For a quick summary of the Dao, here is an excerpt of what it is in the book Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

The culmination of knowledge is understood not in terms of a grasp of abstract principles but rather as an ability to move through the world and human society in a manner that is completely spontaneous and yet still fully in harmony with the normative order of the natural and human worlds—the Dao or "Way."

However, in order to reach that spontaneity and yet still fully in harmony, it is necessary to pass through the abstract stage. This is simply how our brain works. If we insist to pass the abstract stage to jump to the spontaneity stage, I think the harmony is just an illusion created by our sense of pride that we know the Dao. Since pride is a self-conscious emotion, this is not Daoism because it advocates selflessness. Another article that illustrates this is There’s more to mathematics than rigour and proofs.

Question 1: Is my understanding correct? Am I missing something?

Still, the scholars feel that what they do can't never be Daoistly satisfied. This is best illustrated in the article Zhuang Zi: A funhouse mirror for the soul

Here too I’m running into problems, however. In speaking for the Zhuang Zi, I’m somewhat uncomfortable, just as I would be uncomfortable speaking for a friend. I’m not alone in my discomfort. [...] Master Zhuang [...] appears to have engineered his work to resist definitive interpretation. [...] ‘Whenever I sit down and try to write seriously about Zhuang Zi,’ he explained, ‘I seem, somewhere in the back of my head, to hear Zhuang Zi cackling away at the presumption and futility of such an endeavour.’

Question 2: If the author can't explain to his friend Zhuangzi that what he does is what his friend wants him to do, then how can he justify his action?

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3 Answers 3


For your first question, it seems like you're still trying to codify, standardize or otherwise pin down the process of achieving the Dao, which is against the spirit of the sources you're quoting. Therefore I read you as an outsider studying the Dao from an external context, rather than as a student of the Dao yourself. From that point of view, your claim is plausible, but it would be difficult to know what would count as an authority to either confirm or deny your hypothesis.

For your second question, one must remember that Zhuangzi was an iconoclast --a Socrates-like gadfly --who was in some ways opposed even to other Daoists. You cannot expect to look to such a figure for justification, his role is to move you outside your comfort zone, and to frustrate your desires for surety. Attempting to please or impress Zhuangzi is a fool's errand, something your second author is somewhat shamefacedly admitting.

  • do you think that from the outside the learners (me, the second author, even the first author) always seem to be trying to codify? However, in their mind, they are in fact following it. So to answer the second question, the answer to Zhuangzi's attempt to frustrate the desire for surety is to ignore him? Is it correct to say that he is looking for our ignorance of his critique?
    – Ooker
    May 3, 2019 at 17:25
  • Zhuangzi may be only pointing to the moon, but we have to look for the moon for ourselves. Kind regards! May 3, 2019 at 17:49
  • @Ooker You're still looking at Zhuangzi as a puzzle to be solved, or a riddle to be answered. As with the Zen Buddhists, the moment you identify a right answer or even strategy, it becomes no longer correct. :) In this resistance he goes even beyond other exponents of the Dao, such as Laozi. May 3, 2019 at 17:59
  • Do you think it's more about the surety, not the fact itself? Like, both traditions advocate to find the right answer (harmony in Daoism, right view in Buddhism); they just actually raise a skepticism the moment you identify it as right. (I agree that I'm still looking at them as puzzles to be solved. I just want to be sure that my interpretation is correct, so that I don't have the illusion that I know them.)
    – Ooker
    May 4, 2019 at 2:02
  • I answer the question myself, can you check?
    – Ooker
    May 17, 2019 at 16:36

I will try to answer just the first question.

I think that, just as in buddhism we can speak of a faith-follower, we may speak of a unconscious/involuntary Dao follower that just follows what somebody else says, but not fully comprehending the implications or reasons behind that prescriptive or normative knowledge.

For example, some christians may just blindly follow the idea of being "poor in spirit", and so they will live a life free from material attachment while just trying to assure a place in heaven for themselves. This hypothetical person is not understanding the reasons behind that prescriptive idea or rule, but, at the same time, he might be perceiving the fruits of following that principle. That person, in my opinion, may qualify as one who passes the abstract step and lives the experiential step.

I'm holding the view that spontaneity can occur not by understanding exclusively. And, by extension, you might be a Daoist without agreeing with, let's say, the Dao De Ching (because may contradict the way in which the same principles are worded, or because the DDC was not written by Jesus, following the example given above).

Kind regards!

  • do you think the spontaneity is limited without studying? Do you think studying can also be spontaneous?
    – Ooker
    May 4, 2019 at 4:48
  • 1
    Hi! I think these questions can be answered from two perspectives: 1) Just as in buddhism desire is necessary to the definitive uprooting of desire, maybe non-spontaneity is necessary to achieve spontaneity. 2) Maybe we can interpret wu-wei not as spontaneity if the traditional sense, but rather as the smartest action to keep oneself balanced with the Tao, in which case studying might be necessary in a specific situation to achieve that balance. In this sense, studying might be the path of least resistence and the one diminishing suffering the most. Kind regards! May 4, 2019 at 5:03
  • so if Zhuangzi (or any Daoist) laughs in that case, then is he simply wrong, and we just need to ignore that? Or in other word, is the correct response to his laugh is our willful ignorance? I think when that happens, he will be serious?
    – Ooker
    May 4, 2019 at 15:44

It is correct that both question 1 and 2 clearly show an effort to codify, standardize or otherwise pin down the process of achieving the Dao, therefore, as Chris Sunami says, it is against the spirit of it. However, since learning is a necessary process, there is no need to be shame when you are in that stage. To move to the spontaneity stage, you need to be ready for it. Moving to the spontaneity stage needs to be spontaneous as well. Going up too soon will be an effort against the Dao.

Therefore, if Zhuangzi cackles when you are in the process of learning, then he is simply wrong. The best way to respond him is to ignore him, and focus on what you need to do. Or maybe cackling him back. Only that way that he will be satisfied. That is the answer he hopes you realize.

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