Daoism & Zen-Buddhism

The following will draw connections between the theme of »adaptiveness« and zen and daoism.


  • »Dao« can be translated as »way« or »technique« or »method«

  • First it addressed ways of governing (in the »Daodejing«), later ways of self-cultivation (in the »Zhuangzi«)

  • The thinking/philosophy focuses effect and effectiveness, not truth

  • »Dao« is the ideal way or technique of doing something

  • Entanglement between being (you, 有) and nothing (wu, 無), between fullness and emptyness, presence and absence


  • »Zen« as a term goes back to the Sanskrit word »dhyāna«, which can be translated as »meditation«, »contemplation«, »absorption«

  • Zen-Buddhism is derived from Mahāyāna-Buddhism, which was established in ancient India

  • Skeptical about language

  • Not focusing on a (higher) truth

  • Focusing on (life long) practice (of meditation) and a way of being developed through that


“Die Dinge sind weder fest noch dauerhaft, sondern verändern sich ständig von Augenblick zu Augenblick. Es gibt den alten Spruch: »Du kannst nicht zweimal in denselben Fluss steigen.« Gewöhnlich schaffen wir uns unser eigenes Universum. Wir glauben, dass wir zweimal denselben Ort betreten können, weil wir versuchen, unserer wandelbare Welt Festigkeit zu verleihen, damit sich unser konditioniertes Selbst sicher fühlen kann. In Wirklichkeit jedoch ist alles ein Fluss, der ständig in Bewegung ist, und auch die gesamte Umgebung, Fluss wie Ufer, unterliegt dem unaufhörlichen Wandel. Nur die Erfindungen unseres Geistes lassen uns glauben, dass wir zweimal denselben Ort betreten. Doch die Wahrheit der Unbeständigkeit ist stärker als unsere gedanklichen Erfindungen es jemals sein können, und sehr viel Leiden oder Verlust gehen damit einher, wenn wir diese unbestreitbare Tatsache ignorieren.” [Kwo04](156 f.)

“Things are neither fixed nor permanent, but are constantly changing from moment to moment. There’s the old saying: “You can’t step into the same river twice.” We usually create our own universe. We believe that we can step into the same place twice because we are trying to give our changeable world solidity so that our conditioned self can feel safe. In reality, however, everything is a river that is constantly in motion, and the entire environment, river and shore alike, is subject to incessant change. Only the inventions of our mind make us believe that we enter the same place twice. But the truth of impermanence is stronger than our mental inventions can ever be, and much suffering or loss comes with ignoring this undeniable fact.” [Kwo04](156 f.)(Translated by DeepL.)

“Engage in loss”. We are conditioned to profit and control. Loss is seen as something negative. Embracing loss means being in the moment, being alive, giving up self-centeredness, freeing ourselves from conditioning and encountering the world anew. (See chapter 17 in [Kwo04])

Zen is about recognizing how we are conditioned by society and the way our world is structured. Then it is about overcoming these adaptations.

Becoming the action

“Ans Ziel zu denken wird uns nicht ans Ziel bringen; wir müssen unser Selbst in der Tätigkeit verlieren. Wir sind die Tätigkeit, und die Tätigkeit selbst hat keinen Anfang und kein Ende. Wenn wir den Boden harken, harkt der Boden uns. Der Boden sagt uns, wo wir harken sollen. Der Boden sagt uns, wie wir harken sollen. Wir werden zu der Tätigkeit, und die Tätigkeit wird zu uns.” [Kwo04](219)

“Thinking about the goal will not get us there; we have to lose our self in the activity. We are the activity, and the activity itself has no beginning and no end. When we rake the ground, the ground rakes us. The soil tells us where to rake. The soil tells us how to rake. We become the activity, and the activity becomes us.” [Kwo04](219) (Translated by DeepL.)

The following are two stories about »becoming the action« from the »Zhuangzi«:

Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, 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 following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to care for life!”1

There is also a story about a swimming artist. He swims quite naturally in a raging stream in which not even turtles, alligators or fish dare to swim. The stream leads to a huge waterfall of 75 meters, in which the swimming artist plunges into the depths. Confucius and his companions rush to the riverbank full of worry and can only imagine the death of the swimming artist. But to their surprise, he casually steps out of the water, singing a song as he does so. Confucius asks the swimming artist if he has a special method for his doing. The swimming artist denies this and tells Confucius that he follows the way (dao) of the water without any action of his own.

Another story tells of the court carpenter Qing, who carved a bell stand for the Duke of Lu. Everyone who looked at the bell stand was amazed and thought that it could only have been created by a ghostly hand. The Duke of Lu asked Qing about his skill. He simply explained that he meditated for days before starting work. He forgot all worldly things and even himself. He then went into the forest and found the perfect trunk, in which he saw the bell stand already inside, so that he only had to uncover it.

Non-differentiating thinking

We’re used to differentiate between objects all the time. This is an apple, this a pineapple, that is a pine. More fundamentally, this is me, everything else is the other. Especially zen practice should lead to a non-differentiating thinking.

Archaic friendliness (Zen)

Byung-Chul Han describes archaic friendliness as a form of non-differentiating being.

“»Weder Wirt noch Gast. Wirt und Gast offenbar.« […] Die ursprüngliche Gastfreundlichkeit entspringt jenem Ort, wo es keinen Unterschied, keine starre Differenz zwischen Wirt und Gast gibt, wo der Wirt bei sich nicht zu Hause, sondern zu Gast ist. Sie ist ganz anders verfaßt als jene ›Generosität‹, in der der Gastgeber sich gefiele. »Weder Wirt noch Gast« hebt gerade dieses Sich auf. Das Gasthaus der archaischen Freundlichkeit gehört gleichsam niemand.” [Han02](116)

“Neither host nor guest. Host and guest apparently.” […] The original hospitality originates from that place where there is no difference, no rigid differentiation between host and guest, where the host is not at home, but a guest. It is constituted quite differently from the ‘generosity’ in which the host pleases himself. “Neither host nor guest” abolishes this very self. The guesthouse of archaic friendliness belongs to nobody, so to speak.”[Han02](116)(Translated by DeepL and MK.)

“Die archaische Freundlichkeit unterscheidet sich von jener kommunikativen Freundlichkeit, in der man einander zur Selbstdarstellung verhülfe. ›Freundlich‹ wären hier die Worte, die dem Anderen eine ungehinderte Selbstbespiegelung ermöglichten. Die kommunikative Freundlichkeit orientiert sich am Selbst. Die archaische Freundlichkeit beruht dagegen auf einer Selbstlosigkeit. Sie ist auch von jener Freundlichkeit abzugrenzen, in der man den Anderen auf Distanz hält, um sein Innen zu hüten oder zu schützen. Im Gegensatz zu dieser protektiven Freundlichkeit entspringt sie einer schrankenlosen Offenheit.” [Han02](119)

“Archaic friendliness differs from communicative friendliness, in which people help each other to present themselves. ‘Friendly’ here would be the words that enable the other person to reflect on themselves without hindrance. Communicative friendliness is oriented towards the self. Archaic friendliness, on the other hand, is based on selflessness. It is also to be distinguished from the kindness in which the other person is kept at a distance in order to guard or protect their inner self. In contrast to this protective friendliness, it stems from an unrestricted openness.” [Han02](119)(Translated by DeepL.)

Archaic friendliness exists in the dissolution of the difference between the inner and the outer. [Han02](120)

One within the other

For Heidegger, Thales is the first Greek philosopher, because of his thought, that all things are one (= based on water). This is not perceivable, instead abstract philosophical thinking. [Hui21](6 f.)

Borries describes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work as a combination of “acting on a small scale” and “thinking on a large scale” using the example of the door handle he designed:

“Man kann über das Wesen der Welt ganz grundsätzlich und logisch nachdenken und gleichzeitig seine volle Aufmerksamkeit und Arbeitskraft in den Entwurf einer Türklinke stecken. Wenn man über die Welt nachdenkt, muss man gleichzeitig auch über die Türklinke nachdenken. Und wenn man das tut, werden die Fragen, die man an die Welt hat, auch in der Türklinke beantwortet. Das Kleine ist also immer ein Ausblick auf das Ganze. Auch im Detail bezieht es sich immer auf die Welt. Gutes Design entwirft die Welt, anstatt sie zu unterwerfen — im Kleinen wie im Großen.” [vB16](134 f.)

“You can think about the nature of the world in a very fundamental and logical way and at the same time put all your attention and energy into designing a door handle. If you think about the world, you also have to think about the door handle. And when you do this, the questions you have about the world are also answered in the door handle. So the small is always a view of the whole. Even in detail, it always refers to the world. Good design creates the world instead of subjugating it - on both a small and large scale.” [vB16](134 f.)(Translated by DeepL.)


For Heidegger, being in the world (»In-der-Welt-sein«, »Dasein«), being a draft (»Entwurf«) is defined by care or worries (»Sorge«) about ourselves and our future.

“Der Mensch ohne Sorge hütet kein Ich-bin. Er verwandelt sich dem Lauf der Dinge entsprechend, statt sich gleich bleiben zu wollen. Sein niemandiges, selbstloses Selbst besteht aus Spiegelungen der Dinge. Er leuchtet im Lichte der Dinge.” [Han02](73)

“The person without worries does not guard an I-am. She transforms herself according to the course of things instead of wanting to remain the same. Her selfless self consists of reflections of things. She shines in the light of things.” [Han02](73) (Translated by DeepL and MK.)

Zen and Dao go beyond adaptiveness. By being completely absorbed in being and time, by »simply doing«, we no longer adapt interactively, but are.



Byung-Chul Han. Philosophie des Zen-Buddhismus. Reclam, Stuttgart, 2002.


Yuk Hui. Art and Cosmotechnics. e-flux, 2021.


Jakusho Kwong. Kein Anfang kein Ende. Die Essenz des Zen. Goldmann Verlag, München, 2004.


Friedrich von Borries. Weltentwerfen. Eine politische Designtheorie. Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2016.


https://thedewdrop.org/2020/05/18/the-dexterous-butcher-zhuangzi/ (access: December 7 2023)