“Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

Because he was able to harmonize with every happening, Zhuangzi’s writings are able to liberate all creatures. Really? Rather, let’s get real. Isn’t that the healthiest way to proceed?

It is unlikely that Zhuangzi was himself liberated. He was just like you and I. He was his own disciple. But a disciple learns and grows, and thus we can assume that Zhuangzi at least realized something of his own philosophy of life.

If we accept that his writings might have changed (or are today changing) one person, we might also imagine that one change, however small, has a ripple effect throughout the universe—“liberating all creatures”. That, however, is not a concept which I, at least, am able to entertain, no matter its profoundly “spiritual” credentials.

The real question then is whether it can liberate me. And, of course, whether it can do the same for your “me”. I can only speak for myself; if you have been so liberated, I beg to be your disciple, which is to say, my liberation—should there be any such thing—is far from complete.

That’s the truth of it. I wish to drive a stake through the heart of religious-mindedness—of the bull shit. But that, I believe, is the very threshold through which any liberation must pass. And this brings us back around to Zhuangzi’s point of departure: It is the lack of anything upon which we can depend that calls forth our non-dependence on anything at all—even so-called liberation. Even so-called non-dependence.

There is liberation right now in being free of the need for liberation. What needs to be “realized” is that nothing needs to be realized. This the rabbit “knows”. The rabbit, however, is not as “blessed” with the complications of a heightened self-awareness as are we. Being authentically human—good in our skin—is, alas, a complicated affair. Thus, this present blabber.


Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

I mentioned that this ability to respond to every circumstance as it arises is an attribute of the sage in much of classical Chinese philosophy. This is worth a bit more attention in that the differences in how this is expressed clearly demonstrate the differences between Zhuangzian sensibilities and more “practical” takes, chiefly in Confucianism, but also in some Daoist positions.

The Confucian (and more religious) Daoist ideal is that the sage knows how best to respond to every situation. She or he has deep insight into the nature and working of things and can therefore always make the right choices when encountering them.

The Zhuangzian ideal has the sage “attuning”, harmonizing, with every circumstance. The Confucian take has to do with a practical kind of wisdom; the Zhuangzian with a psychological kind of wisdom. The former immediately rolls up its sleeves so as to change things; the latter first acknowledges the “rightness” (because it exists) of the circumstance and helps it be its own change where necessary.

The Daoist view that advocates for such a practical kind of wisdom is rooted in a heavenly knowledge. United with Dao one understands the human, the here below. The Confucian view sees heaven as only mandating what it takes as the optimum understanding of human nature and culture. This Daoism knows heaven, while Confucianism knows humanity.

Zhuangzi (and philosophical Daoism generally) knows neither. He prioritizes neither. His sage is therefore able to “follow along with the ‘rightness’ of the present ‘This’”.

The difference is, of course, between wei and wuwei. And this is rooted in whether one believes one can know what is best or not. Does one take one’s mind as one’s teacher, or does one release into not-knowing?

It seems clear enough that those who know best what is beneficial often do the greatest harm.


“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

The Confucian Xunzi (314-239 BCE) said of Zhuangzi that he knew a great deal about heaven but very little about humanity. He clearly did not understand him as well as the author of the Tianxia with whom he likely shared residence at the Jixia Academy. (Nor is it likely that he wished to understand him.)

Zhuangzi did indeed imaginatively travel “up beyond” things, but this also facilitated a better understanding of human circumstances and how to authentically address them. His sage, as I have said, is deeply engaged in the world—only her engagement is “dark”. “Blunt the point. Loosen the tangles. Soften the gaze. Unite with the dust.  This is called the dark uniting.” (Laozi 56)

Yanging manipulators such as Xunzi neither understand nor appreciate the remedial power within the darkness of yin. It works unseen. “Vanishing into things” (Guo Xiang), becoming “one with the Transforming Openness” (6:54), renders one’s activity (wei) a non-activity (wu-wei).

The ability to “respond to every transformation” is a common theme in classical Chinese visions of sagacity. Indeed, this is often taken as the most overt attribute of a sage. Before the arrival of Buddhism, Chinese spirituality was very much about how to practically be in this world. (Zen, something of a synthesis of Buddhism and Daoism, retained this sensibility.)

There are, however, different qualities of response, and the Daoist one is informed and transformed by a mystical uniting with the “heavenly”—which is to say, with openness and vastness.

And quite to the contrary of Xunzi’s myopic reading of Zhuangzi, he is always careful to make clear that neither the heavenly nor the human should have priority over the other. (6:23) We are obliged to walk two roads at once.


“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus [his writings] have a liberating effect on all creatures.” (p 124)

I have suggested that attuning oneself to what we encounter is creating a harmony. It is a response. It is not to remain oblivious to the ceaselessly arising circumstances of our experience, but to respond to them in a certain way. To be unaffected by circumstances—whether considered beneficial or harmful—requires engagement with them.

For the moment, I’d like to focus on just this. There is the question of what it means to harmonize with circumstances, but it is significant in itself that this is an activity. We are in a world; we are a being-in-a-world. Absent the “world” of our own imaginative making and there would be no “us”, no “me”. Take away the context and there is no text. “I” am a relationship, not only with my “me”, but also with everything else. Without an “other” there is no self-experience.

So what? So being sagacious is a relational activity, just as being human is such an activity. The hypothetical sage is as involved with the world as anyone else.

The difference is that she is not as entangled in the Great Tangle as everyone else. Zhuangzi takes a look at right and wrong and determines that they are hopelessly tangled up (2:39); living one’s life in subservience to them is to be entangled in them.

Entanglement is a psychological condition. Our “world” is largely of our own making. There is benefit in taking the world as objectively real—out there as we see and interpret it—but it is also beneficial to  remember that this is a chosen perspective—every point of view is a chosen point of view. And we cannot exist without one.

It would be convenient if there were a fixed and sure point of view—that there is a “real” objective world, for instance—which is why we tend to uncritically default to one. But there is none that we can know for sure.

Our entanglement is thus a chosen condition. The Daoist vision can be seen as an invitation to become disentangled. “Loosen the tangles.” (Laozi 56)

To be disentangled is to remain engaged with the “world” while not taking it so seriously as to take our point of view as if it were a “sworn oath”. (2:7) Then we can engage with an anger that is not-anger; a happiness that is not-happiness (not dependent on circumstances which inseparably links it to its opposite); a hope that is not-hope; a seriousness that is not serious.

Again, it’s like playing a game—taking it seriously is what makes it fun; taking it too seriously is what destroys the fun. Or, it’s like watching a movie—we enjoy getting caught up in the drama, but also must remember that it’s just a movie.

My New Book

This is to let you know that I have just (self-) published a second book: THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi.

This is a compilation of posts that have appeared here and thus contains little new material.

It can be found at:

Booklocker: http://booklocker.com/books/8881.html

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Indifference-Birds-Reflections-Philosophy-Zhuangzi/dp/1634917820/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1479303067&sr=1-1&keywords=The+indifference+of+birds



“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things.” (p 124)

When right and wrong are taken as absolutes, we and the world are cast into constant and irrevocable disharmony. But the world is disharmonious, we might reply. Indeed, it is. But is there also a perspective from which we can say it is not? There is. It is, after all, just a question of perspective, is it not?

This simple step—imagining that all is ultimately well—is a step—a leap—that can set us a-wandering in Zhuangzi’s “vast wilds of open nowhere”—which is to say, in the here and now. It sends us into the “up beyond”. We are cosmically recontextualized.

Can we live harmoniously in a disharmonious world? Can we live harmoniously with our disharmonious selves? If we can, can we still escape a- or immorality and indifference? Or are we meant to be disharmonious—obliged to be angry and confrontational?

Zhuangzi answers that we can be both harmonious and disharmonious—which, because they are opposites, amounts to “neither of the two” (Penumbra), but are rather, “united to form a oneness”. This is the “up beyond”.

We can be harmonious even in the midst of pan-disharmony. We can be moral even in our amorality. We can be at rest even in our activity. We can be angry without being angry; hopeful without hope; sad without being sad; happy without being happy; achieve much, while achieving nothing; be consumed by fire, without being burned. It’s just a matter of perspective.

This is our peace. But it is also the peace of the world. It is being something other than the usual. It’s helping to resolve the problem without being part of the problem; resolving conflict without conflict. It is non-being the change.

Nature is a great harmony—everything metaphorically kills and eats everything else. Everything displaces everything else. Everything participates in an endless process of creation and destruction. Or is this a great disharmony? It’s a matter of perspective.


“He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things.” (p 124)

This observation touches on an essential aspect of Zhuangzi’s practical vision. The way “up” is by way of our responses to the immediate and the mundane. Circumstance is opportunity. Always, and in every case. This is where the rubber meets the road.

And this is where the real work takes place (and I have heaps to do). It’s not about trying to get “up beyond”, but about harmonizing with the here and now.

What does it mean that he “attuned himself with whatever he encountered”? Broadly speaking, it implies harmonization and acceptance. It means “following along with the rightness of their present ‘this’”. (2:33) “For to him each thing is just so, each thing is right, and so he enfolds them all within himself by affirming the rightness of each.” (2:41)

This is where we typically run into difficulties vis-à-vis our moral sense. Bad things are happening—do we just say they’re okay for the sake of our own peace? The answer to this is complex.

First, we must realize that asking the question evinces our bondage to right and wrong. That it is for us a problem is the problem. This has nothing whatsoever to do with whether there is right and wrong. To be free of that bondage does not eliminate right and wrong; it simply transforms our relation to them.

In “the vastest arrangement” there is no right and wrong, and thus our contextualizing of ourselves in that recontextualizes our genuine human experience of recognizing and experiencing right and wrong. How so?

We understand that they do not represent constant, fixed, and ultimate outcomes. All is (ultimately) well in this Great Mess. We understand that ultimately nothing can harm us. (Just as nothing can ultimately benefit us.) Nothing can ultimately benefit or harm others.

But things can and do benefit or harm us and others in a temporal and immediate way. An thus we are desirous to change things, while also not allowing them to “enter our Numinous Reservoir” so as to disturb our peace.

And we are thereby better able to do this. More on this in the next post.


“He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths.” (p 124)

This is it. The whole enchilada.

This observation can be taken as summing up the entirety of Zhuangzi’s mysticism. It describes a movement both incredibly profound and amazingly simple. There is nothing here to know, believe or achieve; it is all always right here, in every direction, everywhere we turn—vast Mystery. It is our very own self-experience.

I have called this movement “surrender in trust”. It is surrender—or perhaps more positively, “release”—into our most fundamental human experience. The mystery of ourselves is no different than the Mystery that is this vastness. Live this; live your humanity. Say “Yes”. Thankfulness arises.

“He opened himself.” There is an exercise of choice here. We are aware of our existential dangle—our suspension over a void. How do we respond? However we like. Zhuangzi suggests this way as the most authentic and the most life- and world-affirming.

There are a multitude of responses possible, but we can suggest four broad kinds. There is ignore-ance; a lack of the awareness that would lead us to seriously consider our human condition. There is belief; an artificial filling of the void. There is rebellion; saying, “No, goddamnit, I will stand against the Universe.” And there is release in trust; saying, “Yes, thank you.”

Whatever our response, it doesn’t matter all that much. No ultimate outcomes lie in the balance. Nothing can be gained or lost. This, at least, is the view from Dao—Zhuangzi’s pan-affirmation—his fundamental trust in the “goodness” of the unavoidable.

Thus the only real value resides in temporal outcomes: what works best—what makes for the most enjoyment of life; and this can only be determined from within whatever response one has chosen.

But does one truly choose? One must be free to choose; and volitional freedom is an elusive creature. It is also one most of us assiduously attempt to avoid since it means “standing right at the mouth of the great furnace”. (Fang Yizhi, commenting on 6:57—“This must be what is called Fate, eh?”; p 205) Such freedom mostly only befalls us by way of history, culture, personality and circumstance.

Freedom to choose is likely not chosen, but when present leaves little choice but to choose.


“Above he wandered with the Creator of Things, below he befriended whoever could put life and death outside themselves, free of any end or beginning. He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths.” (p 124)

Clearly the author of the Tianxia had actually read Zhuangzi. Though we take this for granted, it does speak to the provenance of his writings. Someone likely at the Jixia Academy in the 3rd Century BCE had the writings of Zhuangzi in hand, and before their inclusion in a book of which the Tianxia is itself a part.

So we can believe in their authenticity. Or so, in our caring about such things, we can be reminded that their authenticity doesn’t really matter one iota. There’s power in just this realization alone. It opens into wordlessness; contentlessness; non-dependence; emptiness.

This parallels Zhuangzi’s use of “ridiculous and far-flung descriptions, absurd and preposterous sayings, senseless and shapeless phrases . . .” Their “truthfulness” also doesn’t matter; it’s their truthlessness that matters.

We might stumble at mention of the Creator of Things (6:46,48) but we must remember that Zhuangzi had no true culture of theism around which he needed to consciously steer clear. Things would seem to arise from “somewhere”; that’s all that’s implied.

If he only befriended those who “could put life and death outside themselves” (6:40), then he was likely friendless. Once again the author mistakes aspiration for actualization. Still, he has clearly given Zhuangzi’s proposed uniting of life and death to form a single body some serious thought.  But does this entail putting life and death outside oneself? I think we can say that it does—as long as we can appreciate that it also does not.

Doing so allows a sense of vastness, unfixedness, timelessness—of “being free of any end or beginning”. This is what enables our wandering; but in what do we wander? In life—in awareness of our eventual death.


“He came and went along with the quintessential spirit of heaven and earth but still never arrogantly separated himself off from the creatures of the world, for he rejected none of their views of right and wrong and thus was able to get along with worldly conventions.” (pp 123-4)

This is a mouthful, and some of it we might not want to swallow—specifically the implied suggestion that Zhuangzi actually embodied his own dao. The view that he only aspired to it, as I often say, avoids religious-mindedness and actually liberates us in the ability to harmoniously live with our own contradictions.

The “quintessential spirit of heaven and earth”, from the Zhuangzian point of view, is the absence of the same, something the author does not seem to appreciate. Nevertheless, we can say that Zhuangzi believed he had a “higher”, “better” view which simultaneously allowed him to affirm all other views as essentially equal to his own. There is an unavoidable contradiction here which can only be “resolved” by the application of wu—emptiness. The best view is that there is no best view—go figure.

“The creatures of the world” likely covers all things, though the reference to “worldly conventions” narrows it down to the human. Still, according to Ziporyn, Zhuangzi understands all things as having a point of view. At minimum, every thing, in being a thing, is an assertion of its own being. Everything yangs. Every thing says, “Here I am in my rightness”.

This imagined semi-animation of all things can profoundly affect our relationship with the world. All thing-lives matter. Shamanism, with the animism that so often accompanies it, has this to contribute to our present alienation from the things of the world and our consequent abuse of them. We are, of course, obliged to use things—only that use needs to be informed of their own sanctity if we are to flourish together. Such usage is accompanied by thankfulness.

Getting along with “worldly conventions” is a practical outcome of Zhuangzi’s equalization of things and our theories about them. Consummate iconoclasm, because it self-“clasts”, affirms all things rather than rejects them.

Going along with the conventions of others does not necessarily mean that we also practice them, or even that we agree with them. It means that we can at least see them in the context of their value to those that do affirm and practice them. It’s an enlightened cultural relativism that is still also able to judge conventions with respect to their positive and negative contributions to our collective flourishing.