WHAT IS IT?
Tao or Dao is a Chinese concept signifying way, path, route, or sometimes more loosely, doctrine or principle. Within the context of traditional Chinese philosophy and religion, Tao is a metaphysical concept originating with Laozi that gave rise to a religion (and philosophy) referred to in English with the single term Taoism. The concept of Tao was shared with Confucianism, Chan and Zen Buddhism and more broadly throughout East Asian philosophy and religion in general. Within these contexts Tao signifies the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe. In the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe. Tao is thus “eternally nameless” and to be distinguished from the countless ‘named’ things which are considered to be its manifestations.
In Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism, the object of spiritual practice is to ‘become one with the tao’ or to harmonize ones will with Nature in order to achieve ‘effortless action’. This involves meditative and moral practices. Important in this respect is the Taoist concept of De (virtue).
In all its uses, Tao is considered to have ineffable qualities that prevent it from being defined or expressed in words. It can, however, be known or experienced, and its principles (which can be discerned by observing Nature) can be followed or practiced. Much of East Asian philosophical writing focuses on the value of adhering to the principles of Tao and the various consequences of failing to do so. In Confucianism and religious forms of Taoism, these are often explicitly moral/ethical arguments about proper behavior, while Buddhism and more philosophical forms of Taoism usually refer to the natural and mercurial outcomes of action (comparable to karma). Tao is intrinsically related to the concepts yin and yang, where every action creates counter-actions as unavoidable movements within manifestations of the Tao, and proper practice variously involves accepting, conforming to, or working with these natural developments.
The word “Dao” has a variety of meanings in both ancient and modern Chinese language. Aside from its purely prosaic use to mean road, channel, path, doctrine, or similar, the word has acquired a variety of differing and often confusing metaphorical, philosophical and religious uses. In most belief systems, Dao is used symbolically in its sense of ‘way’ as the ‘right’ or ‘proper’ way of existence, or in the context of ongoing practices of attainment or of the cull coming into being, or the state of enlightenment or spiritual perfection that is the outcome of such practices. Some scholars make sharp distinctions between moral or ethical usage of the word Dao that is prominent in Confucianism and religious Daoism and the more metaphysical usage of the term used in philosophical Daoism and most forms of Mahayana Buddhism; others maintain that these are not separate usages or meanings, seeing them as mutually inclusive and compatible approaches to defining the concept. The original use of the term was as a form of praxis rather than theory – a term used as a convention to refer to something that otherwise cannot be discussed in words – and early writings such as the Dao De Jing and the I Ching make pains to distinguish between conceptions of Dao (sometimes referred to as “named Dao”) and the Dao itself (the “unnamed Dao”), which cannot be expressed or understood in language. It has been asserted that Dao is properly understood as an experiential and evolving concept, and that there are not only cultural and religious differences in the interpretation of Dao, but personal differences that reflect the character of individual practitioners.
Dao can be roughly thought of as the flow of the universe, or as some essence or pattern behind the natural world that keeps the universe balanced and ordered. It is related to the idea of qi, the essential energy of action and existence. Dao is a non-dual concept – it is the greater whole from which all the individual elements of the universe derive. Dao is rarely an object of direct worship, being treated more like the Hindu concepts of karma or dharma than as a divine object. Dao is more commonly expressed in the relationship between wu (void or emptiness) and yin-yang (the natural dynamic balance between opposites), leading to its central principle of wu wei (non-action, or action without force).
Dao is usually described in terms of elements of nature, and in particular as similar to water. Like water it is undifferentiated, endlessly self-replenishing, soft and quiet but immensely powerful, and impassively generous. Much of Daoist philosophy centers on the cyclical continuity of the natural world, and its contrast to the linear, goal-oriented actions of human beings.
De (“power; virtue; integrity”) is the term generally used to refer to proper adherence to Dao; De is the active living or cultivation of the way. Particular things that manifest from Dao have their own inner nature that they follow, in accordance with the Dao, and the following of this inner nature is De. Wu wei (naturalness) is contingent on understanding and conforming to this inner nature, which is interpreted variously from a personal, individual nature to a more generalized notion of human nature within the greater universe.
Historically, the concept of De differed significantly between Daoists and Confucianists. Confucianism was largely a moral system emphasizing the values of humaneness, righteousness, and filial duty, and so conceived De in terms of obedience to rigorously defined and codified social rules. Daoists took a broader, more naturalistic/metaphysical view on the relationship between humankind and the universe, and considered social rules to be at best a derivative reflection of the natural and spontaneous interactions between people, and at worst calcified structure that inhibited naturalness and created conflict. This led to some philosophical and political conflicts between Daoists and Confucianists.
Dao means a road, path, way; hence the way in which does something; method, doctrine or principle. The Way of Heaven is ruthless; when autumn comes no leaf is spared because of its beauty, no flower because of its fragrance. The Way of Man means procreation; and eunuchs are said to be far from the Way of Man. Each school of philosophy has its Dao, its doctrine of the way in which life should be ordered. Finally in a particular school of philosophy whose followers came to be called Daoists, Dao meant ‘the way the universe works’; and ultimately something very like God, in the more abstract and philosophical sense of that term.
The Dao is what gives Daoism its English name, in both its philosophical and religious forms. Dao is the fundamental and central concept of these schools of thought. Daoism perceives Dao as a natural order underlying the substance and activity of the universe. Language and the “naming” of Dao is regarded negatively within Daoism; the Dao fundamentally exists and operates outside the realm of differentiation and linguistic constraints.
The diversity of Daoist interpretations of Dao can be seen across four texts representative of major streams of thought within Daoism. All four texts are used in modern Daoism with varying acceptance and emphasis among sects. The Dao De Jing is the oldest text and representative of a speculative and philosophical approach to the Dao. The Tao T’i Lun is an eighth century exegesis of the Dao De Jing, written from a well-educated and religious view point that represents the traditional scholarly perspective. The devotional perspective of Dao is expressed in the Ch’ing Ching Ching, a liturgical text that was originally composed during the Song Dynasty and is used as a hymnal in religious Daoism, especially among eremites. The Zhuangzi uses literary devices such as tales, allegories, and narratives to relate the Dao to the reader, illustrating a metaphorical method of viewing and expressing the Dao.
The forms and variations of religious Daoism are incredibly diverse. They integrate a broad spectrum of academic, ritualistic, supernatural, devotional, literary, and folk practices with a multitude of results. Buddhism and Confucianism particularly affected the way many sects of Daoism framed, approached, and perceived the Dao. The multitudinous branches of religious Daoism accordingly regard the Dao, and interpret writings about it, in innumerable ways. Thus, outside of a few broad similarities, it is difficult to provide an accurate yet clear summary of their interpretation of Dao.
A central tenet within most varieties of religious Daoism is that the Dao is ever-present, but must be manifested, cultivated, and/or perfected in order to be realized. It is the source of the universe and the seed of its primordial purity resides in all things. The manifestation of Dao is De, which rectifies and invigorates the world with the Dao’s radiance. Alternatively, philosophical Daoism regards the Dao as a non-religious concept; it is not a deity to be worshiped, nor is it a mystical Absolute in the religious sense of the Hindu Brahman. Dao is not religiously available; nor is it even religiously relevant. The writings of Lao Tzu and Chang Tzu are tinged with esoteric tones and approach humanism and naturalism as paradoxes. In contrast to the esotericism typically found in religious systems, the Dao is not transcendent to the self nor is mystical attainment an escape from the world in philosophical Daoism. The self-steeped in Dao is the self-grounded in its place within the natural universe. A person dwelling within the Dao excels in themselves and their activities. The Dao, or Way, of Confucius can be said to be Truth. Confucianism regards the Way, or Truth, as concordant with a particular approach to life, politics, and tradition. It is held as equally necessary and well regarded as De (virtue) and ren (humanity). Confucius presents a humanistic Dao. He only rarely speaks of the t’ien Dao (Way of Heaven).
As a formal religious concept in Confucianism, Dao is the Absolute towards which the faithful move. In Zhongyong (The Doctrine of the Mean), harmony with the Absolute is equivalent to integrity and sincerity. The Great Learning expands on this concept explaining that the Way illuminates virtue, improves the people, and resides within the purest morality. During the Tag Dynasty, Confucian beliefs were formalized and defined as a response to Buddhism. He emphasized the ethics of the Way. He explicitly paired ‘Dao’ and ‘De’, focusing on human nature and righteousness. He also framed and elaborated on a “daotong” (tradition of the Way) in order to reject the traditions of Buddhism.
Buddhism first started to spread in China during the first century AD and was experiencing a golden age of growth and maturation by the fourth century AD. Hundreds of collections of Pali and Sanskrit texts were translated into Chinese by Buddhist monks within a short period of time. The use of Chinese concepts, such as Dao, that were close to Buddhist ideas and terms helped spread the religion and make it more amenable to the Chinese people. However, the differences between the Sanskrit and Chinese terminology lead to some initial misunderstandings and the eventual development of East Asian Buddhism as a distinct entity. As part of this process, many Chinese words introduced their rich semantic and philosophical associations into Buddhism, including the use of ‘Dao’ for central concepts and tenets of Buddhism.
Buddhists regard the Dao as synonymous with both the Buddhist Path and the results of it; the Eightfold Path and Buddhist enlightenment, words and meaning are used to refer to rituals and practice. The ’emptiness’ refers to the Buddhist concept of sunyata. Finding the Dao and Buddha-nature is not simply a matter of formulations, but an active response to the Four Noble Truths that cannot be fully expressed or conveyed in words and concrete associations. The use of ‘Dao’ in this context refers to the literal ‘way’ of Buddhism, the return to the universal source, dharma, proper meditation, and nirvana, among other associations. ‘Dao’ is commonly used in this fashion by Chinese Buddhists, heavy with associations and nuanced meanings.
In total, the Dao is equated with the Absolute. The religious life is not an elite or special journey for Neo-Confucians. The normal, mundane life is the path that leads to the Absolute, because the Absolute is contained within the mundane objects and events of daily life.