“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.


“Zhuangzi said, ‘If a man has the capacity to wander, can anything keep him from wandering?’” (26; p 113)

Whether Zhuangzi actually said this or not, this statement speaks to the heart of what it is to wander.

Nothing can keep the wanderer from wandering because wandering depends on nothing. Indeed, wandering is precisely this non-dependence.

It follows that if we cannot wander in everything, then we cannot wander in anything.

We might think we are wandering in the “beneficial”, but if we could not do the same in the “harmful”, then we would not be wandering. Wandering is the transcendence of dependence on “benefit and harm”.

This invites our imaginative meditation—further words are unnecessary; but here are some more:

“Let your mind be carried along by things so that your mind wanders freely. Hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish what is central within you.” (4:16)

“You just release the mind to play in the harmony of all de. Seeing what is one and the same to all things, nothing is ever felt to be lost.” (5:6)

In non-dependence, nothing can be lost. There is nothing to lose.


Wandering is Zhuangzi’s paramount metaphor for the freedom of the sage. The image is so packed with suggested meanings that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let us begin then with the most mundane—that it is mundane. Comparison with however we might imagine “enlightenment” suffices to demonstrate this. When it comes to so-called spiritual awakening, Zhuangzi seems to have set his sights relatively low. This, of course, is because the entirety of his project turns on his commitment to responding to life as it presents, not as we might wish it to be. This is summed up in the exhortation: “Add nothing to the process of life.”

Wandering then takes place in this world and within the givens of our experience. No extra-mundane realities are posited or required.

There’s something liberating in this alone. An imagined “enlightenment”, the realization of some incredible state of being, is an invitation to mount a treadmill of perpetual aspiration and self-denial. Zhuangzi’s wandering seems to be saying, forget all that; just enjoy yourself in the moment, just as you are.

Since we are typically attached and fixed to some one place, some merely “temporary lodging” that we insist on calling home, there is also work to be done here too, of course. However, since there’s no fixed state to achieve, nowhere else we need to go, wandering, as merely an attitude, a psychological orientation, is always ready at hand.

Wandering requires no change, because everything is an occasion for wandering.


“Skillful barking does not make a dog good, and skillful talking does not make a man even a worthy, much less a great man.” (24; p 105)

Taken somewhat out of its context this observation provides an opportunity to make yet another disclaimer. Sometimes after writing a post I feel genuine pleasure in having skillfully barked. Or at least so it seems to me.

Perhaps there are moments when this makes me feel like a good dog, but for the most part I suffer little from that particular delusion. For whatever personal reason I may wish the reader to know that, it is in point of fact important that she or he do so. It is doubtful that any would take me as “a worthy, much less a great man”; rather, the true point is that no one is, or at least that we must be very cautious—“like crossing a river in winter”—when admiring the barking of any dog, no matter how skillful.

The context of this sentence quoted above is a speech given by “Confucius” at a feast given in his honor. At his most “Daoist”, he proceeds to extol the virtues of “wordless words”. An example of this, he declares, can be seen in the “action” of one of the attendees. As his army was arrayed before another on the verge of battle, he fell asleep with “a feathered fan” in his hand. Seeing such apparent confidence (actually insouciance), the opposing army stood down. This was indeed a “wordless word”—a “good word”.

Confucius goes on to extol the virtues of the truly “Great Man”: “Nothing is more complete than heaven and earth, but do they become so by seeking to be so? One who understands the great completeness seeks nothing, loses nothing, abandons nothing, never letting mere beings alter who he is. He returns only to his own self, yet he finds it inexhaustible. He follows the ancients, but never becomes their mere copy”.

This is a truly wonderful passage, one worthy of our serious and prolonged imaginative engagement. In furthering my point regarding caution, however, I will only step back and suggest that we would do well to remember that such a Great Man is only an ideal—and understanding that is what allows us to “return to our own self”.


Our visceral responses to words can be quite instructive. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a familiar childhood chant. They often do hurt, of course, which is why we have concocted this counter-spell.

This returns us to Song Xing’s “To be insulted is not a disgrace” (1:7; 33; p 121)—his own philosophical counter-spell. If we can achieve an unflappable self-esteem, words cannot hurt us. Zhuangzi, as we have seen, suggests we not even depend on that, but rather abandon our sense of a fixed and vulnerable self altogether.

Words are thus quite useful even—especially—in their potentially negative impacts. An insult is something upon which to soar, or to at least make the attempt. It’s all good training.

The propensity for an exchange of words to devolve into conflict is another fine teaching moment. “They begin nicely enough, but in the end it gets ugly. . . . Words are like wind and waves . . .” (4:15) As every sailor knows, wind means waves, and it’s the waves that are the scary and harmful bit. Similarly, there is nothing like the onset of an argument to demonstrate our continued dependence on self-rightness and our belief in the truth of our opinions.

We can be thankful, therefore, for the downside of words as well as the upside. If we want a teacher, there is nothing better than our own everyday silliness.


Words written about things “spiritual”, given a certain temporal remove (actual or fabricated—think The Book of Mormon), frequently become “scripture”. And scripture easily becomes an occasion for bibliolatry. Ironically, given God’s declared distaste for idolatry, this is most common in the revealed religions wherein God had a lot to say.

God is held hostage to his own words, some of which were admittedly spoken in the heat of a momentary state of wrath. He has also made a lot of promises (See? They’re written right here.)—and God is a promise-keeper, even with his stiff-necked and idolatrous chosen, though it sometimes irks him to have to do so.

Because the Book is infallible, everything in it must be taken literally. God does not lie. God is not Truth; he obeys It.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1John 1:1) There you have it. Let us then worship Logos—the Word—the Book.

Disrespect the Book and we will kill you—irrespective of what it might say about not killing.

Nor are the more intuitive religions free from bibliolatry. “The Buddha said . . .” Really? Belief, it seems, requires fixed truths. (Zen tries to overcome this by advocating experience “outside the Scriptures”. “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”)

Multitudes have been murdered because a mosque sat (now razed) on the supposed birth spot of an “historical” Rama, the hero of the fantastic tale of the Ramayana, now taken quite literally.

This bit of sarcasm is intended as a reminder of our near universal tendency to turn words into Truth. The consequence is more often than not closed- and bloody-mindedness.

I would suggest that Zhuangzi’s words have no more Truth in them than these present ramblings. They are just the scribblings of another work in progress—a work that has no end—a work that is its own end, even if unendingly open-ended.

As always, there’s freedom to be had somewhere in understanding this apparent mess.


Huizi’s chief criticism of Zhuangzi’s philosophy was that his words were “big but useless”. (1:15) For the rationalist, the utility of words stops at their ability to designate a fixed and sure meaning.

The “rectification of names” was a central concern for philosophers of many stripes in Zhuangzi’s time. If we could just make absolutely clear and fixed what words mean, then we would have a Dao that could be spoken. Then we would have sure, cognitive guidance. We could take our minds as our teacher.

Confucius purportedly (this may be a later interpolation) declared the rectification of names the “first thing to be done” if we want to transform society: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” (Analects 13; Legge)

The Daoist revolution, as seen in the opening statement of the Laozi, emphatically declared that no such cognitively fixed guidance was possible: “The dao that can be spoken is not the genuine Dao.”

So, if we are to forget Zhuangzi’s words once we have grasped their meaning, what is that meaning? Only more words can say it, but it cannot be spoken. A bit of a conundrum, it seems. But this need not stop us: “Where is the man who has forgotten words that I might have a few words with him?”

Here are a few words about his meaning: There is the possibility of wandering in freedom if we depend on no words—though we must make use of them to imagine it.

This is a possible psychological response to our experience in life. Words would have us make it the correct response. But forgetting words disallows our doing so. This can be the crux of it. There is a cutting off of fixity, since it is words that are inherently fixed.

Being unfixed is the capacity to wander.


“But human speech is not just the blowing of air. Speech has something of which it speaks, something it refers to. Yes, but what it refers to is peculiarly unfixed. . . . You take it to be different from the chirping of baby birds. But is there really any difference between them?” (2:14)

To my thinking, this equation of human speech to the chirping of baby birds invites one of Zhuangzi’s most powerful imaginative exercises. Just going there for a moment can be truly mind-expanding. Being shaken out of our self-absorbed anthropocentrism can be an exhilarating experience.

What may seem at first like a negation can in fact be profoundly affirming. There is unity in Nature, and we are invited to experientially return to our participation in it. Ultimately, this entails the exchange of a fixed-identity for identification with “The Great Openness”. It’s a pretty good deal all in all.

Pascal’s Wager has relevance here: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Nothing beyond a temporal enhancement of the quality of life is “gained”, of course. (Pascal had salvation in mind.) All is as it is, in any event. No need to mend a cosmic rift is imagined.

There is, of course, also that sense in which human speech is different from the chirping of baby birds. It’s just that words cannot carry the weight of truth which we wish to place upon them. They are “peculiarly unfixed”. Their foundation is ultimately vacuous.

So let’s have fun with words. Let’s play the hand we’ve been dealt as best we can, while not taking things so seriously as to destroy all the fun.