Saturday, July 16, 2011


by Scott Bradley

There is a story in the Zhuangzi about an artisan working in the courtyard, who, looking up to see his Duke reading a book, asks what it is he is reading. The wisdom of the ancients, replies the Duke. But that's just their dried up old poop, says the artisan. Under threat of death, the artisan is then required to justify such a disrespectful pronouncement.

His reply simply amounts to this: Words about the paths of others are mere footprints, not the paths themselves; everyone must discover and tread his or her own path. He escapes with his life.

"Paths are made by the feet that walk them", we are told elsewhere. We do not make a path by following footprints.

Guo Xiang (252-312), the editor and first commentator (whose commentary is extant) of the Zhuangzi as we have it today, made a great deal of the concept of "footprints" (traces). Traces, he tells us, are our cognitive perception of things, but never the things-in-themselves. We cannot ever truly know anything or anyone unless we somehow experience them in an entirely different way. That way is the mystical experience of "vanishing into things". This is how he understood Zhuangzi's "following along with things".

I found this idea troublesome (not liking the idea of losing my self in things) until I later read his suggestion that the most immediate trace anyone encounters is his or her "self". Our self is a perceived identity, a belief, a story-made-up. It is not our most essential reality. It is something we 'know'. It is a "trace".

Guo did not, as far as I know, suggest what seems to me to be the most obvious response to this reality, namely, vanish into yourself beyond that trace. Having accomplished this, one has effectively already vanished into things, for one has moved beyond the individuation of ego-identity into the unity of all things.

This, I believe, is essentially what Zhuangzi intends we do when he recommends the "fasting of the mind." It is when we disappear into that unknowable, inner reality, that "empty room" where qi gathers, that we lose ourselves. This is the "Numinous Reservoir", the inexplicable up-welling of life within, the very life-spring of our existence, which to experience, is to realize Unity.

Mystery is not ‘something out there’; it is everything. It is you. Concepts, “traces”, are a necessary means by which we think about everything, including our selves, but we would be mistaken to believe that they have pierced the mystery which everything is.

Well, that pretty much wraps it all up into a neat package, easy to believe — a trace. But it is possible to simply understand such things as mere models — upaya, 'skillful means' — by which to wander beyond the traces, where no explanations are possible.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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