The authors of Genuine Pretending make extensive use of Brook Ziporyn’s work on Zhuangzi, and that, not surprisingly, immediately endears me to their book since I think Ziporyn really gets what Zhuangzi was all about.


One theme of Ziporyn’s take on Zhuangzi is the idea of the sage being like a “wild card”. This can be found at https://www.hackettpublishing.com/zhuangziphil. Ironically, I have never really warmed to this explanation of the sage’s “genuine pretending”—largely because I find it too complicated for my not-so-philosophically-astute mind. The gist of this metaphor is that the sage, being unfixed from any point of view or identity can adapt so as to represent whatever is helpful in any given “hand”. She acts like a “wild card”.


Though the authors find this helpful, they prefer their own designation of the sage as a “joker”. This amounts to the same thing, though it adds the important dimension of the sage’s lack of seriousness as evinced in Zhuangzi’s own presentation of his philosophy. He too was a joker. And here again the authors turn to Ziporyn, specifically his translation of the title of the book from which Zhuangzi claims he got his first wild story about the flight of Peng from Oblivion to Oblivion—The Equalizing Jokebook. (1:3) The implication is that Zhuangzi’s entire work is itself a big joke—a joke with a purpose, an equalizing joke book.


Genuine Pretending thus devotes a great deal of time to a discussion of humor and irony to demonstrate that Zhuangzi used both to overturn the seriousness of the Confucians and with it all religious seriousness. But he did not just tear things down for fun; he wished to suggest another way of being in the world. He wished to suggest a way of carefree wandering unattached to dogma and egoistic self-building.


The psychological dynamic of irony is perhaps one of the most telling attributes of the Zhuangzian mentality. Whatever one thinks, says or does is always tempered by an internal distancing, an awareness that however serious one’s involvement in something is (and many things are very serious matters indeed), there is also the liberating realization of the equalization of all things in “the vastest arrangement” where all is well in this Great Mess.


Yes. Thankfulness arises.


The Confucian goal of complete seriousness, wherein the performance of one’s societal roles perfectly matches one’s actual character, does indeed closely resemble the goal of authenticity as found in our modern era. Zhuangzi’s zhen (genuineness), on the other hand, recognizes no fixed and sure definition of what societal norms are right and which are wrong (there being a multitude of different norms) and thus the sage—the one in the not-know—is able to play the many roles in which she finds herself without taking them too seriously. This is genuine pretending. Consider also how this might lead us all to greater tolerance and even harmony—though we wouldn’t want to take these too seriously either.

There is another, more fundamental, distinction between authenticity and genuineness, however. The Heideggerian idea of being authentic presupposes a fixed-self upon which to work. We are somebody and wish to be a better somebody. Zhuangzi’s zhen, on the other hand, is a response to the discovery that “‘myself’ has never begun to exist” and thus one’s sense of self becomes unfixed and flexible: “Sometimes he thinks he’s a horse, sometimes he thinks he is an ox. Such understanding is truly reliable, such Virtuosity [de] deeply genuine [zhen]. (Ziporyn 7:1)

The authors of Genuine Pretending make this point succinctly: “[T]he genuine pretender represents not a quest for self-creation but a quest for self-dissolution.” (33) There is, of course, an implicit contradiction here as there is in all such “quests”. One does not become a buddha by trying to be a buddha. We are immersed in the waters of our egocentrism and every attempt to pull ourselves out is necessarily egocentric. The Zhuangzian solution, at least in part, is to wander in our egocentrism, which is to say, not to take the quest too seriously. Have fun walking your dao.

This awareness of “having” no-fixed-self spreads out and encompasses every aspect of our world perspective. The de-reification (de-being-ification) of the self leads to a refusal to reify anything: Truth, God, sages, immortals, daos, dao, life-purpose, right and wrong. When I speak of the religious, this is what I mean—the reification of anything—taking anything as fixed and true and getting all non-contingently serious about it.

Seriousness is necessary and commendable—caring deeply about our collective well-being is a genuine expression of our humanity—only to not also walk the meta-road wherein all is seen as well in any event is to torment oneself and, most likely, others.


As previously mentioned, Genuine Pretending is very much about wrestling “the” philosophy of the Zhuangzi away from the imposition of modern interpretive models that are largely inconsonant with the book in its historical context. Heidegger’s authentic being (self) is especially critiqued. A quote sums it up:

“One of our intentions in this book is to liberate Zhuangzi from Heidegger’s all-too-tight and all-too-constraining –and, even more uncomfortably, all-too-German and all-too-serious –embrace.”

The most telling aspect of this embrace is seriousness. Readers might remember that I have often spoken of seriousness as antithetical to Zhuangzian wandering. The whole point is to be free from all attachment to anything—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—Truth, belief, self, enlightenment. It is total unconditional non-dependence. This does not mean that we cannot care deeply about many things—we can, and to do so is to be human. Only we can also rest secure in the meta-perspective that, well, “all is well in the great mess”. We “hide the world in the world where nothing can be lost”, but our failure to do even this can be wandered in. We don’t depend on wandering; we can wander in our inability to wander. No need to get overly serious about any of this.

Seriousness is most germane to the authors’ argument because they understand Zhuangzi as responding to the Confucian seriousness that dominated the era. Confucian “role-ethics” not only required that one do the duties of a good son, for example, but also that one actually be a good son in the deepest reaches of one’s heart. This is to be serious. This sounds entirely affirmable on the surface, but the end result, according to the authors, is to put one in a perpetual bind of not living up to such a high standard. One should not do something because it’s right, but because one is right; yet we are all steeped in our inadequacies and hypocrisies. It is, moreover, an even greater transgression to do the right thing to at least appear to be good. Confucius’ project was thus doomed to failure. What’s to be done?

Zhuangzi (and other “Daoists”) replied that we can both play the game of doing what society believes to be the right thing and remain free from taking any of it too seriously. We can genuinely pretend. We can play the game of life, follow the rules as necessary, try our best, yet never depend on outcomes, whether winning or losing, for our enjoyment.

My analogy of a game of chess is worth repeating. Without a first level seriousness about the game wherein we try our best, wish to win, follow the rules and don’t cheat there would be no game. Yet on a second level, a meta-level where all things are equalized, there is no seriousness at all. Indeed, there’s nothing like a game of anything to bring us face to face with this possible dynamic. The egoic-self, which takes itself—its supposed being—far too seriously, is easily identified when our play is really no play at all.


The neologism Zhenuineness, Moeller and D’Ambrosiao tell us in Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi, better represents the essential character of the Zhuangzian sage than does the term authenticity. Since I have frequently made use of the latter term, I was curious as to how we might disagree. But as it turns out, we mean the same thing. Only these philosophers have a better grasp of the term as it is used in existentialist philosophy generally and Heideggerian philosophy especially, and it is that usage which they take to be a modern imposition upon Zhuangzi’s term zhen (genuine) in its historical context. Their point is that whereas Heidegger spoke of being an authentic self, Zhuangzi spoke of having no-fixed self. Since I see this as a core human experience—that no fixed-self can really be found—I have said that to be authentically human (on other than a metalevel where all things are affirmable as authentic, even when inauthentic) is to live in awareness of and harmony with this reality.

But wait. Before discussing this in greater depth, I’d like to speak more generally about the book. I agree with its arguments completely and would recommend it to anyone who wishes to have a better understanding of Zhuangzi, whether their take be similar to mine or otherwise. Its take is that the Zhuangzi recommends (if one wishes it to do so) a purely secular and mundane response to the life experience. This disallows any religious involvement, however subtle. It is not that a religious approach is not also possible, but only that they are mutually exclusive in practice.

Along those lines, let me reiterate that when we speak of “sages” only a hypothetical is implied. In the end, there are no sages. There is no one to believe in, no one to emulate, no one has “arrived”. The suggestion of sages merely allows our wandering to follow a trajectory without belief in any final attainable goal. This is what it means to “wander aimlessly”. Our authenticity, our zhenuineness, is in harmony with our persistent inauthenticity. It’s simply being human—nothing more.

Finally, this can matter. Whereas the authors of Genuine Pretending are apparently obliged by the rules of scholarship to remain in the realm of the intellectual, what is really on offer here is an invitation to practice a philosophy of life—not just philosophy. We are obliged to have some point(s) of view. Zhuangzi simple suggests we try this one on and see if it doesn’t help smooth our passage through this life.


Hello again.

I plan to write a few posts as a review of and reactions to Hans-Georg Moeller’s and Paul D’Ambrosio’s book Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi.

But first, I thought I’d give a quick update on my personal situation. I am still on my boat in Mexico where I have been working on her all winter while “on the hard.” I will be “splashing” in a couple of weeks and will sail from the mainland to Baja California where I will spend the summer spearfishing for my dinner and exploring on land.

This will be a solitary time for the most part, but close to nature (whales, dolphins and coyotes). Needless to say, this will also mean being “unconnected”. For me, “cruising” has always been a way of getting to those isolated and relatively untouched spots on the planet.

Posts to follow.



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


“Not here, not there—but everywhere always right before your eyes.” (Stanza 21)

This line says it all. Objectively, “this is it”. There is no second moon. There is only this moon, and it is it. Everything is it. And every thing is everything.

Subjectively, “I am it”. There is nothing else to be. There is nowhere else to go—nothing to discover—nothing to achieve. The “true self” is precisely the self that I am; there is no other. There is nothing to become. Between what I am and what I might become there is no difference.

This is how I understand the “gateless gate”. It leads nowhere, because it is precisely whatever and wherever this moment of experience “is”. “It is finished” precisely because nothing has ever needed to be done.

It all amounts to a “Yes!” so profound that it folds back into itself. It loses itself in itself.

Unfortunately, I mostly only think this. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. That’s the point; but it’s a point that stands before me. There is this gate, and although I do not pass through it, there remains no place else to go.

The context is a very Zhuangzian (and Huizian) reference to the sameness—oneness—of all differences. Any differences we might imagine within time and space, existence and non-existence, are completely irrelevant. But that’s their relevance. Without our imagining them, there could be no imagining of their oneness. “Here a single thought is as ten thousand years.” Think about it.

For the author of the Xin-Xin Ming, this is “the Dharma-truth”. For Zhuangzi, it’s just another way of imagining things that has happy psychological benefits.


To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

(Stanza 2)

If the inclination to discriminate between right and wrong is “the disease of the mind”, then humanity has fallen. Humanity is not as it should be. We need to be saved. The Universe likewise needs saving. There is a great rift between what is and what should be. There are Two. The author discriminates.

Satan rebelled and was cast from Heaven. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lost their innocence, and were cast out of Eden. Brahman sleeps and dreams what isn’t Itself. We need to awaken so that Self can be One again. Universal Mind is shattered and we are meant to merge mind with Mind so as to make ourselves and Mind whole once again. Chaos was destroyed with the arising of self-consciousness. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and needs to be put back together again.

All these cosmic scenarios are the product of the religious mind. Yet the religious mind is precisely what Zen ostensibly wishes to overcome. There is, it seems to me, a huge contradiction here. But of course there is contradiction in everything at some level or another.

Ironically, materialism seems to bring one closer to the threshold of pan-affirmation than does religious-mindedness. But materialism, born of rationalism, manifests as another side of religious-mindedness, close-mindedness.

If discrimination between right and wrong is the disease of the mind, then humanity is itself diseased. But it can be cured—or so Zen tells us. Pan-affirmation, on the other hand, says yes to all things just as they are. This is it. And given our discriminating mind, we have the inclination to either reject or affirm it. To affirm it is to trust in life, to release into Mystery.

All of this can be found right here in the Xin-Xin Ming. “When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way, there is no objection to anything in the world.” (Stanza 10) “If you wish to move in the One Way, do not dislike the worlds of senses and ideas. Indeed, to embrace them fully is identical with true Enlightenment.” (Stanza 14) “When you live this non-separation, all things manifest the One, and nothing is excluded.” (Stanza 20) “Not here, not there—but everywhere always right before your eyes.” (Stanza 21)

This is it. This mind, just as it is, is it. There is disease, and we do well to attempt to cure it. But disease is also not-disease. Nothing is fundamentally diseased—even disease. Having a discriminating mind is not to be diseased. Narrow-mindedly dwelling there is to have a disease, not to be one.


If you wish to know the truth,

then hold to no opinions for or against anything.

To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

(Stanza 2)

The first sentence of this verse borders wonderfully on the paradoxical. To know the truth, just have no opinions about what is true. An inviting hole, empty of what seems so fundamentally human, opens up to the imagination. Falling in there would be so refreshing—taking a break from oneself and the world—that’s what it would amount to.

Is this true, or is it also just a matter of opinion? I take it as the latter; but that doesn’t preclude attempting the experience. That, of course, is where I am of a different opinion than the author. For him, empty is the way things really are; I have no idea.

But having no idea includes allowing that he may be right. How could I possibly know—especially in as much as I have not experienced anything like what he has ostensibly experienced? Arguing with him is equivalent to arguing with the Buddha—or any other true believer, for that matter. But we all do that, do we not? We’re surrounded by contemporary buddhas—gurus and true believers—all of whom are absolutely sure of the truth of their contradicting opinions. Must we choose to believe one? Or can we choose not to choose at all?

Ah, skepticism. It’s easy to see this as a “disease of the mind”—living in continual rejection. But it can also be just the opposite—living in open-mindedness. That’s the kind of skepticism that Zhuangzi attempts. And that seems to lead right back to having no opinions for against anything.

Can we really accomplish this? I have no idea. But we can certainly have fun trying. If our trying isn’t fun, however, then something’s amiss. We’ve taken it far too seriously. We’ve chosen to believe.