Daoism and Zhuangzi Philosophy

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The phenomenological philosophy, which is made up of continental philosophy, gave rise to the hermeneutic phenomenology, a qualitative research methodology. It is more concerned in a distinct method of comprehending human existence than in phenomenology as a philosophy. The underlying premise of this approach is that even the most fundamental and basic human experience is already rich in meaning. A person lives in a meaningful world where other people, their histories, cultures, and events come before any attempt to explain or comprehend the meaning (Henriksson & Saevi, 2009 ). The purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological research on the Daoism and pre-Socratic philosophies will be reflected on them and describe both phenomena as they appear in daily life before their theorization, interpretation or otherwise abstracted. Learning phenomenology in this paper will be an issue of not how to do it but rather developing a convergent orientation of Daoism and pre-Socratic philosophies. As the Chinese philosopher, Confucius famously said: “I hear and forget. I see and remember. I do and understand.” Philosophies cannot be truly understood until they are deeply engaged in which involves the formulation of phenomenological questions, identifying and collecting experiential material and reflecting on the concrete experiences.

Daoism and pre-Socratic philosophies

Daoism, sometimes known as Taoism, is one of the great philosophical traditions of China together with Confucianism. Daoism does not have a traditionally constituted founding thinker, even though most believe that Laozi originated the school and wrote the major work known as the Daodejing. The tradition is the Lao-Zhing philosophy, referring from the two classical and influential texts of the philosophy: the Daodejing or Laozi (3rd Cn. B.C.E.) and Zhuangzi. Various thought streams and practices were passed along by the masters before the finalization of the texts (Roger, 1998).

Is Daoism a philosophy or a religion?

But is Daoism a philosophy or a religion? Western and comparative philosophers have pointed out the important dimension regarding Daoism historical context since the classical texts and the Daoism religious beliefs connection have been ignored and disparaged. Daoism ideas were fermented from master teachers who had a holistic life view. The Daoshi masters never attempted to compartmentalize the practices which they sought to influence reality forces, increase their longevity, order life morally and interact with realities unapparent to the normal perspective of things. They offered philosophical aphorism insights, practiced meditative stillness and engaged in physical exercises that increased their inner energy flow. They also practiced rituals, engaged in spellbinding, practiced divination and wrote talismans. The masters transferred their teachings to their adepts and disciples which led to the creation of the Zhuangzi. The anti-super naturalist and dualist agendas provoked western philosophers to detach philosophy and religion. Dating to the classical Greek period and pre-Socratic age, philosophy was not a Daoists preoccupation. Therefore, whether Daoism is a religion or a philosophy is a question that imposes a set of understandings, qualifications, and presuppositions, it is hybrid in nature and the significant ideas of classical Daoism greatly contribute to the study of philosophy (Coutinho, 2014).

The pre-Socratic philosophers

Similarly, the pre-Socratic philosophers came on the scene with religious mythologies which set the stage for philosophical speculations. Religion and philosophy are inseparable since the former is a social force that forms the views of human nature and the cosmos. According to the Greeks, gods cause national disasters, make human conduct demands, and determine humans' place in the afterlife. Two pre-Socratic philosophers Homer (750 BCE) and Hesiod (700 BCE) developed the sophisticated religious world-life view, Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey chronicle, where Odysseus regularly encounters gods and strange creatures in his underworld journeys. Hesiod, on the other hand, was the author of the Theogony, a work describing the origin of hundreds of deities. Homer’s and Hesiod jumpstarted the Greek philosophy on a religious platform (Kirk & Raven, 1977).

Key issues in pre-Socratic philosophy

The pre-Socratic philosophers focused on three key issues, the one, and the many, change and constancy, and relativism. One and the many explain how one basic object can be the source of varied things. The change and constancy issue explain how things remain constant as they change. As things go through change, an external force enables them to retain their identity. The third issue, relativism, determines whether principles are created by people or absolute.

Convergence of Daoism and pre-Socratic philosophy

There are four themes that can be used to converge the Daoistical way of philosophy and the pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. These themes include the theme of the way (Dao), the theme of Zhenren, the theme of naturalness, and Ziran.

Theme of the way (Dao)

The theme of the way concept in Daoism philosophy is known as Dao and its pre-Socratic found in the Logos of Heraclites. Generally, in Daoism, the Yin and Yang balance is only achieved by following the Dao as the way. This balance can be disturbed but Dao makes it possible for harmony restoration. The concept of Dao is difficult to translate to Greek philosophy and, therefore, in comparison, pre-Socratic concepts pointing to Dao’s direction have been found. Taking Empedocles into consideration, for instance, in the Strife, we find the battle for power (the Yang) and in the friendship, peace is sought (the Yin). Continual changes indicate the Dao.

It is stated that “The Tao produced the One. The One produced the Two. The Two produced the Three. The Three produced All Things. All things carry Yin and hold to Yang. Their blended Influence brings Harmony.” Heraclites expresses that “of the logos, men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before hearing it and after hearing it. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the common, which is the Logos… Listen not to me but the Logos, which is wise (Sophos), leading to the agreement that all things are one” (Ching & Wing, 1986). The Dao and the Logos are seen as the principle or a precondition for unity and separation between everything. The statement “All things are one” is ascribed to the pre-Socratic era philosopher Parmenides, who urged a comprehending of the varicosity of the world.

The Theme of Zhenren

Zhuangzi taught that a combination of practices such as meditative stillness enables a person to achieve unity with the way (Dao) and become the ‘perfected person’ zhenren. The way to this state of perfection is not through the withdrawal of life but rather disengaging or emptying of conventional values or demarcations generated by the society. For instance, in the chapter 23 of the Zhuangzi, aNanrong Chu inquires Laozi about the solution to his life’s problems in which he gets a prompt answer: “Why did you come with all this crowd of people?” Chu is perplexed since he came alone, but Laozi’s meaning is that Chu’s problems have been brought about by all the baggage of conventional opinions and ideas that he has lugged himself with. Before anyone can be Zhenren, move in wu-wei, and express a profound virtue, he/she must discard the baggage (Zhuangzi, 1889.).

The pre-Socratic perception of the perfect man, especially Aristotle’s, is that the perfect man cannot deny his humanity but rather perfect it. The individual must be the best man he can be. A man must cultivate proper intentions and appropriate dispositions and then put the intentions into virtuous actions. This form of perfection is known as the hands-on form of constructive self-perfection (eudaimonia), a Greek word for spirit, or soul. Aristotle’s perfection is concerned with the exercise of good actions, and hence eudaimonia can be best understood with living to the ‘natural potential’.

The Theme of Naturalness and Ziran

The doctrine of Ziran in Daoism suggests that at birth, all individuals receive a certain embodiment of energy that defines their nature and capacity. This explains why some people are endowed with long life and exceptional talents while others endure natural disadvantages. The fact that an individual can be gifted in one way but deficient in others shows the presence of different powers attesting to each individual. Ziran is translated as nature, and the meaning of Dao emulates ziran (Cua, 2013).

Complete Works of Zhuangzi

"The Butterfly Dream"

This is one of the most famous Zhuangzi stories, which is in the second chapter called, “On the Equality of Things.” Zhuang Zhou dreamed that he was a butterfly that was happily flitting and fluttering about and doing as he pleased. At the time, he did not know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly, he woke up, and there he was, solid, in human form and his identity. However, he did not know whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly or whether the butterfly was dreaming it was Zhuang Zhou. Between the butterfly and Zhuang Zhou, there must always be a distinction known as the Transformation of material things (Ching & Wing, 1986).

In my opinion, the dream exemplifies the distinction between existence and non-existence. It is the generation assumption or knowledge that a person dreaming is the existing entity and the world he is living in the reality while the dream world as the non-existing world. The Butterfly Dream tells us people cannot distinguish which is which since, in some sense, both worlds are existing or non-existing. In the process of identifying one of the worlds as the ultimate reality, humans find themselves constantly switching between both worlds. This is a classical Yin-Yang concept. Since existence is considered fundamental, many would rather give up the Yin-Yang concept than give up their reality sense. Only a few dare to think that dreams are part of reality. The butterfly dream is an analogy drawn from people’s familiar inner life in which the cognitive processes are involved in the process of self-transformation. This serves as the key to understanding the whole Zhuangzi story, which is about providing an illustration of the mental transformation or the awakening experience in which most people are familiar. Just as in the case of waking up from a dream, an individual can mentally awaken to a real level of awareness (Moller, 1999).

"The Cook Ding Cuts Up an Ox"

In this story, which is in the chapter of “Secrets for Nurturing Life,” Zhuangzi uses the imagery of a skilled butcher to demonstrate the ‘mindlessness’ character of an individual who has mastered the Daoist principles by following nature. Cook Ding was once cutting an ox for his Lord Wenhui. With every touch of his hand, the heave of his shoulder, movement of his feet, and thrust of his knees, Cook Ding slithered the knife along the ox with a zing with perfect rhythm as if performing a Dance. Lord Wenhui exclaimed with awe “Imagine skill reaching such heights!" (Watson, 2013). Cook Ding replied that all he cared about was the Way (Dao) which is beyond skill. Cook Ding explains that when he first began cutting up the oxen, he only saw the ox itself. After some time, he went about the cutting with his spirit without looking with his eyes. Perception and understanding ceased, and the spirit moved where it wanted. Cook Ding went along with Ziran, the natural makeup: striking in the big hollows, guiding the knife through the openings, etc., so as to avoid touching any ligaments or tendons.

Cook Ding states that an excellent cook changes his knife every year while a mediocre one changes once per month due to the skills used. He has used his knife for 19 years without change and cut a thousand oxen with it, and the blade was still in perfect condition (Watson, 2013).

Chuang Tzu understood that Dao was in every life aspect, even in the least expected activities. People do not need to be in the temple every day to be close to the way. If a cook can connect with the Way, then every individual can connect with Dao in their activities. The descriptions of Cook Ting's actions are deliberate in that they convey the essential characteristics of a Daoist sage. This is a smooth, graceful life with a gentle touch and artistic flair, all with surprising effectiveness. A sage never relies on physical senses, just like the cook, one needs to look beyond the surface to discern the underlying essence of life. This then determines the course of actions and words, creating an interesting dynamic where the observer, just like Lord Wenhui, sees transcendent skill in everything being done by the Dao sage. The sage sees himself simply moving along the natural Dao path.

"Drumming On a Tub and Singing"

This story describes how Chuang Tzu never viewed death as something to be feared. Zhuangzi’s wife died, and when his friend Huizi visited to offer his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting in a tub, pounding it with legs sprawled out while singing. Huizi is puzzled by Zhuangzi’s actions and asks him that since he lived with her, brought up his children, and grew old, “wouldn’t it be enough to just weep her death rather than crossing the line by pounding the tub and singing?” Zhuangzi replies to Huizi and tells him that when his wife died, he grieved like everyone else, but after looking at the time she was conceived and born, she already had a spirit. Zhuangzi explains that his wife, just like all humans, went through the transformation from spirit to the body, to birth, to death, and finally to the spirit, just like the progression of the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter). “Now she is going to lie peacefully in a large room, and if I were to follow her howling and sobbing, I would only exhibit my misunderstanding of fate. So I stopped. (Watson, 2013)”

Zhuangzi seems to view death just like a natural process where one gives up one form of existence to assume another. In this second chapter, Zhuang Tzu insists that death is, in fact, better than life. He asks questions like how one knows that loving life is not a delusion.

"The Debate on the Joy of Fish"

The story on the debate of the Fish is an anecdote that is usually compared to the Socratic dialogue in Greek philosophy. This story is about Zhuangzi and Huizi who were enjoying themselves on Hao River Bridge. Zhuangzi comments that the minnows are darting about free and easy, and this is how fish are happy. Huizi replies to Zhuangzi that how does he know that fish are happy if he is not one. Zhuangzi’s response is that if Huizi is not him, how will he know that Zhuangzi does not know that fish are not happy. To this, Huizi replied that “I am not you, to be sure, so of course I don't know about you. But you obviously are not a fish; so the case is complete that you do not know that the fish are happy.” Zhuangzi leads Huizi back to the beginning of his initial question and that by asking the question, Huizi knew that Zhuangzi knew that the fish were happy right above the Hao (Watson, 2013).

This debate seems to make the point that knowing something is simply a state of mind, and it is not possible to determine if the knowledge has an objective validity. Philosophers have always been divided into two opposed camps, the dogmatists who defend the default position, and the skeptics who bring flaws to the particular dogmatist views and claims. Western philosophy, for instance, exploits the metaphysical gap in subjective appearances where an attack on every idea is based on empirical knowledge. On the other hand, in Eastern philosophy, skepticism is not viewed as a threat but rather as common sense in philosophical options (Kjellberg, 1994).


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Coutinho, S. (2014). An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies. . New York: Columbia University Press.

Cua, A. S. (2013). Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy. Beijing: Routledge.

Henriksson, C., & Saevi, T. (2009 ). An event in sound Considerations on the ethical-aesthetic traits of the hermeneutic phenomenological text. Phenomenology & Practice 3(1), 35-58.

Kirk, G. S., & Raven, J. .. (1977). The presocratic Philosophers. London: Cambridge University Press.

Kjellberg, P. (1994). Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi. Buffalo: SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture.

Moller, H. G. (1999). Zhuangzi's "Dream of the Butterfly": A Daoist Interpretation. Philosophy East and West, 439-450.

Roger, A. (1998). Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Watson, B. (2013). The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zhuangzi, C. T. (1889.). Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer. London: Bernard Quaritch.

April 06, 2023
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