goldfish dream after Zhuangzi

Daoist Talks (I): Two Daoist stories and a Daoist painting

Daoism: Zhuangzi and Friedrich have some fun

Daoism (I): For those who have landed on my blog for the first time: Friedrich, that’s me – at least most of the time, but that’s another story. And first of all: only very few would understand a painting like the one introduced today as Daoist – and yet it is one of my best in this field [1]. So I owe an explanation.

Laozi and Zhuangzi – Daoism per se

Westerners who become interested in Daoism usually encounter Laozi first [2]. His only work, the Dao De Jing ( Tao Te Ching), is THE standard work of Daoism. However, many readers state that the book is too difficult to understand. Yes, I don’t think it’s the right book for newcomers to Daoism either. Much easier to understand, however, is Zhuang Zi [3], who is no less important. And, with his short, profound stories, which are also often very funny, he comes much closer to Western thought.

In this context, I ask the esteemed readers to also read the lower part of the article. Why? I would like to know if an article like this one today can help you to understand Daosimus more quickly and if there generally is enough interest in this topic. If so, I would write some articles on the subject shortly, covering various aspects of Daoism through painting. If there’s no interest, then there’s no point in me writing about it either, which is just as ok.

The Butterfly – Zhuangzi. Key Story in Daoism

In general, anyone who knows Zhuangzi also knows the butterfly’s story. May I repeat it as a reminder:

One night Zhuangzi went to sleep and dreamed that he was a butterfly. He dreamed that he was flying around from flower to flower and while he was dreaming he felt free, blown about by the breeze hither and thither. He was quite sure that he was a butterfly. But when he awoke he realized that he had just been dreaming, and then Zhuangzi asked himself the following question: “Was I Zhuangzi dreaming to be a butterfly, or am I now really a butterfly dreaming that I am Zhuangzi?”

Of course, the story is about the dissolution of the dualist concept of subjective and objective. Not only does he soften the dividing line between subjective and objective perception, he even goes one step further by having Zhuangzi and the butterfly switch places, that is, swapping subject and object.

The Goldfish – Friedrich

goldfish dream after Zhuangzi. painting retated to Daoism

Once upon a time, there was an old goldfish who suffered from rheumatism because of the damp, cold water. One night he dreamed that he had left his pond and lived like a bird in a tree, flying through the air and letting the summer wind blow through his feathers while he looked at the flowers from above. When he awoke…well, the rest of the story is clear.

The icing

When the painter finished this picture it was well past midnight and he went to bed. Now, at this point, it is still not entirely clear whether Friedrich was joking by paraphrasing Zhuangzi’s famous story or whether it is Zhuangzi who wrote this blog post and published it – IN THE VERY NOW [4]

Well, when I wake up again I might know….


[1] In general, what we associate with Taoist painting are ing paintings on rice paper, which use paint very sparingly. But as a painter of the 21st century, I allow myself to break new ground.
Recommended short article:

[2] Laozi (Chinese: 老子, commonly translated as “Old Master”), also rendered as Lao Tzu or Lao-Tze proper name Li Er, courtesy name Boyang, was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, the founder of philosophical Taoism, and a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.

[3] Zhuang Zhou commonly known as Zhuangzi (莊子; literally “Master Zhuang”) was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE during the Warring States period, a period of great development in Chinese philosophy, the Hundred Schools of Thought. He is credited with writing—in part or in whole—a work known by his name, the Zhuangzi, which is one of the foundational texts of Taoism.
A famous work partly by his hand is also called “Zhuangzi“. In the course of the veneration of Zhuang Zhou as a Daoist saint in 742 under Emperor Xuanzong, it also received the honorary title “The True Book of the Southern Blossom Land” (南華眞經 / 南华真经, Nánhuā zhēnjīng, abbreviated 南華經 / 南华经, Nánhuājīng). Together with the Daodejing, it is regarded as the main work of Daoism, although a Daoist institution at the time of the Zhuangzi cannot be proven. The writing is regarded as one of the most beautiful, interesting, and difficult literary works in Chinese intellectual history

[4] “The simple goal of Zen is to be here and now. It is the only place and time we have to live, play, eat, laugh, and love.

Considered project for my readers

As indicated at the beginning, if there is a certain general interest, I would be glad to put together a few articles that deal with the topics of Dao and Zen. Why the two are often lumped together will become clear as the articles progress.

The Goal:

Today we started with Zhuangzi, most of all with the aspect of Subjective vs. Objective. If we have understood this topic fundamentally, we have already taken a big step into Daoism. By discussing and explaining other areas in further postings, ideally not only should the matter of Daoism become more understandable for the reader, but also the perspective on abstract painting should be enriched by one or the other facet.

Why me?:

Am I a Daoist or Zen Buddhist? The question does not arise, since these terms are meaningless. According to the motto: “The path is the goal” I have been on this path for around 50 years. Or I look at the flowers nearby. In any case, it’s a beautiful path that I wouldn’t want to miss. Of course, there are times when I meditate more, but my favorite philosophical practices are calligraphy and painting. Both are essential aspects of Daoism and Zen.

When I first came across Zen 50 years ago, it was a mind-blowing experience – although I understood next to nothing. And the same thing happened to me when I later read Lao Zi’s Dao Dejing for the first time. And I know a few people who have had the same experience. Since then, I have not only read a great deal about it and dealt with this area in great detail in my dissertation. Since then I have given several lectures and painted many pictures that work according to Daoist principles – even if this may not always be so clear at first glance.

Correctness of my statements?:

The term “correct” does not arise for the advanced Dao/Zen devotee, since there can basically be no right and wrong. We’ll get to that later on. My considerations can no more and no less only reflect MY state of consciousness and could therefore not be objectively correct – if we should still argue on this level. It is the sum of experiences made through reading, conversations with people who are more advanced than I am, meditation on the topic, and thus reflection. And most of all experiencing it in e.g the process of painting or calligraphy.
Even if I can’t offer any “truths”, I will try to cover the core issues understandably. In a way, it would have been called “Dao for Blondes” 20-30 years ago 😊

So please let me know your thoughts. (There is no catch. The software is from WordPress and I can’t read any information apart from yes/no).

Some readers have already dealt with the topic of Daosimus to a greater extent. For some, it is still quite new and we have had different experiences and gained knowledge with it anyhow. If one or the other is incomprehensible, it doesn’t matter at all. Much will become clearer over time. I will also consciously refrain from being too academic. These are my personal considerations and understanding, but of course, they are not made out of thin air.

practical exercise with today’s painting

Actually, I initially had something else in mind with this painting: to paint a haiku picture. Haiku 俳句 is strictly a literary form. But it seemed appealing to me to transfer the essence of a Haiku to the painting in a new way. Unlike the Japanese form of Haiga 俳画, which is always part of a poem, a kind of illustration that cannot and does not want to be viewed as an independent image.

Ways to see the painting:

The nice thing about abstract painting is that it gives the viewer a lot of freedom to let their own imagination come into play. How this is seen from a traditional Chinese point of view would be another future blog post. My way of seeing it:

1) As already mentioned, this painting is about understanding that dualistic thinking is tricky and cannot lead to the highest level of knowledge (more next time). The picture plays with Zhuangzi’s considerations and reflections as stated above. Playfully, I then furthermore swapped subjectivity and objectivity about the characters Zhuangzi and Friedrich too.

detail daoism painting after Zhuangzi

Another Way to see this painting

2) Everything comes from nothing and is therefore contained in NOTHING. (This is one of the most difficult philosophical principles in Zen to understand at first.) A flower that appears out of nothing can bring forth fruit, and the seed of the fruit again contains both the tree and the nothing. It not only carries the entire life cycle of birth, life, and death, but also the highest principle: that it has an appearance (created from our thoughts), but is only part of the “absolute nothingness”.

Light and darkness are not opposites. Because they are interdependent, they are identical – as they are part of the same. Only our thinking makes the distinctions.

detail daoism painting of a tree

The tree

3) The tree too, like all manifestations, exists only in our consciousness. No consciousness – no tree. Only our consciousness creates thoughts and so we attribute properties and qualities to these thoughts, which, however, only arose from our thoughts and are therefore subjective. It’s raining: Me: “Too bad, I wanted to go on a trip”. Farmer: “Finally! We’ve waited that long.”
Another Daoist aspect is to show an object – like the tree here – in its essence and not in its appearance. Ideally, the “tree” appears abstract in the representation and therefore radiates the impression of one.

I have already posted several articles on different principles of Chinese painting. You can find them under ART THEORY. I would like to particularly emphasize the following articles because they are helpful for what we are discussing today: Nothing, the Void (1), Zha Shibiao, and Mu Qi’s 6 Persimmons. Daoist talks (I), supplement






40 responses to “Daoist Talks (I): Two Daoist stories and a Daoist painting”

  1. gary j avatar

    i am quite blind. yet i can see. You are a Master. For me, all your work that i have seen and read, is illumination. May every person dream tonight. Peace love and greetings. gary j.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      How kind you are! Thank you so very much. Often I’m not sure if the nonsense I write or paint could interest anyone. Happy dreams to you too! Tomorrow is full moon! f

  2. Edith avatar

    Schade, dass du nicht sehen kannst, wie mich dieses Schaffen von dir begeistert.
    Und ja, ich lerne stets gern dazu, also bin ich dafür, dass du uns über Daoismus informierst, uns solch wunderbare Geschichten näher bringst und uns an deiner Malerei sowieso teilhaben lässt…
    Ein herrliches Wochenende wünsche ich dir herzlichst….

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Danke, Du biust sehr freundlich! Eigentlich ist das Bild fuer Dich nicht neu (FB);: Aber jetzt mit meinen Ueberlegeungen dazu. Eigentlich sollte ein Feld fuer Abstimmung zu sehen sein. wordpress-Murks. Schoenes Wochenende und besinnlichen Vollmond” lg f

      1. Edith avatar

        Ich habe an der Abstimmung teilgenommen, geklickt auf die Ausführlichkeit! Und ja, ich wollte dir hier meine Bewunderung dafür schreiben, lächel…
        Es ist der Weinmond… lass uns wieder gedanklich gemeinsam anstoßen, ja`?

  3. Edith avatar

    Oh, jetzt war mein Kommentar weg…
    Schade, dass du nicht sehen kannst, wie begeistert ich von deinen Bildern bin, von den Geschichten auch. Ich sage JA, dass du informierst über Daoismus, denn ich lerne gern dazu. Auch diese kleinen Geschichten sind wunderbar und deine Malerei sowieso.
    Herzlichst wünsche ich dir ein wundervolles Wochenende <3

  4. klotylda avatar

    Ich würde diese Reihe von Gemälden gerne auch an meiner Wand sehen. Die Bilder fallen ins Auge und versetzen den Betrachter in eine Art Träumerei.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Danke, das ist sehr freundlich von Ihnen und bedeutet mir sehr viel! Ich habe einmal zu Spass eine virtuelle Galleries als video erstellen lassen 🙂

  5. swabby429 avatar

    I stumbled upon Daoism in a backhanded way by reading Alan Watts. He didn’t label it as such, he simply told clever stories.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Telling clever stories probably is the best way to deal with Daoism.

  6. Ashley avatar

    Friedrich, it looks like I have a good deal of reading to do before I can move forward and learn or unlearn. I am interested in Daoism and not long ago read Stefan Stenudd’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. Prior to that, I read a translation by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English. Even with all this reading, I’m really no further on except that I recently discovered you and your wonderful abstract art. I think the wordless artwork speaks volumes! You follow my blog, so you know that I try to write short 3 line seasonal verses. I cannot call them haiku or hokku as that then classifies them; they are just short 3 line seasonal verses, although I do follow a few simple guidelines. However, besides the written words, I add a photograph. A photograph because at this time I am not confident or skilled enough to draw or paint. I completed a short calligraphy course in the spring and may follow that up next year and I’m currently on an ink painting course, online. That’s where I’m at, and at 72 it keeps me engaged. I am full of admiration and respect for what you present here, so my learning or unlearning continues. 🙋‍♂️

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Ashley for your kind words! I am happy if one or the other sentence is useful for you.
      As you correctly write, it is ultimately about “unlearning”, but you have to have learned first. From my personal experience I know how difficult it can be to approach topics like Daoism. Much of what is written about it is useless or confusing. So I will try to present the quintessence from different areas bite-sized. You are 72? A good age, which I will soon have reached too – hopefully.

  7. Bon Repos Gites avatar

    A fascinating read!! Thank you for sharing this!!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Enjoy a great weekend!

      1. Bon Repos Gites avatar

        You are very welcome!!

  8. Mike and Kellye Hefner avatar

    I so love your paintings, Friedrich!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I am so happy 😊 Thanks a lot and have a great weekend!

  9. Renee Espriu avatar

    I tried to use the poll you sent but cannot for some reason. I would like to know more in depth along with your paintings. I like that you have combined the three…explanations along with stories and paintings. I cannot espouse to be an expert on the topic, although, this and other trains of thought have always resonated with me. My belief system encompasses different trains of thought…one of them Buddhism. I do meditate but a belief system that is eclectic also gives me the freedom to not be directly tied into one specific system. As my site states, I believe Nature to be the basis for everything that is and that I am a part of Nature. If it seems I’m talking in circles then perhaps, in many ways, all belief systems seem to overlap one another in a concentric way. What you have proposed doing interests me greatly.

  10. Renee Espriu avatar

    I did leave a comment but it does not appear here for some reason. I would like to see more of this topic in depth.
    Thank You

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Seems there was a WordPress glitch and the poll button did not work either, sorry for that! I will add new articles in the next couple of weeks.

      1. Renee Espriu avatar

        Thank you Friedrich

  11. LAWET avatar

    Very nice and soothing.


    Fascinating! (even for blondes…lol) 😎

  13. Martha Kennedy avatar

    Since I retired, I’ve been working toward Zuangzi’s idea of uselessness. Unfortunately, I keep sliding into the useful.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      🙂 I read a fine quote just the other day:

      “I’m learning to do more of less.” Jill Butler

      1. Martha Kennedy avatar

        I love it!

  14. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Thanks for sharing the thinking process behind your creative work. I’ve ordered a copy of Zhuang Zi and am hopeful that it will offer me a better understanding of the Tao Te Ching which I’ve allowed to flower within me. Scientific thought insists in separating the subjective from our objective perception, thereby limiting the wholeness of our being and our ability to deal with the crises in our lives.

    For good or for bad, I tend to view a painting with where my thoughts are at the present moment. As I’m currently filled with concerns for the people of Florida hit by a devastating hurricane, I see the calm (on the left of your painting) after the turbulence of the wind and waves (on the right) as Hurricane Ian breaks along Florida’s coastline. As imperfect beings, it’s very difficult to remain calm in the face of devastating loss in our lives.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks! First of all, my sympathy for the victims of the hurricane and my wish that things will get better soon.

      In our life there can often be “hurricanes”. Good mental preparation can help to deal with crises. A lot of strength and positive vision!

  15. The Golden Tears avatar

    Thank you for sharing your work, I’m currently reading The Taoist Experience by Livia Kohn.
    It’s interesting to come across some one else’s ideas and knowledge.
    I am interested in reading and seeing more of your work in the future.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I don’t know the book, but it sounds very interesting! Yes, it sure makes sense to approach the topic from different angles. It takes time anyway. What I would like to and can contribute is to shed more light on the area of Daosim in painting. Yes, there will be some articles in te near future. Thank you for your attention and goodwill!

  16. annieasksyou avatar

    Friedrich: I don’t see the poll, but I would definitely be a “yes” vote in encouraging you to pursue the Dao discussions/art education you’re suggesting. I do meditate, and I write haiku from time to time, but you’re describing a much “deeper dive” than I’ve taken to date. I love your paintings and your descriptions. They are really something, albeit nothing! 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Sorry, the poll doesn’t work on some devices. But it doesn’t matter, the reaction was very good and therefore I will continue the series in c. 2 weeks. Tomorrow I would like to bring a short supplement to the first part. It might be helpful.

      I am very happy to hear that you write haiku and meditate. So it’s much easier for me to be understood. Some things are quite difficult to understand for western readers 🙂

  17. Mike U. avatar

    Utterly fascinating stuff, Friedrich, which is par for the course whenever I visit your blog. A line in your post stood out to me, claxons blaring and lights flashing: “The simple goal of Zen is to be here and now. It is the only place and time we have to live, to play, eat, laugh, love.” How this resonates, and how I needed to hear this today. Although I have a deep respect and affinity for Asian culture and art, I can’t say that I’m well versed with regards to the underlying philosophies, aside from a sort of “feel” for things in my photography and writing. I’m most definitely intrigued and am all for your idea of posting more in-depth about this. Your paintings–always magnificent–speak so clearly about the essence of “something more,” which adds such depth and fascination to them. So, yes, good sir, I’d enjoy whatever you have to offer, both in word and on canvas. it’s always a delight to read your thoughts and experience your paintings. *tips cap* 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks Mike, you are too kind as always. I want to thank you for your kind and encouraging words, as well as those of other readers. Essentially, I wanted to find out to what extent what I write about can be taken seriously. Especially in ZEN there is so much that doesn’t fit into our Western thinking and at the same time we feel attracted to it and sense that there must be something behind it.
      It’s a long way, I’m trying to make it shorter, but since the way is the goal, it doesn’t matter that much either 🙂

  18. Auden James avatar

    This articles series is a great idea! Not only with regard to visitors and followers of yours interested in Daoism a/o Zen, but also as a kind of master class on the way you are painting and thinking through the art of it. I’m looking forward to future installments!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much ❤️ I am glad you like it. Yes, more to come and also more of some work following this concept close.

  19. lisahawkinsfineart avatar

    My goal is to make a Daoist painting…. To flow like water, with no separation between subject and object. It’s a tall order, occasionally I stand back from my work and wonder where it came from… it’s beautiful when that happens. Thank you for this lovely post!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! I just looked at your beautiful pictures. I am sure that ideas from Daoism can enrich your work. Yes, if we can put aside the dualistic thinking of the separation between subject and object, it definitely affects our paintings. I wish you success!

      1. lisahawkinsfineart avatar

        Thank you

  20. vermavkv avatar

    Beautiful painting with nice quotes.
    Thanks for sharing.

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