that occasions the movement of yang in its direction.

Non-being the change is being the change in a yin-ish kind of way. It is what helps others to change while leaving them to think “they did it themselves”. (Laozi 17) Did they? They did and they did not.


Speaking of the imaginary “ancients” Zhuangzi says, “Their oneness was the oneness, but their non-oneness was also the oneness. In their oneness they were followers of the Heavenly. In their non-oneness they were followers of the Human. This is what it is for neither the Heavenly nor the Human to win out over the other. And this is what I call being both Genuine and Human, a Genuine Human Being.” (Ziporyn; 6:22-3)

This is walking two roads in a nutshell. Zhuangzi’s sage is she who lives this paradox. To be genuine (authentic) is to make positive use of this inherent ambiguity. Zhuangzi began this passage by telling us that however great it would be to understand the boundary between these two roads, their relationship must remain forever unknowable. Oneness informs us in our non-oneness, but it does not diminish its affirmability.

Our non-oneness is also the oneness. Ultimately, there is no gap in reality. All is well. All is affirmable. Thus, I say, we are perfect by virtue of our being perfectly who we are, just as we are. If there is “enlightenment”, this for me is its gate. If there is Buddha, then there is nothing that is not already Buddha. There is nothing to do; nothing to become; no conditions to meet; no salvation or redemption is necessary. It is all already totally affirmable. Rejoice and enjoy.

With this behind us, we can more effectively get on with the human non-oneness of improving ourselves and the world in which we live. There’s lots to be done.


The Daoist appreciation for Oneness does not diminish its appreciation of the many. Understanding things from the point of view of their sameness does not negate their differences. Indeed, we are invited to travel in both directions so far that they also are “united to form a oneness”. The unconditional uniqueness of all things is their oneness. They are one and the same in being different.

This brings to mind Ziporyn’s “omnicentrism” which he distills from Tiantai Buddhism as inspired by his reading of Zhuangzi. Every expression is the expression of all things. It is only in being themselves that things are all things. All things are the center; every expression expresses all things. There is no single Center; all things are the center.

The Daoist emphasis on Vastness in contrast to Emptiness also illustrates this sense. “The main principle of Buddhism is Emptiness: nothing is wanted; all is to be abandoned,” wrote Liu Xianxin (1896-1932). “The main principle of Daoism is vastness: everything is wanted; all is to be included.” (Ziporyn; p 137) Whether this is a true representation of Buddhism or not, it does give a sense of the meaning of vastness. The “vastest arrangement” is that which includes all things as affirmed in their uniqueness, without diminishment.

When we identify with vastness, we are better able to let go of any one particular identity in realizing the unity of all identities without abolishing identity altogether. “You temporarily get involved in something or other and proceed to call it ‘myself’ . . . But when you rest securely in your place in the sequence, however things are arranged, and yet separate each passing transformation from the rest, then you enter the clear oneness of Heaven.” (6:50-1)

Things are unavoidably “selves”. The point is not to diminish self-ness, but to enjoy and be whatever self you might presently be without clinging to it in fear of its loss.