“What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” –Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 January, 1963)

Hate is possible for the same reason that love is possible. Both require two. But this is not hard to find since twoness describes our most fundamental experience as self-aware beings. Self is “I” aware of itself as an “other”, its “me”.

Self-hatred may be the most common form of hatred, but finding itself too hard to bear, it projects itself onto more distant “others”. The racism implied in the quote above likely has its beginnings here. Hate is exclusionary.

Love is inclusionary. It spans the gulf of twoness in the formation of a oneness. But this requires a twoness that is also a oneness, or a oneness that is also a twoness. How is it that everything always seems to speak of walking two roads at once?

Self-love must also be a formation of a oneness. Perhaps this can tell us something of what Ziqi meant when he said he’d lost his “me”. He experienced himself as a twoness that was also a oneness. And this led him to a vision of the oneness of the forest by virtue of the self-so uniqueness of its trees. A Oneness that was also a not-Oneness.

Some degree of self-love must be a prerequisite to other-love. The more self-oneness, the more self-other-oneness. Fortunately, imperfection and approximation, which is to say the essential messiness of existence, manages to flourish despite the same.

This trajectory into inclusionary openness, oneness, is a central part of Zhuangzi’s vision. I guess we could call it love, though he does not call it such. In any case, like love, it feels good. Perhaps this is something of what Buddhism is about when it speaks of all-inclusive compassion. I’ve never quite got this supreme valuation of compassion. “Heaven is not humane.” That’s more my cup of tea.

Their real point of divergence, it seems to me, is that Buddhism seems to think this apparent reality needs saving by way of compassion, while Zhuangzian Daoism recognizes no such need. All is well in the Great Mess. Improving the experience is elective and can thus be accomplished playfully and without its being yet another burden.


“What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” –Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 January, 1963)

This quote tells us that what excludes is idolatrous. Any conception of God that excludes is idolatrous. But this also implies that any conception of God at all is essentially idolatrous. To say, “This is God; these are His (!) attributes,” is an act of identifying God within limits that exclude. This need not lead us to a definitive conclusion that there is no God; atheism is as idolatrous and exclusionary as any other absolutist belief.

What we are left with is utter not-knowing. All is Mystery and therefore every “thing” is existentially adangle and itself mystery.

The rational mind nevertheless works by virtue of its ability to include and exclude. We know what something is by knowing what it is not. Is this a sheep or a goat? It’s a goat, because sheep have this attribute, while goats do not. The mind is dualistic by its nature.

Recognizing the essential Mystery that is our life-in-a-world enables us to open up into the totality of our experience without excluding anything. This experiential opening up is, to my thinking, what Zhuangzi is about when he speaks of Oneness. He treads very carefully here, however. Saying all is One is just another absolutist, and therefore exclusionary, statement. Oneness is an experience, not an explicit fact. Thus, he also says, “Not-One is also One”.

Once again we find ourselves on two roads at once. By virtue of our experience as self-aware, rational beings we participate in a required dualism. Yet we also have the possibility of a non-dual experience that informs our dualism. We are by nature exclusionary, especially as evinced in our addiction to good and bad, but we can inform this with a broader experience that, though it does not negate our not-oneness, can render it non-absolutist. We can open up to our unopeness and realize some openness in that.


“What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” –Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 January, 1963)

If there is a problem with idolatry from the point of view of Zhuangzian Daoism it is primarily in that it robs us of the opportunity to experience a sense of openness and limitlessness. These correspond to emptiness in that they are not in any sense definitively specifiable events—there is no “thing” called limitlessness. These terms must self-efface to retain their meaning.

Again, Zhuangzi believes that such an experience makes for a happier life. That’s pretty much the whole of it.

Openness, to my thinking, can be taken as the whole of Zhuangzi’s vision—just as it can be understood as synonymous with the goals of other similar approaches. I will attempt a quote from possibly the earliest Daoist/Zen treatise, Xin-Xin Ming, from a faulty memory: “Openness is easy; just hold no opinions about anything.” Here also is one from a more secular source: “Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinion at all.” (Georg Carl Lichtenberg).

Easy? I think not. Possible? Who knows? But certainly well with the effort to explore its psychological and practical implications. Like so many characterizations of the psychology of sagacity, the first-order value of this one resides in its direct challenge to our typical inclinations. It rubs us the wrong way in a variety of ways, and that is our opportunity to explore the why of it. We needn’t even have to agree with it to get an inkling of openness in considering it.

The introductory quote inspired this series and it speaks to the practical and social consequences of openness that I will consider anon.


“What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.” –Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 January, 1963)

Concern about idolatry may seem tangential to a study of Zhuangzi’s Daoism, but when we understand it as any act that establishes a circumscribed coherence that must necessarily exclude other coherences, it speaks directly to the overall vision of Zhuangzi. Everything said leaves out something else—and that absence becomes the most important thing of all. We cannot say or understand without it being a prelude to idolatry.

Why is the left out the most important thing of all? In a world of ceaseless Yang-ing, it is only Yin that can frame the whole. But Yin is Mystery—the unframeable.

The Daoist appeal for the inclusion of Yin/Dao is a call to openness. It is an appeal to let everything “bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”. Openness is a synonym for emptiness. It is not a void, but a voiding. It has its point of departure, its yang, and it does not eradicate itself. The inclusion of Yin is not the exclusion of Yang.

Taking Dao for Something is idolatry. It is circumscribing (drawing a circle around) Openness. It is simply more Yang-ing. True Openness is an experience, not an idolatrous idea.