My basic orientation has been existentialist for most my life. But existentialism does not itself provide a path to any particular purposeful trajectory in terms of what kind of life one wants to live. It is open-ended in this regard. This is its strength as well as its weakness.

For whatever reason—and there are no doubt reasons beyond my immediate control—my natural tendency is toward negation and pessimism. This is why Zhuangzian Daoism has proven to be such a good fit in terms of directing me in a more positive direction. I have chosen this “imaginary solution” as a path into a greater enjoyment of life.

This Daoist existentialism is by no means “the” dao, but simply the one that works for me. It is a chosen philosophy of life, where a multitude of such philosophies are equally valid. The real question is not which dao is “best”, but which dao works best for you.

It seems clearly the case, that we are often stuck in a dao that does not in fact work best for us. We are typically born into a religion, certainly a culture, and just as certainly into a personal character. These bonds are not easy to break; nor should we expect that we will feel the need to do so, or could if we wished. It likely takes some kind of existential trauma for us to realize a genuine paradigm shift, a new dao, and that, unfortunately, will not necessarily be a more helpful dao. The loss of faith, for instance can be a gateway to freedom, or it can be a descent into cynicism and despair.

To my thinking, the attainment of some degree of existential freedom—free-thinking—is worth both the birth trauma and the subsequent adriftedness. It is not, however, something that we need prescribe for others—all things being equal in the vastest arrangement, in any case.


Does existentialism allow for mysticism? It’s been so long since I have read the work of existentialists that I can only say I have a vague memory that there are some who do. Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” could be taken as an invitation to mystical experience. But this, like every form of existentialist mysticism does not fall within the usual definitions of that term. Though Kierkegaard was a theist, no “leap” would have been necessary if he did not see the need to break through the threshold of rationalism, and the consequence of this leap is subjective, not objective truth.

Typically, mysticism is understood as some sort of union or communion with the Absolute. Existentialism knows of no such thing. Its mysticism must therefore be an opening up into not-knowing, into emptiness. This, in fact, is at the heart of Miller’s case for a Buddhist existentialism. He explores the meaning and ramifications of shunyata, emptiness, and discovers that this is precisely what the skepticism of existentialism invites. There are no “answers”; there are no “cures”. It’s all Mystery. This is emptiness. No cognitive formulae are allowed here.

Emptiness is not just a description of how the “world” presents; it is also a practice. It is the continual act of voiding our tendency to make cognitive sense of things, to seek a firm and objective ground that affirms our hunger to be the same, fixed and sure. This activity is mysticism in that it is the abandonment of the knowing-mind in favor of release into Mystery. Mysticism entails experiencing “something”, and that’s what this activity enables.

This, at my reading, is precisely that for which Zhuangzi advocates. Release yourself into Mystery. Wander in not-knowing. Be how life is. Transient. Unfixed. Empty.

Though scholars and interpreters of Zhuangzi never tire of telling us that he advocated for “union with the Dao”, nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the truth. This mostly comes from lumping him into a generalized understanding of “Daoism”, and, quite frankly, an unwillingness to engage in the spirit of Zhuangzi himself.


When existence precedes essence nothing is prescribed, nothing is mandated. We are free to choose our own dao, our own response to life. This is why there is such diversity in existentialist expressions. Some of these have been decidedly negative. Life has no essential meaning, and since we naturally hunger for meaning, life is absurd. According to Camus, our most pressing question is, Why not commit suicide? But this, to my thinking, remains squarely within the rationalist mentality; because life does not make “sense”, it fails of value.

It was to precisely this that Zhuangzi sought to offer an alternative. Rather than “taking our mind as our teacher”, he suggested, why not rather surrender into life as it manifests? Life wants to live and flourish. In the human case, it wants to enjoy itself. So, why not completely identify with this élan and be that flow of life?

Still, there remains Unamuno’s “tragic sense of life”. Suffering, death, and loss still loom large as very real experiences for self-aware beings. The Zhuangzian response is not to deny and repress them, but to acknowledge and make active use of them. Our release into the Great Happening is facilitated by our need to do so. “Handing it all over to the unavoidable” is an active reply to these very same vicissitudes. ”Becoming one with Transformation” is a continual response to the fear of death.

The point is that a Zhuangzian existentialism is always engaged in these responses. Indeed, it is this engagement. We can imagine the hypothetical sage who has arrived beyond the need to so engage—and Zhuangzi does—but to remain authentic and true to our experience we must understanding that the work we do now is our dao.

Zhuangzian existentialism is not the “cure” for our ailments; it is simply a means to make good use of them.


The subtitle to Miller’s Buddhist Existentialism, From Anxiety to Authenticity and Freedom, speaks to both the positive possibilities of such a synthesis and an inherent weakness within Buddhism that makes it especially difficult. The greatest weakness of this book, in my opinion, is that it fails to escape the essentially salvific intentions of Buddhism. We need to be saved and Buddhism will save us. Buddhism is “the cure” for the human condition which is not humanity as it really is, but is a deviation from “the original mind” and the “true self”. It is a deviation from how it should be. This is essentialism, not existentialism.

Can there not be authenticity in anxiety? Authenticity is not the achievement of some ideal state of mind, but the open and honest embrace of ourselves as we actually are in this moment, however we are. It is existential honesty. Its opposite is “bad faith” (Sartre), a dishonesty that leads to a flight from ourselves, inner conflictedness and hypocrisy.

Zhuangzian Daoism, to my thinking, lends itself much more easily to an existentialist interpretation and practice. We do not seek to escape the admittedly troubling aspects of our human experience—chiefly our insatiable hunger for fixed and sure moorings—but instead make use of them. We soar upon our mess, not away from it. Without the mess there could be no soaring, just as Peng could not fly without the monsoonal winds. This is the usefulness of the useless.

Authenticity then is the self-aware honesty and self-acceptance that enables us to pass into immediate affirmation and thankfulness. We need not strive for some idealist perfection, because we are already perfect by virtue of our being perfectly who we are, just as we are. This is the freedom that is now, not the freedom that must be earned and will likely never come.

All is well in the Great Mess, and in all our little messes as well. Nothing is lost; nothing need be saved.


In his concluding chapter, Robert Miller (Buddhist Existentialism) makes reference to ‘pataphysics, a largely literary movement that began in late Nineteenth Century France. I have only a superficial knowledge of ‘pataphysics which, in any case, is essentially undefinable by design. (Where in the dictionary does one put a word that begins with an apostrophe?) For the moment it suffices to consider only one attempted definition: “a science of imaginary solutions and the laws governing exceptions.”

Most pataphysicians are of artistic and literary bent and Zhuangzi would have been most comfortable among them. What they have in common is the equation of the serious with the humorous. Only in the voidance of the serious in humor can the serious reflect the actual condition of existence. Where no “true purpose”, true self, or any other of the multitude of essentialist fantasies are recognized, life presents as an opportunity for make believe, for play.

Existentialism, in taking the raw experience of existence as its point of departure, puts the burden of becoming squarely on the shoulders of the individual. It is up to us to decide how our life might best be lived. In this, it too is “a science of imaginary solutions”. And this is what I believe Zhuangzi was also about—suggesting we use the power of imagination to find a way of being in the world that is in harmony with both our experience and our natural élan for enjoyment. Yet this can only work when done in the humorous spirit of play.

Play is the act of taking things most seriously in the awareness that they are not serious at all. It is walking two roads at once. We play to win, but if winning is the only goal, we are not playing at all. Life lived as play is life lived as open and empty. Nothing is grasped as essential; no personal dao excludes the daos of others. We are all “exceptions”.


Robert Miller (Buddhist Existentialism) offers seven attributes of existentialism that he sees as compatible with Buddhist sympathies. The first of these is the orientation posited by Sartre that “existence precedes essence”. Since Plato, who thought that everything is what it is by virtue of its participation in and reflection of an Ideal, the Essential, this point of view has held sway. Everything is anchored and secure in the Ideal, Truth, God. Even empirical science defines things on the basis of their participation in a generalized class. You are human because you belong to the species Homo sapiens, not because you make yourself human.

Turning this on its head and declaring that existence, our experience, is really all we know robs life of all presupposed meaning. If there is meaning, it is that which we make for ourselves. There is only this experience as a becoming, or as Zhuangzi would say, a ceaseless transforming. This amounts to the experience of emptiness. There is nothing there to grasp though there seems to be a tentative something there that wishes to do so. It is also a kind of openness. It is not “I” that is open to things outside myself, but the “I” itself that is an openness. It is open in every direction and in every way.

There is freedom here. But freedom always has its price. It is dizzying. Scary. And it’s likely not for everyone. If it were, we’d be back at declaring the essence of things—what we should do.

Zhuangzi’s sage chooses freedom. “Thus, the Radiance of drift and doubt is the sage’s only map.”  She identifies with transformation. She lets her self be its unfixed self. In this way she wanders. She fully engages in the life experience just as it manifests, just as she likes.


Very much like Daoism itself, there are many voices within existentialism , and not all of them ever in fact identified as existentialist. The best known strain has its point of departure in phenomenology, beginning with Husserl, preceding through Heidegger and Sartre. If I have not already turned you off, let me say here that my understanding of phenomenology is very simplistic and I have no intention of attempting to go beyond that.  For me, phenomenology simple means the study of experience as it manifests without the imposition of preconceived ideas. It describes rather than explains. Our engagement with that experience is thus immediate and existential. We ask how we might best respond rather than how we can make sense of it.

A good example of how this works can be seen in our self-experience. Taken as actually experienced, no concrete entity, the “self”, can be identified. It’s all very fleeting and tentative. Zhuangzi explores this experience and attempts to align his actual living with it. Our more default response, on the other hand, is to posit some form of reified self, a soul or true self that relieves us of our fear of ambiguity and doubt and our own possible non-being.

This is where authenticity comes in. Which of these responses best reflects actual experience? Which one best enables us to live life as it actually manifests whatever difficulties that might result?

Zhuangzi’s description of the actual human condition is phenomenological. “Worn and exhausted to the point of collapse, never knowing what it all amounts to—how can you not lament this” (2:11; Ziporyn)? He sees this as somewhat unavoidable, but he also sees the artificial imposition of redemptive formulae as only adding more suffering. “If you regard what you have received as fully formed once and for all, unable to forget it, all the time it survives is just a vigil spent waiting for its end.” Deeming our self as a real and concrete entity only serves to exacerbate our suffering. All Zhuangzi’s philosophy is an attempt to avoid such idealistic fantasies in favor of harmonizing with our actual experience.

Authenticity, though it has its own special challenges, is preferable to inauthenticity in that it accommodates to life as it actually manifests and that leads to a happier experience. All this is predicated on the exercise of a critical self-awareness, however. Where that does not exist, as it presumably does not among non-human species, there is no need for it to be otherwise.


The theme of this series is inspired in part by Robert Miller’s Buddhist Existentialism: From Anxiety to Authenticity and Freedom to which I will make occasional reference.

This presentation of a form of existentialism that takes its inspiration from Daoist philosophy serves two purposes. First, it faithfully represents the actual philosophy that Zhuangzian Daoism especially has led me to embrace. It is not simply something conjured up, but rather something that has grown out of my engagement with both existentialism and Daoism. Secondly, it serves to further distance this philosophy from any presumption of representing itself as the “correct” interpretation of Zhuangzian Daoism.

This latter has become increasingly important to me for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it renders the philosophy consistent with what I take as fundamental to Zhuangzi, namely the inescapable ambiguity of every cognitive representation of reality. We must all of necessity have a point of view, yet every point of view is perspectivally derived and utterly tentative. The exercise of this philosophy is thus not a pursuit of the truth, but rather a pursuit of an effective strategy by which to best live in the absence of truth. This, of course, is also fundamental to existentialism.

There is also the sense of contentiousness that arises from criticism of the interpretative takes of others vis-à-vis my own. Declaring what Zhuangzi is about necessarily involves disagreeing with others, and these others are for the most part significantly more scholarly qualified to speak than I. Though such disagreements are unavoidable, an understanding of this philosophy as derivative, that is, as one that makes use of Zhuangzi rather than attempts to represent him, allows this disagreement to be other than about the truth of things.

All this was previously addressed in the series A New Philosophical Daoism. This series simply puts a finer edge on the character of that philosophy and casts it in a bit more secular light. In both, the use of the indefinite article “A” is important in that it indicates that it is but one among many possible daos.