After exposing the folly of pursuing the esteem of others, Zhuangzi considers the alternative of self-esteem. We are told that even the proto-Daoist Song Xing would laugh at someone who attempts to be someone through social-esteem. There’s lots of laughing going on here. The tiny dove laughs at the flight of the vast bird Peng—derisively. Song Xing laughs at the one who, like the dove, sees himself in comparison to others. One ancient commentator points out that Zhuangzi says “even Song Xing” because, though he had some insight into the folly of self-reifying at that level, he had yet to learn to laugh at himself for his need for even self-esteem. Ostensibly, Zhuangzi’s sage has realized the freedom to do just that.

Song Xing, we are told (by Zhuangzi and the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi), clearly recognized the difference between the inner and the outer. He understood focus on the latter, dependence on the esteem of others, as conducive of mediated and inauthentic living. Instead, he suggested we nurture the inner, our self-esteem. Song proclaimed that “to be insulted is not a disgrace”—it need not bother us. What a wonderful concept! What a powerful invitation to explore the root causes for our typical responses to insult. Why does it upset us? Shouldn’t we be so independently  self-esteeming that the opinions of others have no affect? This is about as far as self-help psychology can take us and is likely a helpful, remedial project, though Zhuangzi suggests we can take it yet further.

Ziporyn sees Zhuangzi as offering this as “a salutary first step”. It is a significant insight and worthy of consideration and practice. For this, I would suggest, is the kind of “practice” that Zhuangzi suggests—the hard work of understanding ourselves. Meditation might have a role to play, but it can easily simply feed the same egoic motivations that Zhuangzi suggests we uncover and illuminate so as to transcend them—laugh at them.

Know thyself. Let yourself be illuminated by the “obvious”. Yet, when the Emperor of China asked the first patriarch of Chan (Zen), Bodhidharma, who the hell did he think he was, he replied, I don’t know. Now that’s knowing oneself. Upon what exactly can we pin our esteem?


The desire to be seen as a sage is the desire to be esteemed by others. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves back on the track of Zhuangzi’s brief but potent examination of forms of dependence from the coarsest to the most subtle. He concludes by telling us that the sage has no-self, which we take to mean that she has experientially understood the emptiness of the self-experience and is thus free from the need to “be someone”. This uncovering of levels of motivational dependence (of which he provides three) invites us to discover them in ourselves so as to realize some degree of freedom from them.

He begins with a critique of someone who takes political (social) status as somehow capable of bringing fulfillment to one’s life. This is likely an allusion to his sparring buddy Huizi who did in fact manage to become a political someone in one of the warring states. This political person is also likened to the tiny dove who scoffs at the incredible flight of the vast bird Peng, which is again likely an allusion to Huizi who criticized Zhuangzi’s philosophy as big, but useless. All this is about Zhuangzi, lest we forget. I take him to be an existentialist very much like Kierkegaard—take away the personal, and nothing much remains; not when “truth is subjectivity”.

Have we then sufficiently uncovered this form of motivational dependence? Not quite. The desire to be a rock star guru is easily dismissed as ridiculously egoic. There are, however, more subtle and insidious expressions of this desire for the esteem of others. A recent experience of one of these gave birth to this series. I have a friend who calls me “my Master”—entirely ironically it needs to be said. He had occasion to chide me for my anger and impatience at difficulties encountered while doing a boat project. I became angry at his criticism. This ruined my day. And I wanted to know why.

The reason pertinent to this topic of dependence on the esteem of others is simply that, though I knew he knew I was a mess, I did not want that he should have more evidence of the fact. I was unhappy because I felt diminished in the eyes of another. This amply demonstrates the value of not depending on the esteem of others. If one’s happiness depends on anything, then one will never be happy. Zhuangzian wandering is just this: being happy in every circumstance, even unhappy ones.

Even though impatience is itself an expression of dependence on something, it needs to be said that growing in patience, though a worthy project, has no first order to relevance to growing in non-dependence. If we require ourselves to become “better”, we are dependent on that and the same bondage obtains. This is a moral stumbling-block for many who see it as a shirking of responsibility, but it need be no such thing where one walks two roads at once.


The desire to “be someone” motivates pretty much everything we do in terms of our interface with ourselves and the world. This is what makes the concept of emptiness so incredibly difficult to envision and to realize. Yet emptiness is not intended as a negation—what’s there to negate? If there were a real “fixed-self” (or a “true self”, for that matter) then we would do better to affirm and be it. Our actual experience, however, indicates otherwise. We are perpetually trying to be someone because at our deepest core we experience ourselves as a no one. Emptiness then is an affirmation of who we “are”, not its negation. There is no evil self to eradicate.

None of this futile, self-reifying project would matter all that much except in that it tends to diminish our own enjoyment of life and to impinge upon that of others. No cosmic consequences obtain. Neither we nor the cosmos require saving. Humpty Dumpty (hundun, primordial chaos) does not yearn to be put back together again, however messy we think it to be. The pursuit of our individual and collective flourishing need not be a religious project.

Because we are nearly always motivated by a desire to be someone in our interface with ourselves and others does not mean that what we do is to be negated. Our motivations can cast a shadow on our actions, but the actions themselves can remain affirmable. Saving Mencius’ child about to fall into a well remains commendable whether it is accomplished so as to be seen as “good”, or as a natural expression of empathy, as Mencius would have it. It is likely to be both.

Wanting to be a sage is likely to be overshadowed by motivations that are themselves a negation of sagacity, but the pursuit of sagacity remains a worthy project nonetheless. Yet, here we have the paradox common to all such endeavors: one cannot become a sage while wanting to be a sage; one does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha; one cannot be happy through the pursuit of happiness. What then are we to do? The best we can do is to be human—to live and work within the contingencies of our inherently messy experience. In this is the possibility of proximally realizing what is likely only an unobtainable ideal. Living that is sagacious freedom.


I have offered my personal failing of desiring to be a sage as a point of entry into the necessary self-inquiry that Zhuangzi’s philosophy challenges us to practice. That philosophy begins and ends in our self-experience. It’s about the transformation of our world-view, our interface with our personal experience in the world, and nothing else. It is not a belief system, but a self-aware existential response to the life-experience as it arises. It makes no appeal to extra-mundane metaphysical “realities”.

I have said I’d rather be a rock star than an adored guru. The implication is that to aspire to either manifests more or less the same motivation. Understanding how they are the same is vital to understanding the Zhuangzian project of realizing non-dependence and the freedom to play and wander. The essence of non-dependence is the loss of the need to “be someone”. When he says, Just be empty, this is what he means. Being who we are is, ironically, being no one. We are, of course, “someone”; we are a someone who is also a no one. Our core experience, Zhuangzi suggests, is a sense of emptiness. We are not a thing, a concrete, static entity, but a happening, an expression of a ceaseless, open-ended transformation.

This disturbs us. We want to be someone fixed. We want to be gods, concrete and immortal. For this reason, we engage in all manner of self-reifying fantasies and projects in an attempt to fill the unfillable core emptiness that is our essential experience.

This desire to be a rock star (or an adored guru) is motivated by a desire to be esteemed by others in the extreme, though it is of the same genus as every similar motivation. It is, as we have said, the coarsest of such motivations and one easily identified and condemned. But condemnation is not abandonment, and for that, there’s nothing so effective as laughter. Laughter, however, neither condemns nor abandons; it simply joyously transcends and leaves things to transform as they will.

Self-laughter is an active self-awareness that is already free of that of which it is aware. While self-inquiry is a project of self-cultivation, self-laughter is the freedom that simultaneously obviates any requirement for change. It is the realization of complete unconditional self-affirmation in each moment and in every condition. It is the caged bird that sings—even as it works on the bars.


There are innumerable personal failings that I could share with the reader, but none as illuminating or seminal as this: I want to be a sage.

For the most part I try to avoid being overly personal in these posts; they are not meant to be about me, but about the applicability of the philosophy of Zhuangzi to life today. That applicability, however, does not and cannot come disembodied from a life experience, and the only one I know is my own. Alas, this entire project is about me. On the one hand, it grieves me to have to say so; on the other, I realize that there is no other option and that any pretense of dis-interested objectivity in anything amounts to an act of bad faith—to lie to oneself and to others. Zhuangzi’s project was no different. We have this in common—we are both human. He too was simply trying to cope with his experience and, I believe, knew this to be the case. That critical self-awareness is the hinge upon which his philosophy can be said to turn.

For us, Daoism is an entirely psychological project. It has nothing to do with a supposed extra-mundane Reality except as a Lack. We feel that it is necessary, yet can only feel it as a lack. And so too do we experience ourselves as a lack; something is missing, and it’s the most important thing of all. Let the coping begin.

This being a psychological project, there is much to discover in self-inquiry. There is no other place to begin—or to end. I have mentioned my desire to be a sage as one point of entry into such an inquiry. Exploring this will take more than one post, so, in the interest of suggesting at least a modicum of supposed sagacity (because I want to be a sage), let me begin by saying that this does not mean that I want to be a guru surrounded by adoring disciples. This inquiry will be an exploration of ever-deeper and more subtle motivations, and the desire to be such a guru is on the peripheral first ring, and the coarsest of possible motivations. It is not one I generally entertain. I’d rather be a rock star. This has the advantage of indulging in a self-reifying fantasy without the hypocrisy.