Zhuangzi’s use of Confucius is especially instructive. No matter how serious the message put in his mouth, there is a humorous side to it. Things are not quite as fixed and sure as they might immediately seem to be. We are reminded to take it all with a grain of salt.

The author of the 33rd chapter seems to have missed this: Zhuangzi provides “citations of weighty authorities for verification, words put in the mouth of others for broad acceptance.” (p 123) Again, he seems to have missed the indispensable irony. But then for him there is a True Dao (Path) that needs expressing (albeit it now, lamentably expressed in only fragmented parts). It’s all very serious.

Sometimes Zhuangzi’s Confucius is the consummate spokesperson for Zhuangzi’s “Daoism”. Sometimes, he is the polar opposite of that view. Sometimes he gets that he doesn’t get it and begs to be the disciple of his own disciple who does get it; other times he realizes his own dao will just have to do. (Daos are unavoidable though the one chosen is a matter of personal preference and ability.)

This is Zhuangzi at play. We are invited to play along.


“Spill-over goblet words” are words that self-empty once their meaning has been understood. This puts us in mind of words attributed to Zhuangzi in which he suggests we forget words once we have understood their meaning: “Words are for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?” (26; p 114)

How can it be that words and their meaning are two different things? How can we forget the one and retain the other?

Most fundamentally, words can only represent things—they are not the things themselves. The meaning is the thing itself. If someone says, “This is a tree”, this tells us a lot; we are now able to apply yet more descriptive words to it. We “understand” it better; but we have yet to experience it.

Can we experience a tree?

If we can, this would mean that a vast world of experience is available to us. Not only trees, but every other thing could be experienced beyond their superficial representation in words.

Isn’t “awe” descriptive of an experience of something beyond words? We can be “in awe” in the presence of a majestic redwood. We are affected by it in some visceral way.

What if we could experience everything in this way? What if a dust mite could leave us in awe? Or the dust particle it calls home? How are they the same as the majestic redwood? They are an incredible mystery.

The mystery of things is not simply their unknowableness; it is also that they are simply “there”. And this “meaning” is an experience beyond words. Mystery is an experience. A pleasurable one.


The author of the final chapter of the Zhuangzi suggests that Zhuangzi used three types of words to communicate his message with those he thought “incapable of conversing seriously with himself”. (33; p 123) My sense is that he did not understand Zhuangzi’s motivation at all, and that this was a consequence of his not really grasping his message. Still, there’s lots to learn from his analysis.

The author of the 27th chapter, “Words Lodged Elsewhere”, provides a very similar description of his own words, some of which are in verbatim agreement with those of the 33rd chapter just mentioned. (p 114) Perhaps both authors discussed Zhuangzi’s philosophy at the Jixia Academy which flourished in the late Fourth Century BCE.

It seems that the author of the 27th chapter was representing himself as Zhuangzi, but scholarship would likely demonstrate that this is not from the hand of Zhuangzi. He was in effect making use of Zhuangzi’s own methodological deception.

The most interesting description of Zhuangzi’s words calls them “spill-over goblet words”. This was a special vessel used for ritual purposes. It was hinged in such a way that it tipped and emptied when full. By analogy, Zhuangzi’s words are able to give “unbroken extension of his meanings” and to “give forth new meanings without shedding the old ones.”

Statements are typically fixed in the presentation of their meaning. Over time those meanings either become obsolete or continue to hold their own. Not so those of Zhuangzi, suggest these authors. Their very ambiguity allows new meanings to be discovered in them without contradicting previous meanings.

This is a sophisticated approach to truth and evinces a genuine appreciation of Zhuangzi’s eschewal of fixed truth. Whether these authors were able to follow this through to the logical end—that there is really no knowable truth at all—is another matter. The author of the 33rd chapter clearly was not as evinced in his belief in “the [perfect] ancient art of the Dao”.


Zhuangzi used a lot of words to talk about the unreliability of words. They represent things, but they can never be those things; nor can they ever truly reach the fullness of their meaning since they must necessarily draw a limiting circle around them. The “meaning” of things is their complete context, and that is boundless. They are all mystery.

It is also the case that, when speaking of that boundless context—Chaos, Dao, Mystery—words are their own contradiction. We see this in his discussion of the One. There is One, he suggests. But then he adds that One plus the word makes two, and mention of that makes three. Words are the consequence of not-oneness and are its expression. Like most everything else, they are great—they just need to know their limitations.

Thus, Zhuangzi used various strategies to put his words in their proper place. And in doing so, he was able to convey his message as his medium—a kind of “wordless teaching” full of words.

In one instance, he has his (obviously fictitious sage—itself a strategy) get specific about the character of a sage, but only after that sage admits that these are “reckless words”. (2:41) This is not only an admission of their inadequacy, but also of their danger. His disciple might be so foolish as to take them literally. Thus, he also says that these words must be listened to “recklessly”—that is, in full awareness of their hypothetical and hyperbolic nature.

The hearer has her or his responsibility to season things with a proper dose of yin.

Various of his early interpreters recognized Zhuangzi’s distinctive style and identified some of these strategies. These will be discussed in the following posts.


Words are by their nature a great yanging. They assert. They declare. They impose.

Zhuangzi suggests there is also a “wordless instruction” (5:2), a teaching by way of example. And in this instance, that example is stillness, wordlessness, itself: “People cannot see their reflections in running water, but only in still water. Only stillness can still the multitude to the point of genuine stillness.” (5:9)

How do we know this? Words.

Even were we to assume that Zhuangzi realized what he preached (which I do not), how could he teach anyone but his few disciples (if he had any) except through words?

Zhuangzi thus sought to convey his teaching through words that were also imbued with yin. This is the hallmark of his writing as noted by several of his interpreters. “Vague! Ambiguous!” (33; p 124) We might add: Fantastic! Unbelievable! Ridiculous! Untruthful! Contradictory!

But that would not be original: “He used ridiculous and far-flung descriptions, absurd and preposterous sayings, senseless and shapeless phrases, indulging himself unrestrainedly as the moment demanded, uncommitted to any one position, never looking at things exclusively from any one corner.” (33; p 123) Whew! And to think that we sometimes take him literally.

This all makes perfect sense, of course, given his commitment to not-knowing as an invitation to a transcendent leap into “far-flung and unfettered wandering” “in our homeland of not even anything”.


These posts are obviously a lot of yanging. They make positive declarations about the nature of things.

I do sometimes try to put an empty edge on things—usually in the form of a question—something that will invite the reader to think outside their box and mine—but in the end, it’s admittedly an excessive lot of yanging. Perhaps this is unavoidable. Words are a yanging.

It must be the reader, therefore, who supplies a balancing lump of yin. Doubt, if it furthers the process, is some of that yin. Certainly belief, taking things as unambiguously the case, only leads to being thoroughly yanged.

The Inner Chapters are also unavoidably a yanging. But, as I frequently note (in agreement with their own testimony and that of their later interpreters), they are presented in such a way as to also be a yinning. If “the radiance of drift and doubt is the sage’s only map” (2:29), then it is understandable that the medium by which sagacity is presented also be ambiguous.

I have often spoken to this, and a series on Words will speak to it still further.


Yang is light. Yin is darkness. Yang is knowing. Yin is not-knowing. Yang is positive. Yin is negative. Yang is life. Yin is death.

All these are reversible, of course. “Reversal is the movement of the Dao.” (Laozi 40) This means that they can all be equalized and “united to form a oneness.” Psychological Dao is realizing this oneness. Yet not-oneness remains. “Realizing” is by nature dualistic. As the convergence of all daos, Dao is both oneness and not-oneness.

Life and death taken as a single thread is the realization of this oneness. They are equalized. The sage is thankful for both. She welcomes life’s coming and its going. This is the uniting of yin and yang to form a oneness. She therefore is able to make the best use of each in their not-oneness. The use of life is living and the enjoyment of life. The use of death is . . . .

What is the use of death? Death is the looming of Yin. It is the contextualization of our yang in yin. Yin, darkness, sheds light on our yang.

We are caught in this vise, this existential dangle. All of Zhuangzi’s philosophy can be seen as a response to death, an embrace of this yin. There is no escape; there are only coping mechanisms. From the human perspective, this is at the heart of messiness. It probably didn’t have to be; the universe could have remained self-consciousness free. But it happened. Accidentally—for all practical purposes. Now we are left to live with it.

Thus, yin and yang can themselves be united to form a oneness. But in our not-oneness they are very useful dualistic concepts by which to orient ourselves in the world.


I often represent yin and yang as verbs. In their practical expressions this is what they are—activities. (It’s also fun to create a bunch of neologisms, especially when they require the mind to think in new ways.)

Yin is an activity? Yang is doing, being, self-asserting—it is the essence of activity. How then can yin, its opposite, also be an activity? It is something we choose to do. We are what we do—we are a doing. We are unavoidably doers in every instance. If I decide to do nothing, then that it what I do. Though the goal of spontaneity is unmediated doing, it is doing nonetheless.

This is wuwei—not-doing. Wuwei is an activity informed of yin. Wuwei is a healthy balance of yin and yang.

In pedagogical midwifery, teaching has a goal and is an activity. It yangs. But it also yins. It is the yin of the method that makes it an expression of wuwei. Yin is the vacuous space that calls forth yang.

This parallels Zhuangzi’s unique take on qi (ch’i). You want to accumulate more qi? “Just be empty, nothing more.” “Qi is an emptiness, a waiting for the presence of beings.” (4:9) This qi is yin. Like water, its power resides in its yielding.

Yet qi is often represented as yang—an accumulation of a something, with a subsequent endowment of power. It may be (if it exists at all). But like the yanging of water, this happens only incidental to its yinning.

As inveterate yangers, we turn every call to yin into still more yanging. Even Dao becomes ultimate Yang.


Dao is ultimate Yin. Everything else both yins and yangs. Dao does nothing—it is Emptiness. We can say nothing more about “it”. It has no content. It is, as I have said, the big Question Mark, not the big Answer.

In Daoism water is symbolic of yin. It follows the path of least resistance. It yields. Yet in the process it wears down the hardest rock. It occupies the lowest places. But then in wearing and occupying it also yangs. Everything both yins and yangs.

This is of utmost importance in the context of Daoism’s psychological prioritization of yin. The goal is a realization of balance, not the eradication of yang. The implication is that typically we are not in balance. We have become excessive yangers.

The root cause of this is that we have taken our selves as “full and real”. We wish to be ultimate Yang. Immortal. The alternative renders us a passing phenomenon. The core Zhuangzian experience of realizing that we “have not-yet-begun-to-exist”, of “just being empty”, is thus the yinning of our yang. We are exhorted to identify with Transformation instead of a concrete, static self.

But then no-self is not no self; that would be the eradication of yang. No-self is the self free from belief in a reified self. It is yang recontextualized in yin. It is the realization of balance.

The ultimate value here is simply to enjoy being the self that we are—to get the most out of the fleeting experience of our “temporary lodging”.


At the heart of the Daoist revolution is the embrace of yin. Yin is what lies beyond the ever-receding horizon of our understanding, our yanging. It is that which unavoidably contextualizes all we think and experience in Mystery. It is that which is always left out, no matter how grand our pronouncements about Reality. It is the not-God beyond God.

What is left out, Zhuangzi tells us, is the most important thing of all. This is the discovery of Daoism. It is only the most important thing because it is left out. It has no other value. Were it to have some other value, it would be yang. It is not something yet to be discovered—Dao, God, I AM, Brahman, true self, true purpose—but the emptiness of Mystery.

Yin is Mystery. And Mystery has no content.

The Laozi is often represented as the first extant locus of this radical philosophical pivot toward yin. This may or may not be the case, but Zhuangzi’s understanding may have been more radical still. This is a matter of interpretation; but the glorious first chapter of the Laozi seems to invite taking Non-Being as ultimate Yin in contrast to the Yang of Being. If this is the case, then this yin has been properly yanged. Yin (at this level) is the opposite of nothing—not even yang.

The embrace and prioritization of yin is not motivated by a belief that it is “higher”, “better”, or “more real”. It is because we are by nature all about yang. We tend to forget our embedding in yin. And this makes for psychological dissonance. And this diminishes our enjoyment of life.

And that, to my thinking, is Zhuangzian Daoism’s highest value, however parochial and prosaic that may seem.