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Important Themes in Zhuangzi’s Teachings

From the series What a Daoist Might Teach Us about Contextualizing Christianity

In my last post, I reviewed the distinctive history of Buddhism’s growth in Chinese culture during the fourth and fifth centuries. In this second of three parts, I present some famous passages from the teachings of Zhuangzi, highlighting three key themes within them. These themes are 1) the mystery of transformation, 2) effortless skillfulness through unity with the Dao, and 3) the limitations of human reason and utility. I conclude by summarizing the ways Buddhism resonated and built upon these themes to slowly transform Buddhism into a Chinese faith. 

The Mystery of Transformation

Zhuangzi did not teach in a didactic way but preferred whimsical parables. The passage presented here is Zhuangzi’s story of the butterfly, one of his most famous musings. Inherent in the image of a butterfly is that of transformation. How does a butterfly emerge from so different a form as a caterpillar? If such radical transformations can be observed naturally in such small and humble creatures, what greater transformations might be possible for humanity?

Once Zhuang Zhou (Zhuangzi) dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flittering and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he were Zhuang Zhou who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly, there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (Zhuangzi, Chapter 2: "Discussion on Making All Things Equal")[1]

For Zhuangzi, the possibility of transformation was simultaneously mysterious and natural, unclear yet certain. The confusion Zhuangzi captures in this passage in between dreaming and waking is meant to illustrate these tensions. On the one hand, our dreams are often fantastic and beyond what we think is possible. On the other hand, dreaming is a natural process and must contain elements of experiential truth. When Zhuangzi states that there must be a distinction between himself and the butterfly, he ponders the possibility of radical transformation. In what ways are old and new related, if at all?

Effortless Skillfulness through Unity with the Dao

This passage is part of a longer dialogue between a king and his butcher. The king is amazed by the butcher’s skillfulness in cutting meats with ease and asks how such skillfulness is cultivated. The butcher responds, 

What I care about is the Way (Dao), which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now-now I go at it by Spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop, and Spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint. (Zhuangzi, Chapter 3: "The Secret to Caring for Life")

The butcher’s skillfulness is attributed to his care for the Dao and spirit—like manners. Through a disciplined cultivation of the self, the butcher practices his craft led by a spiritual unity with the Dao: a force that sustains all of life. Relying on something deeper than his physical senses, the butcher is able to see a deeper interconnected whole beyond the ox that allows him to navigate his knife with supernatural ease. The butcher’s work is what Daoists call effortless action “Wu Wei, 无为.” When one is connected to the Dao, their skillfulness proceeds naturally without intentional thought or strain. Upon hearing this, the king is humbled and requests the butcher to teach him. The servant has become the master. 

The Limitations of Human Reason and Utility

This passage is a dialogue between Zhuangzi and one of his companions, Huizi. Throughout Zhuangzi’s teachings, Huizi features as both a friend and philosophical opponent who regularly debates Zhuangzi. 

Huizi said to Zhuangzi, "I have a big tree called a Shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road, and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!" Zhuangzi said, “…Now you have this big tree, and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in the Not-Even-Anything Village or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain? (Zhuangzi, Chapter 1: "Free and Easy Wandering")

This snappy conversation about a seemingly worthless tree acknowledges the limits of language to express the fullness of the transcendent and rejects any shrewd attempts to utilize the holy for earthly matters. Huizi is obsessed with utility, insulting Zhuangzi’s teachings as worthless to society. He likens Zhuangzi’s words to a useless tree. Zhuangzi’s rebuke is to see the tree’s nature as useful in and of itself. He reverses expectations by lifting up the tree’s “uselessness” as its virtue: one that protects it from being cut down and provides for the natural world. To cut a tree down and carve into useful tools or lauded artwork does not pass along the tree’s essence. On the contrary, such processes kill it.

The Implications of These Themes on the Culture’s Reception of Buddhism

During the third and fourth centuries, Chinese literati debated Zhuangzi’s teachings extensively. Buddhism offered both intellectual and ritual resources for Chinese to build upon the themes explored by Zhuangzi. The Daoist quest to obtain effortless skill and transformation was enriched by Buddhist meditation practices set toward emptying one’s mind of attachments to alleviate suffering. In particular, Zhuangzi’s teachings regarding the fasting of the mind would practically fuse elements of Chinese thought with Buddhism: 

"May I ask what the fasting of the mind is?" Yan Hui asks. Confucius said, “Make your will one! Don’t listen with your ears listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but the spirit is empty and waits for things. The Way, Dao, gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind." (Zhuangzi, Chapter 4: "In the World of Men")

This passage is an imagined conversation between the great master, Confucius, and one of his most beloved disciples, Yan Hui. Yan Hui, seeking advice for how to become a wise and effective government official, is not told to study the ancient sages or practice the revered rituals. Instead, Confucius tells him to forget it all—to empty his mind and get back in touch with the Dao that undergirds yet transcends human wisdom. 

Zhuangzi’s emphasis on emptiness and mind in this passage are key pieces in the transformation of Buddhism from foreign faith to beloved indigenous tradition. The particular type of Buddhism that first made its way to China contained sophisticated analysis on the nature of the mind, arguing that recognizing the world’s emptiness was a foundational step toward enlightenment. Translations of Buddhist scripture rendered emptiness and mind into language that paralleled Zhuangzi’s. The result was that Chinese scholars came to read Buddhist teachings from a Zhuangzi—like standpoint, setting off a chain of interpretations that would not only help make Buddhism more Chinese but also make the Chinese more Buddhist.

Coming Next: In the third and final installment of this series, I will pivot explicitly to the Christian faith. I believe the gospel echoes throughout Zhuangzi’s teachings in the same way they resonated so deeply with the Buddhist message of enlightenment hundreds of years ago. What’s more, because God’s wisdom is present in all cultures and histories, I also believe Zhuangzi has something to teach us about the gospel. Write to to share your thoughts.


  1. ^ Author’s Note: All passages come from Burton Watson’s translation, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. For those interested in reading more of Zhuangzi, I recommend an abridged edition, also translated by Burton Watson, Zhuangzi: Selected Writings


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Easten Law

Easten Law

Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio

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