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What is Dao?

Daoism (or Taosim), is an ancient philosophical system less religion and more a way of existing within the ecosystem of the universe. It is unclear exactly when it arose, some scholars say it could of been as much as 5000 years ago, but for sure it is commonly understood to have originated by at least the 4th century BCE. Initially, Daoism drew its cosmological notions from the school of Yin Yang, which attempted to explain the universe in terms of the basic forces of nature. Influences are also said to have come from the philosophies of the “I Ching” or the “book of changes”. The I Ching describes a system of human behaviour in accordance with the alternating cycles of nature. Another great influence was the foundational concept in Daoism of Wu Wei or effortless effort as described by Shen Buhai in the 4th century BCE. 

With many different influences aside it is widely considered that the 4th century text, Dao De Jing, which is translated as ‘The classic of the Way and its Power (or Virtue), is the pivotal text of the Daoist philosophical tradition. Originally the text was titled after its mysterious author Lao Tzu which simply means “old master”. Daosim benefited greatly from further contributions by the text Zhuangzi (a.k.a. Chuang Tzu) which is a poetic reimagining and elaboration of the Dao De Jing. 

Although there is a consensus that the title Lao Tzu or ‘Old Master’ was bestowed upon the author, it’s quite likely that the author (or authors’) identity have been lost forever. There is speculation that it may have been authored by a man called Li Er Tan an archivist of the court of the Chou Dynasty. The sage Confucius said of their meeting, “I know that birds fly, fish swim and animals run. Creatures that run can be trapped; those that swim can be caught in the net; those that fly can be shot down. But what to do with a dragon, I do not know. It rides on the clouds and the wind. Today I met Lao Tzu, and he is like a dragon.’

Many scholars today openly question if it was written by only one source and instead it is suggested that the Dao De Ching is more of an analogy of sayings put together over many years.

Daoist understanding is that Dao existed before the universe, and it was from Dao, that is, the one source, came the origin of being. We read this in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of verse 6 we read, “Dao is called the Great Mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds”. He continues in verse 42, “Dao gives birth to the One. One gives birth to the Two. Two gives birth to the Three. The three gives birth to all things.” So from the Dao or Oneness, we are given the inseparable opposing forces of Yin and Yang. These opposing forces gave birth to the three forces of the universe; heaven, earth and humanity or more simply spirit, material and life which includes all things in the universe.

But what is the Dao? This very same question is addressed in the first verse of the Dao De Ching translated by Mitchell: 

    The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name. 

Frustration instead of spiritual clarity is usually the experience that arises when people first come into contact with Daoism. It’s enigmatic verses seek to confound the constant desire of the mind to answer unanswerable questions, which in Daoist philosophy is the minds great dysfunction. Where does this dysfunction come from? Well let’s keep reading the 1st verse:

“The unnameable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.” 

Our senses are constantly interacting with the outside world and upon sensing something our minds instantly want to name it and make sense of it. This constant sensing creates our view of the world but is simply a sense organ coming into contact with the outside world and labelling it. This creates division, we think there is this thing that we sense as external and then there is ‘me’ that is separate from it.

Our point of view becomes tainted due to the urge to label everything as individual. As Zhuang Zi says, “Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this’….’that’ comes from ‘this’ and ‘this’ comes from ‘that’ – which means ‘that’ and ‘this’ give birth to one another…..When there is no more separation between ‘that’ and ‘this’, it is called being one with the Tao” 

Dao is the object observed by the senses, but observing Dao is not experiencing or being Dao. We may observe a flower but observing doesn’t allow us to know the bliss of being a flower. In the same way, simply objectifying our sense experience we will never open up to the bliss of being the Dao, unless we are able to be totally immersed within the moment. No analysing the moment or trying to make sense of it. As the Zhuangzi says, “There is nowhere where it is not” it is the totality of experience.

One of the most famous parables in the Zhuangzi is the story of the Butterfly Dream translated by Lin Yutang:

“Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.”

This story depicts the relationship between the waking and dream states, or the blurry line between reality and what is an illusion or our perceived reality. The story challenges our ingrained perception of reality because how do know if the senses and mind are presenting the ultimate reality or simply an illusion? This illusion we are constantly perceiving is our own projection of the world layered on top of ultimate reality, what we call Dao.

Imagine for a moment that you were born blind, what would exist for you? You would probably develop a heightened sense of smell and touch, so some other things would create your view of the world. Let’s take this a step further, what if you were born with no senses at all? No colours, smells, tastes, sounds, nothing to feel and no pain. If we took our senses out of the equation what would be our view of this world? What would be our perceived reality? Would we feel more subjectively disconnected and so more at one with the world like a deep state of sense withdrawal meditation? Would we have the feeling of being immersed in the descriptionless formless oneness of the universe, that is becoming one with the Dao?  

In the Story of Chinese Philosophy by In Chu’u and Wineberg Chai they describe a passage from Zhuang Zi:

 Dao has reality and evidence but no action and form.
It may be transmitted, yet not possessed.
It existed before heaven and earth and lasts forever…

Here Zhuang Zi reaffirms the descriptionless and formless nature which is, of course, Dao. This nature is unable to be held by the tools of the mind or senses and so is transmitted not through words or ideas but through experience or a beingness. 

At this point we may be inspired to experience Dao, to go and sit outside and really examine existence, but frustratingly this trying only increases its elusive nature. In Mitchell’s translation of Dao De Jing verse 14 it says: “Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. Reach, and it can’t be grasped…..Approach it and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end. You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life. Just realize where you come from: this is the essence of wisdom.”

I love some of the lines in the previous verse, they really get to the crux of Daoism. Firstly we have a realisation that this path has no end, too many seekers the goal has always been to realise nirvana or enlightenment, which usually takes many hours of meditation, quitting your job heading to the sacred mountains, renouncing all the things and then do thousands of hours of prayers etc.  But Lao Tzu says,’follow it and there is no end’. No end. We will be doing all of this that we are doing, for the rest of eternity. So what’s the rush? If there is no start or end then the path is a circle, endless through the millennia. So relax, celebrate where you are right now in your life as their no point on this circle that is anywhere further ahead than anywhere else. 

The next line that really spoke to me is, “just realise where you come from” as if it’s an experience of coming back home to our essence to the place of our origin, the never-ending nowness… nothing to add and nothing to take away. Within Daoism, the first principle of the universe is known as the Wuji or oneness. This is the original state of beingness, experiencing everything in nature as part of the same whole. One step after another we realise that the path is walked not because it has a goal but because we return back to our realisation of oneness. Which in a way I guess is enlightenment, but we don’t have to do anything to get there, recite anything, ingest anything or put our bodies in any kind of funny position. It is right here, right now in this perfect moment which we immersed in right now, at all times in all of of our lives.  

Ok, I understand this is not making it more practical. All you have to do is sit in this state of universal oneness and then you get to experience all the Dao you want. Not really a tangible process to embark upon I know. 

Verse three of the Dao De Jing translated by Raymond Paul in the book Interpretations: Poetic Visions of the Tao Te Ching offers a method: “The sage governs by emptying minds and hearts, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones. Practice not doing… When action is pure and selfless, everything settles into its own perfect place.” 

The last verse discusses letting go, not of achieving, but on the projections and preconceived ideas of how the future should turn out. This is not a defeatist state rather as it says strengthens our resolve to act without the need for personal gain, since there is not an individual to benefit. Only the oneness principal giving to the oneness principle. 

Last few lines of Verse 10 extrapolates on this idea when it says “Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course?. Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?”. 

Now is the right moment to introduce the nebulous term, Wu Wei which constitutes the primary unifying concept in Daoism. Wu means nothing or not or negative and Wei means effort. It’s commonly translated as effortless effort but as Alan Watts describes it, a ‘not forcing’. The author John Makeham attests that Wu Wei is likened to the malleable nature of water, it does not force, it will yield and adapt with the flow of Dao. Daoism suggests that the universe works harmoniously in its own way. When the individual tries to exert their will against the rhythms and cycles of change in the universe, then they disturb that harmony resulting in undesirable consequences, rather than the will of Dao. The solution then is to surrender our will and instead harmonise with the will of the natural universe.

Surrendering your will, although a beautiful concept, can again be quite intangible for the vast majority of us. Every day we wake up and need to have will to get things done! It’s not that you become a floppy human and wait for the world to push you where it wants you, rather it is the experience of being an integral part of nature, not an entity to dominate or change it. Alan Watts describes it as “doing things in accordance with the grain, it’s not that you don’t cut wood. But you do so along the grain… (or) in accordance with the pattern of things as they exist”.

Let’s elaborate on this idea of being an integral part of nature. Alan Watts uses the example of bulldozing a slum and erecting a perfect high rise in its place and then putting all the slum inhabitants into the new high rise. The slum has an organic nature with so many different cogs and relationships that at the same time feed off each other AND support each. There Just like all the animals in nature, there is conflict but also harmony. Within the slum, there are unique livelihoods, activities and routines that only exist due to the current ecosystem of living in the slum. Simply uprooting them and placing them into a high rise apartment would render so many jobs and previous routines useless and so exact chaos upon a system that had previously found so much order within the mutual relationships of this unique ecosystem. This is another fundamental Daoist tenet along with Wu Wei, it is called mutually arising. 

Everything in nature is mutually arising like the flower and the bee. You will very rarely have a flower without a bee or a bee without a flower, they always exist together and are inseparable. They work together to achieve the same goal, although it appears they have separate goals they are one unit playing many important roles within an ecosystem that depends on them, and they are not separate from. All parts of the ecosystem mutually arise together. This concept wants to be reduced to cause and effect but it’s more than that. There is no one controlling or more important aspect in nature, like the chicken and the egg we could say the chicken had the egg to have more chickens but we could also say the egg created the chicken to have more eggs. Neither is true as they exist in the state of Dao which is mutually arising and interdependent. 

Quite often we hear about getting punished for our actions like there is one action that has determined an outcome for us. But if all our actions mutually arise with all our other actions then we are the sum total of all of our actions and all the actions of those that surround us as well, like an ecosystem. Did the bee decide that pollinating flowers was its fate or did it just live out its natural nature? Was the flower having tasty pollen or the bee deciding that it wanted to eat the pollen, the cause or the effect? Even further than that, were the bee’s action considered bad karma or a sinful action? 

I want to read a Chinese parable which may help to further elucidate this idea of mutually arising actions.

“A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbours exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break in one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.” (1)

This parable is quite often interpreted as an interplay between good and bad which are also mutually arising but there is another story here too. The farmer doesn’t immerse himself in the cause or effect that is unfolding, to him both are one. Something happens and it both a cause and effect at the same time. He simply observes the way the ‘grain’ of the wood is flowing and choose to cut along it as it the path of least resistance. He doesn’t, not do, and he even does do with will and purpose, but he does not see the resulting will of the universe as separate from his own, instead sees all that occurs as the ever-unfolding Dao. 

The path of Daoism then is not about renouncing the world and as Mitchell’s translation of verse 13 says, “See the world as yourself…Love the world as yourself.” Living in this way will slowly bring us back into line with Dao, with the nature of the universe and we will begin to let go of a desire to force and control. As Alan Watts said, ”The ruler should abdicate and trust all the people to conduct their own affairs, to let it all happen…. the more liberty you give the more love you give the more you allow things in yourself and your surrounds to take place the more order you will have”.



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