Zhuangzi Textual Analysis – In Our Path to Attaining Dao (2014)

Module: Chinese Philosophy (Nanyang Technological University)

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I will mainly be using the story of the skilful cook to understand (1) Zhuangzi’s version of Dao, (2) attaining Dao, (3) unity with nature and, (4) spontaneity. The overall focus of this essay is on the hindrance of conventional knowledge in our path to attaining Dao. I will proceed by differentiating the knowledge of man and Dao, then explore the difficulty in determining how to get on the path to Dao. Next, continue on how the spirit is harmed by knowledge, and present the knowledge of Dao of heaven as a higher form of knowledge. Then, I will present how spontaneity being the path to Dao is limited by the binding nature of knowledge of man, followed by what it is to achieve Dao and finally, conclude.

The cook attributes his skilful ability to Dao, the “ultimate reality in which all attributes are united” — it is potential in an individual, unity in the universe, and force to every motion and life. Dao in Zhuangzi’s term is different from Laozi. It is more varied, “individualised in the nature of things,” always changing yet having a “constant and enduring ground of its being” (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007).

In Zhuangzi 17, the conversation between Zhuangzi and Hui Shi on happy fishes, shows the “experiential, participatory nature of knowledge;” of ‘knowing-how’ rather than ‘knowing-that’ (Lai, 2008). ‘Knowing-that’ are concepts of right and wrong constructed by man; “each man on the basis of his own finite point of view…(such) things are ever subject to change and (possess) many aspects…(Therefore) a higher standpoint exist…(and) there is no need to make a decision ourselves about what is right and what is wrong” (Fung, 1967). If we are able to see things this way, Fung (1967) likens it to seeing ‘in the light of heaven’ as in the Ch’i Wu Lun. (Seeing ‘in the light of heaven,’ is “to see things from the point of view of that which transcends the finite, is the Dao” (Fung, 1967).) This is how the cook was able to see past his clouded vision to see all of the ox. This is also in relation to the beginning of Zhuangzi 3, where we are warned that if we pursue knowledge (which is unlimited), our flow of life (which is limited) would be placed in danger. Nature is the source of happiness and goodness, while that of man are pain and evil (Fung, 1967).

Following, we will see and understand more about this danger and nature, and how we could become unlimited and unbound, such that pursuing knowledge would not be a danger.

‘Knowing-how’ focuses on actions, thus Zhuangzi uses several stories such as the swimmer, bell stand carver and wheelwright to illustrate how one might attain Dao. We are to return to our primitive ‘expressions of humanity,’ placing significance in “feelings rather than knowledge (which) are expressions of Dao” (Lai, 2008) as depicted by the cook who allowed the promptings of his spirit to guide him, rather than what he does or does not know. Dao is a ‘wordless indoctrination’ (Zhuangzi 22: “He who knows does not speak and he who speaks does not know” (Trans. Ziporyn, 2009).) — we are to comprehend it “in the heart through nature” (Wu, 2008) for words are limited. Language is inadequate when we have a world where everything is so diverse and varied. Here we can draw parallels from the Daodejing, “the Dao that can be explained is not the true Dao” (Trans. Höchsmann & Yang, 2007). The wheelwright (in Zhuangzi 13) teaches us that Dao cannot be learnt from a book nor taught using words. Just as in the story, the old man fails in teaching his son, and the ancients fail in passing their knowledge through books. Dao is a mental conception that can neither be captured in words nor books. “What is beyond knowledge cannot be explained by reasoning…That which words can describe and knowledge can understand belong to the world of things…Here we have reached the limit beyond which words cannot penetrate” (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007).

How then did the cook attain Dao? Initially, he was using his “eyes” which represents his physical state and sensual perception, and by that, he failed. He then engages his ‘spirit,’ which we can derive two interpretations: based on his spirit alone, or, based on his previous knowledge, he is able to attain such mastery.

“When (he) first started…(he) was unable to see all there was to see in an ox. But now he encounters it with the spirit rather than scrutinising it with the eyes. (His) understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow.” (Trans. Ziporyn, 2009)

Firstly, his previous conventional knowledge obscures him from seeing everything because he already has a preconception of how things ought to be. “Focus is on shedding conventional norms as they interfere” (Lai, 2008) with how we perceive. Individuals often bring their own experiences to bear on their interpretations of events, which would obscure one’s view. Therefore, the cook shuts off his consciousness from clouding his view, and uses his knack (which also means natural skill/instinct), and allowing his spirit to take over. When conventional knowledge no longer inhibits his spirit and vision, he is able to see all of the ox. Such is the liberation of achieving freedom from conventions and bringing ourselves to a higher, transcendental level of Dao.

However, we cannot dismiss the cook’s previous knowledge and practice too. Which brings us to the second point that the cook might have learnt all that there are — being propositional and procedural knowledge — and (A) is be able to ‘call’ upon his spirit because of this prior knowledge, or, (B) is thus able to shut off his consciousness, because his prior knowledge are already at the tip of his fingers, allowing his spirit to take over fully. Knowledge and the spirit might be connected, even though it seems like they are entirely different — “Zhuangzi 17: To know that east and west are opposites but also interconnected — this is knowing the use and the qualities of things” (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007). However, it is debatable if these prior knowledge are all true, or, owing to the fact that they are, thereby he attains this mastery. There is an epistemological difficulty here, which Wang Ni points out, “how do I know that what I call knowing is not ignorance? How do I know that what I call ignorance is not knowing?” (Cited by Lai, 2008). The difficulty in differentiating knowing and ignorance is much like our issue here, such that we are unable to deduce one theory.

Yet, what is the ‘spirit’ the cook speaks of, that gave him such virtuosity? When his spirit takes over, his actions are said to be “attuned to the ‘Dance of the Mulberry Grove’” (Trans. Ziporyn, 2009) with each sound he makes. Wu (2008) mentions that “one could master the technique of doing things thoroughly, if (one) could do it naturally” like flowing with the sounds of nature. This feat is attributed to the spirit, which the cook gives the idea that it is within us, and somehow with nature. In the passage of ‘I lost Me’ (Zhuangzi 2) with deep introspection we could separate ourselves into two entities: ‘Me’ is the visible shell, the worldly-ill person who possesses prejudices, while ‘I’ could be united with nature (Wu, 2008). Humans (the ‘me’) keep their feelings and thoughts for days and nights because of prejudices, and it “consumes both mental and physical well-being” (Wu, 2008). Whereas the union of ‘I’ and nature is said to be characteristic of Zhuangzi’s Daoism that differs from Laozi. Should this union happen, “we would be at the centre of Dao.” (The ‘centre of Dao’ is the ‘central meridian’ mentioned in the first passage — The central meridian is the highest development or pathway in which the vital energy (flow of life) flows.) There, our freed spirit would not be affected by circumstances around us. Although ‘I’ and nature are different, they are alike too — “they all constitute something and are good for something. They all equally come from the Dao…though different, yet are united and become one” (Fung, 1967). Zhuangzi gives us an illustration of a man who being one with nature, does not depend on anything in Zhuangzi 1: “(those) who chariots on the normality of the universe, rides on the transformation of the six elements, and thus makes excursion into the infinite, what has he to depend upon?” (Trans. Fung, 1967). “Therefore it is said that the perfect man has no self; the spiritual man has no achievement; and the true sage has no name” (Fung, 1967). Such freedom is possible in this union because like the sounds of nature that only exist transiently, once the wind passes, it returns to silence again (Zhuangzi 2).

To say that it is now ‘freed’ implies that the spirit was trapped before. Knowing-that “burdens the spiritual well-being with weariness” (Wu, 2008). An ordinary cook has to change his blade once a month, and a good cook once a year. The blades that are mentioned could be likened to the flow of life, such that it is in danger. Wang Fuzhi puts it as such: when we augment our vital energy to chase after the unlimited, we “end up dissipating more and more of that energy outside of ‘ourselves.’ But this contributes nothing to maintaining the patterned channels of the life process” (cited by Ziporyn, 2009) and would be a futile damaging effort to ourselves. However, “when one can forget about life and death and about right and wrong (aspects of knowing-that), he can wander in a boundless world and reside in a boundless world” (Zhuangzi 2.6, Trans. Wu, 2008) Thus, when the cook walks in the path of Dao, his blade does not suffer any damage and is still as sharp and new.

In the union of spirit and nature, ‘nature’ could also be translated as heaven, “in the sense of the totality of all that exist” — Zhuangzi’s Dao of heaven stands as an objective source, a “standpoint of just and fair perspectives” rather than a personal deity who man should please or one who oversees mankind (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007).

Zhuangzi 3: “My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow. I depend on Heaven’s unwrought perforations…I go by how they already are, playing them as they lay.” (Trans. Ziporyn, 2009)

In the passage, his spirit being one with nature, guides him in dealing with the ox naturally. (The ox represent things/situations/circumstances of the world.) Unlike the eye, it is not limited and is able to perceive more, achieving the highest skill, which otherwise would have been impossible. “The one who knows the workings of heaven and the actions of man has reached perfection…This is the completion of knowledge” (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007). Such mastery could be seen when the cook carves the ox. His blade being boundless and without thickness, is able to enter the empty spaces between joints. This cannot be achieved by other types of blades (as mentioned, the significant symbolism of the blade and flow of life), because “we inflate our own feelings, talents and understanding consciousness into a ‘thickness’ and then try to force our way in with them” (Ziporyn, 2009). Not only would we fail, we damage the blade as well. However, someone with the Dao would be able to enter, and since it has no form, it is limitless and would not get hurt. In fact, in Zhuangzi 3, there is “more than enough room for the play of the blade” (Trans. Ziporyn, 2009). This is what we can say of what allowed the cook, or how he managed, to achieve such mastery. “When heaven is embodied in an individual, it is called the ‘heavenly nature’ and “to lose or abandon (it) is to destroy the Dao of life” (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007) Having said so, there is great difficulty in trying to realistically determine the difference between heaven and man. “How can we know what we call heaven is not really man, and what we call man is not really heaven? (Zhuangzi 6)” (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007).

Fung Yu-Lan also gives us another view of nature in relation to happiness. “Free development of our natures may lead us to a relative kind of happiness; absolute happiness is achieved through higher understanding of the nature of things” (Fung, 1967). Free development is in our full and free exercise of one’s natural ability, simply by following what is natural in oneself; allowing one’s nature to be fully and freely developed. Since happiness is dependent upon something (such that it can also be obstructed by death, diseases, etc.), it is thus considered relative. Absolute happiness, on the other hand, comes when we achieve a higher understanding and our spirit cannot even be affected by death.

I will proceed by exploring how our spirit being spontaneous in dealings, is able to transcend even death. Spontaneity is the rule of nature, and humans situated in such constant changing environment, should acquire the ability to respond and interact with it. The depictions in Zhuangzi on how one can achieve Dao all show experts “engaging with the world in all its imperfections. Where they differ is in their indifference to the vicissitudes of life, and even to death (Zhuangzi 7)” (Lai, 2008). Change, requires a spontaneous reaction to each different circumstance, rather than a fixed knowledge. Every ox is different and how the cook handles them, going by how they naturally are, shows spontaneity. Just like how “every cicada is different but the good cicada-catcher knows how to catch them all,” this knack is pivotal in dealing with diversity, and turning “difficult situation to one’s advantage” (Lai, 2008). The key is in their adaptability that sustains them through the ever-changing world and is primary in living the life of Dao — to be “supremely intelligent(ly) responsive, which would be undermined by analysing and choosing” (Lai, 2008). Our knowledge then becomes a hindrance in our effort to be spontaneous and intuitive.

One concept of spontaneity that is also depicted in the passage is Wuwei. When dealing with a difficult situation, the cook would restrain himself, and though his activity slows, he finds that all of the ox is being cut up. Zhuangzi focuses on the distinction between what is of nature and what is of man. The more the former is overcome by the latter, the more there will be misery and unhappiness” (Fung, 1967). We should note that the difference in Laozi’s idea of Wuwei lies in that, “the more one governs…the less one achieves the desired result.” Guo Xiang captures the idea of unity with nature and being spontaneous as vanishing into one’s own limits, such that one becomes unlimited. One goes “along with one’s exact allotment, not even adding even the weight of a hair to it…Even if you are responding to ten thousand situations, you will be, as if vanishing into them, unaware of any affairs requiring effort” (Ziporyn, 2009). This is what he calls “primary to the nourishment of life,” such that we preserve the flow of our life. To clarify his point on ‘one’s exact allotment,’ Fung (1967) emphasises the lack of absoluteness and need for uniformity in the entities of nature, much like in Zhuangzi 1 where we have the large and small bird with different abilities. What mattered was that they were both happy in what they are able to do. Additionally, in the story of the seabird that was welcomed with wine, music and bullock in Zhuangzi 18, such uniformity in treatment resulted in the tragic death of the bird, which in application would be likewise detrimental to our flow of life.

When our spirit is one with nature, we would be able to keep “peace with time and find harmony with changes” Wu, 2008). In the passage, Zhuangzi tells the story of how Qin Shi was not affected by Lao Dan’s death. (Zhuangzi 3: “Resting content in the time and finding his place in the flow, joy and sorrow had no way to seep in” (Trans. Ziporyn, 2009).) Emotional and mental pain are liken to punishments; one’s suffering, which is why it is labelled as, Zhuangzi 3 “the punishment for fleeing from Heaven.” If we have “a complete understanding of the nature of things,” we can reduce and even eliminate emotions not because we lack sensibility but because we are not disturbed by them, enjoying what one might call — “the peace of the soul” (Fung, 1967). This is evidently so when we look at how Zhuangzi dealt with the death of his wife. Guo Xiang comments that “when ignorant, he felt sorry. When he understood, he was no longer affected. This teaches man to disperse emotion with reason” (Cited, by Fung, 1967). We can thus say that this man has absolute happiness in that he is not affected by changes in the world nor dependent upon external things.

Hitherto, we are brought back to the first paragraph of the chapter on the danger of knowledge. We could relate it to Zhuangzi 6, when Yen Hui was able to achieve ‘sageliness’ by discarding knowledge. Fung differentiates between ‘having-no knowledge’ as one of ignorance, while ‘having no-knowledge’ as what “comes only after one has passed through a prior stage of having knowledge…an achievement of the spirit” (Fung, 1967). Zhuangzi advises that one having “studied the true nature of things and observed the basic tenets…could leave the world and disown everything without ever feeling distressed. By understanding Dao, conforming to De, distancing Ren and justice, and abandoning rites and music, the superior man will have kept his spirit in peace” (Zhuangzi 13.6, Trans. Wu, 2008). In abandoning these conventional knowledge (Ren, justice, rites and music are what Zhuangzi calls knowing-that, discussed above), our flow of life is in peace.

In conclusion, Zhuangzi is not asking us to isolate ourselves, but to be have a deep awareness of nature, in a sense where our perception and thoughts are not obscured by knowledge set by society (Lai, 2008) — in our pursuit to be boundless and free. A full development of oneself and knowledge, creates authentic existence in the unity of ‘I’, nature and heaven (Höchsmann & Yang, 2007) — this is “the way to nurture the spirit,” by “way of Dao” (Wu, 2008). One is able to attain absolute happiness when one is able to “transcend the distinction between the self and the world…Therefore has no self. He is one with the Dao…does nothing and yet there is nothing that is not done” (Fung, 1967). Guo Xiang captures the entire chapter accurately in living the present moment and being spontaneous — “in taking our nourishment from each moment’s breath that we enable our lives to continue on…it is by working each present piece of firewood that we enable the flame to transmit itself” (Ziporyn, 2009). There is no point in past breath or previous flames. We should keep our spirit free from exhaustion and being bounded from things of the world. “What is said here is that one person can extend emptiness and quietude to heaven and earth and to all things in the world. This is called the heavenly joy. That which is the heavenly joy is to let the hearts of sages nourish the world” (Zhuangzi 13.2, Trans. Wu, 2008).


Fung, Y. (1967). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York, NY: The Free Press. p.93-117

Höchsmann, H. and Yang, G. (2007). Zhuangzi. New York, NY: Pearson Longman. p.28-62.

Lai, K. (2008). An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p.142-171.

Wu, C. (2008). The Wisdom of Zhuang Zi on Daoism. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.. p.35-62, p.177-188.

Ziporyn, B. (2009). The Primacy of Nourishing Life. In: Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. p.21-24, p.165-171.

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