The Neo-Daoist Guo Xiang (252-312), in his commentary on the Zhuangzi, makes much of the unreal cognitive images by which we conceive and order our realities. He calls these “traces” (or “footprints”). There is, in fact, nothing thought or imagined that is not in some sense a trace, a mere representation of reality that must of necessity fall short of reality itself—whatever that might “be”. Truth be said, we “know” nothing, or perhaps more truly, we do not know whether we know anything or not. This is a matter of epistemology I suppose, but for Guo and for Zhuangzi both it is simply an honest description of the human condition. And given that we want to make the most of this incredible experience of being human they both turn this apparent negative, this “uselessness”, into an invitation to experience the world in an altogether different way. There is nothing useless that cannot be rendered useful. Indeed, the greater something’s apparent uselessness the greater its potential usefulness.

This is familiar ground. When words and ideas are transcended our experience of the world is transformed. Words divide. In their absence, the world is one. The experience is “mystical”. Guo calls it “vanishingly merging into things.” Zhuangzi exclaims, “All things and I are one.” Call it being empty. Call it being full. There’s no real difference between them.

This is not about truth, of course. It’s just a way of experiencing the world that feels good. And our every pronouncement upon it is also just another trace. Trace-making is unavoidable but essentially as valuable as its opposite. Indeed, without trace-making there would be no alternative, just as without yang there would be no yin, without uselessness there would be no usefulness, and without death there would be no life. And vice versa. The point is to embrace both. When opposites are transcended without their negation, Zhuangzi tells us, this is the experience of Dao.

Why only try to go around full when you could also, simultaneously, go around empty? The alternative is a life lived half-full—or half-empty.


I try to keep this blog about philosophical Daoism rather than about me, though ultimately it is of course always necessarily about me. Nevertheless, I try to avoid trivial reference to my doings. This post is an exception since I am about to start posting again after a long hiatus.

I have left my boat in Mexico and am presently staying with my 97 year old father in Oregon, USA. This puts me back on the worldwide grid.

I close with a picture of the boat in my favorite summer anchorage.


Since neither I nor friends received this post I re-sending it:

I thought I should let you know what’s up with me since I haven’t written for some time now.

The first reason is that I felt I needed to regroup after my “conversations” with Zhuangzi revealed a bit of religiousness in my treatment of him.

Secondly, I realized that I really didn’t have much more to say.

Finally, I’ve taken off sailing my boat in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, Mexico side) and am thus off the grid and away from the internet most of the time.

I think about writing again, but it may be awhile.

Cheers. Scott



Since neither I nor friends received this post I re-sending it

I thought I should let you know what’s up with me since I haven’t written for some time now.

The first reason is that I felt I needed to regroup after my “conversations” with Zhuangzi revealed a bit of religiousness in my treatment of him.

Secondly, I realized that I really didn’t have much more to say.

Finally, I’ve taken off sailing my boat in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, Mexico side) and am thus off the grid and away from the internet most of the time.

I think about writing again, but it may be awhile.

Cheers. Scott


Scott:  I’d like to go back to the idea that since no one ever existed before their birth, they do not even truly exist after their birth, and therefore certainly not after their death. Its real practicality it seems to me is that it helps us reconcile with the core emptiness we all experience.

Zhuangzi:  Right. If it isn’t rooted in our experience then it’s just adding to life.

Scott:  But we do experience ourselves as a someone nonetheless. How do we account for that?

Zz:  We experience ourselves as an experience that naturally objectifies itself—calls itself “me”—and then takes that “me” as something substantial and enduring. We then become attached to that identity and fear its loss. Instead of understanding the self-creation of “me” as a process in the flow of continual process we try to freeze the process and make our “me” an essential something—a “soul”, true-self, or whatever.

Scott:  But it is natural to do this, so . . .

Zz:  Everything that happens is natural. Doing the most “unnatural” thing imaginable is still natural. It’s just as you say with humanity—it is what it does; it isn’t some ideal reality removed from how it manifests. If there is inhumanity, then inhumanity is also humanity. All these declarations that “we are better than this” are said in bad-faith, self-deceit. So yes, it’s natural to posit a “me”—and even to take that “me” as “full and real”. The appendix is also natural—a troublesome and useless left-over within the evolutionary process. A positive consequence of our self-awareness is that we can tweak nature to our own advantage—we can remove the appendix. The habit of taking oneself as a fixed-self is also a natural but troublesome evolutionary product that we can tweak to our own advantage.

Scott:  So the egoic-self is not evil.

Zz:  Not unless nature is evil. Nor does the cosmos care one way or the other that we make ourselves suffer. Nor is the cosmos in any way negatively affected by our dysfunction. Yet we in our anthropocentrism think the cosmos must be fragmented because we seem to be.

Scott:  Humpty-Dumpty—hundun—chaos—does not yearn to be put back together again.

Zz:  Right! And the case can made that all our supposed rational de-chaos-ification is really just chaos on steroids.

Scott:  You seem to be pretty well integrated into today-speak.

Zz:  Sure, when you’ve non-existed forever it’s easy to keep up with the times.

My New Book

This is to let you know that I have just (self-) published a second book: THE INDIFFERENCE OF BIRDS: Daily Reflections on the Philosophy of Zhuangzi.

This is a compilation of posts that have appeared here and thus contains little new material.

It can be found at:





The 33rd and final chapter of the Zhuangzi, “Tianxia” (“Under Heaven”), is the first extant summation of the philosophies of the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). As such it is an especially helpful window into not only the philosophies themselves, but also their synthesis into a new philosophy.

For the author of the Tianxia clearly had his own philosophical agenda and this guided his interpretation of all the others.

It is my modus operandi to interpret and critique the other chapters of the Zhuangzi in the light of the philosophy presented in the Inner Chapters (1–7), rather than the other way around. This is frequently not the case with more scholarly studies of Zhuangzi. Not only is his philosophy interpreted in the light of these other chapters, but also in the context of a wider understanding of “Daoism”. Even when contrary to the stated purpose, we often see the superimposition of external ideas onto Zhuangzi. Because he is taken as a “Daoist”, he must be expressing a Daoist point of view—even though it took form long after he wrote.

Because I take Zhuangzi’s philosophy as quite unique in a radical sense, this study of the Tianxia will be as much about contrast as about agreement.


“Far-flung and unfettered” are two adjectives Zhuangzi uses to describe wandering. They are mutually implying.

The first speaks to the boundlessness of the experience. Wandering is an excursion into vastness, limitlessness, emptiness, The Great Openness. These are “our homeland of not even anything” because they do not signify a something but merely a quality of experience. Openness is openness only when it remains open-ended, and that is possible only when it ultimately designates nothing in particular.

The second speaks to the quality of unfixedness so central to Zhuangzi’s vision of freedom. Most important is the experience of no-fixed-self. One identifies with Transformation rather than one’s immediate self-experience. One’s present self-identity becomes a lightly held moment in time to pleasurably enjoy the mysterious Totality.

This core unfixedness affects our interface with everything else. We are no longer bound by fixed truths—nothing has to be true for us to be able to wander. We are no longer bound by the hopes and fears associated with “benefit and harm”, but equally wander in whatever transpires. Life and death become a single string when there is no fixed-self to lose.

These are framed in negation, though they are actually all about affirmation. It’s all good. All is well. We might then also mention that to wander is to play, and that implies being playful. And that implies having a self that playfully plays. And this equates to the enjoyment of life—nothing more.

All this is just an imaginative exercise, needless to say. None of it is true. It’s just a wandering.


Having become “one with the Transforming Openness”, Yan is “free of all constancy”. This is a delightful overturning of conventional value. Typically, to be constant is to be real. Transience is a lesser mode of being. (Essence precedes existence.)

To be constant is to be fixed; but to be fixed is to be incapable of wandering.

If we imagine reality as a Transforming Openness—an interpretive possibility which seems most consistent with our experience—then belief in anything fixed is delusory in any case. Since it is our psychological experience that most concerns Zhuangzi, it is the overturning of our sense of being a fixed-self that is at issue here.

This same Yan is he who discovered his core emptiness and thus realized that he “had yet to begin to exist”. He realized no-fixed-self—a self-experience in which one’s identity becomes merely a “temporary lodging”.

“Seeing all lodging places as one, let yourself be lodged in whichever cannot be avoided.” Or, “Making your real home in oneness, let yourself be temporarily lodged in whatever cannot be avoided.” (4:10; note 6)

The capacity to wander thus entails the loss of one’s “me”—a fixed somebody that fears the loss of its own self and cannot therefore escape the tyranny of “benefit and harm”.

Perhaps this is why Zhuangzi lit upon “wandering” as his chief metaphor for freedom. The wanderer has no other home than the world itself. She has hid her self in the world—“hid the world in the world where nothing can be lost.”

The sage makes the Transforming Openness her home and can freely wander everywhere within it.


If we have “the capacity to wander”, we can wander in all circumstances. But what is the capacity to wander and how do we get it?

Since I don’t have that capacity, how could I say? Well, the saying is relatively easy, because the concept is easy. It is also the case that, as was likely with Zhuangzi himself, our interface with this possibility is dialectical. This is to say that it is “realized” only as and by approximation. Were it otherwise, if there was some final state that had to be achieved, then our wandering would depend on that and no wandering would be possible.

We can, therefore, wander in our inability to wander, or in our inability to wander in our inability to wander, or . . .  If this doesn’t seem to logically cohere, it is because it reflects the process of life itself. Does life make sense?

There seems to be two strains of methodology presented in the Inner Chapters. One suggests that we just take the leap, make the choice, just do it. “Hand it all over to the unavoidable.”

The other suggests some form of meditation that brings us to the point where the wandering follows as a matter of course. The story in which Confucius begs to be the disciple of his disciple who has realized this serves as a case in point.

After much “sitting and forgetting” Yan has become “one with the Transforming Openness.” “The same as it?” Confucius exclaims. “But then you are free of all preference! Transforming? But then you are free of all constancy!” (6:54-5)

There is no reason why we cannot utilize both methods. Indeed, the practice of the one without the other might be impossible. This is especially the case when taking meditation as an imaginative excursion (as I do). We can only “hand it all over to the unavoidable” when we have imagined a point of view that encourages us to do so.