You don’t have to get it right to get it.

This series is inspired by my current reading of Harold Roth’s Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. I have long been pushing back against the near ubiquitous tendency to conflate Zhuangzi’s philosophy with that of more religious forms of Daoism that preceded and followed it. Roth’s project is to do precisely this. “Daoism”, its many diverse expressions notwithstanding, is woven into a single cloth. Breath meditation, the “attainment of the Dao”, the inner accumulation of something called qi (ch’i)—all of them essentially religious practices and conceptions—are taken to be the foundation for all classical Daoist mystical philosophies. This is equivalent to equating the three “great” monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because they all speak of “God”.

My understanding of Zhuangzi leads me to believe that he consciously wished to offer an alternative kind of mysticism, one free of all metaphysical hocus-pocus and definitive technique. When he suggested we depend on nothing, he meant it.

Thus, if there is something to “get”—an experience of freedom, oneness and tranquility—then it does not require any particular knowledge or method. It is something that is inherently possible for human beings to experience quite apart from any imagined extra-mundane “realities”. And the means to that experience are many. There is no “right way”. You don’t have to get it right to get it.

Why Zhuangzi chose this way of non-dependence I do not know. I do know that it speaks to my own need for a post-religious means of coping with the unavoidable existential dangle of the human experience.

Yes, it is all just coping. That’s the point. It’s not about realizing the Truth. It’s not about being saved. It’s not about realizing our “true” self or purpose. It’s about being human.

This philosophical Daoism is likely not Zhuangzi’s philosophical Daoism, though it is an attempt to be approximatingly so. It doesn’t matter.


Zhuangzi’s intended ambiguity means that any interpretation of him must of necessity involve a personal engagement that can only lead to a unique perspective. This, of course, is precisely what he wanted us to understand through his argument for perspectival relativism. Our cognitive responses to the world arise from our position within it. In this blog I attempt to share my own take on Zhuangzi’s philosophical Daoism, and this can only be a new (different) philosophical Daoism. It cannot be “the” new philosophical Daoism, but can nonetheless contribute to the evolution of other points of view just as it is itself so evolving.

Zhuangzi invites us to understand how our perspectives are all different and unique. He also suggests we realize how they are the same. All things can be “seen from the point of view of their sameness”. How are my views on Zhuangzi the same as every other? They are all both right and wrong. They are all right from the perspective of the individual, and wrong from the perspective of some other. But as one scholar has pointed out, this trajectory toward sameness leads Zhuangzi to imply more emphatically that they are all wrong. They are all wrong to the extent that they think they are right—and that they think they are right is at the most immediate level unavoidable. This broadening perspective helps us to “release the mind to play among the harmony of all de [expressions]”. Their harmony is their sameness in all being wrong; and in their all being right as equally affirmable happenings within the Great Happening.

Knowing we are unavoidably wrong enables us to make the best use of whatever “fish trap” we fabricate while simultaneously “forgetting” it. To be “empty” is not to contain nothing, but to contain everything in unfixed and ungrasping openness. Liu Xianxin (1896-1932) sees this as defining the difference between Buddhist and Daoist sensibilities: “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).

How are they the same? From the Zhuangzian point of view, they are both simply upayic strategies, the values of which can only be determined by their effectiveness as judged by their respective adherents. They are both wrong to the extent that they think that they alone are right. And they are both wrong to the extent that they think they represent the truth of things.

Both have their benefits; both deliver some goods. Fortunately, we don’t have to get it “right” to get it—whatever “it” may be.


I have come to the conclusion that the best way to present my take away from Zhuangzi is to admit that it cannot claim to represent even an approximately definitive interpretation of his intended meanings. These must forever remain matters for informed guesses. And this, again at my reading, was precisely the purpose of his intended ambiguity. There are several reasons why such a strategy is necessary and effective from the point of view of Daoist sensibilities.

There are parallels here with Socrates’ maieutic method (his tutorial midwifery) and Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication” (his adoption of various pseudonyms for the purpose of presenting different perspectives on one idea). The point is to make us engage in a kind of critical thinking that is itself a kind of existential engagement. It’s as much about doing and being as it is about knowing. The knowing arises from the being and the doing.

Among Zhuangzi’s descriptive representations of the attributes of sagacity is the wonderful suggestion that we “release the mind to play among all expressions (de)”. Where there are set beliefs and formulae there can be no such play. An absolutist position on the nature of Zhuangzi’s Daoism would be as antithetical to this freedom as any other. We must hold our position lightly. We must forget the fish trap, the words, in our having obtained the fish, our freedom, lest we lose it once again.

Though Zhuangzi critiques the sectarian positions of the Confucians and Mohists, and replaces theirs with a more inclusive one of his own, we understand that he understood that sense in which his and theirs were the same. His was “better” by virtue of its inclusiveness—the formation of a sense of oneness being his understanding of Dao—but it could only be so when it self-effaced in an appreciation of the sameness, the equanimity and oneness, of all de.

In this context, we can critique the positions that others take vis-à-vis the nature of Zhuangzi’s Daoism without that becoming sectarian.  I feel strongly that many, if not most, very knowledgeable scholars miss the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy entirely. The presumption of such an opinion does not escape me. Nor am I unaware of the dangers of sectarianism in this regard. It is these concerns that have inspired this series.