I am not sure where in the Zhuangzi Guo Xiang (c. 252-312) found occasion to develop his idea of “traces”, but it might easily have been from the story in the Outer Chapters of a wheelwright instructing a duke on the folly of clinging to the words of ancient sages. (Since Guo mostly made use of the Zhuangzi as a means for the development and elaboration of his own philosophy of life rather than making a careful commentary on it, it hardly matters what passage inspired him.) Since these sages are long dead, their words are nothing more than the sheddings marking their passing. Because they are dead so too are their teachings. These are radical and powerful words indeed. But of course we don’t have to take them too seriously in as much as they also qualify as traces.
Zhuangzi tells us we would be much better off following our own daos rather than that of the so-called sages. A dao is made by walking it. Everything the sages said and everything we think we know about them are empty traces. The wheelwright could not even teach his own son how to make a wheel because it was a matter of having a knack, not of learning a technique. But perhaps his son, in applying himself to the art of wheel-making, could discover a knack in himself. So too can we learn from the sages without that being a dependence upon them. There’s guidance there. There’s a wheel to be made there. But our success in creating it will be in discovering our own unique knacks, not in attempting to emulate theirs.
We are invited to do as Guo did—make use of Zhuangzi—without following him by rote. Thankfully, we are often not even sure what he was saying. How then could we follow him too closely? Brook Ziporyn has described my scribblings in these terms, just as he would of any and every use of the “wisdom of the ancients”. The point is to engage, and in that engagement, to realize a new and personal application based upon one’s own unique self-experience. But if this is the way of it then there can be no single true interpretation of Zhuangzi or anyone else. That’s good news, for now our engagement can always and only be open-ended, ever-transforming, never-trace-full.