There is an Original Dao, the single and true guiding Dao that was practiced by the ancients. But it has been so obscured that now it is only represented in splinters through the philosophies of mere “nook and cranny scholars”. No one understands this Dao in its wholeness, except, presumably, the author of Tianxia.

One can easily imagine this particular scholar in attendance at the Jixia Academy surrounded by so many diverse opinions about the best guiding dao, attempting to synthesize and transcend the lot.

All these diverse opinions, all this sectarianism, all these denominations—surely there must be a single truth that unites them all. Let us then create the denomination that ends all denominations.

Or let us appeal to a religion that, like an amoeba, can absorb every other religion, though it co-opts and destroys them in the process. Let us destroy the many in favor of our particular version of the One.

All opinions about the nature of things are equal in this: They exclude. They draw a cognitive circle the outside of which must be forgotten. Something is always left out. And that, Zhuangzi tells us, by its very exclusion, becomes the most important thing of all.

“What is it?” asks Zhuangzi. “The sage hides it in her heart” and does not say. It cannot be said. It is contentless; it is emptiness—openness.

Is this the true Dao? No, it’s just another dao. But though dao-less-ness is impossible we are still free to choose the one we deem best contributes to our flourishing, and that, presumably, is one that harmonizes with our actual experience.

“Just be empty”, exhorts Zhuangzi—because experience suggests you already are.


The author of the Tianxia begins with a fundamental premise, namely that there is a true and knowable Dao. This is represented as “the ancient arts of the Dao”, “the total system of the ancients”. (33; Ziporyn, p 119)

If its inclusion in the Zhuangzi was because it was thought to be compatible with Zhuangzi’s radical vision, then “Daoism” as seen in Zhuangzi had already gone completely off the rails.

Of course it had. That vision is just too radical in its challenge to the “natural human inclinations”. We want something fixed and sure. We want something to believe in.

But this alone makes the Tianxia a valuable contribution to the Zhuangzi. We can take the book as a whole as representing Zhuangzi in contrast to nearly all the other contributors, rather than as a more or less coherent whole—as so many scholars seem to do. We better understand ideas through their differences, rather than through their sameness.

We do not, of course, want to forget that sameness. For they are in one sense absolutely equal—something not appreciated in the Tianxia.

This method of referring back to the Dao of the ancients is a very common device and one that Zhuangzi himself employed. The difference rests in how literally it is intended. In Zhuangzi, given his overall playful use of myth, historical fact, and argumentation, we can easily catch the intended meanings while forgetting their vehicle.

This is not the case with the Tianxia however. This is all a very serious business—getting the Dao right, returning to the Original Dao, now fragmented.

Still, this need not stop us from having our own playful romp through this unique presentation of so many classical philosophies.


The Tianxia is generally taken as an early product of the so-called School of Syncretism. This was an attempt to synthesize the many divergent philosophies of the Warring States Period. Confucianism, Mohism, Yin/Yang, Legalism and religious Daoism all had their contributions to make. Together they became what became known as Huang-Lao, a highly political (Legalist or Daoist), cosmologically speculative (Yin/Yang), and religious (Daoism as expressed in the Neiye Chapter of the Guanzi) movement guided by Confucian values. 

“Huang-Lao” designates a fusion of the Yellow Emperor/god, mythological founder of Chinese civilization, and Laozi, the purported founder of Daoism who was himself deified.

This was the historical trajectory of this movement, but we should not superimpose all these developments on the Tianxia itself; it only represents the movement in its nascent form.

Nevertheless, the reader will likely already be alerted to take sense in which the Tianxia represents a clear departure from the philosophy of Zhuangzi. This is not simply a difference in “teachings”, but a movement away from “no positive teachings” at all.

And this radical emptiness of content lies at the very heart of Zhuangzian philosophy. “Just be empty—nothing more.” 


Scholars debate the date for the writing of the Tianxia—as they do pretty much everything else. What we can say with some assurance is that it was written later than most all the other chapters of the Zhuangzi. It was likely written in the late Fourth or early Third Century BCE. This coincides with the dates of the Jixia Academy in the State of Qi (ca.315-285 BCE), and I think it is likely a product of that unique assemblage of philosophers.

It was the goal of many philosophers of that time of political upheaval to find a patron who would not only support them, but also implement their political philosophy. This they found in part at the Jixia Academy, although with so many aspirants to their lord’s ear, they likely must have instead debated philosophy among themselves.

Among the possible thousands who spent time there, many of the philosophers discussed in the Tianxia are believed to have been members of the Jixia Academy. It is even possible that Zhuangzi spent some time there.

Daoists, Confucians, Mohists, Naturalists (School of Yin/Yang), and Huang-Lao (Syncretists) were all in attendance.

One can only imagine the wonderful (and heated) debates and cross-fertilizations that took place there.


The 33rd and final chapter of the Zhuangzi, “Tianxia” (“Under Heaven”), is the first extant summation of the philosophies of the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). As such it is an especially helpful window into not only the philosophies themselves, but also their synthesis into a new philosophy.

For the author of the Tianxia clearly had his own philosophical agenda and this guided his interpretation of all the others.

It is my modus operandi to interpret and critique the other chapters of the Zhuangzi in the light of the philosophy presented in the Inner Chapters (1–7), rather than the other way around. This is frequently not the case with more scholarly studies of Zhuangzi. Not only is his philosophy interpreted in the light of these other chapters, but also in the context of a wider understanding of “Daoism”. Even when contrary to the stated purpose, we often see the superimposition of external ideas onto Zhuangzi. Because he is taken as a “Daoist”, he must be expressing a Daoist point of view—even though it took form long after he wrote.

Because I take Zhuangzi’s philosophy as quite unique in a radical sense, this study of the Tianxia will be as much about contrast as about agreement.


“Far-flung and unfettered” are two adjectives Zhuangzi uses to describe wandering. They are mutually implying.

The first speaks to the boundlessness of the experience. Wandering is an excursion into vastness, limitlessness, emptiness, The Great Openness. These are “our homeland of not even anything” because they do not signify a something but merely a quality of experience. Openness is openness only when it remains open-ended, and that is possible only when it ultimately designates nothing in particular.

The second speaks to the quality of unfixedness so central to Zhuangzi’s vision of freedom. Most important is the experience of no-fixed-self. One identifies with Transformation rather than one’s immediate self-experience. One’s present self-identity becomes a lightly held moment in time to pleasurably enjoy the mysterious Totality.

This core unfixedness affects our interface with everything else. We are no longer bound by fixed truths—nothing has to be true for us to be able to wander. We are no longer bound by the hopes and fears associated with “benefit and harm”, but equally wander in whatever transpires. Life and death become a single string when there is no fixed-self to lose.

These are framed in negation, though they are actually all about affirmation. It’s all good. All is well. We might then also mention that to wander is to play, and that implies being playful. And that implies having a self that playfully plays. And this equates to the enjoyment of life—nothing more.

All this is just an imaginative exercise, needless to say. None of it is true. It’s just a wandering.


Having become “one with the Transforming Openness”, Yan is “free of all constancy”. This is a delightful overturning of conventional value. Typically, to be constant is to be real. Transience is a lesser mode of being. (Essence precedes existence.)

To be constant is to be fixed; but to be fixed is to be incapable of wandering.

If we imagine reality as a Transforming Openness—an interpretive possibility which seems most consistent with our experience—then belief in anything fixed is delusory in any case. Since it is our psychological experience that most concerns Zhuangzi, it is the overturning of our sense of being a fixed-self that is at issue here.

This same Yan is he who discovered his core emptiness and thus realized that he “had yet to begin to exist”. He realized no-fixed-self—a self-experience in which one’s identity becomes merely a “temporary lodging”.

“Seeing all lodging places as one, let yourself be lodged in whichever cannot be avoided.” Or, “Making your real home in oneness, let yourself be temporarily lodged in whatever cannot be avoided.” (4:10; note 6)

The capacity to wander thus entails the loss of one’s “me”—a fixed somebody that fears the loss of its own self and cannot therefore escape the tyranny of “benefit and harm”.

Perhaps this is why Zhuangzi lit upon “wandering” as his chief metaphor for freedom. The wanderer has no other home than the world itself. She has hid her self in the world—“hid the world in the world where nothing can be lost.”

The sage makes the Transforming Openness her home and can freely wander everywhere within it.


If we have “the capacity to wander”, we can wander in all circumstances. But what is the capacity to wander and how do we get it?

Since I don’t have that capacity, how could I say? Well, the saying is relatively easy, because the concept is easy. It is also the case that, as was likely with Zhuangzi himself, our interface with this possibility is dialectical. This is to say that it is “realized” only as and by approximation. Were it otherwise, if there was some final state that had to be achieved, then our wandering would depend on that and no wandering would be possible.

We can, therefore, wander in our inability to wander, or in our inability to wander in our inability to wander, or . . .  If this doesn’t seem to logically cohere, it is because it reflects the process of life itself. Does life make sense?

There seems to be two strains of methodology presented in the Inner Chapters. One suggests that we just take the leap, make the choice, just do it. “Hand it all over to the unavoidable.”

The other suggests some form of meditation that brings us to the point where the wandering follows as a matter of course. The story in which Confucius begs to be the disciple of his disciple who has realized this serves as a case in point.

After much “sitting and forgetting” Yan has become “one with the Transforming Openness.” “The same as it?” Confucius exclaims. “But then you are free of all preference! Transforming? But then you are free of all constancy!” (6:54-5)

There is no reason why we cannot utilize both methods. Indeed, the practice of the one without the other might be impossible. This is especially the case when taking meditation as an imaginative excursion (as I do). We can only “hand it all over to the unavoidable” when we have imagined a point of view that encourages us to do so.


“Zhuangzi said, ‘If a man has the capacity to wander, can anything keep him from wandering?’” (26; p 113)

Whether Zhuangzi actually said this or not, this statement speaks to the heart of what it is to wander.

Nothing can keep the wanderer from wandering because wandering depends on nothing. Indeed, wandering is precisely this non-dependence.

It follows that if we cannot wander in everything, then we cannot wander in anything.

We might think we are wandering in the “beneficial”, but if we could not do the same in the “harmful”, then we would not be wandering. Wandering is the transcendence of dependence on “benefit and harm”.

This invites our imaginative meditation—further words are unnecessary; but here are some more:

“Let your mind be carried along by things so that your mind wanders freely. Hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish what is central within you.” (4:16)

“You just release the mind to play in the harmony of all de. Seeing what is one and the same to all things, nothing is ever felt to be lost.” (5:6)

In non-dependence, nothing can be lost. There is nothing to lose.


Wandering is Zhuangzi’s paramount metaphor for the freedom of the sage. The image is so packed with suggested meanings that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let us begin then with the most mundane—that it is mundane. Comparison with however we might imagine “enlightenment” suffices to demonstrate this. When it comes to so-called spiritual awakening, Zhuangzi seems to have set his sights relatively low. This, of course, is because the entirety of his project turns on his commitment to responding to life as it presents, not as we might wish it to be. This is summed up in the exhortation: “Add nothing to the process of life.”

Wandering then takes place in this world and within the givens of our experience. No extra-mundane realities are posited or required.

There’s something liberating in this alone. An imagined “enlightenment”, the realization of some incredible state of being, is an invitation to mount a treadmill of perpetual aspiration and self-denial. Zhuangzi’s wandering seems to be saying, forget all that; just enjoy yourself in the moment, just as you are.

Since we are typically attached and fixed to some one place, some merely “temporary lodging” that we insist on calling home, there is also work to be done here too, of course. However, since there’s no fixed state to achieve, nowhere else we need to go, wandering, as merely an attitude, a psychological orientation, is always ready at hand.

Wandering requires no change, because everything is an occasion for wandering.