“Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

We can consider these attributes objectively and subjectively. Objectively, that is from the point of view of the observer, “the Sage has no name”. But this is somewhat nonsensical. In this way, the sage is a bit like Dao—suggested, but nowhere to be found—nameless. If there are true sages, it is very unlikely that we would know them as such. Many of the fictional sages in Daoist literature try their best to remain unrecognized, and fault themselves severely when they fail. This alone suggests we be wary of self-designated sages, gurus and the like.

Still, there are those who legitimately teach. Many of Zhuangzi’s “sages” have disciples, and even Zhuangzi is said to have had some, though this is in no way verifiable. Ambiguity applies here as it does everywhere else. What is required is discernment; and the best way to nourish that is to understand one’s own motivations. If one is attracted to a charismatic guru who clearly has “a name”, especially a hyper-active ego, then a sense of the implications of this in oneself might help one avoid making a co-dependent commitment.

This is likely to leave the field pretty empty, if not altogether so. But we already have our own best and most intimate teacher—ourselves. We have self-inquiry. True, this is unlikely to lead us to “complete, unsurpassable enlightenment”, but then those that follow this chimera are no more likely to find it than we, though they will have expended enormous amounts of life-negating energy in the pursuit. But that can also be fun in its own way, I suppose—and is as affirmable as any other species of tree in the forest.

Subjectively, that is in the experience of the sage herself, this also seems nonsensical. The sage says to herself, I have no name? Somehow this idea of having no name seems to vanish into itself. How can we name what has no name? But we get the point, so we can forget the names.

I like to say, there are no sages, just as I have said, there is no Dao. This is completely mistaken, of course, for its dogmatism if for nothing else. But it does have merit when understood as simply describing one side of a coin when the obverse side remains unseen and unseeable. At least we know that by his own criteria the man named Zhuangzi was no sage. Thank Dao!

Beware taking the pointing finger for the moon; beware taking the finger as pointing to the moon; and beware taking the moon for the moon—it does have its dark side, after all, and that just might be green cheese.


“Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

I previously made mention of Bodhidharma, the legendary “barbarian” (depicted with bulging round eyes and a gold ring in his ear) who came out of the West (India) and brought Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China. (Though surely Chan developed in China, it being a synthesis of Daoism and Buddhism.) His subsequent interview with the Emperor Wu is most enlightening. Wu was a devout Buddhist, and since he had done much to further the cause of Buddhism, he asked Bodhidharma how much “merit” he had consequently laid up for himself. “No merit at all,” replied Bodhidharma.

This was a nuclear reply. Its beauty could make one weep. Realizing the implications of this could be the full realization of the Buddhist vision. Yet every –ism quickly defaults to the “typical human inclinations”—the desire to be someone and the obsession with right and wrong. The religious-mind ever-triumphs. Karma. I admit that I have no right to say so, but I say it nonetheless: Karma is utter bullshit. The doctrine of karma is yet another form of religious self-oppression that needs to be put on the shelf next to “hell”. I think Bodhidharma would agree.

“The Spirit Man has no particular merit.” The sage is no better than anyone else. Get it? How could we get it when we are addicted to good, bad, better, and worse? The good news is that we don’t have to get it. It doesn’t matter. All is well. No merits or demerits are accumulating in our personal heavenly bank accounts. There is no Book of Life. We will not have our day in a celestial court. Samsara is Nirvana. It does not matter—except, of course, in terms of our enjoyment of life.

Emperor Wu was taken aback. “What then is the highest meaning of the holy truths!?” he exclaimed. “Vast emptiness, without holiness,” replied Bodhidharma. Damn! How then can we have Buddhism? We can’t have Buddhism if we insist on having it. Buddhism, just like Daoism, either self-immolates or simply becomes an empty, religious shell. Isn’t this what all the world’s “great” religions are—empty shells? Of course. But this is humanity; this is what humanity is and does. So let’s affirm and enjoy this mess, just as we might enjoy a scramble in the messy woods.

“Who the hell are you!?” asked the exasperated Emperor. “I don’t know,” answered Bodhidharma. “The sage has no name.”


“Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

Just as we can take these three as one “person”, so too can we take these three attributes as reflecting one experience. I will conclude this series with a few reflections on what these attributes can tell us.

Most translators have “no self” for “no fixed-identity”. This may be more literal, but I think Ziporyn’s reading better captures Zhuangzi’s sense. Identity there is, only it is not fixed; self there is, but it is not reified; it is not clung to as to some thing with which to identify. ‘Sometimes he sees himself as a horse, sometimes as a cow.” “Now a snake, now a dragon.” The fluidity of identity is essential to Zhuangzi’s understanding of how things manifest. The cosmos presents as endless transformation, and identifying with that rather than one’s present identity releases one to flow with change. This, too, is his answer to the fear of death.

However we take “no self”, it is important to remember that Zhuangzi is never about negating anything of the human experience. If there were a concrete self to negate, he would not attempt to negate it. He rather sees “self” as a relationship; “I” has its counterpart in “me”. This relationship is mutable, and he suggests one that makes for a happier and more carefree experience. He suggests we release our grip on “me”. What remains is not just self, but lots more self, a self that identifies with everything. Why be a frightened and pathetic “me”, when you can be everything?

We have not left the realm of a mutable relationship, however. We have not suddenly morphed into a fixed cosmic Self. A great “I AM” is no more suggested than is a concrete and fixed identity. It’s still just a way of imagining the world. That’s the best we can do.


We are considering Zhuangzi’s concluding statement concerning the nature of one who has realized non-dependence: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

This juxtaposition of non-dependence and the self-emptiness of the sage leads us to conclude that for Zhuangzi the concept of non-dependence is pivotal to his vision. Ultimately, not being dependent on being somebody is at the heart of sagacity. “Just be empty—nothing more.”

What makes this a particularly helpful correspondence is that we have arrived here through self-inquiry; this is concretely about how we go about being in the world. Zhuangzi takes us through three manifestations of dependence as a self-reifying project. We are invited to discover these in ourselves. Though understanding what we are about does not automatically make us otherwise, it does nonetheless provide us with a bit of transcendent space to envision an alternative. This space, I would maintain, is also that in which we can wander. There may be a greater wandering, but it’s nice to have this lesser and more realistic wandering in any case. If sagacity corresponds to adulthood, there is no reason to disparage the realization of adolescence. Humanity typically does not get even that far.

One of the things that can happen in this space is laughter. The ability to laugh at oneself is a sure sign of some degree of transcendence. One recently “enlightened” Zennist declares, “All that’s left is to have a good laugh.” This may well be laughing at the need to even laugh at oneself, but we have to start somewhere. I don’t know what “the Laughing Buddha” is laughing about, but I suspect her laughter is of the same genus as any other mirthful laughter.

We are suggesting that one method for approximatingly realizing sagacity is self-inquiry. Whatever other methods one might use, this one seems indispensable. If one does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha, then understanding how one is trying to become a buddha seems necessary. It is also likely that so much of the hypocrisy, so much of the judgmentalism of the self-designated or aspiring “spiritual” ones is a consequence of a lack of self-knowledge. We should, of course, be able to laugh at and about them (rather than condemning them), but can only do so wisely when we are also laughing at and about ourselves.


Zhuangzi concludes his case for non-dependence with his most definitive statement on the nature of a sage: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed-identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no name” (Ziporyn, p 6).

This is apparently what I want to be when I grow up; but I gave up on that project long ago. But wait, maybe there’s a distant similarity between the two. Admittedly, most “giving up” remains squarely in the realm of “failure” (though little more so than “not giving up”). But isn’t there a Zen guy who was “enlightened” at just such a moment? Indeed, isn’t some kind of “giving up” a necessary precursor to satori?

Let’s move on to some de-mythologizing of this sentence. None of these three subjects require capitalization. Such non-grammatically required capitalization typically suggests the unique weightiness of something. A dao is just another dao; Dao is “the” Dao—the big one. (There is neither capitalization nor a definite article “the” in the original.) So let’s return them to the lower case, and let the sage be what the sentence says she is: no one special.

But Ziporyn has a real sense of the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy that often makes for some very subtle (and sometimes creative) renderings. Capitalization here can also so exalt the sage as to render her a hypothetical. Hyperbolic descriptions of the sage as remaining untouched by world conflagration similarly seem to beg an act of ridiculous credulity, but can also be an occasion to break the fetters of credulity altogether. (There’s method in this madness.) Zhuangzi’s Dao is also a hypothetical; it seems necessary, but cannot be found; it is the ever-receding incoherence that frames every attempt at coherence. It is always present as an absence, a lack. Yet without it, nothing has presence—nothing is “seen” without a background—nothing is anything without its not being something else. So, we can leave the sage a Sage, a big idea that functions as an insubstantial metaphorical lure—not a fixed, attainable reality—not something to believe in.

Let’s also recognize that these three titles identify only one “person”. Only the hyper-literal pedanticist would want to parse it otherwise. But he does us the favor of alerting us to more subtle expressions of literalism. Perfect (Consummate) person? Spirit Man? Like the one on Mt Guye who subsists on only wind and dew and flies on the backs of dragons? The Sage is the same as these, which is to say she is both a hypothetical no one in her experience, and really no one is reality. We will not find her; nor should we think we can be her, any more than we should think we can find “the Dao”.


In the final analysis, wanting to be a sage is wanting to be someone. Yet, the hypothetical sage is no one. What are we to do? We can be this contradiction. We can be this mess. We can wander in precisely that place in which we find ourselves. We can depend on the realization of nothing—including this . . . and this . . . If we can’t wander in our not-wandering, then we are unlikely to ever wander—for wandering is non-dependence, even on wandering.

Why is a sage no one? Because everyone is no one. This, at any rate, is what Zhuangzi concludes when he “illuminates the obvious”, when he considers his life-experience phenomenologically, just as it manifests, without the imposition of essentialist myths. When Yan practiced “fasting of the mind” he discovered that he had “yet to begin to exist” (4). He saw with his inner qi. What is qi? Emptiness. Becoming. The “space” in which things happen. There’s nothing substantial there. He experienced no bolt from Above. No union with some Ultimate thing took place. He did not realize the Great Dao. He did not become “spiritual”. He was not “enlightened”. He didn’t find his “true purpose”. “I AM” was not substantiated. The Cosmos was not illuminated. No one was saved.

Zhuangzi might be full of shit (I certainly am), but to my thinking, we at least owe him the courtesy of allowing him to speak without casting him into the mold of his religious-minded interpreters, ancient or modern.


Having suggested three increasingly subtle levels of dependence, Zhuangzi next asks how it would be to depend on nothing. Why, wouldn’t we be able to soar upon every possible circumstance? An insult would mean nothing; “failure” wouldn’t affect our inner peace any more than would “success”; the exercise of spiritual power might happen, but would have nothing to do with our sense of worth, “spiritual” or otherwise.

He poses this as a hypothetical. He only invites us to imagine such a possibility. If we were to take it as a fixed goal to be attained, wouldn’t that just set the stage for more dependence? If I wanted to be a sage, I’d want to be other than I am; I’d be dependent on certain outcomes; I’d judge myself according to predetermined expectations. I’d still be on the treadmill.

Here I must (again) repeat myself. There is a dialectic here that is very difficult to describe. It’s a perpetual self-effacement that effaces nothing. We aspire to sagacity while not-aspiring to sagacity, while aspiring to sagacity . . . This is an infinite regress of willing and not-willing, wanting and not wanting—affirming and negating. Isn’t this really just a reflection of the life-experience itself? Hope dawns eternal—life is a ceaseless series of disappointments and renewals of hope, because life is a perpetual élan. Life is becoming. Being is becoming. Becoming what? Nothing in particular; just becoming. Pure becoming has no fixed point of departure and no known end. “True-self” has no home here, except as its own self-effacement.

Why then do Zhuangzi’s most immediate interpreters begin speaking of a “true-self” and an “innate nature”? Because we want to be someone, to be substantive, and realizing ourselves as nobody is the last thing we want to do.

Zhuangzian non-dependence, it needs to be said, has nothing to do with independence. Quite to the contrary; it is because we are utterly dependent in every way that we can realize a psychological non-dependence through identification with the Great Becoming. All is transformation; in identifying with Transformation, what transformations can affect us? In identifying with Change, what changes can disturb us? No-one has nothing to lose.


This series is supposed to be overtly about me, yet in having fallen into the familiar groove of Zhuangzi’s analysis of dependence, it has sometimes become only covertly so. I somewhat ashamedly suggested early on, however, that this must of necessity be about me whether acknowledged or not. Such is the nature of being human. Even the astrophysicist in the spin of her theories is speaking about herself. Pure objectivity is a myth. This, in any case, is what Zhuangzi suggests when he says that every point of view is indeed from a specific point, and that there are as many points as there are people viewing from them.

Kierkegaard suggested that “truth is subjectivity” which I take to mean that, despite the admittedly objective side of a statement of the truth of things, it necessarily requires a subjective commitment to it. It is not truth until someone says it is. (“Things are ‘so’ because someone says they are ‘so’”, as Zhuangzi puts it.) One must cast one’s lot into the truthfulness of a truth. But this “leap” is not entirely logically justifiable—in the end, nothing is entirely “provable”. Kierkegaard was most concerned with Christianity, of course. In his native Denmark (part of “Christendom”) everyone was a “Christian”; when everyone is a Christian, he averred, no one is a Christian. Being a Christian involves a personal existential leap of faith into the absurdity of taking something as absolutely True—not being part of a herd. It’s not God becoming a man (an idea) that is so absurd as to require a leap, but that that guy over there shitting behind a bush is that man (a fact).

Zhuangzi, I would suggest, also understands that truth is subjectivity, but directs his leap in an altogether different and, I think, more authentic direction. He leaps into the human life-experience itself which, from the point of view of reason, is an absurdity. Ziporyn’s rendering of Zhuangzi puts it succinctly: “Thus, the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map”. The sage leaps into the “illuminated obvious” of the human experience and lives and wanders in unknowing and uncertainty. She embraces her natural adriftedness and playfully drifts without leaping into any particular absurdity at all.

Life is only absurd to the rationalist, of course—it doesn’t make sense. This is ironic in that it is often the supposedly non-rationalist existentialists who call life absurd—it doesn’t meet their rational expectations. Life is not an absurdity, but a surd—it does not resolve to logic. Zhuangzi suggests that we live life as it is, not as we would prefer it to be.


Zhuangzi suggests three increasingly subtle expressions of our ceaseless project of trying to be someone. This project is a consequence of the core emptiness that pulls the rug out from under our desire to be substantive and eternal. Since this is an entirely futile exercise and one that creates a pall of disharmony with ourselves, others, and the cosmos, he recommends that we rather harmonize with our actual experience. Everything is ceaselessly transforming; identify with that, and we need no longer cling to something we fear we can lose. Or don’t; it’s just a life-strategy, a dao, not “the Dao”.

What typically motivates this project of realizing one’s inherent emptiness? Taking ourselves as someone, we seek to be no one as a means to being someone. The so-called “spiritual” project becomes just another expression of the self-reifying project. This, I think, is what Zhuangzi intends to convey when he offers Liezi’s spiritual accomplishments as his final example of dependence. Liezi could fly on the wind. That’s quite an accomplishment; but, Zhuangzi tells us, this is still an expression of dependence.

Some Daoist roots likely extend deep into shamanism, and Liezi (if he existed) might very well have been more shamanist than “Daoist”. Shamanism offers an excellent example of a self-reifying form of “spirituality”. I do not mean to imply that it is more so than other forms—there are no spiritual pursuits that do not also have their self-reifying expressions—, but rather that some of its overt peculiarities make it easily identifiable as such. (What do I know of shamanism? I have only opinions.) Shamanism is very much about “spiritual” power. Castaneda’s Don Juan is a shaman. We are invited to be amazed at how much spiritual power he has—he can astral-project. Wow. Ask an aspiring shamanist about her shaman guru and she will tell you of his powers. You too can have such powers. You too can be someone special. None of this is meant to disparage shamanism, but simply to illustrate how Zhuangzi saw his project as something altogether different.

But Zhuangzian pursuit of non-dependent wandering can just as easily be a self-reifying project. The real question is whether it could possibly be anything else. It might be helpful to fall back on the Zennist conundrum: you can’t become a buddha by trying to be a buddha, yet you are obliged to keep trying until you somehow need try no more. We stand on the bank of our essential mess, and look across the uncrossable river in the belief that we can vaguely discern the other shore. This has remedial benefit to be sure. But we also need to remember that process is the most authentic goal, and that process is of necessity a messy business. If we can embrace the non-logical infinite regress of wandering in our inability to wander, or to wander in our inability to do even that . . . then we can perhaps make approximal “progress” and wander in the doing. Wandering depends on nothing, not even successfully wandering.


Dependence on the esteem of others and dependence on one’s self-esteem are expressions of the same desire to be someone, though moving from the former to the latter would be a commendable accomplishment. It’s likely, however, that where there is the one, there is the other. For the purposes of his argument, Zhuangzi assumes that, because Song Xing advocated for a self-esteem freed from a dependence on the esteem of others, he had actually realized it. We think it unlikely, just as we think it unlikely that any of these so-called masters actually realized the visions to which they aspired. This is more than just consistent with Zhuangzi’s philosophy; it is pivotal to it. Nothing is complete and final; nothing is fixed and sure. When something is taken as complete, something is left out; and that something necessarily becomes the most important thing of all. A belief in fully-realized sages and “masters” is the provenance of the religious-mind, a mind that requires (depends on) the fixed and sure.

When I say I want to be a sage it is largely a matter of wanting to see myself as such. I want to be a sage so I can feel good about myself. Though this also entails wishing to be seen as a sage by others, the chief motivation is self-esteem. Real self-esteem is likely more easily achieved by some than by others. Who of the two would more likely wish to depend on no esteem at all? Remedial projects are motivated by perceived need; though probably universally applicable, they need not be universally prescribed.

Zhuangzi makes his case for the virtues of realizing freedom from dependence on absolutely everything, and he does so through a phenomenological investigation of his own experience. Free of dependence, we would be free to wander in every circumstance. “Just release the mind to play . . .” He believes that this investigation of his own experience also illuminates the human condition generally. In this sense it is prescriptive. Yet, since he understands his dao to be just another dao, and because his dao sees Dao as the confluence of all daos, he is not dogmatically prescriptive. The contented self-esteemer (should there be such a one), or anyone else, for that matter, is fully affirmed as they are, and left to choose any dao they wish. People typically choose a measure of misery given the cost of freedom (no-self—being a nobody), and, frankly, the difficulties of actually realizing it. Who are we to fault them?