“In motion be like water, in stillness like a mirror, in responding like an echo. Vague and ambiguous, as if not really there! Still and quiet, like something transparent and clear! To merge with it is to form a harmony, but to try to gain something from it is to lose it.” (p 123)

This wonderfully captures the Daoist vision. But what is the “it” with which we are meant to merge? That’s the question upon which the entire philosophy turns.

We call it “emptiness”—very much like Laozi does not know its name and so calls it Dao. (Laozi 25) But to name it is to lose it. Thus our naming must be unfixed—it must be a process, a continuous self-emptying. But then, right here, we are engaged in the process of venturing into our own emptiness—and that’s the sum of it.

We naturally think that “it” is out there. But in the process of naming and un-naming it we discover that it is really just in here. We cannot name it, because we cannot name ourselves, and vice versa.

“To try and gain something from it” is equivalent to stopping the process. Only “someone” can gain something from it. But “it” is precisely our sense of no-one-ness.

I like the to quote the ostensible words of Gautama in this regard: “I gained nothing at all from Supreme Enlightenment, and for that very reason it is called Supreme Enlightenment.”

For me, this says all that needs to be said on the subject. The rest is a journey.

Since so much of what travels as Daoism is very much about gaining something from “it”, it is worth yet another mention. This is simply not the “Daoism” of Zhuangzi.


“In motion be like water, in stillness like a mirror, in responding like an echo.” (p 123)

This ostensible quote from Guan Yin reflects three common Daoist tropes—water, the mirror, and the echo. All three suggest a way of being in the world.

Water is the essential Daoist metaphor. It represents the way of yielding and accommodating. It only flows into welcoming spaces (from the spaces’ point of view). It seeks the lowest places, those rejected by humans—swamps and bogs. (Let’s drain that useless swamp and make it useful.) It represents the quintessentially useless—non-existence, not-knowing, the unknowable—that thereby becomes the most useful thing of all.

Yet by its very yielding water transforms all things. Even the hardest rock is shaped by the flow of water. Water is the embodiment of wuwei, the not-doing that does so much. “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.” (Laozi 37)

We are mostly in motion—living and being (becoming) are verbal. We cannot be like Shen Dao’s “clump of earth”. But in our motion we can be like water.

Yet when water is still it acts as a mirror. In our motion we can also be still. We can be like a mirror. This has both inward and outward implications. Both are found in Zhuangzi. “The Consummate Person uses his mind like a mirror, rejecting nothing, welcoming nothing; responding but not storing. Thus he can handle all things without harm.” (7:14)

A mirror “sees” things just as they appear, but it remains unaffected by them. Though the sage is aware of the world’s messes—and is even engaged in their remedy—they do not “enter her Numinous Reservoir”. She remains still in the midst of her motion.

And she is in motion. She “responds”. She responds like an echo. She hears what is said, and returns it illuminated. She enables a better understanding of what is said without imposing her opinion of what should have been said. And, of course, she remains unaffected by what is said.

Outwardly, this stillness has the power to still others: “People cannot see their reflections in running water, but only in still water. Only stillness can still the multitude to the point of genuine stillness.” (5:9) Thus says “Confucius” with reference to “the wordless instruction” of a sagacious ex-con.

I cannot speak of these attributes without sensing how far removed they are from my own way of being the world. Thus they best serve me (at least) as an invitation to take an imaginative excursion into the realm of the ideal.


“Guan Yin said, ‘When nothing dwells within yourself, the forms of all things manifest in you naturally. In motion be like water, in stillness like a mirror, in responding like an echo.’” (p 123)

As previously mentioned, Guan Yin appears to be an entirely fictional character. Unlike Zhuangzi, this author’s orientation obliges him to stick to historical fact—so where does this quote come from? We can only presume that quotes from “him” were part of the same anonymous mix that became the Laozi, ostensibly the words of the legendary Laozi.

It is also likely that the author was often only making his best attempt to provide an interpretive representation of the sayings of these philosophers, rather than quoting them directly. Realizing this helps us to remember that we are not trying to reconstruct the philosophies of any of these philosophers, but are rather simply considering these ideas on their own merits. Their disembodiment frees us to use them to build our own (hopefully) vacuous daos.

Yes, vacuous.

The first line of this quote is really quite profound. As with Dao, emptiness amounts to fullness. Full of what? Everything. This is the all-embracing—not as a kind of containment, but as an open, limitless space. Being empty of a fixed-self creates a great openness into which all things can come and dwell. A fixed-self is yang—it displaces. No-fixed-self is yin—it draws in and welcomes.

And let us not forget there is room and welcome here for a self as well—even for that great bugaboo, the fixed-self. Thankfully so, since only then can we have any dialectical purchase by which to approximate the ideal.

So why would we want to be occupied by everything? Well, for one thing, this is equivalent to “hiding the world in the world” wherein there is no place for us to get lost. And fear of our own loss is a very real psychological reality, whether we like it or no. It’s part of the mess.

Then there is the cosmo-centrism, the universal caring, that such an experience helps facilitate. Though ethical concerns are not Daoism’s primary motivation, they are, nonetheless, a very real consequence of its mystical vision. Then too, Daoism neither flees nor subordinates a concern for our personal and collective flourishing. And our collective (human) flourishing, as we have come to realize most painfully, is inseparable from environmental flourishing.


The Tianxia has much to say of Laozi and Guan Yin that can be taken as in agreement with the philosophy of Zhuangzi, and which helps us to better understand his vision.

“Externally, they had the appearance of pliant weakness and self-deprecating humility. Internally, it was the empty void that leaves all things unharmed which was their firmest reality.” (p 123)

Here my favorite passage from Thomas Merton’s adaptation (The Way of Chuang Tzu) comes to mind:

Who can free himself from achievement

And fame, descend and be lost

Amid the masses of men?

He will flow like Dao, unseen.

He will go about like life itself

With no name and no home.

Any discussion of Dao is inseparable from a discussion of how to be in the world. The point is to be Dao-like. “Dao is empty, yet it never runs dry.” (Laozi 4)

The inner “empty void” is neither imagined nor created; if it isn’t already there as our core experience, then we needn’t add it. But it is, and this is a way to make it useful.

Leaving “all things unharmed” speaks to the giving which is Dao. This is “subtle”. The giving of Dao is in that since it is simply the arising of all things—not their Creator— it neither possesses nor coerces them. (Laozi 37) All things are simply left to be themselves.

“The dao of Heaven benefits and does not harm. The dao of the sage is for others and does not contend.” (Laozi 81)

This is more than just not harming them, but also the most efficient way of helping them. “Who can be together in their very not being together, do things for one another by not doing things for one another?” (6:45) It is not simply being absent, but being present as an absence. It is non-being the change. It is being useful in one’s apparent uselessness.

This is all very “subtle” indeed and probably beyond our capabilities. Its contribution to our actual living is thus by way of dialectically informing our helping. Wu-wei can inform our wei-ing. We are it seems inveterate wei-ers; something that our being-in-a-world would seem to require.


Recontextualizing our desires within a cosmic perspective we will “see the subtle”. Subsequently exercising our desires we will “see the manifest”. What are these?

The manifest is easily enough imagined—it is all that we imagine. Or we can also say that it is all that we imagine exists, which is not to say that it does or does not exist. It is “the world” and how we see ourselves within it. More mundanely, it is the stuff of the world and our “selves” within it.

The subtle, on the other hand, is not so easily imagined; and when we do imagine it, it reverts to the manifest.

Rather than “subtle”, some translate “spiritual” (Legge) and others “mystery” (Suzuki). Since whatever word we use will prove both inadequate and self-contradictory, there is little to choose between them.

Whatever the word may be in the Chinese (to which I am not privy) we might consider an interpretive “empty” given Laozi’s metaphoric use of the term to illustrate what he has in mind here.

“A wheel has thirty spokes, but the empty hub makes it useful. Clay makes a vessel, but its emptiness is its usefulness. An empty interior makes a room, and windows and doors make it habitable. The manifest is valuable, but the empty makes it useful.” (11)

This is Zhuangzi’s “usefulness of the useless”. But the useless must retain its uselessness if it is to continue to be useful. It must remain empty. Naming it a conceivable Nonbeing or a metaphysical Dao renders it immediately useful and thus robs it of its emptiness.

The “subtle” might thus be described as emptiness, limitlessness, open-endedness—none of which can in fact be imagined except as invitations to experience the unimaginably subtle.


So much rests on how we understand the lines in the Laozi (1) which I have admittedly controversially rendered, that it’s worth spending more time with them.

“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest.”

The most translations frame it in hierarchically valuative terms: Free from desire you will see the spiritual; desiring, you will only see the material. In other words, we should strive to be free from desire so as to become spiritual. Desires are to be eliminated.

I have taken a more Zhuangzian approach, namely that we would do well to walk both roads simultaneously. Desires are to be embraced and affirmed; only now they are informed by a sense of their relative nature. The difference between these views is like night and day.

The more traditional view is essentially dualistic. The “spiritual” is better, higher, purer; the material is bad, lower, corrupted.

The lines immediately following seem to support the alternative view: “These two arise from the same source though they have different names. Together they are Mystery. Mystery within Mystery—this is the gate into all that is subtle.”

What “two”? The “subtle” and the “manifest”. They are the same as equal participants in Mystery. And the gate into Mystery is not the denial of the one in preference for the other, but rather the embrace of both.

This is further supported by the second chapter which illustrates the mutual arising of opposites: “Being and Non-Being give birth to one another.” Together, Zhuangzi tells us, they can be united to form a oneness wherein the newly arising third term is openness and emptiness.


We are told that Laozi “took the cords of restraint [as] his regulating thread.” (p 123) But if Laozi actually lived his philosophy (which is highly unlikely) then he did no such thing. This would not be wuwei, but wei. It would be forgetting the second part of his suggestions regarding desire:

“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest.” (Laozi 1)

But how do we both have and not-have desires? Zhuangzi, I think, hit on an essential attribute that facilitates this possibility: non-dependence.

If I fall ill, I naturally desire to get well. If, however, I do not recover, my inner peace is not disturbed since that peace does not depend on getting well. I have “handed it all over to the unavoidable”. And I can do this because I have “hidden the world in the world”, which is to say that I have so completely identified with the Great Happening that there’s nowhere left to be lost. Whatever Happens is good. If health is good, then so too is ill-health. If my life is good, then so too is my death.

All is well in the Great Mess. The Tianxia seems to believe Laozi came to a similar conclusion: “Somehow or other it will work out all right.” This is said in the context of his relationship with desire: “Everyone else sought to get what they wanted, but he found completeness in the indirect twists and turns [of life].” There is completeness in all eventualities, because, in the “vastest arrangement”, nothing can be other than complete.

In the view from Dao it will not, of course, “work out all right”, because there was never anything not already so. From the human point of view, however, this psychological movement—the adoption of a point of view—seems necessary. Our sense of the not-rightness of some things is not obviated by our understanding of their ultimate rightness. Our movement between the two creates the ambiguity of “neither of the two” (=Penumbra; cf. 2:47-8 and note 36).


“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest.” (Laozi 1)

This translation would be considered very controversial in the unlikely event that any scholar cared about my opinions, in as much as the traditional rendering has it imply that we should eschew desires altogether. However, to my thinking, this rendering is entirely consistent with and is implied by the rest of the chapter.

This simultaneous experience of freedom from desire and its apparent opposite, the exercise of desire, wonderfully illustrates the middle way that Madhyamika Buddhism later developed to a science. Not this; not that; both and neither. Empty, yet full; full, yet empty.

There is dialectic here—thesis, antithesis, synthesis . . . thesis, antithesis, synthesis . . .

It is dynamic and unending. We don’t discover the middle way, the final and clear guiding principle. Rather, we are cast into perpetual motion, drift and unfixedness—an emptiness (shunyata) in motion.

Philosophical Daoism covers this ground through a via negativa, the way of wu: Dao that is not-Dao, doing that is not-doing, knowing that is not-knowing, hope that is not-hope, desire that is not-desire, being that is not-being.

The concept of wuwei, not-doing, is taken as the signature virtue of the Daoist sage. But what is it? It is not not-doing, but a way of doing that is also not-doing. We struggle to define it, but by definition, to define it is to miss it. To stop the motion and say, “this is it”, is to say what it is not.

This is not to say that we should not say it, for this too is part of the process. Only we should not think that our saying says it.

In the end, wuwei is a way of living, and living is an inexplicable spontaneous arising.


“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source though they have different names. Together they are Mystery. Mystery within Mystery—this is the gate into all that is subtle.” (Laozi 1)

I have suggested that this point of view is quite the contrary of the Tianxia’s representation of Laozi as “regarding the hidden root as the finest quintessence and its manifest reifications as the cruder part . . .” (p 122)

This has to do with the familiar “the Heavenly” versus the human debate. It would be great, Zhuangzi tells us, if Heaven could unambiguously guide us, but it cannot. In the end, we must let the two inform one another while not allowing either to subordinate the other. Here again we see the importance of walking two roads simultaneously. But this can be done only as in a perpetual condition of inherent ambiguity—“drift and doubt”. These two roads can never completely converge. The only resolution to this “problem” is to require no resolution.

The “subtle” (heavenly, “spiritual”) and the “manifest” (things) are both the same and different. They are different in that they have different names. To identify them is to divide and separate them. This is the nature of the words that we cannot do without.

There is original Chaos. The compromise of Chaos does not come with the creation of things, but from the naming of things. Absent the mind and all returns to Chaos. From the human point of view, however, the compromise of Chaos has as much value as Chaos—they have equal validity.

Indeed, every single thing or event, including Chaos itself, no matter how “absolute” or ephemeral and transitory, explains everything else, is everything else, is the Center of all things. All things are the Center. This is Ziporyn’s omnicentrism and, I think, the inevitable conclusion to Zhuangzi’s sense of oneness as expressed in the uniqueness of each thing. (cf. Ziqi’s metaphor of the wind and the trees; 2:1-5)

There is no room here for an ultimate distinction to be made between “the subtle” and “the manifest”. This is the unnamably subtle.


Among the attributes of the “ancient Art of the Dao” that Laozi is said to have realized is: “Regarding the hidden root as the finest quintessence and its manifest reifications as the cruder part . . .” (p 122)

Again, I see this as completely contrary to the spirit of Laozi. It is in complete harmony with other proto-Daoist sensibilities, however. In the Guanzi is the Neiye (Inner Training) chapter, a work likely written just prior to or contemporaneous with Zhuangzi’s work, and one in which we see just this pre-occupation with cultivating the “quintessential”, the purest “something” of the Universe.

This inevitably leads to some form of spiritual/physical, mind/body dualism. There is the purest and the crudest. The physical world is inferior to the spiritual world.

This point of view wins the philosophical and religious wars hands down. Where we fear the dissolution of the body in death, it stands to reason that we would want to believe in something incorruptible that is our truest self. Where reason and “names” are “peculiarly unfixed” without reference to extra-mundane Truth, we will posit that Truth. When all in the world seems “accidental”, we will grasp for the “essential”.

Yet the opening chapter of the Laozi is very careful to avoid just this form of dualism.

The Source is “nameless”, while “naming” is the “Mother of all things”. Yet neither trumps the other:

“Let freedom from desire be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is subtle. Let having desires be your sustaining guide; thus will you see what is manifest. These two arise from the same source though they have different names. Together they are Mystery. Mystery within Mystery—this is the gate into all that is subtle.”

In other words, walk two roads. They have equal validity. It’s walking but one road—whichever one—that is contrary to our actual life experience.