This series is inspired by a book I am presently reading: Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, by Peipei Qiu. My observations will be random, rather than systematic, and (as usual) superficial.

Haikai is a form of Japanese poetry very similar to the better known haiku into which it evolved. In my ignorance (which I choose to retain) I take them as more or less the same. The main thesis of the book is that Basho (1644–1694) and other Japanese poets made use of Daoist themes to transform the comic and parlor-game usage of the linked-verse poetry of haikai into serious poetry.

“Serious” poetry has something to say that cannot be easily said—or perhaps not at all. It makes us “feel” something “spiritual”. We are moved, but we are not sure how or in what way. It’s really no different than being moved by the light of a rising sun on a mountain peak otherwise clothed in fog. (Something I saw this very morning.) The point then of this “transformation” is for this form of poetry to move us. And this, as we know from Basho’s haiku, is something that he often does quite successfully.

Basho did a lot of wandering which inspired a form of travel journal filled with poetry. He felt humbled by those (mostly Buddhist priests) who did the same before him. Yet Qiu points out how very different his (Daoist inspired) sensibility was to theirs. As a case in point, she shares a poem by the Buddhist Saigyo:

Why is a heart

attached to cherry blossoms

still in this body

which, I  thought,

had forsaken the world?

This obvious inner conflict is altogether foreign to philosophical Daoism which sees neither need nor has any desire to forsake the world. Indeed, the “spiritual” is discovered in the world of worldly things.  The wonder is always right here before us in every thing and within us at every moment.

I often quote Liu Xianxin (1896-1932) in this regard: “The main principle of Buddhism is Emptiness: nothing is wanted; all is to be abandoned. The main principle of Daoism is vastness: everything is wanted; all is to be included.” (Ziporyn, p 137)

Though Liu questions how these two could possibly be reconciled, Zen (Chan) seems to have done so—and this may be the greatest contribution of Daoism to this branch of Buddhism.


For his demonstration of the Yangist emphasis on “genuineness” (chen) Graham quotes from “The Old Fisherman” chapter of the Zhuangzi (31) where it is to be sincere and not artificial as one tends to be when following (Confucian) ritual. I don’t find this immediately helpful, but genuineness—authenticity—is, I think, a very important aspect of Zhuangzian Daoism. Be who you are.

This is not an invitation to “act out”, but to harmonize with one’s actual human experience. We keep coming back to this because this is the essence of Zhuangzi’s philosophy. His release into and identification with “the vastest arrangement” (the Great Openness) is in response to this experience and is an extension of authenticity. His mystical leap is as true to his experience as is his sense of being suspended in pan-ambiguity. Nor is this leap fundamentally other than what we do in every waking moment—entrust ourselves to life.

Living authentically is living harmoniously with our human experience. This requires self-awareness—that is, self-knowledge. It also requires honesty. For Sartre, its opposite is “bad faith”—pretending that our motivations are other than they actually are—a kind of self-deceit.

Living authentically is thus also not to seek to “add to the process of life”. What can be added to life? Enlightenment. Immortality. Salvation. The realization of anything extraneous to our actual humanity.

Zhuangzi’s “Perfect/Consummate Person” (1:8) is thus someone who has made the most of an otherwise messy existence. If indeed existence is suffering, then the Zhuangzian sage does not seek to escape suffering, but rather to make the best possible use of it.

This is a great parting of ways that decides whether our response to life will be religiously-minded or existential.


[A personal note: I’m on my boat in Mexico, have been “on the hard”, but “splash” today. This means I’ll be off the grid and thus my posting will be less frequent.]

An interesting thing about Yang Zhu is that his philosophical response to the human experience is entirely practical and secular. He makes no appeal to “Heaven” or to an idealistic “true self”. Just the facts, ma’am.

What are the “facts”? Well, they are however we actually experience life. They are the human condition as it manifests, not as we would have it be, and not as informed by idealist notions of “higher” purpose or of a “true nature”. They are what Zhuangzi’s “illumination of the obvious” tells us about ourselves.

If this is the case, then if we are growing our own response, we need look no further than to our own experience and draw our own conclusions. There is no other guiding authority. “Know thyself”—there’s no better point of departure from a Zhuangzian or Yangist point of view.

Graham suggests three tenets Yangists derive from this inquiry. He arrives at these by way of references to or apparent expressions of this philosophy in various classical documents, especially the Zhuangzi, Lu Spring and Autumn, and Huainanzi. These tenets are: “Keeping one’s nature (xing) intact”, “protecting one’s genuineness (chen)”, and “not letting one’s body be tied to other things”. (Disputers, pp 56-9) I would add a fourth: Our ultimate destiny is completely outside our control.

Our “nature” (xing) is nothing other than how we find ourselves to be. This again is ground-zero for a philosophical Daoist’s response to life—what is our actual experience? A primary aspect of this is our desire to live. The will-to-live is our inherent nature. Its practical outworking is a care for ourselves such that we live for as long and as well as possible. Living out one’s “allotted years” is a fundamental value for Yangists and one which was fully adopted by Daoism.

There’s some fatalism here (my fourth tenet)—we have an allotted life-span and no amount of wishful thinking can change that—no redemption is imagined. Still, there is the freedom to choose to live in a manner that avoids premature death and makes the most of the time. And that is at the heart of Yang’s philosophy—and Zhuangzi’s as well, I believe.

It is said of Yang that “he discovered the body”. It’s hard to imagine the need for such a discovery given our physicality, but the point is that Yang put staying alive first. One should not “sacrifice” one’s physical self for anything external to it. Not for one’s country, not for money, not for power, not for prestige. This is what it means for one’s body not to be tied to other things—not to be “thinged by things”.


Since we have no writings from Yang Zhu, what we know of his philosophy comes by way of his detractors and simple recorders. Of the former, Mencius is the most prominent and I have already mentioned his characterization of him as advocating “everyone for himself” (wei wo). There is another: “Mencius said, ‘Yang Tzu chooses egoism. Even if he could benefit the empire by pulling out one hair, he would not do it.’” (Mencius 7/A/26; Lau)

Lau notes: “This is almost certain to be a distortion of Yang Chu’s doctrine. What he taught was rather that one should not give a hair on one’s body in exchange for the enjoyment of the Empire.” (Note 3, p 187) Scholars seem to universally agree with this assessment. Mencius, as Graham remarks, had “an axe to grind”.

What Yang said and meant was that, in as much as the preservation of one’s life (both physically and psychologically—xing/one’s “nature”) is of utmost importance, one should not compromise it for anything external, not even the possession of the Empire. This would be to be “thinged by things”, “casting aside what is our end in life and becoming a sacrifice for something that is not”. (29; Graham) This represents a principle fully absorbed by Daoism.

Graham explains (Disputers of the Tao, p 53) that many philosophers (“of the knightly class”) of that era were looking for ways to justify non-involvement in government since it often proved to be harmful for one’s physical and psychological well-being. This is Yang’s attempt.

As for his supposed egoism we note that his self-caring also involved care-for-others. If possessing the Empire benefitted him, but harmed others, still he would not take it. The sagacious king who abandons his kingdom and heads for the wilderness rather than fighting to defend it evinces Yangist sentiment: “To send to their deaths the sons and younger brothers of those with whom I dwell is more than I could bear. . . . I have heard that one does not let the means of nourishing do harm to what they nourish.” (28; Graham)

Would that the leaders of the American Empire thought likewise. Instead, they gladly send others off to die for the Empire—which is to say for the corporations that benefit from war and from the extension of global dominance.

But, “What if they gave a war and no one came?” What if, people were unwilling to “die for their country” and instead looked after their own most precious selves? Such “egoism” would indeed benefit the world.



Graham suggests that it would be best to focus on the teachings of a “Yangist” School rather than on those of one man, Yang Zhu. History tends to latch onto one person so as to simplify otherwise complex and ambiguous intellectual phenomena. Laozi is an excellent case in point. Naming the Laozi after this legendary figure, helps us ignore that it was likely a product of many hands expressing many points of view over a considerable amount of time.

Do I do the same with Zhuangzi? It is important to consider those ways in which I might. Taking the Inner Chapters as representing a more or less unified and consistent point of view is admittedly in the end a subjective decision, though one easily supported by the text itself. As for Zhuangzi, we don’t really need him to be anything more than a convenient handle by which to speak of that point of view, though again, he is likely an historical figure and the author of the content of these chapters (though their compilation and arrangement may very well be the work of another hand).

What all this ambiguity teaches us is that . . . well, that we dwell in pan-ambiguity. And that, of course, is the point of departure for the intellectual side of Zhuangzi’s response to the life-experience. Not taking our mind as our teacher applies here as well as everywhere else, though we shouldn’t forget that it is reason that brings us here.

What this means relative to our intellectual engagement with Zhuangzi is that we must continually forget the fish-trap as we assimilate the spirit of what is being said. And this is what is being said.

We evolve our philosophy (our point of view—and we all have one, examined or unexamined, cultivated or left to chance) through engagement with our own life-experience and the responses of others to theirs, but unless we are simultaneously discarding the lot we are still taking our mind as our teacher.

We are continually brought to the edge of a precipice—we stand on the ultimate groundlessness of ideas about ourselves and the world. It’s all made-up. We have interpreted our dream within our dreaming.

We are invited to leap from that precipice into non-dependence on anything at all. We are invited to wander in pan-ambiguity—untethered to any idea. We are invited to release into being human. That, I think, is the point of the entire exercise from a Zhuangzian point of view.

So let’s dream about Yang Zhu and see what he can teach us to both remember and forget.


According to Mencius (Mengzi; 372-289 BCE), the philosophy of Yang Zhu (440-360 BCE) was a major threat to Confucianism and thus to a benevolent and righteous world-order:

“The words of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the Empire. The teaching current in the Empire are those of either the school of Yang or the School of Mo. Yang advocates everyone for himself, which amounts to a denial of one’s prince; Mo advocates love without discrimination, which amounts to a denial of one’s father.” (Mengzi 3B9; D. C. Lau; 1970)

He has been more or less discredited ever since, being described as an egoist and hedonist. These labels are in no small part also a consequence of the supposed Yangist chapter of the Liezi. This may well be a work interpretive of Yang Zhu, but it is highly unlikely that it was in fact written by him. It advocates for making the most of life’s pleasures since one’s time is fleeting and death is likely extinction.

The Liezi itself may very well have been compiled as late as the 4th Century CE, though some of its contents date to as early as the 4th Century BCE. It has been canonized as a Daoist text and Yang is likewise considered a Daoist (or proto-Daoist), albeit a relatively “negative” one. To my thinking, we would do best to discount the so-called Yang Chapter as evidence of the actual teaching of Yang Zhu.

If justification is required for a consideration of his philosophy here, I would cite the (likely apocryphal) story of Zhuangzi (20) and his heedless pursuit of a strange bird from the south while poaching in a forest reserve.  Seeing it, he takes a crossbow out from under his robe and stalks it without consideration for his own physical safety—that is, for his body. He then sees a praying mantis not taking care of its safety grab a cicada that is similarly not taking proper care, and then the bird grabs the mantis without concern for its own safety as Zhuangzi is about to shoot it. But before he can release his bolt, a game warden shouts expletives at him and chases him out of the forest. Zhuangzi concludes: “I too forgot my own self”. Taking care for one’s own physical self was a central theme of Yang’s philosophy.

Interestingly, the next vignette is a story about Yang Zhu. A. C. Graham conjectures that Zhuangzi might have been a Yangist at one point in his philosophical evolution. In any case, he was certainly aware of that philosophy and it influenced his own. Indeed, every philosophy builds on others, whether by way of agreement or disagreement.


Zhuangzi:  No more wine? Well, I need to be on my way in any case. I’ve got another debate with Xunzi and Mencius yesterday.

Scott:  Yesterday?

Zz:  Yeah, “I left today and arrived yesterday”. Ha. Ha. Out beyond, the sun ‘don’t’ rise.

S:  So, how’d the first debate go?

Zz:  As all such things go—nowhere. Still, we all tuned up our own opinions in the process. Mencius and I are really on the same page—though he won’t admit it. Xunzi, on the other hand, he’s a bit of work. It’s hard trying to reason with a . . . what’s that word? . . “fascist”?

S:  That’ll work.

Zz:  He knows what’s right for everybody and thinks it’s the government’s job to force everyone to comply. At least Mencius’ pedagogical model for societal improvement allows for lots of breathing room. And his mystical side opens up into cultivating people’s natural humanity.

S:  His experience of “flood-like qi”?

Zz:  Yeah. He’s pretty vague on it! But he gets a good buzz from completely affirming and releasing into the human life-experience—he’s just afraid to go all-in on the mystical side. He’s afraid it’ll open people up to a moral free-for-all. You know how it is—a trust in humanity betrayed by a simultaneous distrust.

S:  Yeah. Though admittedly there’s room for pessimism. But it hardly seems like it could make things much worse. But back to your opinions on this Trump thing—what do you think, are there any helpful parallels?

Zz:  To be sure. Part of his appeal is his war on personal liberties. Your . . . Puritans? . . . what do you call them now?

S:  Evangelicals.

Zz: Yeah, Evangelicals. Like Xunzi they know what’s right and wrong, and believe they’re obliged to force it on everyone else. For them freedom of religion is the freedom to oppress others. Not that your “liberals” aren’t capable of doing the same thing.

S:  So, the healthier way is—grow our humanity. I see what you mean about Mencius.

Zz:  Yeah, we’re on the same page. Got to go.  Keep the non-faith!


Scott:  I have to confess that I was secretly hoping Trump would win. Since true, progressive change was denied us by the Democratic elite, why not just let Trump give people a huge and hopefully final dose of corporatism, plutocracy and bigotry? Maybe that will wake them up? But now, well, it’s scary now that it’s happened.

Zhuangzi:  Yes, you now live in even more “interesting times”. But you know the story of the man who met the rise and fall of so-called good and bad fortune with equanimity, don’t you? Where’s that found?

S:  The Liezi, I think.

Zz: Ah, yes. The Liezi. It doesn’t have anything by Liezi, you know. Most everything I wrote about him I just made up! He was a bit of a legend, so I made use of his fame. There’s some good Yangist stuff in there, though. A bit one-sided, his emphasis on preserving one’s life as priority number one, but he was on to something. People today don’t get how there was a time when the individual didn’t matter for much—personal freedom wasn’t part of the societal scheme back in his day. He made an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves.

S: Graham suggests you might have once been a Yangist.

Zz: Ha, Ha. Graham had lots of fun playing with my stuff—I just hope he didn’t take his play too seriously. You can play with him, I hope. You do know that you’re just playing with my stuff too, don’t you?!

S: I try to remember that that’s all I’m doing, yeah.

Zz: So, where was I? Oh yeah, the story. There’s a guy whose horse runs off. His neighbors say, Bad luck! He replies, Who knows? Then the horse returns with other horses. What good luck! Who knows? Then his son tries to ride one, falls off and breaks his leg. Bad luck! Who knows? Then the army comes looking for cannon fodder and his son escapes because of his leg. Good luck! Who knows? And so it goes.

S: So the misfortune of having Trump as president (I can hardly say it) and of having millions of people who think that that’s just dandy—that might just turn out for the best. That’s my hope.

Zz: Well, yes. But since you don’t know if the “benefit” that comes out of it won’t be “harm” in the end, maybe you’re missing something.

S: And that is . . . ?

Zz: Well, that “benefit and harm” are all tangled up! We can’t be sure what’s which. And my benefit might be your harm. Better to put your “hope” in what’s beyond hope—beyond concern for benefit and harm. Let your hope be a non-dependent hope—a kind of non-hope. Come on, you know the drill! All is Well!

S: How could I not know it—I made it up. Or did you? I’m not sure.

Zz: Ha. You won’t get an answer to that out of me!


Scott:  So, we can and should be engaged in the struggle for greater justice for us all and for the environment. And we should do so non-violently. Do you have any other strategies to suggest?

Zhuangzi:  Well, for starters, it’d be best not to work on the basis of “should”.

S:  I shouldn’t say “should”?

Z:  You can say “should”, but how you arrive at your “shoulds” is best not done on the basis of “should”. It’s best to do it because that’s who you are—unmediated by should and shouldn’t. Confucius got that, you know. He said he didn’t give a hoot about ought and ought not. It’s unfortunate that he was so bound by tradition—so conservative, but he was a great moralist to be sure.

S:  Yes, I get that. But this too is all tangled up, right? I mean my no-should and my shoulds are both simultaneously present and at work.

Zz: Of course. Everything is all tangled up. Everything. When you get and accept that, well, you’re free to wander in the “slippery mush”—or the “mess”, as you say. It’s not about dis-entangling the world—making it all clear and understandable—but living freely in the tangles—and that’s a different kind of dis-entangling—a dis-entangling of yourself.

S: So, for a strategy in encouraging others to get involved we could say there’s no need for “should”, because the caring is already in the one’s who can best be engaged. It’s a question of helping them to make their caring count.

Zz:  Exactly. Those who do not care about what we care about are more likely to change their opinions by way of our example then by way of our preaching. That’s wuwei one-o-one.

S: Okay. Returning to personal strategies: I should be non-violent; but I shouldn’t need to rely on shoulds; but I can practice being non-violent even while I’m working on the basis of shoulds.

Zz: And you can wander freely atop all these contradictions—because this is life, and life is a much better teacher than the mind that insists that things make sense—they don’t and never will.


Scott:  So, you were going to give me some broad-stroke advice on how to proceed in the age of Trump.

Zhuangzi:  Was I? Okay, I’ll try. But you’ll know that I have no specific answers, right? This is your time, not mine. What I did in my time was keep my head low. That’s how I kept it. You’re not likely to lose yours if you get actively involved—unless you’re a person of color, of course—then the odds of getting killed go up.

It’s important to stay non-violent, of course. It’s yin that overcomes yang. Yanging just invites more yanging, as you know. Yinning is non-being the change. It’s wuwei—non-action action. It’s acting yinnishly.

And this has to come from your guts. If you hate, you’re the same as what you hate. We become what we hate.

S:  The Christians say, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Is that sort of what you mean?

Zz:  Well, not really. That sounds like a lot of BS to me. Isn’t it really just an excuse to inflict a narrow view on others? It’s a whole lot of yanging. And it amounts to just another form of hate. How do you love those whom you don’t affirm and accept?

This Christian thing has got me baffled, I have to admit. Why is what we do with our penises and vaginas so important? I don’t get that. Isn’t it more important that we care for people’s welfare?

S:  The Christian God has a huge problem with sex—go figure. But then, he’s a very small-minded god, in any case.

But, love Trump? That’s asking a lot.

Zz:  Well, he’s human, right? You and he are the same.

S: Ouch! That hurts. But I know you’re right.

Zz: Look. You know where all this is going. When you see how you and Trump are the same, you can more effectively work to change how you are different.

S:  Yeah. None of this is easy though.

Zz: The world is an incredible mess to be sure, but the hardest mess to change is your own, and you can’t do the first well until you have done the hard work of the other.

S:  That would seem to preclude doing anything at all—at least in my case.

Zz: Yeah, well, it’s not as cut and dry as I have said it. It’s moving forward with your mess—dialectically, as I think I’ve heard you say. I’m not sure what that means, but if it means living your mess forward, all tangled up and discombobulated, well then, I agree.