I am not sure where in the Zhuangzi  Guo Xiang (c. 252-312) found occasion to develop his idea of “traces”, but it might easily have been from the story in the Outer Chapters of a wheelwright instructing a duke on the folly of clinging to the words of ancient sages. (Since Guo mostly made use of the Zhuangzi as a means for the development and elaboration of his own philosophy of life rather than making a careful commentary on it, it hardly matters what passage inspired him.) Since these sages are long dead, their words are nothing more than the sheddings marking their passing. Because they are dead so too are their teachings. These are radical and powerful words indeed. But of course we don’t have to take them too seriously in as much as they also qualify as traces.

Zhuangzi tells us we would be much better off following our own daos rather than that of the so-called sages. A dao is made by walking it. Everything the sages said and everything we think we know about them are empty traces. The wheelwright could not even teach his own son how to make a wheel because it was a matter of having a knack, not of learning a technique. But perhaps his son, in applying himself to the art of wheel-making, could discover a knack in himself. So too can we learn from the sages without that being a dependence upon them. There’s guidance there. There’s a wheel to be made there. But our success in creating it will be in discovering our own unique knacks, not in attempting to emulate theirs.

We are invited to do as Guo did—make use of Zhuangzi—without following him by rote. Thankfully, we are often not even sure what he was saying. How then could we follow him too closely? Brook Ziporyn has described my scribblings in these terms, just as he would of any and every use of the “wisdom of the ancients”. The point is to engage, and in that engagement, to realize a new and personal application based upon one’s own unique self-experience. But if this is the way of it then there can be no single true interpretation of Zhuangzi or anyone else. That’s good news, for now our engagement can always and only be open-ended, ever-transforming, never-trace-full.


Who am I? That is not an easy question to answer. There are numerous levels and means by which I attempt to reify my sense of being this particular self. Among these is my past. I define my present self by reference to past events, passive and active, that I pick out as defining “me”. I am, in effect, my past. But this selection process is far from unbiased. There are those, no doubt, who mostly pick out interpreted events from the past that give them a positive image of themselves. I, on the other hand, tend to choose those things that make me feel bad about myself. There isn’t anything truly sordid or hurtful back there—just a lot of stupidity. How can I make that work for me?

I’m engaging in all this me-talk because I would like to share something of how an understanding of traces can help us to understand our self-imaging and thus provide a tool by which to reframe it.

Traces are concepts by which we interpret the world. As applied to past events they are like footprints, a sign of something having passed, but not the thing itself. What was it? To a large extent it is only what I imagine it to have been. Calling it “stupid” is really just adding a trace on top of a trace. Defining oneself by reference to the past is thus twice removed from both the “real” event and one’s actual self.

Understanding that our every assessment of ourselves constitutes a trace—a phantom creation of the imagination, a mere echo of what might have been the case—opens us up to wander among every and all traces. The past is not negated but rather our clinging to any one interpretation of it is. We can learn from it without being defined by it.

When we don’t answer the question “Who am I?” with “Who was I?” we are free to return to the present. And when there we discover that “I am a ‘Who’?” When we realize that we haven’t a clue who we are or who we were, there are no traces to which we need to cling, though traces there will be.

Ziqi lost his “me” when he realized that he was a “Who?” and not a concrete someone. Who causes the forest to sway and sing? The “Who?” of “creation” is really no different from the “Who?” of ourselves. Both we and the world are self-so, an inexplicable happening, an arising encompassed by mystery. Zhuangzi suggests we trustfully and thankfully ride the wave of our not-knowing and enjoy our arising as it is, and not as we would like it to be. If, on the other hand, we “take our mind (understanding) as our teacher” we will be forever entangled and encumbered by traces.


There are numerous ways in which we use traces (fixed ideas) to define ourselves. The most fundamental of these is the posited “me” in the I-me relationship. Without this relationship it is hard to imagine how self-consciousness could persist. It seems to be a necessary attribute of our human experience. Even Zhuangzi’s imaginary sage Ziqi, who has lost his “me”, seems to still have it enough to engage in self-reflection. “‘I’ have lost my ‘me’” is self-contradictory, for without “me” there can be no “I”. And vice versa. Thus, the loss of one’s “me” must be a shifting of perspective where the “me” is both there and transcended. No-self is not the absence of self, but a perspectival shift—a view from Dao—that does not cling to self as to a fixed and real thing. It is no-fixed-self.

As an aside, it is worth noting that this means that the emptiness at our core, that gap between “I” and “me” that makes self-consciousness possible, is unavoidable. But this is just some more “uselessness” that can be rendered most useful. It’s the empty hub in the wheel, the window that allows light to enter. It is the yin that can balance and illuminate our all-consuming yanging. This is what philosophical Daoism is all about—just factoring nothingness/emptiness into our view of the world and ourselves.

I am me, but who is me? Brook Ziporyn suggests that much of Zhuangzi’s philosophical argument in Chapter 2 can be summed up with just this: Who? The power of Who? resides in its unanswerabilty. Who is the Blower that makes the ten thousand things move and sing? We cannot know, so it seems that nothing makes them exist at all—they are self-so, spontaneously arising. Who am I? I am a Who-ing?—an unanswerable question, an inexplicable happening with emptiness at its core. More uselessness—more opportunity to make it work for us.

This is a classic Zhuangzian shift toward yin. Who is the Blower? What is the ultimate Yang? There is no answer, so let it be Yin. Turn the question on its head. Cease the yanging and try a bit of yinning. Do not posit a Creator, but rather open up into openness. Embrace the emptiness of Who?.


All things are in flux and traces are our attempt to stop their ceaseless transformation by naming them. In naming them we give them a specific, fixed identity. Even if I am not at this moment the same as I will be in the next or in the previous, it’s convenient to think and say so. (No doubt Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle [the position and velocity of a particle cannot both be accurately measured at the same time] and quantum physics would agree, but I won’t pretend to understand them well enough to say so.)

So traces are a means by which to bestow identity to things despite that aspect of them that defies all identity. Thus, if we are interested in exploring how we might transcend identity—our own especially—then the idea of traces becomes an important tool in that project. The realization of no-fixed-identity is, as I tirelessly (and perhaps tiresomely) assert, at the heart of Zhuangzi’s vision of obtaining freedom from all fear and peace-robbing entanglements. No-fixed-identity is the experience of both being and not-being oneself. This puts us back on two roads at once. I enjoy being “me” while not taking this “me” as something real and fixed—something to lose—that’s the scariest loss.

But beyond these two is a different level of experience. My unidentifiable me-ness is in some way identifiable with the unidentifiable Great Happening—the unimaginable Totality of all things. “I and the ten thousand things are one.”

That’s the theory, at least. But trace-full though it be, it is easily approximated. We are not, after all, talking about complete and unsurpassable enlightenment here. It’s just a thought experiment. It’s imaginative meditation. And it feels good.


Heraclitus (b. 544 BCE) observed: “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it will be neither the same river nor the same man.” Zhuangzi would certainly agree. Everything seems to be in flux. Nothing is fixed. The most obvious thing about reality is that it is continually transforming. This is hua. I like to call it the Great Happening.

Traces are our attempt to stop this flow, if only momentarily. “This is the Nile.” There you have it—a fixed identity that has persisted for millions of years no matter that its water is ever new and its path ever-changing. “I am me”—there is someone here who persists through time. Sure, I will have an end (presumably), but at least until that eventuality arises I have a fixed identity. But this is just a trace, a convenient way to stop the flow and make sense of the world. And it works. If we forget that it is merely a convenience and not the truth of things, however, psychological and social dissonance arises.

If I am someone, why am I forever trying to be someone—and always coming up short? This question is at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project. When he critiques the folly of those who try to be someone through political power, self-possession, or spiritual attainment he is describing us all. Because like everything else we are forever transforming, we depend on various ruses—traces—by which to make us feel concrete and fixed. Ultimately, we are denying both the insurmountable lack at the heart of our self-awareness and the inevitability of our own death.

But what if, Zhuangzi asks, we depended on nothing—no self-esteem, no project, no achievement, no public acknowledgement—what would that be like? Might it not allow for free and easy psychological wandering through life where neither success nor failure, praise or blame, life or death could touch the heart of our joi de vivre? When there’s nothing to be gained there’s nothing that can be lost. Thus, “fearlessness is the proof of sagacity”.

“Thus I say,” concludes Zhuangzi, “the sage has no-fixed identity . . . no merit . . . no name.” In other words, the hypothetical sage is able to see herself as a transforming happening within the Great Happening, which in effect makes her the Great Happening itself. “I and the ten thousand things are one.” At least this is how it feels.

Who am I? Whatever answer I might give will be a bundle of traces, fixed and static ideas that are not me at all. It might very well be that such a bundle of ideas is necessary, but knowing them as such opens a path to wandering in and beyond them.