Scott:  I’d like to go back to the idea that since no one ever existed before their birth, they do not even truly exist after their birth, and therefore certainly not after their death. Its real practicality it seems to me is that it helps us reconcile with the core emptiness we all experience.

Zhuangzi:  Right. If it isn’t rooted in our experience then it’s just adding to life.

Scott:  But we do experience ourselves as a someone nonetheless. How do we account for that?

Zz:  We experience ourselves as an experience that naturally objectifies itself—calls itself “me”—and then takes that “me” as something substantial and enduring. We then become attached to that identity and fear its loss. Instead of understanding the self-creation of “me” as a process in the flow of continual process we try to freeze the process and make our “me” an essential something—a “soul”, true-self, or whatever.

Scott:  But it is natural to do this, so . . .

Zz:  Everything that happens is natural. Doing the most “unnatural” thing imaginable is still natural. It’s just as you say with humanity—it is what it does; it isn’t some ideal reality removed from how it manifests. If there is inhumanity, then inhumanity is also humanity. All these declarations that “we are better than this” are said in bad-faith, self-deceit. So yes, it’s natural to posit a “me”—and even to take that “me” as “full and real”. The appendix is also natural—a troublesome and useless left-over within the evolutionary process. A positive consequence of our self-awareness is that we can tweak nature to our own advantage—we can remove the appendix. The habit of taking oneself as a fixed-self is also a natural but troublesome evolutionary product that we can tweak to our own advantage.

Scott:  So the egoic-self is not evil.

Zz:  Not unless nature is evil. Nor does the cosmos care one way or the other that we make ourselves suffer. Nor is the cosmos in any way negatively affected by our dysfunction. Yet we in our anthropocentrism think the cosmos must be fragmented because we seem to be.

Scott:  Humpty-Dumpty—hundun—chaos—does not yearn to be put back together again.

Zz:  Right! And the case can made that all our supposed rational de-chaos-ification is really just chaos on steroids.

Scott:  You seem to be pretty well integrated into today-speak.

Zz:  Sure, when you’ve non-existed forever it’s easy to keep up with the times.


Scott:  I’m reading some Buddhist stuff on emptiness, and a big part of their project is to realize the emptiness of self—to get that it has no “inherent existence”. Isn’t that what you mean when you have Yan say “I have not yet begun to exist”?

Zhuangzi:  Yep. Do you also see how we differ?

Scott:  Well, I find Buddhism pretty hard to pin down—it seems more like a bunch of schools disagreeing with each other than a single point of view. Add popular Buddhism on top of that and it’s hard to say what they believe. But generally speaking, I’d say that Buddhism is essentially a religious project—it knows stuff and it believes that people and the cosmos need saving. You, on the other hand, affirm the lot just as it is—however it is.

Zz:  Yeah, we both recognize that our human experience and expression is a pretty big mess—we suffer a lot and cause other people and things to suffer—but I see this determination as an entirely human point of view. It’s a human problem. They seem to project it onto the cosmos. That’s where they start their knowing.

Scott:  So, just because the self is empty—not a fixed and persisting entity—doesn’t mean that the cosmos and everything in it is also “empty”—that being an entirely human conception. (A rock is empty only to me—not to itself.) And just because humanity deems itself as messed up doesn’t mean that the cosmos is also messed up. It is what it is, and what it “is” is completely affirmable—because that’s how it is.

Zz:  Exactly. The realization of the emptiness of self is simply an exercise for the alleviation of our suffering and the cessation of our inflicting suffering on others and the world. It has nothing to do with setting the cosmos aright again—it’s already “right”.

Scott:  And how is that not also a kind of knowing?

Zz:  Good question! First, it is only an imagined point of view. It is a chosen understanding of the world—not a statement of fact about the world. As such, it recognizes its equivalence with Buddhism—a different imagined and (hopefully) chosen point of view. This is how they are the same. They differ in that Buddhism—at least as best as I can figure—takes its point of view as something other than imagined—but rather as the truth about the nature of things.

Scott: And secondly, since life is experienced as affirmation, you choose to affirm it. And to affirm one’s life is to affirm all things. You don’t know it—you experience it.

Zz:  Yep. So if we can consciously choose a point of view—itself a kind of freedom—we want to choose that one which we find best facilitates our practical affirmation of life and our collective-flourishing. I’m just of the opinion that a religious point of view ultimately just makes for more suffering—and fails of honesty.


Scott:  Do you exist?

Zhuangzi:  What!?

Scott:  Do you still exist—somewhere, somehow, or am I just completely making you up?

Zz:  Ha! That’s a new one. I’m used to people asking if I ever existed. Sure, some people think I still exist as an Immortal—ha, ha. But no one ever seems to wonder if I existed before I supposedly existed. So . . .

Scott:  Wait. Let me finish it. In the view from Dao, if you didn’t exist prior to your supposed existence then you didn’t really exist even when you existed. And so continuing to exist is completely out of the question, since you never really existed in the first place.

Zz: Yeah, that’s it pretty much. But we don’t want to be dogmatic—it’s just a way of imagining things. But when we take a close look at ourselves—like I had Yan do—we can get a sense in which we have never really existed as a concrete entity at all, ever.

Scott:  We are a becoming, a happening—part of the Great Happening in which nothing is permanent and fixed. All identities are in flux—no identity persists, not even for a moment.

Zz:  Yep. That’s the idea. Have you experienced it?

Scott:  Maybe a little? Have you?

Zz: I’m not saying! I like your “Great Happening” trope, by the way.

Scott:  That’s a few things of mine that you like!

Zz: Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head—since that’s where it, me and my agreement came from in the first place.


Scott:  I feel like we’ve touched on something important here; let’s spend some more time with it, what do you say?

Zhuangzi:  I say what you want, remember?

Scott:  Yes, but you still say more than I would say if only I were saying it. What I have you say is “neither of the two”—neither what you, a dead guy, says, nor what I would say without you. It’s something new, unfixed from either of us. And that’s its value—it’s somehow removed from my actual experience, and the empty gap between that and my experience acts as an attractor—it pulls me in that direction. That’s how I teach myself. That’s the dynamic of becoming.

Zz: And that’s what I make qi to be—“an emptiness” that provides the space for becoming. Find it in yourself, and you’ll realize that that is all you really “are”: a becoming—a happening.

Scott: It’s the yin that enables yang.

Zz:  Exactly. And that’s the way everything works. That’s the sum of what you call philosophical Daoism—the way of yin that occasions the fullest expression of yang.

Scott:  And anyone who reads my drivel—as you so endearingly call it—is doing the same thing. Whatever they get from it is neither what I intended nor what they already think, but something new that is neither strictly theirs nor mine. And moving toward it is learning without being taught.

Zz:  And what you think I said isn’t what I said, but that’s the value of what I said. There’s no fixed truth anywhere to be found.

Scott:  And that’s liberating! But scary.

Zz:  Yes. It casts us adrift. We would prefer to be securely moored to some fixed truth or another—but whatever one we imagine is only just that—imagined. (I do like your sailor-talk, by the way.)

Scott:  And since our actual experience is one of adriftedness, our clinging to an imagined truth or our failure to successfully imagine one when we think we need one causes us to suffer.

Zz:  And makes us rigid and judgmental—and bloody-minded.

Scott: Though we prefer to kill for the truth, we would also die for it.

Zz:  Yes, embracing our own emptiness is equivalent to openness—and openness embraces all things in caring and tolerance.


Scott:  If the story of a shadow conversing with its own shadow—Penumbra—can illuminate the dynamics of my conversation with you—a dead guy—then it’s on you to do make the connection. I love the story, but find it near impossible to understand.

Zhuangzi:  That’s quite an admission given that you’ve “explained” it on several occasions. But if it makes you feel any better, I don’t understand it all that well either.

Scott:  You made it up, but you don’t understand it?

Zz:  Honestly, sometimes you are so dense! If I were a Zen master your head would be covered in knots. Its value is in that I don’t understand it, not in that I can or do. But its applicability here is a bit different than its overall intent—which is to question causation and to suggest the self-so-ness of things. Do you know how Penumbra literally translates?

Scott: If Ziporyn is right, it means “neither of the two”.

Zz: He got it right. Penumbra is neither the person who makes the shadow nor that shadow. It is neither this nor that. Its identity is unfixed. It is totally dependent on the other two, yet somehow is uniquely and non-dependently itself. It is neither real nor unreal, neither substantial nor insubstantial. Can you see how that applies here?

Scott:  I put words in the mouth of a dead guy, and they are neither my words nor his. They seem real, but are somehow empty. They are real but somehow unreal.

Zz: Exactly! They are something new—something said, but clearly unfixed. Can you see how this applies to your entire enterprise of engaging with my writing?

Scott:  You meant something specific when you wrote, but when I try to understand it I bring my own needs and presuppositions into it, and thus what comes out is neither what you said, nor what I think, but something new and unfixed to either of us.

Zz:  Yes! And how does it apply to me and what I wrote?

Scott: Hmm, I need to think on that one. What you wrote and what you experienced and knew were not the same—the product was neither of the two. You were creating something new and . . . you weren’t what you were imagining? It was just an exercise to move you in a particular direction!

Zz:  You got it! I wasn’t a “sage” telling you how it is, but a guy just like you creating the vacuum—the space between the real and unreal—the qi!—that could move me where I wanted to go.

Scott:  So that means I can stop apologizing for not walking my talk!

Zz:  Well, in your case the gap is so vast that it might be a good idea to make the occasional disclaimer.


Scott:  This conversation started with something important that we didn’t finish, but I forget what it was.

Zhuangzi:  We were discussing whether you believed your own drivel or not.

Scott:  Yeah, but it was something that led into that. I know; you said you’ve moved on from what you wrote—but I’m still there trying to “get” it. Can you elaborate?

Zz:  I was mostly just twisting your tail. But it’s simple enough—what I wrote was a fish trap; now I’m eating my fish. If it’s all about depending on nothing—and yes, congratulations, you got that much right—then that includes not depending on even that. It is just an idea after all.

Scott:  Well, when you put it that way, I don’t feel so bad about still messing around with the idea—maybe I’ve set my sights too low, but I don’t expect to ever get much further than that. But there’s some fun and freedom to be had in even that.

Zz:  Your theory of “approximation”. I rather like that actually. People just seem to want to take everything so seriously—so absolutist-ly.

Scott:  We want the answer—clarity—an end to our existential dangle. But if you’ve moved on, then I guess that means you’ve gone further than that to which I aspire.

Zz:  Or maybe I’m just dead. Ha, ha, ha.

Scott:  Ha, ha. Why does that comfort me? But that brings up something important that I think is to be learned here, but I don’t know how to address it. This conversation I mean. And not just this conversation, but my engagement with your philosophy generally. There’s something unreal about all of it, yet somehow there’s something . . . genuine (?) in it.

Zz:  You’re having a conversation with a dead guy and putting words in his mouth that you pretend are not your own words—and yet somehow, in some way, they are not—and you’re learning from the process. Yes, most unreal—and yet genuine. Reminds me of life and everything having to do with it actually.

Scott:  And the same applies to my reading of your work: There is something that you actually said, but whatever I take away from it is not that, but rather what I think you said, so that I’m in effect putting words in your mouth once again. Do you agree?

Zz:  Abso-tutely! Maybe Penumbra can help us here—after we refill our glasses, don’t you think?


Zhuangzi:  “Zhuangzi disses this blog”? When have I ever dissed your blog?

Scott:  Well, you’re going to.

Zz:  Okay, but that’s entirely up to you—just remember that it’s you who does it.

Scott:  But wait a minute—you’ve actually read yesterday’s post?

Zz:  Of course I have! I read them all—religiously! Ha, ha.  It’s like reading the “funnies” every morning—a great way to start the day.

Scott:  There! You’ve already started dissing the blog!

Zz:  I have? You call my writing “The Equalizing Jokebook” and say that I’m trying to make people laugh—so, is that dissing my writing?

Scott: Well, no. The difference is whether you laugh with it or at it. And I take you as meaning the latter. Am I wrong?

Zz:  Hmm. I see your point. Admittedly, I do laugh at you a bit. But don’t you also laugh at yourself? Is that dissing yourself? If you aren’t laughing at yourself you’re taking yourself and your blabber entirely too seriously. The day you start doing that is the day I’ll really start dissing you. No I won’t—I’ll just not bother with you anymore.

Scott:  Yeah, I get that. I say the same all the time. Maybe I just don’t always practice it. But, then does this mean you were laughing at yourself when you wrote your stuff?

Zz:  What’s the alternative? You want that I was some kind of “sage” who wasn’t as full of shit as you are? Or some fool who believed his own drivel? Come on—you know better than that. My stuff is no different than your stuff—and your stuff is no different than my stuff. This isn’t scripture, is it? If there’s any truth in it, it’s in that it recognizes no such thing.

Scott:  So, your philosophy is also just a philosophy of cope?

Zz:  Of course it is! And a big part of the coping is doing the philosophy.

Scott:  So, what’s in it for others? I mean, I do have a readership.

Zz:  Yeah, a vast readership! Ha, ha. What’s in it for others is the same as what’s in my writing for you. Your writing and mine are the same—only you use mine as your point of departure.

Scott:  Yes, I see their sameness. But they are also qualitatively different—and I won’t stop pointing to yours rather than to my own.

Zz:  I understand completely. It’s the “ancients” who really got it. Ha, ha!


Scott:  You’re back so soon? What brings you this way?

Zhuangzi:  Ha, ha! “What brings me this way!?” You do, of course. I am entirely at your disposal—I come when you call and say what you want.

Scott:  Eh, you seem to be in a bit of a mood. Did the debate with Mencius and Xunzi not go well?

Zz: It went as expected—and was fun in all its nonsense. But that has nothing to do with my “mood” as you call it. Aren’t I really just telling you like it is? Do you disagree?

Scott:  Well, no. How could I? I’ve just never heard you protest before.

Zz: Protest? Did I protest? Go ahead and make me say whatever you like—it’s all the same to me. Indeed, I quite enjoy it!

Scott:  So . . . I can’t help but ask again (though I know you won’t answer)—Do I get you mostly right?

Zz:  Ha! You just can’t let it go! When you get how it doesn’t matter whether you get me right, you will have gotten me right. But I’ve moved on from all that you want to get right in any case.

Scott:  Wait. Let me get this straight. You no longer believe what you wrote?

Zz: No longer? What makes you think I ever believed it?

Scott:  If you didn’t believe it, why did you write it?

Zz:  I believed it enough to not believe it. But you still seem to believe it. Surely you don’t believe your own drivel. Do, you? Tell me you don’t.

Scott:  I guess I do and I don’t. At least I try not to. Sorta. But look, this is getting complicated—maybe we should have a glass of wine to help ease the way.

Zz: A glass? Such bad-faith! But yes, let’s ease your way. This may be more dis-comforting than complicated.