I have made frequent reference to Ernest Becker’s (The Denial of Death, 1973) observation that “man is the god that shits” because it so graphically describes the human condition that unavoidably leads to existential anxiety and dread. I’ve just given it a reread and recommend it to anyone who might wish to understand this condition and its psychological consequences from a “scientific” psychoanalytic perspective. It amazingly parallels (my take on) Zhuangzi’s analysis and proposed response.

Becker tells us that this human condition results in two unavoidable neuroses—repression and transference. Repression is essentially the denial of death, and though we do well to face it squarely and as “heroically” as we can, there will always be some degree of repression involved. Becker is careful to avoid the mistake of “psychoanalytical religionists” who suggest a possible end to all repression. Instead, he suggests a project of continual approximation of that ideal.

The great paradox of the human experience is seen in the inevitability of death, on the one hand, and the organismic impulse of the “life force” (qi?!) on the other. We wish to live, but must die. Our task is to create (not discover) a creative response to both without negating either. To do so is to live in authenticity.

Transference is our natural response to this paradox. (To be “normal” is to be neurotic.) Transference is the psychological act by which we attempt to resolve our need for the ultimate and sure grounding that we cannot find in ourselves. Religion has typically fulfilled this role, though there are innumerable other ways in which it manifests. A life-project (“making a difference”), trusting a guru or a psychoanalyst, stamp-collecting, foot-fetishism, and philosophizing are all types of transference. Some form of transference is both required and unavoidable. The trick then is to choose the object of one’s transference in full awareness of the necessarily illusory nature of the act. This too is to live in authenticity.

Becker makes much of Soren Kierkegaard’s psychological insights and response, putting him on a par with Freud and his greatest disciples. Kierkegaard recognized both this need for a seemingly religious transference and the inauthenticity of religious belief taken as objectively “true”. Thus his “leap of faith” and life lived in ambiguity and doubt. But Kierkegaard’s response still had the Judeo-Christian God as its object—and could not, therefore, be open and empty—the most authentic and consistent reflection of the human condition. Becker, unfortunately, seems to have been unaware of the possibility of a transference that has no object, but rather expresses itself as a release into the utterly unknowable, and is therefore empty. (He dismisses Buddhism out of hand, and correctly criticizes Jung for his religious forays into Eastern mysticism.) This was Zhuangzi’s response to the human condition—a trusting release into openness—as valid today as it was two and a half millennia ago. This is an open transference where some transference will happen in any case, and one that allows for greater existential authenticity than foot- or God-fetishism.


[This is my Amazon review of Derek Lin’s The Tao of Happiness: Stories from Chuang-Tzu for Your Spiritual Journey. It’s very critical, but to my thinking the book rides roughshod over Zhuangzi’s work and makes no attempt to really understand or present his point of view.]

“If you have not yet encountered Chuang Tzu, you are in for a treat.” So opens the back cover of this book. I couldn’t agree more—only you won’t encounter him here. Lin’s dao and that of Zhuangzi are polar opposites. Though we all necessarily begin in yang (our belief in self and our desire to fulfil its wants) our first step makes all the difference. Lin steps from yang into more yang; Zhuangzi steps into yin (emptiness, not-knowing, not-doing, not-achieving, purposelessness). “Just be empty, nothing more.” Yet all the self-flourishing outcomes for which Lin advocates are likewise the fruit of the way of yin. Only they now grow by way of their having been de-coupled from their opposites so that they depend on no particular outcome. The dao of happiness is a happiness in every circumstance and is as happy in unhappiness as in happiness, and in failure as well as in success. It requires no “true self”, no meaning, no purpose, no after-life. It is non-conditional.

The spirit of Zhuangzi would have me affirm Lin’s dao as it would every other. Thus, let me say that this dao might be just the dao for you—perhaps simple self-help “wisdom” is what you’re looking for. And let us not forget that none of this matters all that much. It’s all equivalent to the “chirpings of baby birds”. No one needs to be saved, in any case.

Nevertheless, such an affirmation is especially difficult in the matter of the philosophy of Zhuangzi. Lin has so manipulated and (frankly) distorted many (if not most) of the stories he has lifted from the Zhuangzi that though they fit his own purposes, they no longer convey their intended meanings. Yet even this is acceptable, though one would wish for at least an acknowledgement of the fact.

There’s a lot of the negative in this review, but sometimes we get a better idea of what something is through exposure to what it is not. Thank you, Derek Lin. Still, I pause over the “send” button wondering especially if the title of this review won’t appear to be some kind of curse. I mean it, however, not as a curse, but as a prelude to a happy outcome. Thus, if you read this book and don’t find it meets your needs, perhaps you will be lucky enough to have the tao of this happiness fly up your nose, have a good sneeze, and be inspired to discover Zhuangzi for yourself.



Doubtless this book is a must read for sinologists, if only to have done one’s necessary homework. For the unobliged layperson, on the other hand, it could easily be given a pass. Its principal focus is the mythological antecedents of hun-dun—primordial chaos. One succinct paragraph could have easily covered this topic for most purposes; instead we are treated to 400+ pages.

Girardot analyses a vast network of mythical stories and symbols, weaves them into a single narrative, and then interprets hun-dun as it appears in specific early Daoist texts accordingly. This assumes that an allusion is an equation; that when Zhuangzi speaks of the death of hun-dun, for example, he is endorsing the cosmogony and metaphysics of the myth to which he alludes. We are led to believe that no rupture with past thought or significantly new ideas are possible. Somehow Zhuangzi’s actual intended meaning remains unexamined.

Then, of course, Girardot treats all Daoist writings as in essential agreement with each other. This is about “Daoism” and must therefore have a single message. The Zhuangzi is understood as it can be taken to agree with the Laozi; the Inner Chapters are understood in the light of the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters. No voice is truly unique.

All this having been said, Girardot obviously has a broad knowledge of his topic and the intellectual skills to organize it. Someone interested in the exhaustive complexity of the hun-dun myth complex, though often tenuously related, will find it here.

Buddhism Goes to the Laundromat

[This is my four-star Amazon review of Robert Miller’s Buddhist Existentialism: From Anxiety to Authenticity and Freedom.]

This is a great read for anyone interested in what Buddhism has to offer but is put off by its ridiculous addiction to jargon and vast profundity. Siddhartha himself would probably prefer this book to all the sutras that purport to speak in his name. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for religion, then you’d best look elsewhere. Buddhist Existentialism is the antithesis of religion, which is to say, it walks the shunyata talk.

Still, one sometimes does get a whiff of essentialist stink when Miller goes on about Existence Itself, “original mind”, “original purity”, a definitive “cure” for the human predicament, and the like. One wonders if sometimes he has skipped the final rinse. But again, this is hardly fair since he makes clear that voidance is a never ending process, while words have to stop somewhere. Perhaps a final word would have been helpful—something like: Now burn this book.

JUST ANOTHER DAO: A Review of Roth’s Original Dao: Inward Training (Nei Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism

This is a must for anyone who practices traditional Daoist meditation and who wishes to better understand the roots of that tradition. The translation of the Inner Training chapter of the Kuanzi alone is worth the price of the book.

The depth of Roth’s scholarship is clear, and all in all I think he makes a good case for the provenance of Inner Training as representative of the earliest advocacy for “Daoist” meditative practice. I do, however, think he gets carried away in his desire to sum up all of Daoism under the rubric of those who practiced breathing mediation rather than as defined by their philosophies. This stands if all who were of Daoist temperament made strong advocacy for this practice. Sometimes he must make a very long stretch in his attempts to demonstrate that they do. Sometimes his own advocacy seems to exceed his scholarship.

My real concern is that I understand Zhuangzi as making a radically different statement than that enunciated in Inner Training. The latter declares its belief in a metaphysical Dao that is real enough to “unite” with, and a ch’i (qi )that one can “accumulate”. All this leads to “understanding” the nature of Reality. Its Daoism is a very serious project of spiritual attainment. It is steeped in belief. Zhuangzi would have had none of it. His entire philosophy turns on believing in no such things. His call for radical non-dependence includes both the eschewal of all metaphysics and any dogmatic advocacy for a technique.

Yes, Zhuangzi speaks of meditation and ch’i. He also makes use of Confucius without being a Confucian, Mozi without being a Mohist (usefulness versus uselessness), and Logicians without being a Logician. When it comes to understanding Zhuangzi, it’s best to first get a sense of his spirit of intellectual anarchy lest one become entrapped by literalism.

Perhaps Zhuangzi cannot be taken as a proper “Daoist”, at all. Or perhaps I’ve got him wrong.  It doesn’t really matter; what matters is what works best for me (and you).


This is a “review” of a book I have not read. It is more a visceral response to the genre than a comment on this particular manifestation. The book is Livia Kohn’s latest, Science and the Dao. Here is a quote from the release blurb from Three Pines Press: “Science and the Dao presents a comprehensive examination of core Daoist facets from the point of view of modern science. Exploring its cosmology, physiology, psychology, cultivation, and visions of immortality in the light of astrophysics, particle physics, paleoanthropology, behavioral kinesiology, cell biology, and more, the book enhances the credibility of traditional Daoist ideas and practices, thereby making them more accessible to modern people.”

It’s natural to wish to demonstrate the compatibility and overlap of one’s beliefs with the findings of science; one would hope that they do in fact overlap. It is the deep and likely unexamined motivation that underlies this universal need to prove the validity of religious belief that interests us. “[T]he book enhances the credibility of traditional Daoist ideas and practices.” This need for “credibility” is perfectly legitimate within the context of religious Daoism. Ironically, science and religion, not to mention atheism, have a great deal in common when it comes to requiring “proofs” for their claims. All belief in “truth”, scientific or otherwise, ultimately depends on proof, imagined or “demonstrated”.

The permutations of this religious dependence on proof are many. Here it uses science to give “credibility” to something so incredible as immortality. Testimony of personal transformation is a common example. Supposed miracles work. Hyper-charismatic gurus do the trick. Pronouncements about being the “oldest”, “purest”, “richest”, “biggest”, “best”, “fastest growing”—all attempt to give credence to belief and subtly evince a dependence on “truth”.

Zhuangzian “Daoism”, on the other hand, neither seeks nor requires any proofs, for it does not depend on anything being “true”. There being nothing to believe, there is nothing to prove. This is at the very heart of Zhuangzi’s vision. It reveals a radically different fork in the road, and this fork is not one that “modern people” are inclined to take. The religious mind is the default coping mechanism through which human beings typically respond to their irremediable existential dangle. Belief in immortality can be most comforting. Who are we to abuse them of their chosen dao?

Is philosophical Daoism therefore “better”? It is for those who cannot believe, but not for those who can. It too is just another dao, albeit one that sees Dao not as “the Dao”, a metaphysical Something, but as the imagined confluence of all daos. The point of this “review” is not to prove that philosophical Daoism is better than religious Daoism, but simply to remind the reader that they are not at this level the same, though as human coping mechanisms they most certainly are. The real question is which one most authentically harmonizes with the human experience of adriftedness and cluelessness.


After three readings of Penumbra I can say that, after Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, it has most influenced my own philosophical response to Zhuangzi.
The first three introductory chapters are themselves worth the price of the book. Ziporyn has a way of bringing fresh insight into the heart of the Daoist project; one never finds the common (and superficial) hackneyed repetition of the “principles” of Daoist philosophy.
Why Guo Xiang’s philosophy does not more immediately interest sinologists today completely escapes me. That it was essentially rejected by subsequent Ruists (Confucians) and Daoists, only testifies to its positively radical character. I wonder if the same might be said of Ziporyn’s work as well, at least in that it is not discussed more widely.
Ziporyn makes clear that Guo often misrepresented parts of the Zhuangzi, but since he took his edition as representing a single voice this was unavoidable, and can often be helpful in demonstrating how those voices themselves diverged from the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy. In any case, whether we completely agree with his interpretation of Zhuangzi or not, much of its more radical elements seem to be a profoundly practical, yet mystical, “next step” in harmony with Zhuangzi.
One does wish for a complete translation of Guo’s commentary for one’s own study and to compare with Ziporyn’s spin, but it is not for us to tell a scholar what work he or she must do.
I would recommend this study as essential to anyone with a desire to better understand Zhuangzi or classical Chinese philosophy generally. It is not an easy read, but this is because Ziporyn always takes us to the edge of what the mind can fathom.


Whenever I discuss one of Ziporyn’s books I must begin by admitting that I haven’t understood the half of it. This is especially sad in this instance since this particular work seems to have only one idea to expound upon, albeit in many different ways. This is omnicentrism as found in Tiantai Buddhism.
What is omnicentrism? It is the understanding that every “coherence”, every idea about anything—“right or wrong”—, implies, contains and depends upon every other possible coherence of which it must remain incoherent. Every single thing is the center of Everything. But this means that everything is a Non-Exclusive Center—there are infinite centers. It also means that every coherence is “constitutively impossible” in that as a Local Coherence it must assume of itself that it is coherent, which it cannot possible be given its subsumption within Global Incoherence. This is the best I can do, or at least all I will attempt to speak of Ziporyn’s thesis. Instead, I’d like to make some more general observations about his project.
Ziporyn attributes his interest in omnicentrism to Zhuangzi, which makes it of special interest to me. Indeed, there is much here that helps to understand Zhuangzi’s “equalizing of things and our theories about them” and how he can justifiably advocate for his point of view that holds that all points of view are equally affirmable.
Though generally careful to avoid his own advocacy, Ziporyn does, I believe, think that this understanding can have a very real and practical transformative effect in our interface with ourselves and the world. The “transformative recontextualization” that an understanding of omnicentrism implies can change our being in the world for the better. This is also at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project as I understand it.
I would compare Ziporyn’s thought projects to those of the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers (whom I have admittedly not read in depth—they also being beyond my limited powers of concentration and intellect, and their having admittedly religious agendas). There are two ways of coming to understand them—one can be very, very smart or one can experience that of which they speak. They take reason to the very frontiers where Zhuangzi suggests the mind rest and accept that it can go no further. And this is where that scary thing called mysticism must step in.
What is especially noteworthy about this particular thought project is that it bravely constructs a new “thought experiment”, what Ziporyn calls Neo-Tiantai. By his own admission, it’s not Buddhism (thankfully), and it’s not strictly scholarship (also thankfully), and it’s not strictly speaking philosophy (at least, I assume, in the estimation of professional philosophers). This is what I try to do with Zhuangzi, though admittedly not really up to the task. Zhuangzi, however, at my reading, already does most of the work himself—there’s really nothing religiously contentful to pare away.