Scott:  Hello! Who’s your friend?

Zhuangzi:  I’d like to introduce my good friend . . .

Scott:  Huizi!

Huizi:  You are not I, so how do you know that I am Huizi?

Scott:  It’s true that I’m not you and thus can’t know that you are Huizi, but by the same token, you are not I and thus cannot know whether or not I know that you are Huizi.

Huizi:  It’s true that I am not you and thus cannot know for sure who you are, but this establishes my premise that you cannot know who I am.

Scott:  Let’s return to your original question; you asked how I know you are Huizi, which demonstrates that you already knew that I knew you are Huizi. I know it by standing here about to offer you a seat and a glass of wine.

Zhuangzi: Bravo! A great performance! And might I have a glass as well?

Scott:  When have you ever been without a glass in my humble abode? And thank you for bringing your friend—whoever he may be.

Huizi:  Just for you, and because we are chez vous, I will be Huizi, the despicable rationalist and egoist who knew nothing of Dao.

Scott:  So some have said; but I have tried to rehabilitate your reputation, have I not?

Zz:  He has, I assure you, my friend. But I must tell you Scott that Huizi has not been following your blabber as consistently as I. Alas, I must also tell you that yours is a voice crying in a wilderness of your own making and the importance of your ideas is likewise mostly the same—imaginary.

Scott:  You are saying that my blabber is of little consequence in the view of you Immortals?

Huizi:  No, he’s saying that it is of no consequence.

Zz:  But if it makes you feel any better, nothing and no one is of any consequence among those who are privileged to be dead.

Huizi:  And nor should you think it is of any consequence among the living. “But if it makes you feel better” there are likely some few among the living who find it . . . entertaining.

Scott:  Well, I can see that this conversation is going to be lots of fun!

Zz:  Yes! Let’s make it so! And in any case you should be rejoicing to have been admitted into the ranks of the inconsequential dead! Now we can all three romp and wander together in “our homeland of not even anything”!


Scott:  You look about to fall out of your chair; I should let you go.

Zhuangzi:  You should have done that a while ago! But it’s been fun. I’ll be back for more.

Scott:  Before you go, I just want to hear the main points of our discussion again. So, what does it mean to “get it”?

Zz:  Well, for starters there are lots of ways of getting a sense of Dao. We’ve only been looking at one way. So we might want to start by asking what it means to get Dao. This is the Dao-experience—a purely psychological experience with absolutely no reference to some actual metaphysical Dao, and which makes no claim to understanding reality. So, what do you think?

Scott:  I call it the view from Dao. It’s a transformation of perspective. The experience of Dao is one of the equality of all things—including all ideas about things—in oneness. It’s a return of one’s mind to undifferentiated chaos. Yet, it’s also an experience of pan-affirmation, because our very life is an affirmation.

Zz:  That pretty much says it. It’s an experience of the Heavenly—but I understand how that concept has too much cultural baggage for you. But in contrasting that with the Human we are able to see how it is “neither of the two”. Our human point of view is informed by the view from Dao—but it is not negated by that view. We walk two roads at once.

Scott:  And the “getting it” that was suggested in this passage was getting a sense of Dao as having no inherent self-value, but rather as that which allows the positive valuation of all things equally precisely because it has no value itself. Its value is its valuelessness—its uselessness. It’s the way of yin.

Zz:  Right. But we’re not sure if the author “got” what seems to us to be the whole point of his essay. He seems to revert to assigning positive value to Dao—there is the Heavenly in us, and that alone is where de resides, and by it we can “know” the world.

Scott:  Yang always wants to take over—because the human is basically all about yanging. And what constitutes the liberation of the well-frog?

Zz: You’re the one who liberates him—but let me see if I’ve learned my lessons. Ha, ha. The well-frog is depressed because he has become aware of his insignificance—he thought he was somebody, but now he sees he’s a nobody who wants to be a somebody. He’s living in a world of comparisons. His liberation would therefore come through realizing the view from Dao in which all things are equal, so that his smallness would be as affirmable as the vastness of the ocean. Then he could be happy just where he is in all his wonderful insignificance. How’d I do?

Scott:  Not bad.

Zz:  And let’s not forget the most important revelations of all: You are still bound by religious-mindedness in that you need to believe that this dao has to “work” to be valid. And all your positive advocacy is but a reflection of your own sense of falling short and your ridiculous belief that that needs to be remedied. See you later, Well-frog! Bye!


Scott:  So what about Gongsun Long and Huizi? They did the groundwork that led you to take the leap into vastness, but they didn’t see the need, or possibly saw it as somehow unjustified.-

Zhuangzi:  They’re not called “Logicians” for nothing. In the end, for all their supposed irrationalism, they remained rationalists. Irrationalism is a product of rationalism. They are mutually generating opposites. Human existence doesn’t make sense; therefore, it is absurd. This is rationalism deciding that the human experience is irrational. The Logicians never stopped taking reason as their sole teacher. But the leap into vastness is neither rational nor irrational—it is non-rational. As such, it can affirm both the reasonableness of reason and the irrationality of reason.

Scott:  So the liberation of the well-frog was to leap (something natural enough for a frog, I guess) into vastness where all value is equalized and every single thing is both inherently valuable and participates in the value of all other things. But what about Gongsun Long whom the author compares to the unliberated well-frog? Can he be liberated? Does he need to be liberated?

Zz:  Because he’s discouraged, he could use with some liberating, don’t you think? But the author of the story just has him told to go away and forget his supposed encounter with vastness through reading my work. Like the well-frog lording over the tiny creatures in his well, he thought he was really somebody because he was a master at debate—but now he realizes it means nothing. So, yes, I’d suggest to him another dao. But he would be unlikely to consider it, which is just fine. He’d still cope in some way or another, even if with a bit less enjoyment.

Scott:  And Huizi? You invested a lot of time trying to convince him. Did he come around?

Zz:  “Trying to convince him” was never my chief aim. If I had convinced him, how could I have honed my own dao? Without Huizi as my foil, I may have had a very different philosophy. In any case, no; he remained unconvinced. But he still enjoyed his life as much as most people do—maybe even a little more.

Scott:  I’m seeing an inverted pyramid of dialectic here. Typically, we think that a dialectic moves us upward toward a pinnacle—truth—but you seem to see it as moving us out into greater diversity. Does that make sense?

Zz:  Sure. Huizi honed his dao in opposition to my dao and I honed mine in opposition to his. It was a win-win. There’s no pinnacle of truth to which to move. You know the story about a time when there were many suns in the sky. A sage-king had all but one shot out of the sky, because there should only be one sun, one Truth, one ruler.

Scott:  But you twist it around and have a sage say, “How much better are many suns!”

Zz:  Yep. Let a ten thousand flowers bloom! It’s all beautiful!


Scott:  It seems to me that this is a good time for some paradoxes.

Zhuangzi:  Yes! That’s what Gongsun Long and my buddy Huizi were on to. Their deconstruction of language—the demonstration that its grounding is in mere convention, rather than “reality”—that our attempt to make sense of things doesn’t ultimately make sense—led them to understand how the world is non-rational. But how can you demonstrate that with words?

Scott: By creating paradoxes that help to push our minds beyond the confines that words naturally imply. “Nothing is bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mt. Tai is small.”

Zz:  Precisely. When we understand how the “small” and the “big” are the same, we get a sense of vastness. But vastness doesn’t mean really, really big—which would be to once again get caught in the limitedness that language requires. Vastness is limitlessness—complete Open-endedness—something that language, and therefore reason, cannot articulate.

Scott:  So, Dao is this vastness. Which is not a thing, but simply another way of seeing the world.

Zz:  And this Dao is a human creation—just like language.

Scott:  Whoa! That’s saying something radical—but I’m not sure what. Dao is a human creation . . . because Dao is a perspective—a way of seeing the world—and that is a purely human activity. So, is “this Dao” only a dao?

Zz:  Of course. Any Dao that is not a dao is unimaginable and thus entirely outside the provenance of human experience—except as an absence.

Scott:  Yet people largely take “the” Dao as . . . well, as a something—the Source, some kind of God-thing.

Zz:  This “grounds” us in Reality and makes our knowing and our existence make sense. Our natural inclination is to posit that which ends our natural adriftedness. We want a fast and sure mooring—and only an imagined Ultimate Something can provide it.

Scott:  So the choice is between whether to admit our inherent adriftedness and to figure out how to make the best possible use of it, or to imagine some kind of “Ground of Being” that securely anchors us to . . . meaning and purpose.

Zz: Exactly. But we’re stacking the deck a bit. We’re saying that our adriftedness is inherent—the way things really are. This is the “illumination of the obvious”—what our self-inquiry discovers about ourselves. But there’s no need to universalize it. Those who have yet to be “discouraged” or have adopted a different strategy for coping with it, are best left to their own daos. There’s no need for us to be loud-mouthed sea turtles.


Scott:  The River God is full of himself until he reaches the vast ocean and the bottom falls out of his self-esteem which depended on his circumscribed and comparative sense of his greatness. The Ocean God explains that the smallness of the river and the relative vastness of the ocean are, in fact, the same. They are the same in that relative to the vastness of the cosmos they are both small.

Zhuangzi:  Comparisons work on one level; and they are useful on that level. But comparisons also have a certain illogic to them. If anything can be said to be smaller than something else, then absolutely everything can be said to be small. Everything is smaller than something else. What then is the meaning of “small”? Getting through this is the threshold of Dao.

Scott:  So we can get a sense of a oneness here, and that sense is Dao. Dao is neither small nor vast—it is the equalization of things. But this means that we can’t really talk about it. It isn’t “Great”. It isn’t “the” Dao. It isn’t anything.

Zz:  It is the unknowableness (not the Unknowable—a thing) that contextualizes all things and all knowing, and in that Open-endedness is the oneness of things.

Scott:  But that oneness returns us to the affirmability of everything. And this returns us to the absolute affirmability of the well-frog and the tiny world in which he lives. His liberation is not the realization of some vaster thing—the ocean, the cosmos, or even a really vast Dao. It is the realization of the equality of all things, so he can once again be happy in his “smallness”. Whereas previously he lorded over all the tiny creatures in his well and created his sense of self-esteem from his imagined superiority to them, now he is able to identify with all things and participate in the joy of all things.

Zz: Dao, which is vastness beyond vastness—total Open-endedness,—is the end of all relative (comparative) value and the equal valuation of all things. So your liberated well-frog has taken his discouragement at realizing his smallness and used it to realize the unconditional value of his own life experience without comparative reference to any other life experience. I like it!

Scott:  Me too! Since I’m a well-frog!


Zhuangzi:  So tell me how you imagine the liberation of the well-frog.

Scott:  It’s simply a matter of a transformation of perspective. The well frog is full of himself and thinks the tiny world over which he rules is the very definition of vastness. And then . . .

Zz:  And why is that a problem? He’s happy there, right?

Scott:  He was happy; but then a sea turtle happens by the well and looks down. Seeing him, the well-frog brags about how great his world is, and invites him down. The turtle gives it a try, but he’s far too big to fit. So he instead tells the well-frog about the vastness of the ocean. “When the well-frog heard this, he was cast into uncontainable astonishment, shrinking into utter discouragement.” So . .

Zz:  So, the first thing I learn from this is that sages are a curse. The world is full of relatively happy well-frogs, but the so-called sages go around telling them that that’s not good enough—they need to be liberated! Thus, the world is now full of unhappy well-frogs that can’t enjoy being as they are, where they are, and yet still can’t realize the supposedly vaster perspective of the sages. What is really needed is the liberation of the sages!—a liberation that shuts their mouths and opens their hearts to the affirmability of every expression—however “narrow”.

Scott:  I wasn’t headed in that direction, but I see your point. True sages as like doctors—people come to them when they’re sick—doctors don’t go around making people sick so they can cure them. So, we can only suggest the liberation of the well-frog because he is already sick—utterly discouraged.

Zz:  Right. And though it is probably the case that everyone experiences something of this discouragement, some experience it more acutely than others. But since, as you say, no one needs to be saved, there’s no need to go around convincing people that they need to be liberated.

Scott:  Take it or leave it. It doesn’t matter all that much in any case.

Zz:  This is not a serious business. If the game of life has lost its fun, learn to play it in a different way. The point is to play and to have fun.

Scott:  And to get that is liberation. The real cause of the well-frog’s discouragement was not the arrival of the sea turtle, but his own seriousness about his fixed world-view and his dependence on that for his happiness. He didn’t realize that it was all imaginary—a dreamed-up importance—and so he took the game too seriously.

Zz:  Agreed. So tell me about his liberation.


Zhuangzi:  We had best get to your take on the liberation of the well frog—all this wine is making me groggy and I need to take a celestial nap.

Scott:  Okay. But I was hoping we could discuss more about the relativizing of all value and discriminations—I mean it seems to me that that’s the real strength and beauty to be found in this passage.

Zz:  I agree. Maybe we could do that the next time I wander this way. And I’d also enjoy some back and forth about the “happiness of fish” that’s also in this chapter. But then I’ve got all eternity in which to blabber, while you—poor thing—are getting pretty long in the tooth.

Scott:  Yeah, well, “in the writing of books there is no end”, but this one will have an end. So where should we start? Context—as you have said?

Zz:  So there are a bunch of stories appended to this dialogue between the River God and the Ocean God—and most of them deal with my favorite subject . . .

Scott:  You.

Zz:  Yeah, me. But they aren’t really about me, of course, but about someone else’s version of me. In any case, your well frog story is embedded in one of these stories and is used as a metaphor for the vast difference between the understanding of the “Logician” Gongsun Long (that great deconstructor of language) and my own. My understanding is vast—I “begin in the dark obscurity, and return to the Great Openness”. His is like that of a well-frog—narrow and self-contained—an incredibly circumscribed world-view that takes itself as the best and vastest.

Scott:  I like that description of your understanding. You begin in not-knowing and end in One Big Open-endedness.

Zz:  So do I! Only I would call it my imagined understanding. So, though the author has his protagonist Prince Mou tell Gongsun Long that he’d do best to just forget my imagined understanding, you would liberate him and his analogical well-frog. And how would you do that?

Scott:  Hmm. I’m not sure that they can be liberated—or even that they need to be. What interests me is what form that liberation would take, if they were liberated. And I already mentioned my conclusion at the beginning of this conversation—the well-frog is liberated right there in his well. He doesn’t fly out the top of the well and swim in the vast ocean. He doesn’t attain knowledge of the ocean, or anything else. It all has to do with perspective, and a transformation of perspective is still an imagined perspective.


Zhuangzi: I really do like your mantra—“I am perfect by virtue of my being perfectly as I am, just as I am”. But it is rather revealing of your actual experience, don’t you think?

Scott:  For sure. In fact, this whole publicized project is pretty embarrassing. I mean everything for which I advocate is precisely what I lack—which is why I advocate for it. Talk about hanging out your dirty laundry!

Zz:  And why would anyone take your advocacy seriously, when it’s clear you don’t know what you’re talking about?

Scott:  I’m doubtful that anyone does. So the value of this writing practice as far as the reader is concerned is that it presents itself as a personal project of self-exploration. It does not suggest that one adopt my responses, but only that one might wish to engage in a similar project. But what about you—Did you know what you were talking about?

Zz:  What!? How could you question the de of a great sage!? An Immortal, no less! Where would you find answers if I did not know what I was talking about?

Scott:  I’ll take that as a “no”.

Zz:  Take it as a dodge. Hold it in ambiguity. “Release your mind to play in the harmony of all de.”

Scott:  We seem to have gotten back to the question of efficacy. Knowing what you’re talking about means having realized what you advocate. And you won’t say whether you did that or not. So there’s no basis for my belief in the efficacy of your responses to life.

Zz:  Apart from your own experience in their application—which is apparently minimal.

Scott:  Hold that in ambiguity! But the important thing is: Zhuangzi doesn’t have the answers!

Zz:  You’re making progress. Pretty soon I’ll be begging to be your disciple. Ha, ha, ha.


Scott:  So de—the expression of Dao—is not found exclusively in the Heavenly as the author has it, but in the human informed by the Heavenly. Dao does not abrogate the human, and the human does not abrogate Dao, but they rather come together to form a paradoxical synthesis.

Zhuangzi:  “Paradoxical” because they can never really merge—if they did, there would be some fixed and final guidance—some new state of completion, and the end of ambiguity.

Scott:  But this de—the honest living of our ambiguity—seems to be valued above the self-deception of thinking we know. Getting it is better than not-getting it.

Zz:  There is the de that is attainable—psychological de—and the de which is not attainable because it is what everything already is—the expression of metaphysical Dao. Psychological de implies value because it is a human creation. But every human creation—whatever it is—is also de. Getting it and not-getting it are both just humans being human—they are the same as expressions of Dao. They are different in that the lead to different levels of enjoyment.

Scott:  At least theoretically.

Zz:  No, they are not “theoretically” different—they are different in that they lead to different experiential outcomes—what is theoretical is which dao works best for any one individual—something that only the individual can judge.

Scott:  So, because everything is de—an expression of Dao—nothing is or can be lost—no one needs to be saved. And thus, all daos are an expression of Dao and do not impact any ultimate outcome. All is well.

Zz:  I find it curious how this question of ultimate outcomes—being lost or saved—comes up for you. It’s pretty much foreign to my cultural context, but then with the arrival of Buddhism we Chinese also got a big dose of this kind of religious thinking. But at least Buddhism imagines a cosmos in which everything is “saved” in the end.

Scott:  In this regard, what do you think of my mantra: I am perfect by virtue of being perfectly as I am—just as I am?

Zz:  It’s spot on! And I can see how you take it as a “gate” into that wonderful experience of pan-affirmation. Isn’t it simply “going by the rightness of the present This” with respect to yourself? Indeed, if one cannot experience this self-affirmation, then one cannot realize the affirmation of all things.

Scott:  But if one does realize self-affirmation, the affirmation of all things necessarily follows. Our negation of the “other” has its roots in the negation of ourselves.

Zz:  Agreed. The celebration one’s own life is also a celebration of all life and all things—it’s “participating everywhere in the springtime of all beings”. What fun!


Zhuangzi:  It seems to me that the only thread left dangling was my suggestion of a second example of the author’s reversion to knowing—his belief that one can definitively know what’s the Heavenly and what’s the human; that de is only found in the Heavenly; and thus one can and should discover the Heavenly in oneself, and nurture that.

Scott:  Your “pet peeve”—as you said. Mine is this idea of a “true nature” as opposed to the actual, real-world expression of our humanity. He seems to suggest this true nature when he speaks of “what is genuine in you”.

Zz:  I misspoke—sages aren’t meant to have peeves! Ha, ha. But yes, all this talk of the Heavenly as opposed to the human probably makes most “moderns” scratch their heads, but the whole issue resolves to whether or not there is anything beyond our apparent suspension in utter ambiguity that can guide us.

Scott:  That’s a pretty universal hunger—today as much as in your time. We want a fixed mooring that makes existence make sense, reason seem reasonable, and ourselves seem “full and real”.

Zz:  Right. And the most fundamental point of departure for Daoism—as you call it—is that there is absolutely no definitive guidance to be found—anywhere—we are adrift in not-knowing and no experience or attainment is available to change that.

Scott:  “A dao that guides is not a sustainable dao.”

Zz:  Exactly. No dao that knows is Dao. Dao is that Utter Ambiguity. The Dao that guides does so by not-guiding—by continually knocking the feet out from under our attempts at knowing. Dao is the emptiness of not-knowing that ceaselessly and unavoidably contextualizes whatever we think we know.

Scott:  And getting that is the “getting it” that we were discussing earlier. Dao has no positive value—it is the valuelessness that enables the equal valuation of all things. Hmm—I’m not sure how that follows.

Zz:  Humans assign value. We typically assign that value discriminatingly—some things are more valuable than others—humans are more valuable than monkeys, I am more valuable than you, life is more valuable than death. Getting a sense of Dao as that which values all things equally—by not-valuing them—informs our value-assigning.

Scott:  So humans value things, and that’s okay—that’s what we do. But if we allow the view from Dao that equalizes all things to inform our valuating . . . then we value and don’t value at the same time. “Neither of the two”!

Zz:  Exactly. It’s always “neither of the two”. As I tried to make clear, neither the Heavenly nor human trumps the other—we walk a new road, the road of two roads at once—not exclusively the road of valuelessness, nor the road of relative values—but a paradoxical road steeped in ambiguity.