Our Understanding of The Zhuangzi

Pebble in Water

The Tao

The Tao is usually translated as the Way or Flow. Zhuangzi wrote that trying to describe the Tao leads a person astray and proves that he does not know the Tao. That I’m writing about it is proof that I don’t know all of it, but I know what is certain about the Tao: that it’s what makes leaves fall in August, what dampens clothes from an unexpected summer storm. It is a stream stretching who-knows-how-long, and if a pebble lands in this flow, then the pebble will disrupt the water, and this is inharmonious action between man and nature. Eventually the pebble will erode. This is suffering. The opposite is Heaven, the harmonious action between man and nature, and Virtue is the establishment of Heaven.

The Tao and Fate are not the same because, in the Zhuangzi, Fate is the inevitable unchanging. The Tao seems to be broader than Fate, and it’s not unique to one person.


Suffering and Desire

Since Buddhism’s Siddhartha Gautama ventured out from his sheltered life, suffering and the ease of it has been central to eastern ideas, but the philosophy of Zhuangzi approaches it intuitively. Zhuangzi claims that distinguishing bears suffering, where distinguishing is an action that separates what something may be from what something truly is.

Zhuangzi illustrated this idea with a man who attaches himself to his physical body. “Once a man receives this fixed bodily form, he holds on to it, waiting for the end.“ And this holding and waiting while toiling and persevering must be due to sentimental attachment, an emotional adhesion. Otherwise why would you or I treat our favorite shirt like silk embroidered? Why would your average neighbor spend an hour or two mowing his lawn under the unforgiving Sun?

Accompanying this idea of a sticky emotional attachment is that of desire, want, preference, and the dualities represented in Yin and Yang. All of these are instances of distinction, and all of these cause pain.

However this idea is not new; Buddha thought that emotional attachment caused suffering too, but Zhuangzi concluded a more earthly answer of easing our suffering.


Unbounding The Mind

I look at my dog and see a black, medium-haired companion. A stranger looks and sees a black, medium-haired mutt. I ask the stranger “although I know that we diverge at “mutt” and “companion”, why do we share at “black” and “medium-haired?” The stranger says “because this is objectively true according to certain ontological principles.” Then I rebutt “if that is the case, is it possible for my dog to be non-dog?”

Ideally, my dog should have no categories placed on him, but more familiarly, he could just be a black formation of essences from nature placed in front of me. Distinction inhibits us from seeing the true essence of a chair, a pen, a demotion, an “X.” In fact, everything would be the same, or one, if nature were relieved from prying eyes. So following the Tao, the harmonious action between man and nature,  Zhuangzi urges that people rid themselves of the boundaries of preconception, preference, fixed form, and social obligations so that people may truly perceive the world. In effect this would be called “making all things equal.”

“Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’

Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself – all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?’”

Source: The Complete Works of Zhuangzi (Terebess Asia Online)

Free and Easy Wandering; Contentedness

Because distinction is gone, a free mind lets a man wander aimlessly, not allowing “likes or dislikes to get in and do him harm. He just lets things be the way they are and doesn’t try to help life along.” This is Contentedness, the ultimate state of the perfect man.


The herbal sage was used as a defense from evil since antiquity.

The Sage

The perfect man is a hard concept to grasp. A sage could be the person who harbors profound and abundant wisdom, or he could be a person for whom the deepest of all respect reaches. In the Zhuangzi, the perfect man, the Sage, has no use for knowledge, wisdom, wealth, or relationships because he follows the Tao. He doesn’t have to be beautiful (he could be hideous) or friendly (he could be daft, blind, crippled) or smart, tall, wealthy, prudent, powerful, or useful. But, he has to be content; his spirit must be empty.

Feel free to email us if you have suggestions, concerns, or feedback. We always appreciate it. And consider following the blog for more explorations of different philosophies and insights on practicing certain schools of thought.

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