“Skillful barking does not make a dog good, and skillful talking does not make a man even a worthy, much less a great man.” (24; p 105)

Taken somewhat out of its context this observation provides an opportunity to make yet another disclaimer. Sometimes after writing a post I feel genuine pleasure in having skillfully barked. Or at least so it seems to me.

Perhaps there are moments when this makes me feel like a good dog, but for the most part I suffer little from that particular delusion. For whatever personal reason I may wish the reader to know that, it is in point of fact important that she or he do so. It is doubtful that any would take me as “a worthy, much less a great man”; rather, the true point is that no one is, or at least that we must be very cautious—“like crossing a river in winter”—when admiring the barking of any dog, no matter how skillful.

The context of this sentence quoted above is a speech given by “Confucius” at a feast given in his honor. At his most “Daoist”, he proceeds to extol the virtues of “wordless words”. An example of this, he declares, can be seen in the “action” of one of the attendees. As his army was arrayed before another on the verge of battle, he fell asleep with “a feathered fan” in his hand. Seeing such apparent confidence (actually insouciance), the opposing army stood down. This was indeed a “wordless word”—a “good word”.

Confucius goes on to extol the virtues of the truly “Great Man”: “Nothing is more complete than heaven and earth, but do they become so by seeking to be so? One who understands the great completeness seeks nothing, loses nothing, abandons nothing, never letting mere beings alter who he is. He returns only to his own self, yet he finds it inexhaustible. He follows the ancients, but never becomes their mere copy”.

This is a truly wonderful passage, one worthy of our serious and prolonged imaginative engagement. In furthering my point regarding caution, however, I will only step back and suggest that we would do well to remember that such a Great Man is only an ideal—and understanding that is what allows us to “return to our own self”.


Our visceral responses to words can be quite instructive. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a familiar childhood chant. They often do hurt, of course, which is why we have concocted this counter-spell.

This returns us to Song Xing’s “To be insulted is not a disgrace” (1:7; 33; p 121)—his own philosophical counter-spell. If we can achieve an unflappable self-esteem, words cannot hurt us. Zhuangzi, as we have seen, suggests we not even depend on that, but rather abandon our sense of a fixed and vulnerable self altogether.

Words are thus quite useful even—especially—in their potentially negative impacts. An insult is something upon which to soar, or to at least make the attempt. It’s all good training.

The propensity for an exchange of words to devolve into conflict is another fine teaching moment. “They begin nicely enough, but in the end it gets ugly. . . . Words are like wind and waves . . .” (4:15) As every sailor knows, wind means waves, and it’s the waves that are the scary and harmful bit. Similarly, there is nothing like the onset of an argument to demonstrate our continued dependence on self-rightness and our belief in the truth of our opinions.

We can be thankful, therefore, for the downside of words as well as the upside. If we want a teacher, there is nothing better than our own everyday silliness.


Words written about things “spiritual”, given a certain temporal remove (actual or fabricated—think The Book of Mormon), frequently become “scripture”. And scripture easily becomes an occasion for bibliolatry. Ironically, given God’s declared distaste for idolatry, this is most common in the revealed religions wherein God had a lot to say.

God is held hostage to his own words, some of which were admittedly spoken in the heat of a momentary state of wrath. He has also made a lot of promises (See? They’re written right here.)—and God is a promise-keeper, even with his stiff-necked and idolatrous chosen, though it sometimes irks him to have to do so.

Because the Book is infallible, everything in it must be taken literally. God does not lie. God is not Truth; he obeys It.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1John 1:1) There you have it. Let us then worship Logos—the Word—the Book.

Disrespect the Book and we will kill you—irrespective of what it might say about not killing.

Nor are the more intuitive religions free from bibliolatry. “The Buddha said . . .” Really? Belief, it seems, requires fixed truths. (Zen tries to overcome this by advocating experience “outside the Scriptures”. “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”)

Multitudes have been murdered because a mosque sat (now razed) on the supposed birth spot of an “historical” Rama, the hero of the fantastic tale of the Ramayana, now taken quite literally.

This bit of sarcasm is intended as a reminder of our near universal tendency to turn words into Truth. The consequence is more often than not closed- and bloody-mindedness.

I would suggest that Zhuangzi’s words have no more Truth in them than these present ramblings. They are just the scribblings of another work in progress—a work that has no end—a work that is its own end, even if unendingly open-ended.

As always, there’s freedom to be had somewhere in understanding this apparent mess.


Huizi’s chief criticism of Zhuangzi’s philosophy was that his words were “big but useless”. (1:15) For the rationalist, the utility of words stops at their ability to designate a fixed and sure meaning.

The “rectification of names” was a central concern for philosophers of many stripes in Zhuangzi’s time. If we could just make absolutely clear and fixed what words mean, then we would have a Dao that could be spoken. Then we would have sure, cognitive guidance. We could take our minds as our teacher.

Confucius purportedly (this may be a later interpolation) declared the rectification of names the “first thing to be done” if we want to transform society: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” (Analects 13; Legge)

The Daoist revolution, as seen in the opening statement of the Laozi, emphatically declared that no such cognitively fixed guidance was possible: “The dao that can be spoken is not the genuine Dao.”

So, if we are to forget Zhuangzi’s words once we have grasped their meaning, what is that meaning? Only more words can say it, but it cannot be spoken. A bit of a conundrum, it seems. But this need not stop us: “Where is the man who has forgotten words that I might have a few words with him?”

Here are a few words about his meaning: There is the possibility of wandering in freedom if we depend on no words—though we must make use of them to imagine it.

This is a possible psychological response to our experience in life. Words would have us make it the correct response. But forgetting words disallows our doing so. This can be the crux of it. There is a cutting off of fixity, since it is words that are inherently fixed.

Being unfixed is the capacity to wander.


“But human speech is not just the blowing of air. Speech has something of which it speaks, something it refers to. Yes, but what it refers to is peculiarly unfixed. . . . You take it to be different from the chirping of baby birds. But is there really any difference between them?” (2:14)

To my thinking, this equation of human speech to the chirping of baby birds invites one of Zhuangzi’s most powerful imaginative exercises. Just going there for a moment can be truly mind-expanding. Being shaken out of our self-absorbed anthropocentrism can be an exhilarating experience.

What may seem at first like a negation can in fact be profoundly affirming. There is unity in Nature, and we are invited to experientially return to our participation in it. Ultimately, this entails the exchange of a fixed-identity for identification with “The Great Openness”. It’s a pretty good deal all in all.

Pascal’s Wager has relevance here: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Nothing beyond a temporal enhancement of the quality of life is “gained”, of course. (Pascal had salvation in mind.) All is as it is, in any event. No need to mend a cosmic rift is imagined.

There is, of course, also that sense in which human speech is different from the chirping of baby birds. It’s just that words cannot carry the weight of truth which we wish to place upon them. They are “peculiarly unfixed”. Their foundation is ultimately vacuous.

So let’s have fun with words. Let’s play the hand we’ve been dealt as best we can, while not taking things so seriously as to destroy all the fun.


Zhuangzi’s use of Confucius is especially instructive. No matter how serious the message put in his mouth, there is a humorous side to it. Things are not quite as fixed and sure as they might immediately seem to be. We are reminded to take it all with a grain of salt.

The author of the 33rd chapter seems to have missed this: Zhuangzi provides “citations of weighty authorities for verification, words put in the mouth of others for broad acceptance.” (p 123) Again, he seems to have missed the indispensable irony. But then for him there is a True Dao (Path) that needs expressing (albeit it now, lamentably expressed in only fragmented parts). It’s all very serious.

Sometimes Zhuangzi’s Confucius is the consummate spokesperson for Zhuangzi’s “Daoism”. Sometimes, he is the polar opposite of that view. Sometimes he gets that he doesn’t get it and begs to be the disciple of his own disciple who does get it; other times he realizes his own dao will just have to do. (Daos are unavoidable though the one chosen is a matter of personal preference and ability.)

This is Zhuangzi at play. We are invited to play along.


“Spill-over goblet words” are words that self-empty once their meaning has been understood. This puts us in mind of words attributed to Zhuangzi in which he suggests we forget words once we have understood their meaning: “Words are for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?” (26; p 114)

How can it be that words and their meaning are two different things? How can we forget the one and retain the other?

Most fundamentally, words can only represent things—they are not the things themselves. The meaning is the thing itself. If someone says, “This is a tree”, this tells us a lot; we are now able to apply yet more descriptive words to it. We “understand” it better; but we have yet to experience it.

Can we experience a tree?

If we can, this would mean that a vast world of experience is available to us. Not only trees, but every other thing could be experienced beyond their superficial representation in words.

Isn’t “awe” descriptive of an experience of something beyond words? We can be “in awe” in the presence of a majestic redwood. We are affected by it in some visceral way.

What if we could experience everything in this way? What if a dust mite could leave us in awe? Or the dust particle it calls home? How are they the same as the majestic redwood? They are an incredible mystery.

The mystery of things is not simply their unknowableness; it is also that they are simply “there”. And this “meaning” is an experience beyond words. Mystery is an experience. A pleasurable one.


The author of the final chapter of the Zhuangzi suggests that Zhuangzi used three types of words to communicate his message with those he thought “incapable of conversing seriously with himself”. (33; p 123) My sense is that he did not understand Zhuangzi’s motivation at all, and that this was a consequence of his not really grasping his message. Still, there’s lots to learn from his analysis.

The author of the 27th chapter, “Words Lodged Elsewhere”, provides a very similar description of his own words, some of which are in verbatim agreement with those of the 33rd chapter just mentioned. (p 114) Perhaps both authors discussed Zhuangzi’s philosophy at the Jixia Academy which flourished in the late Fourth Century BCE.

It seems that the author of the 27th chapter was representing himself as Zhuangzi, but scholarship would likely demonstrate that this is not from the hand of Zhuangzi. He was in effect making use of Zhuangzi’s own methodological deception.

The most interesting description of Zhuangzi’s words calls them “spill-over goblet words”. This was a special vessel used for ritual purposes. It was hinged in such a way that it tipped and emptied when full. By analogy, Zhuangzi’s words are able to give “unbroken extension of his meanings” and to “give forth new meanings without shedding the old ones.”

Statements are typically fixed in the presentation of their meaning. Over time those meanings either become obsolete or continue to hold their own. Not so those of Zhuangzi, suggest these authors. Their very ambiguity allows new meanings to be discovered in them without contradicting previous meanings.

This is a sophisticated approach to truth and evinces a genuine appreciation of Zhuangzi’s eschewal of fixed truth. Whether these authors were able to follow this through to the logical end—that there is really no knowable truth at all—is another matter. The author of the 33rd chapter clearly was not as evinced in his belief in “the [perfect] ancient art of the Dao”.


Zhuangzi used a lot of words to talk about the unreliability of words. They represent things, but they can never be those things; nor can they ever truly reach the fullness of their meaning since they must necessarily draw a limiting circle around them. The “meaning” of things is their complete context, and that is boundless. They are all mystery.

It is also the case that, when speaking of that boundless context—Chaos, Dao, Mystery—words are their own contradiction. We see this in his discussion of the One. There is One, he suggests. But then he adds that One plus the word makes two, and mention of that makes three. Words are the consequence of not-oneness and are its expression. Like most everything else, they are great—they just need to know their limitations.

Thus, Zhuangzi used various strategies to put his words in their proper place. And in doing so, he was able to convey his message as his medium—a kind of “wordless teaching” full of words.

In one instance, he has his (obviously fictitious sage—itself a strategy) get specific about the character of a sage, but only after that sage admits that these are “reckless words”. (2:41) This is not only an admission of their inadequacy, but also of their danger. His disciple might be so foolish as to take them literally. Thus, he also says that these words must be listened to “recklessly”—that is, in full awareness of their hypothetical and hyperbolic nature.

The hearer has her or his responsibility to season things with a proper dose of yin.

Various of his early interpreters recognized Zhuangzi’s distinctive style and identified some of these strategies. These will be discussed in the following posts.