We began this series by agreeing with Steve Coutinho (An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies) that the philosophically important word ming is better translated as “circumstance” than as “fate” or “destiny”. This is because the latter two can easily be taken as connoting fatalism, determinism, or even purposiveness. Any of these would, for Zhuangzi, be saying far too much. For him, ming is simply the circumstances in which we find ourselves and with which we must interact whatever their source or “reason”.

We have thus far been skirting the thorny issues of fatalism (the belief that what has happened had to happen) and determinism (the belief that we cannot change the course of events). Though the logical mind might want to insist that these come into play when Zhuangzi says “hand it all over to the unavoidable”, we think otherwise. Ziporyn, in his defense of Guo Xiang’s interpretation of Zhuangzi as not fatalistic, makes the point that a certain degree of self-contradiction is itself unavoidable. That’s the way of it.

Here’s the point: Total acceptance of what cannot be avoided (and I have stretched this to include absolutely every current circumstance however contingently determined) does not entail not trying to change their consequences. Not having our peace destroyed by them does not mean that we cannot work to change them. Their unavoidability is in the moment, and not (necessarily) in the future.

We will most certainly die; we can, nonetheless, work toward longevity even as we appreciate that long life and short life are equally “good”. (“No one lives longer than a dead child”.) (The sages “delight in early death; they delight in old age; they delight in the beginning; they delight in the end”.)

We can live carefree beneath the sword of tyranny (having nothing to lose), and still join the underground.

We can be free of self-condemnation, and still take responsibility for our actions when they negatively impact others and ourselves.

We can realize how that all is ultimately well and perfect, and still work to make things better here “beneath Heaven”, that is, within the human context.


Zhuangzi uses Song Xing’s appeal for non-dependence on external circumstances as a hinge that turns to his suggested non-dependence on internal circumstances. Not only do the opinions and behaviors of others toward us not matter, but neither do our own self-opinions. Song’s contrast is between a self-esteem that depends on what others think of us, and a self-esteem that is founded on our own self-assessment. Zhuangzi would have us abandon even that. No-self is having a self that requires no reifying projects at all; a self that does not need to be a self even as it enjoys being one. Consideration of what it means to fear the loss of nothing doesn’t take long to arrive here: the loss of the fear of losing oneself. This, I believe, is Zhuangzi’s no-self.

This is very much about self-image. How do I view myself? But viewing myself is not being myself; it is a mediating separation from myself; it is a relationship of dependence. No-self is unmediated self; spontaneous self; and that’s a whole lot of self. It’s free-self.

Whether we are proud of ourselves (I have a great ass; My team’s number one; I’m really smart; I drive a Beemer; I’m a success; I’m a very spiritual person) or dis- ourselves, it amounts to the same thing—we have a dependent self, a self in need of props. And this, Zhuangzi suggests, is what chains us to fear and renders us incapable of happily and playfully skipping through life.

Yeah, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not how we actually are. How we actually are is our present unavoidable circumstance whether we could theoretically be otherwise or not. But then this circumstance, like any other, is an opportunity to do a bit of self-cultivation. And this can be fun. It can occasion an enjoyable buzz. Transcendence feels good. And we can even transcend our inability to transcend—not eradicate it, but transcend it. Without pride and shame there would be nothing to transcend.

“Every enslavement is also an ennobling” (2:41; Ziporyn).


In the previous series I made reference to the proto-Daoist philosopher Song Xing whom Zhuangzi lauds for his distinction between the inner and the outer, between how others behave toward us and how we behave toward ourselves. He is known for declaring that “to be insulted is not a disgrace”. In other words, we need not be offended by offensive behavior directed our way. We need not be dependent on externals.

This behavior is something that has happened; it is now an unavoidable circumstance. However the various degrees of causation and culpability might be assigned, we are now in a position to “hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish what is central within” us. We are in a position to take this unfortunate circumstance as an opportunity to do the work of self-cultivation.

This series arose from my recent ongoing experience with the IRS. I will spare you the details except to say that is manifests as a Kafkaesque tyranny oblivious to the rule of law. I get angry; and when I do, I try to say, “thanks for this opportunity.” I try to do this with lots of things directed my way that I take to be harmful and unjust. I mention this, not to show myself as sagacious, but quite the opposite, as someone with lots of work to do.

Zhuangzi quotes Song Xing as part of his argument for depending on nothing so as to wander free and easy through life. Nothing can harm you when you depend on nothing. We fear no loss when we have nothing to lose. These are hard sayings, and require a meditative investment to be appreciated. Appreciating them is getting the whole of Zhuangzi’s vision. Might I suggest you try them, if only for the understanding? You need not fear the loss of your fears—they’ll still be there when you get back.

The IRS would unjustly take a chunk of my retirement with the prospect of my eventually being penniless. So what? Apart from this all being a mere hypothetical circumstance (I find I worry a lot about what in fact never happens), nothing can harm me when everything is an opportunity for soaring.

Fortunately, walking two roads allows me to still fight the bastards.


“Let yourself be carried along by things so that the mind wanders freely. Hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish what is central within you. This is the most you can do” (Zhuangzi 4:16; Ziporyn).

This morsel is found in “Confucius’” instructions to his disciple Yan regarding how to deal with a despotic ruler. Viewed from the side of volition, nearly everything this ruler has done was avoidable. However, this is no longer the case. It is done. It is now an unavoidable circumstance, though it might be ameliorated.

We have been considering the two greatest unavoidables we face, life and death. There are others—our inescapable existential dangle being chief among them. This is our inherent not-knowing while “needing” to know, our hunger for purpose where none can be found, and our desire for a continuity of identity where none can be seen to exist. Now we will consider those unavoidables that were previously avoidable but no longer are.

In many respects this species of the unavoidable offers an even more challenging opportunity for self-cultivation than does the former. Though we might rail against “heaven” for the necessary conditions of our existence, we could only do so as fully aware of the absurdity of the act. Our rebellion thus typically takes other, more subtle forms—principally religiously-minded forms that white-wash (purpose-wash) an otherwise uncompromising silence. What another mere mortal has brought about is likely to elicit an altogether different kind of response, however.

What someone does to me, directly or to others with whom I identify (hopefully everyone), or to the planet and its many life-forms with which I identify (hopefully)—this is likely to bring forth a whole different level of raw emotional responses. This is personal, damn it.

This is the everyday stuff of life. This is where the rubber meets the road. And this is where we find innumerable opportunities to imagine the peace of not taking offense at what is undeniably offensive.


“To tend to your heart-mind so that sadness and joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to rest content in it as Circumstance, this is the height of potency” (Zhuangzi, 4; Watson, p 60).

What we are talking about here is the work of self-cultivation. There’s “heart-mind tending” to do. “Potency” here translates de. Having a heart-mind that is unswayed by circumstances is “the height of de”. De is the existential realization of Dao. Dao is an attitude; de is having that attitude. Being “in the Dao” is de.

The goal and proof of this realization is to “rest content” in whatever transpires. However wonderful this might be, its most telling aspect is its everyday practicality. This is not about becoming a buddha. It is not about enlightenment, achieving immortality, or uniting with “the Great Dao”. It’s about enjoying one’s life. The full realization of Dao, the de of Dao, is “resting content”. Let’s go out on a limb and call it: happiness.

What could be controversial about calling de happiness? Apart from its not promising some form of cosmic salvation or wowing spiritual charisma, it is often considered bad form to value happiness. What a mere common human aspiration! Mentioning it implies seeking it, and seeking it implies not having it, and it cannot be had by seeking—so abandon it. Just be an enlightened sage and have done with it. What does something so mundane as enjoying life have to do with supreme enlightenment, in any case?

And does not this passage itself tell us that resting content is not allowing “sadness and joy” to disturb our peace? Yes; happiness is not allowing happiness (or the need for or lack of happiness) to disturb our peace. What is missing in the critique above (besides a this-worldliness) is an appreciation of walking two roads at once. Paradox. Nothing in life is not paradoxical.

There is a hope that is a kind of non-hope, a hope that is an open-ended hopefulness that hopes for no particular circumstance. There is a sadness that is a kind of non-sadness, a sadness that does not overwhelm us; a sadness enjoyed as sadness. There is a happiness that requires no happiness; a happiness that equally embraces happiness and sadness. This is a happiness that depends on nothing—not even happiness.

Resting content in every circumstance, including the circumstance of our emotional responses to them, is happiness. Since this is not in fact our natural inclination, all these circumstances (including the circumstance of our inability to do so) are an opportunity to “tend to our heart-mind”. It’s not about arriving, but about resting content in never arriving; life is process.


My death is good. If my death is good, then the whole cosmic ball of wax is also good. (We know, of course, that the cosmos in not a ball of wax since there’d have to be something that was not this ball; but since this applies to whatever we say of it, this one works as well as any other.) All is Well.

Why is All Well? Because we say it is. Why do we say it is? Because, having surrendered ourselves in affirming trust into the Totality, we have harmonized our sense of the goodness of life with its larger context. Life is relational, not logical.

Why do we ask why? Because we believe there needs to be an objective reason that justifies saying so. What’s the proof? There is none.

“If my life is good, so also is my death good”. Why is my life good? Because I love and value it as such. But why? Because this is what life is and does. Life is an ever-affirming élan. Why would we want to question life? This is taking our mind as our teacher. This is throwing the proverbial spanner into the process of life. This is ruining good sex by ruminating on the why of it.

Why is my death good? Because my life is good, and life and death form one body. Without death there is no life. Without life there is no death. When these “are no longer coupled as opposites, that is called Dao as Convergence, the convergence of all daos” (2:17; Ziporyn, emended). The unity of life and death is Dao. You want to “find” Dao? Let your mind be Dao-ed.

“Hence, all things are neither formed nor destroyed, for these two also open into each other, connecting to form a oneness. It is only someone who really gets all the way through them that can see how the two sides open into each other to form a oneness” (2:22; Ziporyn).

Absolutely everything perceived, whether tangible or intangible, imagined or real, is a circumstance, and every circumstance is an opportunity to experience a bit of Dao. Absolutely everything is a “gate” into transcendence. Some gates loom larger than others, however; and among these, death looms largest of all. What an opportunity!


Death is one of Zhuangzi’s favorite subjects. This seems reasonable when we consider that his entire project was about life—specifically, how to get the most possible enjoyment out of it. Death, the apparent negation of life, does tend to cast a certain pall over life, as I think we can all agree. It behooves us, therefore, to understand life in the context of death.

Death is circumstance—the greatest unavoidable event facing us all (and taking away those we love in the meantime). Death is therefore also opportunity. Life is a “school of hard knocks” whatever cultural or economic privilege we might enjoy. “Knocks” are our teachers. Death is the grand-daddy of all “knocks” and thus an especially important teacher.

This school is also a “school of cope”. Zhuangzi has his methods for dealing with death, but we should not think that these, or any other attempt to put the fear of death (aging and dying) to rest, can be final, definitive and completely successful. We must also be our fear—not deny it, but live it. There is freedom in this, too. Transcendence and transformation are more relational, psychological, than “actual”.

My death is good. For those inclined to mantras, Zhuangzi would suggest you give this one a go. Meditation on this with a view to actually experiencing it is yet another “gate” into Zhuangzi’s vision of free and carefree wandering.

Zhuangzi suggests we imagine life and death as a single body—one united reality. Such an imaginative movement also opens up into unity with the cosmos. We “hide the world in the world”, realize a cosmic identification, when we unite with death. Death is the great out-there.

“Because I think my life good, so also do I think my death good”, says Zhuangzi. Having united life and death, the perceived goodness of life carries over into death. Life and death are inseparable. If my life is good, so also must be my death. (If this is not how we already think, then this imaginative exercise can open us up to new possibilities.)

The goodness of death is not in contrast to the miseries of life, but a consequence of the goodness of life. This is the greatest possible affirmation. What an opportunity! It is not morbidity, but jubilant affirmation. Yes! Thankfulness! It’s all good!

These are all just words. But there is something else here; something visceral; something transformative. The only way beyond mere words is to actually viscerally engage with their intent to the extent of experiencing them. This is imaginative meditation. My death is good. Experience understanding.


There are many genera of circumstance, ranging from what seems necessarily unavoidable in every case to what was avoidable only moments ago, but is now unavoidable. Examples of this latter might be: the consequences of having just jumped off a bridge, having made a wrong turn, or being rear-ended by a drunk driver. Choice has played a role in each, but each is nonetheless now an immediately unavoidable circumstance. We will explore the opportunities presented by this genus anon; in this post we will begin to consider the more necessarily unavoidable.

“Life and death are both very serious matters” Zhuangzi has Confucius say, “but they do not bother [the sage]” (3). These are the two great unavoidables of the human experience. It might be argued that they too were at some point avoidable—one’s life is a consequence of the decisions of one’s parents, and death would be avoidable were it not for one’s life—but in being alive one now faces death (and aging) as the profoundest unavoidable circumstance.

Life and death are what concern Zhuangzi most. The idea that it could be otherwise makes us smile. Nevertheless, many philosophers immerse themselves in all manner of arcane studies, or even very important ones (political theory, language theory, etc.), that do not in fact address these fundamentals of our existence. Some fault Zhuangzi for his lack of political theory (and consequently assign him one by default), but a moment’s reflection illuminates how, if one begins with the most immediate experience of our existence, everything else becomes derivative.

The consideration of life and death necessarily involves a movement from the objective and social to the subjective and individual. Zhuangzi has been identified as a pioneer in making this shift. Once we have followed him there, we wonder that we would have wanted to begin anywhere else. Doing so seems more like an act of avoidance than one of “getting on with life”.

Taking one’s actual individual subjective experience as one’s point of departure need not end in individualism. Neither the extreme of collectivism, where the individual is a mere cog in the machine—a cipher, nor individualism, where one is oblivious of others and one’s connectedness to others, genuinely represents the human experience. The most authentic inquiry into the human experience, however, must begin with that most immediate experience itself, and that is unavoidably a personal individual experience.


Ming (circumstance) is what has happened and is now happening. Is there anything that “exists” that hasn’t happened? Is there anything that is not presently continuing to happen? The Universe and all it contains has happened and continues to happen. I like to call the cosmos—whatever that is—the Great Happening. If we can imagine every happening as absolutely inseparable from that Happening—as that Happening—, then we will get a sense of what Zhuangzi is after when he says, “hand it all over to the unavoidable (ming) ”. He understands the cosmos as Transformation (hua) and suggests that we identify with that. Identify with ceaseless change and what changes could possibly disturb you?

I call this movement of identification “surrender in trust”. It is a surrender because it finds resistance in us. We naturally want to hold onto a fixed-identity that assures our eternal continuity. Since this seems ridiculous on the face of it, we are caught in a bind of clinging to what must almost certainly be lost. We fear the loss of ourselves. We fear death. Identified with Everything, there is nowhere for anything to get lost. This is “hiding the world in the world”.

This movement also involves trust. It is not resignation. It is an act of complete unconditional affirmation. It is saying, Yes, thank you! for Everything. Trust is not belief. There is nothing to believe. It could be said that we believe that “all is well”, but trust is fundamentally what life is. Trust is a spontaneous expression of life. Our every waking moment is permeated by trust. Real trust is not mediated by belief. Advocacy for this movement is saying little more than, Be your most natural experience.

Is this then the Truth of things? Not at all. This is just an imagined point of view. If we understand how whatever life-view we hold is an imagined point of view, then we are free to choose the one that makes for our greatest enjoyment of life. This is the point for Zhuangzi’s critique of logic and reason—to “release our minds to play”.

Every circumstance, which is say every possible happening, is an opportunity for surrender in trust, and every such movement is transformative. How so? Let’s not get all metaphysically fuzzy—let’s just say that it provides a moment of thankfulness and joy. And who knows, maybe that will become habitual.


We are considering how philosophical Daoism takes ming (unavoidable circumstance) as a ubiquitous opportunity for self-cultivation. We can only choose how to respond to it; we can never escape it. It is in every way the essential condition of our existence. Have we chosen to be born? No? Then everything that follows thereafter is ming.

If “people take to Dao as fish take to water”, then Dao is not the conditional medium through which we move, but how we move through it. It is not the medium—something distinct from our psychological involvement—but our interface with it. [The author of this quote probably thought otherwise.] We create dao. Every dao—and there are as many as there are pairs of feet to walk them—is the creative interface of our actively being in a world.

Zhuangzi’s dao is Dao as the confluence of all daos. Just another dao, albeit an all-inclusive dao. A most paradoxical dao. Metaphysical Dao there might be, but its only presence is by way of its absence. This is the most fundamental ontological ming—the circumstance of our inescapable adriftedness.

Circumstance (ming) is not a thing. If we translate “fate”, we might envision some purposive force external to circumstance, but circumstance is, just as its etymology suggests, “all-around standing” alone. The concluding vignette of the “The Great Source as Teacher” chapter (6) of the Zhuangzi has a man lamenting that he can find no ultimate cause for the physical extremity in which he finds himself. There is none discernible. He calls this ming. Mencius, Zhuangzi’s contemporary, recognizes the same: Ming is “what arrives although nothing makes it arrive” (Mencius 5A7). [“Dao does nothing, though nothing is left undone.”] The inexplicability of ming is also ming.

Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) comments on this passage: “This is a man standing right at the mouth of the great furnace” (Ziporyn, p 205). This is where we are transformed—not just through our awareness of ming, but also in the disquiet an anguish it causes in us. “Would you say that ‘a white horse crying in pain under the glow of the clouds’ is anything other than the Great Source as Teacher? If so, however much you spin your abstruse theories, you are still separated by an ever so thin layer from the real heaven and the real earth. You have not yet perceived that in the Dao there is only this one moon; there is no second moon.” This existence is our Teacher.