Scott’s Book Reviews

JUST ANOTHER DAO: A Review of Harold Roth’s Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei Yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism

This is a must for anyone who practices traditional Daoist meditation and who wishes to better understand the roots of that tradition. The translation of the Inner Training chapter of the Kuanzi alone is worth the price of the book.

The depth of Roth’s scholarship is clear, and all in all I think he makes a good case for the provenance of Inner Training as representative of the earliest advocacy for “Daoist” meditative practice. I do, however, think he gets carried away in his desire to sum up all of Daoism under the rubric of those who practiced breathing mediation rather than as defined by their philosophies. This stands if all who were of Daoist temperament made strong advocacy for this practice. Sometimes he must make a very long stretch in his attempts to demonstrate that they do. Sometimes his own advocacy seems to exceed his scholarship.

My real concern is that I understand Zhuangzi as making a radically different statement than that enunciated in Inner Training. The latter declares its belief in a metaphysical Dao that is real enough to “unite” with, and a ch’i that one can “accumulate”. All this leads to “understanding” the nature of Reality. Its Daoism is a very serious project of spiritual attainment. It is steeped in belief. Zhuangzi would have had none of it. His entire philosophy turns on believing in no such things. His call for radical non-dependence includes both the eschewal of all metaphysics and any dogmatic advocacy for a technique.

Yes, Zhuangzi speaks of meditation and ch’i. He also makes use of Confucius without being a Confucian, of Mozi without being a Mohist, and Logicians without being a Logician. When it comes to understanding Zhuangzi, it’s best to first get a sense of his spirit of intellectual anarchy lest one become entrapped by literalism.

Perhaps Zhuangzi cannot be taken as a proper “Daoist”. It doesn’t matter.



After three readings of Penumbra I can say that, after Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, it has most influenced my own philosophical response to Zhuangzi.
The first three introductory chapters are themselves worth the price of the book. Ziporyn has a way of bringing fresh insight into the heart of the Daoist project; one never finds the common (and superficial) hackneyed repetition of the “principles” of Daoist philosophy.
Why Guo Xiang’s philosophy does not more immediately interest sinologists today completely escapes me. That it was essentially rejected by subsequent Ruists and Daoists, only testifies to its positively radical character. I wonder if the same might be said of Ziporyn’s work as well, at least in that it is not discussed more widely.
Ziporyn makes clear that Guo often misrepresented parts of the Zhuangzi, but since he took his edition as representing a single voice this was unavoidable, and can often be helpful in demonstrating how those voices themselves diverged from the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy. In any case, whether we completely agree with his interpretation of Zhuangzi or not, much of its more radical elements seem to be a profoundly practical, yet mystical, “next step” in harmony with Zhuangzi.
One does wish for a complete translation of Guo’s commentary for one’s own study and to compare with Ziporyn’s spin, but it is not for us to tell a scholar what work he or she must do.
I would recommend this study as essential to anyone with a desire to better understand Zhuangzi or classical Chinese philosophy generally. It is not an easy read, but this is because Ziporyn always takes us to the edge of what the mind can fathom.


Whenever I discuss one of Ziporyn’s books I must begin by admitting that I haven’t understood the half of it. This is especially sad in this instance since this particular work seems to have only one idea to expound upon, albeit in many different ways. This is omnicentrism as found in Tiantai Buddhism.
What is omnicentrism? It is the understanding that every “coherence”, every idea about anything—“right or wrong”—, implies, contains and depends upon every other possible coherence of which it must remain incoherent. Every single thing is the center of Everything. But this means that everything is a Non-Exclusive Center—there are infinite centers. It also means that every coherence is “constitutively impossible” in that as a Local Coherence it must assume of itself that it is coherent, which it cannot possible be given its subsumption within Global Incoherence. This is the best I can do, or at least all I will attempt to speak of Ziporyn’s thesis. Instead, I’d like to make some more general observations about his project.
Ziporyn attributes his interest in omnicentrism to Zhuangzi, which makes it of special interest to me. Indeed, there is much here that helps to understand Zhuangzi’s “equalizing of things and our theories about them” and how he can justifiably advocate for his point of view that holds that all points of view are equally affirmable.
Though generally careful to avoid his own advocacy, Ziporyn does, I believe, think that this understanding can have a very real and practical transformative effect in our interface with ourselves and the world. The “transformative recontextualization” that an understanding of omnicentrism implies can change our being in the world for the better. This is also at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project as I understand it.
I would compare Ziporyn’s thought projects to those of the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers (whom I have admittedly not read in depth—they also being beyond my limited powers of concentration and intellect, and their having admittedly religious agendas). There are two ways of coming to understand them—one can be very, very smart or one can experience that of which they speak. They take reason to the very frontiers where Zhuangzi suggests the mind rest and accept that it can go no further. And this is where that scary thing called mysticism must step in.
What is especially noteworthy about this particular thought project is that it bravely constructs a new “thought experiment”, what Ziporyn calls Neo-Tiantai. By his own admission, it’s not Buddhism (thankfully), and it’s not strictly scholarship (also thankfully), and it’s not strictly speaking philosophy (at least, I assume, in the estimation of professional philosophers). This is what I try to do with Zhuangzi, though admittedly not really up to the task. Zhuangzi, however, at my reading, already does most of the work himself—there’s really nothing religiously contentful to pare away.


by Brook Ziporyn
For those who find inspiration in Zhuangzi, this translation of the text and the commentaries which have accompanied it from its original canonization to this day are a real treat. The translation of the text itself shows a true sympathy with its intended message. For those of us non-scholars of ancient Chinese, the commentaries provide a whole new dimension of insight into the often obscure meanings of Zhuangzi’s work. In you enjoy Zhuangzi, much pleasure awaits you here.


by Chang Wai Ming

Were I to have one book on that proverbial desert island, the Zhuangzi would be it. Chuang-Tzu (Zhuangzi) speaks to my heart like no other both in the content of his “teachings” and in presentation. And this particular translation is both very readable, though I have come to prefer Brook Ziporyn’s.


Beyond Oneness and Difference: Li and Coherence in Chinese Buddhist Thought and Its Antecedents (SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture)
by Brook Ziporyn
It feels a bit presumptuous to ‘rate’ a book that goes beyond the powers of my only average intelligence to fully understand, but I have understood enough to recognize something of its breadth. Like its prequel, Ironies of Oneness and Difference, this book explores the weave of the ironic and non-ironic traditions in early Chinese philosophy, in this instance through a study of the evolution of the meaning of Li. The purest example of the ironic tradition is perhaps best represented in the perspectivism of “the radical Zhuangzi”; the non-ironic tradition, the belief that we can definitively ‘know’ what this human/world experience is all about and thus establish “right thinking” and thereby find the ‘right’ path, is seen in most every other tradition and voice while simultaneously trying to incorporate the obviously ironic character of the curious fact of our existence.
Ziporyn is a scholar who, it seems to me, mostly writes for other scholars, but there is still much that we laypersons can glean by working our way through his work. Whatever interest we might have in any one specific tradition or philosopher, if discussed, will likely be given a fresh and thought-provoking treatment. Zhuangzi suggests that we “just release the mind to play in the harmony of all virtuosities [de]”, and Ziporyn seems to do just that as he (relatively) objectively discusses each point of view with equanimity. The only exception to this might be in his treatment of the “pre-ironic proto-Daoism of the Guanzi” (the “Neiye”, “Xinshu xia”, “Baixin”, and “Xinshushang” chapters specifically) where a certain impatience with a haphazard use of terminology in the service of a sweeping cosmology sometimes seems to emerge. But then this observation may just be a projection of my own difficulties with salvific projects that require us to believe non-ironic statements about the nature of Reality.
Ah, to be able to “play” even among these—now that would indeed be to “wander far and unfettered”.


More Motivated “Scholarship”
Zhuangzi: Text and Context
by Livia Kohn

I give this a one-star rating mostly to get your attention. But I do believe there are numerous very serious problems in this representation of Zhuangzi and the book that bears his name. Quite simply—to my thinking—Ms. Kohn completely fails to understand both. The reasons for this are many, but perhaps the most important is that she comes to them with her mind already made up as to what they mean. She has been studying Daoism for a very long time and has already intellectually and personally (having committed herself to the ‘spiritual’ methods and beliefs of some form of “Inner Training”) settled on an understanding of what Zhuangzi and the Zhuangzi must teach. Thus, she weaves them into that teaching without allowing them to speak for themselves.
There are other serious flaws in her approach. She frequently gives a cursory nod to the fact that the Zhuangzi is a collection of diverse and divergent voices, and then proceeds to use it to present a single message—the one to which she has already made a commitment. She cherry-picks those lines that she can use to support her position. There is no single message in the Zhuangzi and she does it a great injustice in using it to promote her single-minded idea.
She also conflates Zhuangzi’s distinct philosophy with the other voices within the Zhuangzi and with the larger religious proto-Daoist (the Guanzi especially) and later Daoist context. Whether written by Zhuangzi or not, whether the work of many hands or one, still the Inner Chapters present a distinct integrated philosophy. She has, on my reading, completely missed the spirit of that philosophy. She interprets the Inner Chapter through the other chapters, especially those seemingly in agreement with them, though they in fact diverge significantly from them. With regard to context, the real question is how Zhuangzi stood in relation to other philosophies of his time. We easily see his opposition to Confucianism, but not so clear, and completely missed by Ms. Kohn, is his similar opposition to the religious beliefs and practices of his fellow proto-Daoists. Ms. Kohn wishes to make use of Zhuangzi and thus weaves him into this admittedly (and probably inevitable) triumphantly religious spin. Yet it is precisely this for which Zhuangzi sought to provide an alternative.
What I call religious is all this belief in “union with [metaphysical] Dao” and “As our identity shifts toward the flow of life . . . [it realizes] pure, cosmic spirit”, and this entire project of becoming someone ‘spiritual’. This may very well be the teaching of some of the Guanzi, and may very well lead the practitioner to genuine ‘spiritual’ experience—but it not the way of Zhuangzi. But he seems to speak of meditative techniques and union with “the Creator of Things”. Yes, and he also speaks of mythological fish that become vast birds, of sages who subsist on only wind and dew while flying on dragons, of conversations between individuals separated by centuries, of Confucius saying the opposite of what he would have in fact said, of hunch-back lipless cripples who are great sages. Isn’t he really just playing with us, hoping to help free us from all belief so that we might wander free and unfettered from dependence on any and every idea and project, ‘spiritual’ or otherwise? I think so. But maybe I’m wrong. But no matter—in the spirit of Zhuangzi it doesn’t matter.


Zhuangzi: Thinking through the Inner Chapters
by Bo Wang; Livia Kohn, translator
Having just panned Livia Kohn’s “Zhuangzi”, I now do the same for her translation of Bo Wang’s contribution. These are two of the foremost scholars of Daoism and I am an unschooled nobody—the reader might want to keep that in mind.
Zen speaks of a “good word”, an expression or act (often ‘absurd’) that demonstrates “understanding”. I am of the opinion that one can recognize what fails of this without necessarily being able to express a good word oneself. This book is not a good word.
At my reading, Wang Bo simply does not “get” it. His explanation of Zhuangzi is literalistic, superficial and pedestrian. Even when the words are ‘true’, they somehow miss the point; literal explanations cannot do otherwise.
On the back cover Roger Ames tells us that Wang Bo puts the Zhuangzi “squarely within its own interpretive context”; nothing, in my opinion, could be farther from the truth. It frequently reads more like a presentation of Neo-Daoism or Buddhism than of the philosophy of Zhuangzi.
Perhaps the greatest indication of this is his persistent insistence on a mind/body dichotomy: “Only the body is human; it in (sic) resides the heavenly mind, which is no-mind.” That the chair of the Department of Philosophy and director of the Center for Daoist Studies at Peking University would make such an assertion is truly mind-boggling.
Wang Bo begins by telling us that there is no “discrepancy” between the Inner Chapters and the rest of the Zhuangzi. It’s simply that the presentation of the former is “subtle” while the latter is “obvious”. In other words, Zhuangzi’s purposeful ambiguity is only a matter of “style” and his thought can in fact be reduced to cognitive formulae. This is like telling us that a Zen koan can be explained—which altogether misses the point of a koan and the nature of the Zen experience. Zhuangzi, to my thinking, provides us with a koan-like document intended to help us experience a movement beyond all cognitive formulae.
Justifying his rearrangement of the Inner Chapters in his treatment of them Wang Bo tells us: “Free and easy wandering [Chapter One] is vague and airy, like clouds drifting in the sky, on which we can ride into fantasy land—but this is the end of the journey, not a place to take a firm grip or find a firm foothold.” Is it not precisely this lack of any possible “firm grip” or “foothold” that gives impetus to Zhuangzi’s entire project? Free and easy wandering is possible only because one releases into the life experience as “peculiarly unfixed”.
The Inner Chapters are in many respects like an extensive ironic joke; we must go beyond the literal and discover the unsaid and unsayable if we are to get the joke. Wang Bo doesn’t get it. He elaborates on the wheel, but misses the hole that makes the wheel work.
Though there is much that is helpful in what is written about the philosophy of Zhuangzi, apparently only immersion in the Inner Chapters can facilitate the transformation of perspective that Zhuangzi envisioned, and even then it seems an event too rare to identify. Scholarship, at any rate, is seemingly not up to the task, but its contribution in making Zhuangzi accessible to us is indispensable. So, thank you Wang Bo, Livia Kohn, Roger Ames and all the rest who have helped to bring him to us.


Jed McKenna’s Theory of Everything: The Enlightened Perspective
by Jed McKenna

I don’t usually make ‘recommendations’—I have no realized authority for doing so—but I can recommend this book for its entertainment value, if for nothing else. McKenna gives the whole enlightenment game a novel and often irreverent spin, something quite refreshing in this era of New Age spiritual syrup. His iconoclasm is both mind-opening and good for many a chuckle.
Still, though it seems very likely that he is where he says he is, his presentation leaves me (at least) flat-footed and uninspired. There are others who have had his experience, and it is my guess that they might give the whole thing a very different spin than he, and among these, perhaps there is one who does not feel obliged to tell me where my journey must lead.
McKenna has jumped in and shouts, “Come on in, the water’s warm”, but he has already pissed in the pool. BYOFT, he tells us. My guess is that this means Be Your Own Expletive Teacher. This, his exhortation to “dig”, and his personal testimony are his true contributions to our assisted journeys; all the rationalistic apologetics about where that journey must end are a hindrance, not a help. If he knew when to shut up, we would be better assisted to BYOFT.
McKenna invokes Socrates; his method, however, is not Socratic, but Platonic. Socrates saw himself as a spiritual midwife, and through the irony of not-knowing hoped to instill the spirit of inquiry in his companions; to his thinking this was the best and only thing he could do. Plato, on the other hand, provided the “Answer”. No truly adventurous journey ‘knows’ where it is supposed to lead, nor can authentic inquiry begin with a priori conclusions.
I am reminded of the Zen mondo in which a bunch of masters meet at an inn. Among them is one thought to be the ‘most’ realized (?), but he remains in his room and has nothing to say. Another complains that he could at least, “Say one word.” Hearing of this, the most-realized says, “That would be one word too many.” But the cook, overhearing this, remarks, “Now there are two rat turds in the rice!” Or is it three?
Jed McKenna might have “perfect knowledge”, but this does not mean that his presentation of that experience is also perfect. For my part, there are far too many rat turds in this bowl of rice for me to accept and munch; to do so would be to perform the inquiry-deadening and essentially religious act of belief.
As does Zen, McKenna exhorts us to kill our buddhas. Ironically, his is the first head we need to put on the block.


by Chad Hansen

This book is indeed a very important addition to our understanding of classical Chinese philosophy. I won’t weigh in on how that that is so since that is already well documented. Rather, I would like to point out one area where I believe it falls short, namely in Hansen’s treatment of Zhuangzi, my (and his apparent) favorite. In his crusade to overturn the common interpretive theory that Zhuangzi advocated union with a “dogmatic absolutist-metaphysical-monist Dao”, he throws the baby out with the bath water. Zhuangzi does, I think, advocate a kind of mysticism–one based on precisely the same rejection. It is a mysticism innocent of all metaphysical content. “Far and unfettered wandering” is descriptive of a dao experienced as a freedom from attachment to any content-committed dao and a release in trust into what must remain mystery. Hansen, no doubt, would find this statement “incoherent”, but an important aspect of Daoism is its recognition that life is essentially incoherent. Zhuangzi is certainly not anti-reason, but he is anti-rationalist, where rationalism is understood as the belief that reason is the final word on how best to flourish in the world.


by Thomas Cleary
I found most of the documents here translated of real interest; but not all. The Guanzi chapters, Han Fei on Laozi, and Wenshi’s Classic on Reality provide some great windows into the diverse directions Daoist themes have taken. The latter especially, with its synthesis of Daoist, Chan and Neo-Daoist themes, makes clear how much these traditions have in common. However, I could easily have done without ever having read the rest.
As for Cleary’s skill as a translator, I am not qualified to judge; only I can say that his efforts flow well and are easy to read. However, as with most of this kind of literature, it would have been better, I think, to leave certain key terms untranslated, or to have at least indicated when one of them is being translated. Terms like dao, de and qi have a special significance and their appearances are important markers of the authors’ basic orientations. Does “vitality” translate qi? We have no way of knowing.
More could have also been done in introducing these works; as it is, for the most part, only a few bare bones facts are provided. Similarly, more commentary regarding meanings and how they fit within the traditions generally would have been helpful.


by Steve Coutinho

Coutinho is a pleasure to read; his prose is uncommonly clear and cogent, finding and finely slicing along the natural ‘perforations’ to be found in the topic at hand. Though generally true to its self-description as an introduction, Coutinho’s presentation does venture into some unique, creative and helpful interpretations, especially of Zhuangzi.
I do, however, have a few critical observations. Most of these are a consequence of his not being a Daoist sage. This can be forgiven him in as much as (to my thinking) it is unlikely there has ever been such a sage. (The assumption that those who have shared their imaginative vision of sagacity have actually fully embodied that vision strikes me as a product of the religious mind.) Still, there is an inside and an outside to these visions; and scholarship must almost of necessity remain on the outside, describing, but not experiencing, even if by way of imaginative approximation, and some of the spirit of these daos cannot be otherwise grasped. Think Zen.
Coutinho suggests that these Daoist philosophies can be judged on the basis of their “plausibility”. In view of his observation that all these daos have the sole aim of facilitating “human flourishing”, however, one would think that an equally important question (if not more so) would be whether or not they are efficacious. Do they accomplish that end? Yet this question cannot be answered by scholarship. In the case of cultural impact, though one might speculate and opine on the outskirts of the question, we lack the tools to actually answer it. In the case of actual personal liberation, only the individual can testify and that testimony correctly carries little weight for scholarship. Nevertheless, in failing to ask the question Coutinho leaves behind the central purpose of these daos. They are not simply philosophies for philosophy’s sake, but philosophies of life which cannot really be described or ‘understood’ without life engagement.
This ‘outside’ view can also be seen in his concern for the possible negative ethical outcomes that Daoist ‘anti-humanism’ might inspire. Ethical concerns about a non-ethical sensibility are fine for those who remain in the sphere of ethics, but they evince a failure to experientially participate in that sensibility. Those who worry about right and wrong remain in the sphere of right and wrong, and the whole point is to realize a more transcendent view. Still, some of these concerns can be alleviated by pointing out that this description of the sage is not prescriptive—it is not something to impose upon the world; it is a consequence of sagacity, not the path to it. We need not worry, therefore, unless we believe that sages can be sociopaths. Thus, this appeal to ethical transcendence might best be accompanied by a warning: This “inhumanity” is performed by a sage—do not attempt it at home.
A similar ‘outside’ view can be seen in his concerns regarding the “logical inconsistency” to be found in Zhuangzi’s stripe of skepticism (whatever that might be). Since the whole point is to realize a point of view inclusive of what reason cannot fathom, so-called inconsistencies are of little consequence. Life does not resolve to reason.
Finally, though he acknowledges the uniqueness of the philosophy of the Inner Chapters, like most commentators he cannot resist interpreting it through the lens of the “School of Zhuangzi” chapters despite their differing significantly from Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi, for instance, mentions qi, but the spirit of his philosophy should tell us that he couldn’t care less whether there is any such thing at all, yet we are referred to a metaphysical belief in “the continuous qi that permeates the cosmos” (22).
All this having been said, Coutinho’s scholarship is thankfully and delightfully received.