This series will be a loose commentary on what is believed to be the first Zen (Chan) document, the Xin-Xin Ming (“Treatise on Trust in Mind”). As with most every other document with which we treat, this one is also embedded in ambiguity. It is purported to have been written by the (legendary) Third Patriarch of Zen, Jianzhi Sengcan (Seng-ts’an) (529-613 CE), but this is widely disputed. Even the correct translation of the title and its meaning is completely ambiguous.


All this works to our advantage, needless to say. We can make of it whatever we wish. It’s of only scholarly interest what the author actually intended to say. We don’t believe in any case. This is not scripture. We care nothing for the passing of the torch of Truth. We take all claims of Realization of some Absolute as a mythical trap which can only entangle us in religious self-deceit. We slap Zen upside the head—just as Zen would have us do. We laugh at any offence taken, and take it as the proof of our assertion.

Yet what a beautiful document it is. It never ceases to inspire. Numerous translations can be found at: I will take Richard B. Clarke’s “provisional” translation (Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on Faith-Mind, White Pine Press, 1973) as my standard.

Though the work is Buddhist through and through, the vocabulary is distinctly Daoist, which serves to illustrate the origins of Zen as a confluence of Daoist and Buddhist thought. This commentary will be as through the eyes of Zhuangzi as I understand him; the Buddhism will thus doubtless suffer. And, of course, all I say will be completely innocent of any claims to practical personal realization and thus of the authority that that is thought to bring.

The goal is to be inspired and to inspire—and inspiration is an open-ended experience.


I have made frequent reference to Ernest Becker’s (The Denial of Death, 1973) observation that “man is the god that shits” because it so graphically describes the human condition that unavoidably leads to existential anxiety and dread. I’ve just given it a reread and recommend it to anyone who might wish to understand this condition and its psychological consequences from a “scientific” psychoanalytic perspective. It amazingly parallels (my take on) Zhuangzi’s analysis and proposed response.

Becker tells us that this human condition results in two unavoidable neuroses—repression and transference. Repression is essentially the denial of death, and though we do well to face it squarely and as “heroically” as we can, there will always be some degree of repression involved. Becker is careful to avoid the mistake of “psychoanalytical religionists” who suggest a possible end to all repression. Instead, he suggests a project of continual approximation of that ideal.

The great paradox of the human experience is seen in the inevitability of death, on the one hand, and the organismic impulse of the “life force” (qi?!) on the other. We wish to live, but must die. Our task is to create (not discover) a creative response to both without negating either. To do so is to live in authenticity.

Transference is our natural response to this paradox. (To be “normal” is to be neurotic.) Transference is the psychological act by which we attempt to resolve our need for the ultimate and sure grounding that we cannot find in ourselves. Religion has typically fulfilled this role, though there are innumerable other ways in which it manifests. A life-project (“making a difference”), trusting a guru or a psychoanalyst, stamp-collecting, foot-fetishism, and philosophizing are all types of transference. Some form of transference is both required and unavoidable. The trick then is to choose the object of one’s transference in full awareness of the necessarily illusory nature of the act. This too is to live in authenticity.

Becker makes much of Soren Kierkegaard’s psychological insights and response, putting him on a par with Freud and his greatest disciples. Kierkegaard recognized both this need for a seemingly religious transference and the inauthenticity of religious belief taken as objectively “true”. Thus his “leap of faith” and life lived in ambiguity and doubt. But Kierkegaard’s response still had the Judeo-Christian God as its object—and could not, therefore, be open and empty—the most authentic and consistent reflection of the human condition. Becker, unfortunately, seems to have been unaware of the possibility of a transference that has no object, but rather expresses itself as a release into the utterly unknowable, and is therefore empty. (He dismisses Buddhism out of hand, and correctly criticizes Jung for his religious forays into Eastern mysticism.) This was Zhuangzi’s response to the human condition—a trusting release into openness—as valid today as it was two and a half millennia ago. This is an open transference where some transference will happen in any case, and one that allows for greater existential authenticity than foot- or God-fetishism.


Zhuangzi:  Well, this seems like a good time to leave Scott to his new project.

Shen Dao:  Surely, we have time for another glass of wine!? I only wish I’d joined these discussions earlier!

Zz:  You’re going to make Scott think we’re only here for the libations.

Shen Dao:  Well, if we have no positive teachings to share with him, why else would we be here?

Zz:  We have our own emptiness to share—but that’s no reason for an empty glass—as mine appears to be.

Scott:  Here you go—half a glass each. I’ll open another bottle.

Zz:  No. No need. This shall suffice.

Scott:  I’d just as soon open another bottle—and another after that. I’m so very reluctant to let you go.

Zz:  That’s probably why it’s best that we do. You might want to explore the reasons for this reluctance—it smells of dependence to me. Religious dependence!

Shen Dao:  Ha, ha! Now you’ve made him squirm!

Zz:  There’s nothing so helpful as to be hoist on your own petard.

Scott:  It’s also your hoisting that I will miss. Indeed, all my agreement with what I find in your writing is also a continual hoisting.

Zz:  That’s as it should be—for you, just as it was for me.

Shen Dao:  So now, who will pull the plug? Who will say the last goodbye and be no more? Shall I?

Zz:  No. I think we should leave it to Scott, since it may very well be that he has only made our presence up.

Scott:  But didn’t we establish that there’s little difference between your made-up presence and my made-up “me”?

Zz:  There’s truth in that, but there’s also truth in your living—so now’s the time to live in awareness of your me-less-ness. So won’t you say goodbye?

Scott:  Thanks for all you have taught me. And thanks for teaching me nothing at all. Goodbye, dear friend!!



Shen Dao:  It sounds like Scott is ready to leave his “master” behind—and the rest of us as well.

Zhuangzi:  I certainly hope so. I was never anything but his imagined “master” in any case—everything he thinks he knows of my philosophy is as much his as it is mine—oftentimes more his than mine.

Scott:  That’s why to my thinking you are a true “master”—you never really prescribe, and you cloud everything in such ambiguity that one would be a fool to think he actually knows what you are saying for sure. And as for Shen Dao—I don’t know if it’s just because your writings have all been lost except in quoted fragments, or if you actually prescribed a dao, but whether by intention or historical accident your philosophy is as equally ambiguous.

Shen Dao:  I won’t attempt to clarify that, but in retrospect, though it is sobering to have most all one’s life-work “lost”, it might have turned out for the best. But in any event, it’s not like I’ve had any significant role to play in the development of your own philosophy.

Scott:  I beg to differ. I have found the representation of your philosophy in the Tianxia most inspiring and thought provoking. In fact, I think it is one of the clearest articulations of Daoist sagacity to be found anywhere. That it might not even be an accurate description of your philosophy at all, and that you most certainly didn’t embody it as the author seems to think you did, makes it all the more valuable.

Shen Dao:  Its possible untruthfulness makes it more valuable than truthfulness!  I love it!  And I like how it diminishes my “me”. My gift to posterity is more an empty something than a positive something. Where’s my “me” in that? I admit that if I were still alive that might not have pleased me at all, but as one dead, it harmonizes perfectly with . . . I see Zhuang is giving me the evil eye, so I shan’t finish the thought.

Scott:  Death must remain a gateway into utter mystery—though I get your drift. And though the loss of one’s “me” in death seems most likely, we cannot know for sure. As for the value of possible untruthfulness, if the author of the Tianxia got it right when he lumps you with Peng Meng and Tian Pian, then you too taught “the eschewal of all positive teachings”. And that, for me, has got to be one of the most profound and beautiful teachings of all time.

Shen Dao:  I can’t clarify that relationship; but I agree that there is awesome power in that teaching. And it is precisely what historical accident—at least—has done with my teachings—drained all the definitively positive right out of them.

Zz:  “The eschewal of all positive teachings”—if one follows the implications of that all the way through to the open-ended end, well then, nothing more is required other than to decide on an appropriate response.

Scott:  And for us, that’s to let go into Mystery so as to wander, roam and romp through life.

Zz:  Or to at least make the attempt.


Scott:  So taking you to the laundromat is also just the process of taking what you learned from your own self-examination and seeing how it may or may not be relevant to my own self-experience. In the end, it’s the self-examination that’s the most important thing of all.

Zhuangzi:  That, and how you respond to what you discover. Most everyone likely engages in some degree of self-examination, but then simply revert to unphilosophical stamp-collecting, since squarely facing our actual human condition is daunting task.

Scott:  But doing just that is to be fully engaging with what it is to be human. And that is to be authentic. So your “Genuine Human Being” is someone who is fully engaged with their human experience—and that, it turns out, is the realization that there is no final realization of anything other than that it’s all an open-ended ambiguity. At least that’s what you discovered in your own experience, and what I’ve discovered in my own.

Zz:  My Genuine Human Being is only a theoretical sage—but to believe that anyone can actually fully realize that is to abandon what it is to be a human being—to be an ever-becoming. To discover and live with pan-ambiguity is to never “be” anything, but rather to forever be a becoming.

Scott:  So being authentic is realizing that complete authenticity will forever elude you?

Zz:  Just so.

Shen Dao:  To be genuinely human is to embrace that one is forever straying from Dao and yet simultaneously realizing that one cannot stray from Dao.

Scott:  All good stuff—but I think I need to take us all to the laundromat—there’s got to be a simpler way to say all this.

Zz:  Well, as I said, Let’s go. That can become your new project.

Scott:  It can. And it will be short and simple. So I’ll need yet another one after that.

Zz:  If you keep them philosophical—if you remain aware of the unserious aspect of their nature and make them part of the process of your becoming—then most any project will do.

Scott:  They should not be an attempt to fill the emptiness, but rather a means to exploring and becoming that emptiness.

Zz:  Indeed, the whole life-experience can be just that.


Shen Dao:  Philosophizing philosophically amounts to living philosophically. Thus, a philosopher is not necessarily philosophical—she or he could just be doing philosophy as one might collect stamps unphilosophically—letting it be an emptiness-filler without examining the implications of the emptiness. And a scholar of our philosophies—a sinologist—might also remain unphilosophical. Being philosophical is a process of self-examination. Studying us without personally engaging with the questions we raise about what it is to be human may be doing philosophy, but it isn’t being philosophical.

Scott:  Exactly. Though from the perspective of Dao we disagree with Socrates’ statement that the unexamined life is not worth living, still, to live in authenticity and freedom some such self-examination is necessary—and that is being philosophical.

Shen Dao:  And why do “we” disagree with Socrates?

Scott:  Because if any life is not worth living than no life is worth living. It’s a comparative valuation, and thus conditional. But from the point of view of Dao, all values are equalized. I make use of Zhuangzi’s paradox in this regard:  “No on lives longer than a dead child and Pengzu died young”. Long life and short are equalized. So too are a happy life and an unhappy one. Flourishing and not-flourishing are similarly equalized. Don’t you agree?

Shen Dao:  “A clump of earth cannot stray from the Dao.” But, by implication, humans can and do. You would equalize straying and not-straying so as to form a oneness.  Zhuang wouldn’t want me to say that I did or didn’t get that, but I think I can say I get it now.

Zhuangzi:  We do stray from Dao, where Dao is a realization of oneness. But oneness implies that there can be no straying, so straying is also not-straying. Not-one is also One. Flourishing and not-flourishing are equalized, but still we do well to flourish. We walk two roads.

Shen Dao: And where Dao is taken as a metaphysical Everything, then clearly nothing in not Dao.

Scott:  Getting back to living philosophically, Socrates also said, “Know thyself”; and that, it seems to me, is what it means to be philosophical. Studying what you guys had to say helps me to do just that. So it’s really not about you at all, but about me; and my most fundamental self-experience is also likely reflective of the human condition generally.

Zz:  It seems logical enough that my self-experience is essentially the same as that of everyone else, but I can’t know for sure. And it’s that which keeps me from making a blanket generalization about the human condition and from prescribing my dao for everyone else. At best we can only suggest, like Socrates, that we engage in self-inquiry so as to discover how that condition manifests in us.

Scott:  So you ask, “Is human life always this bewildering, or am I the only bewildered one?” That’s an invitation for others to examine their own experience without telling them what they will discover.


Zhuangzi:  So Shen, before your uninvited appearance, Scott was talking about leaving all our ancient blabber behind and putting what he has learned into his own words.

Shen Dao:  Hasn’t he done that already? It seems to me that he often goes beyond what you actually taught.

Scott:  I have in part; but it’s still my interpretation of Zhuangzi—whether correct or not—and it’s still anchored to his philosophy. I tend to justify what I say by way of reference to what he said; as if he were the authority.

Shen Dao:  And why do you feel this need to leave Zhuang behind?

Scott:  Well, mostly I think it’s because I need to blabber and I’ve pretty much exhausted what I can think to say about Zhuangzi.  That’s a confession, by the way. Why I need to blabber is another question altogether. And Zhuangzi and I decided that some such project is pretty much unavoidable. I could theoretically collect stamps as an alternative, but that doesn’t satisfy my hunger in the same way. I can’t make it meaningful, as I tend to do with my blabbering.

Zz:  We decided that some kind of project that deals with our core emptiness is required. But since we have identified that emptiness, and have come to realize that it is unfillable, we need a project that fills it by not filling it. Stamp collecting, just tries to fill it and requires a myopic awareness of our actual human condition. Philosophizing can actually take it by the horns and make use of it—make use of the useless.

Scott:  We can take the bull by the horns as the Minoans did, and flip upon its back—take it for a ride. We can turn it into play.

Zz:  Play that knows it’s play. Play that knows it’s play is play that doesn’t take itself so seriously as to destroy all the fun.

Shen Dao:  So can’t collecting stamps—whatever they are—be done in the spirit of play?

Scott:  It can; but the spirit of play is something that is nurtured philosophically—so one would need to collect stamps philosophically. And I just might—not collect stamps, but something equivalent—which is pretty much everything we do.

Zz:  What are we doing now if not playing the game of philosophizing about philosophizing? We are philosophizing philosophically. We see its equivalence to stamp-collecting and play it as such.

Scott:  Philosophizing philosophically is maintaining a kind of transcendence, and that, I think, is what enables Zhuangzi’s free and unfettered wandering.


Scott:  Would it be permissible for me to ask Shenzi how he reconciled his proto-Daoism with his proto-Legalism?

Zhuangzi:  I suppose. Let’s see how that goes.

Shen Dao:  Well, the most important part of my answer might be found in the prefix “proto-”.  I was neither a Daoist nor a Legalist, as I think you know. It’s not just that those designations came later, but also that I can’t take responsibility for what others made of my teachings. Because I understood the need for law doesn’t mean that the extremes of Shang and Han Feizi are what I intended. And because I taught going with the flow doesn’t mean that I advocated for the anarchy that some later espoused. Nor are the externality of law and internality of going with the flow mutually exclusive. How did I reconcile them? I felt no need to do so.

Scott:  We might say that you walked two roads.

Shen Dao:  You may if you wish.

Scott:  One thing I find curious in the Tianxia’s representation of your philosophy is how the author seems to think you actually embodied your own teachings—as if you actually were like a feather twirling in the breeze. For my part, I think that unlikely.

Shen Dao:  Do any of us actually live what we preach? At best, we only approximate our ideals. Did Zhuang fully embody his own teachings?

Scott:  He won’t tell me, though I think his philosophy implies he did not. If he did, he’d be a sage; but his sages are always only fictional and fantastic.

Zz:  Isn’t it best to let Scott figure it out for himself? But yes, truth be said, I have to agree with those who say that sages are a plague. But then if there are no true sages, then the plague arises from the desires of those who invent them.

Scott:  But there are those who claim to be sages.

Zz:  And they are those who are best avoided—unless you want to find solace in religion.


Shen Dao:  So as I was saying, I played several games at once. If you’ve got the spirit of play, that’s easy enough to do.

Scott:  Philosophically speaking, you seem to have played at both proto-Daoism and proto-Legalism as best we can determine. Were there other games as well?

Shen Dao:  Of course! If I was a son, husband and a father—Zhuang wouldn’t want me to claim these as fact! Ha, ha!—If I were any of these, then they’d each require a different kind of game-playing, don’t you think?

Scott:  I suppose they would. Being “like a twirl in the breeze, like a spinning feather” or “like an inanimate object” might not be the best way to provide for a family.

Shen Dao:  No it wouldn’t. But it might inform—to take a word from you and Zhuang—my family-game, just as the family-game would inform all the others.

Zhuangzi:  So Scott, what do you think is the common denominator in all this game-playing?

Scott:  Play. The spirit of play. And that’s your “wandering”, “roaming” and “soaring”.

Zz:  Precisely. And a synonym for play is freedom—the freedom to play all life’s games—taking them all quite seriously, while knowing how they are not so serious at all.

Scott:  So if one has the spirit of play, no external realities need to change at all. One doesn’t need to become a forest recluse or a meditating blob with eyes rolled up, but rather lives the game of life pretty much like everyone else. Only it’s all done in that transcendent freedom.

Zz:  Correct. Though if one wants to be a recluse or a blob, that’s quite alright as well. It might even help one to realize that freedom.

Shen Dao:  So Scott, what “common denominator” have you discovered now that you’ve heard from so many of us ancient philosophers?

Scott:  First and foremost, I see that none of your differences really matter in the long term. You’re all dead and equalized. You all just played the game of life; some of you might have enjoyed the game more than others, but even that’s not easily determined. As for more practical short-term consequences, perhaps they made a difference in the world, but it’s not so easy to determine how. They’re all so tangled up that we can’t say what caused what. Did “Daoism” contribute to the excesses of the Qin? Did Confucianism contribute to the Cultural Revolution?

Shen Dao:  I agree, though amidst the tangle we can see that some philosophies were more helpful than others, though none can claim disentanglement from the general mess.

Zz:  When right and wrong are understood as so completely entangled we are free to choose our own without the entanglement of taking them as fixed, sure and true.


Scott:  So on we go discussing my desire to stop discussing—but only some unobtainable “enlightenment” would seem to be necessary to make that possible.

Zhuangzi:  You can at least take comfort in knowing that all the sages of whom you’ve heard could likewise not shut up.

Scott:  So maybe what I need is something new about which to blabber. It’s been great exploring your philosophy, and I truly have been helped thereby, but I feel like I’ve exhausted the blabber side of it. I think I’m ready to take you to the laundromat.

Zz:  So, let’s go!  But I have no idea what that means!

Scott:  It means that I’d like to leave all this “Classical Chinese philosophy” stuff behind, forget all the so-called sages, make no reference to you or your writings, and simply put all I’ve learned into modern terms.

Zz:  Well, it seems to me that you have done a lot of that already, though admittedly you could go much further. I mean, here “I” am. So maybe it’s you who really needs to go to the laundromat. I’ve already been there—through the agency of death.

Scott: Yes, you’re right—what needs shedding is in me and not in you.

Zz:  But let’s be clear: It’s just another blabber-project that you’re proposing—and really just a new version of the same game.

Scott:  True. But am I wrong to think that playing the game can make a difference? Doesn’t playing chess make one a better strategist? So playing the game of creating a world-view can move one to a change of view.

Zz:  Yes. That’s the whole point. But remember, it’s learning how to play that’s the most important thing of all—and for that most any view will do.

Shen Dao:  So true! I played several games at once—that’s why no one really knows which view I held!

Zz:  Shen! Now you’ve chosen the game of interloper! But now you’re here, please remember the rules of this game—no new “facts” are admissible.

Shen Dao:  No sweat; every game must have its rules—just as every society must have its laws.

Scott:  In any case, you are most welcome. Your philosophy has always intrigued me—at least as it is presented in the Tianxia.

Shen Dao:  Thank you, Scott. And I thank you for the glass I’m about to receive! I regret to have to inform you that the Celestial Realms are dry—who would’ve thought it! And you think Zhuang is here for the blabber! Ha, ha!

Scott:  Here you go—a meaty cab.