Before we start I should add a caveat to this article: I am a philosopher and a Daoist. As such, I suppose, I am open to accusations of bias and a lack of objectivity. This is unavoidable. However, if one wants to know about racing horses, one does not talk to just those who gamble on horse races. I offer only my own understanding of the form and that is limited. I do not claim to have a “monopoly on the truth” or to being in the business of converting people to Daoism. Any mistakes of fact are all my own.
I am often asked, “Just what is Daoism?”
This is a natural enough question to ask, as since I “came out” as a Daoist many people have been genuinely interested. What the question really asks is, “Please can you encapsulate the concepts of Daoism into a single sentence?” The person then normally looks a little askance as I singularly fail in the attempt:
“Well,” I begin, “it’s, er…”
“Yes?” they ask, waiting on my answer, clearly forming the opinion that I can’t be a very serious Daoist without being able to enunciate at least that.
“It’s complicated…” I manage after a ruminating struggle, made all too plain on my face.
These are not particularly comforting moments in my life. I once attempted to write an answer for a work colleague and accidentally sent him a blank email with the subject, “Daoism is…”
He wrote back, “Are you trying to make a point or did you miss off the text?”
I wasn’t, but I wish I had thought to do so. I could then create an email that reads:
Subject: What is Daoism?
(THIS MESSAGE IS LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK)
Some people would perhaps even get it from that. It is possible a new Buddha would be created by the universal satori (enlightenment) brought about by reading my blank message. Stranger things have happened and there are documented examples of people having satori’s while gardening and doing the dishes. If it were always that easy for everyone then we would all be Buddha’s by now. Indeed one of the ideas in Daoism and Buddhism is that you already are a Buddha, but have merely forgotten it.
NOTE: Daoism is the translation into English of a Chinese word. There are two ways of doing this. The old way invented by the English, translates it as Taoism. The newer way, invented by the Chinese themselves, gives us Daoism. Both mean the same thing. That is why the city of Peking is now known as Beijing. The city didn’t change its name, the way we translated it changed. I will always use the Chinese way.
Problems with defining Daoism.
When trying to define Daoism most people first get hold of the most famous book of Daoism “The Laozi”, more commonly known as the Dao De Jing, and start reading. Some of the poetry in that great work rubs off on the reader and, like someone fumbling with a jigsaw puzzle formed of a million blank pieces, they start to catch the edge… of something. At least the DDJ makes it very plain why naming Daoism is so hard. Right on page one, line one:
The Dao that can be named is not the true Dao.
Dao means “way” and it means “way” in every possible, er, way of saying “way”. So it means, “The way (to something)”. It means, “My way (of doing things)”. It also means “The way (of life)” and “The way (the universe works)”. But, as the line suggests, it is mysterious and you cannot simply name the Dao by containing it in a word or phrase. You can point to it by observing a tree, but you cannot extract its mysterious essence by chewing on the bark. You can taste it in the air, but you cannot pick some up down the shops. You can suggest it in 10 thousand words, but you cannot write its definition in 1 sentence. It’s like the family quiz game Taboo in that you can talk about it, around it, but you can’t never simply grasp it “cleanly” using our limited language. That is not to say that language cant “evoke” the sense of it like poetry, stories (particularly stories as we shall see) or music. It’s why you nod your head to good music or dance when hoovering and no-one is watching, It is the blind spot, the blank space between the lines, you can no more nail it down than catch lightning in a bottle. It is the living meaning of the saying:
The map is not the territory.
It is all around you, in you, linking the universal heartbeat and behind your eyes. If I am starting to sound like Master Yoda from Starwars, well now you know where they got the idea of The Force from.
Reading the DDJ raises more questions than answers. The DDJ is a very old collated-series of ancient sayings, it points to no deity and has no single author. It is attributed to Master Lao, but he almost certainly never existed and what remains was already ancient when it was collected into the current form and split into the two parts. The Chinese did exhaustive research into trying to find Master Lao, but eventually gave up. Trying to force these sayings into some sort of fully sensible and coherent form is one of the major hurdles one has to come to terms with when reading the DDJ. Indeed, it has thousands of translations into English and all of them fail to capture the original perfectly. I have 20 copies in formats as diverse as podcasts, Penguin editions, master scholarly works, bowdlerised poetic rewrites and iBooks digital copies. All are different and all are, as the famous saying goes, “Fingers pointing at the moon. Concentrating on the finger means you miss the heavenly glory above”. You miss the point.
The same goes for the other major Daoist work in English, the Zhuangzi. Unlike Master Lao, Zhuangzi did exist (around 370 BCE), but he also only wrote part of his famous book. However, what a book! Zhuangzi’s work is a core text in the movement of scepticism and relativism. He is mostly concerned with wondering why people try so hard to split the world into dual notions, such as “Right and Wrong”, “Good and Evil”, “Smooth and Crunchy” and more importantly, “I and Thou”.
He criticises these things by telling funny stories.
In these he shows, gently, loftily, that trying to over analyse situations is almost always to commit a fundamental error. His stories tell of people who just “do” rather than think. people such as cooks, craftsmen, swimmers and butchers. People to whom reasoning is of little use in their activities, in the sense that a Cicada-catcher is attentive to his task and heedless of the doubt of “thinking too much”.
He just catches the bug.
Master Zhuangzi is poking fun at people’s perceptions in order to show them that most of the things they over-think and rationalise are actually the arms holding them back from being happy and free. Zhuangzi would probably be labelled a “free spirit” today, but his work isn’t a dreamy loose fantasy, his mind is sharper than a razor. It is chock full of epistemology (How do we know “what is true”? How do we get knowledge?) mixed with an attractive humour missing from most Western religious texts. Zhuangzi was a detached master flowing with the world and not against it.
It asks some amazing questions:
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.
He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi.
But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.
Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction!
This is called the Transformation of Things.
(2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
It is at this point that a lot of people give up; having fumbled with the subject, but found no clear answers, they leave it safely on the shelf. Only the stubborn continue to look further into it and even those robust investigators may not like what they find. Reading into the history of Daoism brings no golden age of philosophical freedom, in fact it brings up many “types” of Daoist endeavors full of cults, crazy gods, Celestial Masters and drinking mercury to live forever.
To western eyes this part is a real turn off. In their defense they simply ignore Daoism’s history and focus on the two books mentioned above. Thus you get the “break” between Religious Daoism and the so-called Philosophical Daoism. Let me assure you that break is not really there. It has been created by philosophers with limited access to the works of the subject and taking the small parts they see as something else from all the dress up and dancing. In fact the religious practice is an expression of the Dao. The strange Celestial Master Daoism found in China today is also an expression of the Dao.
Daoism is the embodiment of the phrase, “the correct answer to free speech you find offensive is more free speech!”
For Daoism is a religion and not a simply a philosophy. That it is a hard to understand and essentially mysterious religion does not change that it contains a religious experience at the heart of it. That is a necessary part and cannot be worked around by wishful secular longing for an Eastern path that doesn’t “get weird”. Without that you won’t be able to stick at it long enough to “get it”.
So, I am going to take up the challenge of communicating “what is Daoism” in two parts. Firstly, I am going to give a brief history of Daoism. That’s the easy part. Secondly, we are going to, if not capture lightning in a bottle, at least be standing atop a hill during a thunderstorm with our fingers in the air.
Daoism: a short historical primer.
Please note: While the following is a gentle line drawn through the history of Daoism, I am not suggesting that Daoism has a linear progression in the same way as the churches of Europe. Hence, I have not written this history with many names and dates that would become “milestones” in the movement. Daoism is a very large and diverse subject and China is a very large country with space for all sort of “interpretations”. In fact Daoism encourages interpretations.
Daoism started as a shamanistic collection of cults and religious practices in ancient China (around 1000 BC). It mingled with the folk religion of nature worship and a few principles stuck. These are such ideas as personal transformation, which is the commonality in all Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. This principle first took the form of talismans, mysticism and external alchemy that was basically trying to find ways to produce potions and become immortal. That proved popular and many cults and sects were merrily trying all sorts of poisonous brews to become one with the gods in heaven. Around this time (4th Century BC) some written works appeared that would later become the most recognisable Daoist thoughts such as the DDJ and the Zhuangzi, while a man called Zhang Daoling codifyed Daoism into a religion with a canon and gods after a spectral visitation from Lao Tze. Eventually this transformed into the idea of internal alchemy (3rd century onwards). No longer searching for elixirs, the Daoists searched inside themselves through such practices as meditation, sexual magic and living in caves. This practice gave us the notion of “chi energy”.
Daoist priests, philosophies and practices were in the heart of the Chinese culture and even with the arrival of Buddhism it remained a driving influence in China even for hundreds of years. There were even Daoist states in China back then.
China’s history is one of various rulers and philosophies rising and falling and while all this was happening another great master was born whose influence on the Chinese is still felt today. He was called Master Kong, who is better known in the west as Confucius. His teachings were seemingly at odds with Daoism, but nothing could be further from the truth and all three practices spiralled around and through each other, in and out of the corridors of power for the next few hundred years. They influenced each other immensely as shown in this classic painting:
Song painting in the Litang style illustrating the theme “Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are one”.
It depicts “Taoist Lu Xiujing (left), official Tao Hongjing (right) and buddhist monk Huiyuan (center, founder of Pure Land Buddhism) by the Tiger stream. The stream borders a zone infested by tigers that they just crossed without fear, engrossed as they were in their discussion. Realising what they just did, they laugh together, hence the name of the picture,Three laughing men by the Tiger stream.” Source: WIKIPEDIA
Also worth noting is that religions were not split by class in China with Daoism being the stuff of the country folk. Emperors were Daoist, Daoist priests were at court performing ceremonies to keep the country in harmony while farmers followed the paths of Confucian thought and family structure. Over these years Daoism gave rise to many of the things we take as Chinese, such as Tai Chi, the Ying Yang symbol and speaking like Master Yoda. Chan Buddhism (heavily influenced by Daoism) was practiced in such places as the famous Song monastry of Shaolin, but after much persecution moved on to Japan, and became Zen Buddhism.
One of the ways of “getting” Daoism is to “get” Zen Buddhism as they have heavily influenced each other.
Eventually, Daoism and Confucianism met with the unstoppable force of Maoism and were both sublimed and crushed in equal measure. The Maoist revolutionaries knew that they could never totally eradicate Daoism as it contains a large amount of “folk” belief that resides in the cultural psyche and so they selected a particular form of it and put the governmental stamp on it.
That is an incredibly short version of the history of Daoism. What I hope it highlights is that Daoism is a little strange for a religion:
- It has had gods and deities at some times and not at others.
- It has been an immortality cult for while and contained shamanistic magic at others.
- It has “borrowed” from Buddhism, but also given back to the middle path.
- It has had celibate priests in the heart of empire and yet has had sexual magic practiced in the mountains.
- It has two main books translated into English, but neither author knew about the other, neither would label themselves as Daoist and at least one of them is legendary.
I can appreciate the problems in trying to understand such a changing and seemingly constantly moving target! Western intellectuals have worked hard for hundreds of years to try to bring the wisdom in Daoism under their command. The traditional method of doing so is the finding of commonalities amongst the various beliefs. After all, no matter how many strange and diverse Christian sects exist; they all believe in Jesus as the Saviour; that is what makes them Christian. It is what gives them their religious comfort. Daoism is eventually just as comforting, but given the five contradicting points above this is not an easy exercise.
The trick is to realise that these actions are an attempt to “express” the Dao, but there is no “true way”, indeed anyone claiming to have one is always false. For this reason, Daoism has at its heart the understanding that everything is relative.
Relation to Buddhism.
Another method, and one expounded by such philosophers as Alan Watts, was to not only draw a line between the various “Daoisms” of antiquity, but to highlight by reference to the religion it most heavily influenced; Zen.
One of the main ways in teaching Zen is through the master ignoring his students. Often the master will reject a new applicant outright and in such a forthright way that the student will give up there and then. “I have nothing to teach you,” the master will say. The pupil will, if he is earnest, persevere with the master and many stories and legends abound regarding this strange situation and how various adherents have dealt with it. The most famous story is told of the Indian Zen Master Bodhidharma, who rejected a pupil again and again until finally the pupil cut off his arm and demanded an audience. The great master agreed to meet with the pupil and took him under his wing.
This story only makes sense to Western eyes in that we know that one must strive to understand and that one must show commitment and diligence. Actually there is a secret here:
The Master truly had nothing to teach.
Zen is about coming to your own realisation. It takes a lot of time and work and the master will help you, although not in a way you might appreciate. Should he accept you as a student then don’t expect to receive anything that could be construed as an “answer” to Zen. That is, don’t presume that Zen has esoteric knowledge and concerned only with moving through stages of learning. In fact, the most similar western experience to Zen training is probably Army Drill School. The army takes in “normal” people and turns them into killers; people with the will to kill. This is not easy. They do this by working you physically until you drop, regimenting your life and stripping you of your identity until you can be mentally reprogrammed. Zen is similar to this, but instead of forming you into a killing machine the Zen master strips you of your illusions, pares your personality down to its core and then makes you look at yourself. He does this by forcing you to answer impossible riddles, making you work in the fields, attend very very long ceremonies and hitting you with a stick if you are not meditating properly (or even if you are). This effort can take a lifetime, but finally you break the distinction between body and mind, between self and universe and wake up. You realise that the personality you hold so dear, that special “me” you think is yourself, it is a blank sheet of paper with no writing on it. It is not there at all. You are not apart from this Universe at all.
Zen is a form of psychoanalysis!
Daoism is similar to that, just without a Japanese guy hitting you around the head with a stick. In Daoism you have to hit yourself. Daoism is therefore like many religions from the East in that they all believe that you can transform yourself through training. This training involves mastering meditation and learning to live in the “now”. This means not allowing your mind to float into dreams of the future nor reminiscences of the past.
To the Daoist , the future doesn’t exist, the past doesn’t exist, there is only the present.
There is no set way to do this, no definite doctrine to follow and no master to teach you. There is only yourself, the books, other Daoists and a number of self then universal realisations on the road to understanding. Be they sudden or slow, they will come to you.
Where is Daoism Practiced?
There are many Daoist mountains in China, but one of the most famous is a mountain called Wudang Shan.
It is famous for being the birth place of internal Kung Fu styles such as Tai Chi. Walking up it is quite an experience. There are 20 thousand steps up Wudang before getting to the top and it is an exhausting journey.
The endless stone steps tower above you, winding upwards seemingly into the heavens. Along the way there are many temples and the steps often lead you through the courtyards. Each of these temples has an increasingly strained mystic name which each subsequent temple tries very hard to trump.
So the harmony temple may be followed by the grand harmony temple, the majestic temple of great tranquillity and so on ad nausea, all the way up the steps. This naming convention seemed to me at the time to be a cute cultural translation and something quite un-purposely funny, but actually it had a definite point; the idea that you are rising to heaven and every time you think you have made it: you haven’t and there is more to go. Along the way you meet many people on the same journey. You see rich and poor alike. The rich are carried up in palanquins, totally breaking the point, and this is most discouraging. More encouraging, but not perhaps comforting, are the groups of little old Chinese ladies you meet that even at the tender ages of what looks to be 150 can hop up the steps like a herd of mountain goats.
After hours of climbing you arrive at a large temple and then upwards still more until you finally come to the top, which is above the clouds. You are here at the pinnacle of China’s attempts to reach heaven. Here sits a large golden temple and some very old Daoist priests.
Here is a film about my trip up that mountain:
After an age you have to walk back down and find some hot water for your strained leg muscles. For me, and I didn’t know this at the time, I was not the same guy walking down. My trip into the clouds had prompted me to leave something behind and to gain the courage to be what I wanted.
Experiences like that are something of a slow burn for most of us. It took another two months before I felt a change in myself and what I believed. I suppose that was simply how long it took me to “check” my beliefs inside. Most of the time people simply remember that they believe something, but they don’t check. Many religious practices are geared towards sustaining belief so you don’t have to check it.
So, what exactly are the beliefs of a Daoist?
Many philosophers and religious teachers, not to mention a lot of Western Intellectuals, have found and labelled a common set of traditional Daoist thoughts. These do not stretch from all the way back to 1000 BC and I don’t think anyone will ever manage to capture that, but they at least enable you to have some conceptual framework around which you can talk. Often you hear people refer to historical Daoism becoming “recognisable” as we come closer to our age. So, let us start with the big one:
The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be defined is not the unchanging name.
Non-existence is called the antecedent of heaven and earth; Existence is the mother of all things.
From eternal non-existence, therefore, we serenely observe the mysterious beginning of the Universe; From eternal existence we clearly see the apparent distinctions.
These two are the same in source and become different when manifested.
This sameness is called profundity. Infinite profundity is the gate whence comes the beginning of all parts of the Universe.
There is a reason that Western films and culture like to steal gently from the Daoists. It is because Daoism concerns itself with something that is all around us, that it the fundamental core of us and indeed the core of everything, but is hidden from view.
Scientists have worked out that the elements that make up the human body are the same as those found in the core of stars. In its beginning the Universe was not even. If it were, if matter was laid out in neat rows, then galaxies, stars and life would never happen. Instead the gaps in the lattice of matter mean that gravity acted to pull matter together. This process eventually collected enough matter that it underwent collapse and exploded, leaving behind a star. In this super-heated ball, more advanced elements formed up in layers inside the star. At the end of its life it no longer had enough energy to hold itself up and collapsed. Because of the layers of elements, energy was released in the form of an enormous explosion that we call nova (super-nova and hyper-nova).
This burst of energy, released by the star’s death, flung the more interesting and exotic elements into space. But, as before, these elements are uneven and some formed, through the attraction of matter to matter by gravity, into planets. On one particular planet the elements gave rise to life and. by forming complex molecules with strange chemical patterns, this life ate, reproduced and died. It also “evolved” under the same principles and eventually formed a creature; the first animal. This animal, our common ancestor, swam around the primordial soup until it too reproduced and died. After it came generations of new creatures: faster, stronger, and more determined. One of these took the most important step on behalf of life on Earth. It took a step onto the land, giving rise to larger animals and eventually to humans.
Through all this the elements that make up those creatures haven’t changed. They are still the remnants, the sparks and debris, from those exploding stars. You, me and everything around you is formed of those elements.
You are made of stars.
Doesn’t that make you feel connected to the world, the sky and the Universe? It did for this man:
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
You may have imagined that you are apart, that you were born into the world without being asked. That you don’t belong to it. Actually you grew out of this Earth in exactly the same way that an apple grows out of a tree. You’re a fruit. You’re a cantaloupe. You are not separate from the world, you cannot be separated from it.
And you know what? Neither is anything else. Look out into the country and you will see the light play across the hillsides. Can you separate the valley and the hill? Just because one side is dark and the other light? The whole world, the whole Universe, is fundamentally connected. It is the nature of the Universe. It is the way the Universe works. It is the mysterious Starmaker, it is the spirit behind the beating life-energy of spacetime. You cannot grasp it, because it is chaos, it is formless, it appears passive because it works on such a grand scale that nothing you do bothers it. All life is sustained by it and would not exist but for it.
It is the Dao.
The great Tao pervades everywhere, both on the left and on the right.
By it all things came into being, and it does not reject them.
Merits accomplished, it does not possess them.
It loves and nourishes all things but does not dominate over them.
It is always non-existent; therefore it can be named as small.
All things return home to it, and it does not claim mastery over them; therefore it can be named as great.
Because it never assumes greatness, therefore it can accomplish greatness.
Taken in this way, one see’s that all creatures share this world with us, that all races are simply one and that compassion for others is the way of the Dao.
The Universe wants you to live with it. It is ready to catch you if you accept it. If you want to be happy then live in accordance with the Dao; the life energy of the Universe.
The question is How?
Ah, well, now you know why Daoism has changed so many times. How can one live in accordance with a mysterious spiritual nature that defies the understanding?
There are a number of ways, and the DDJ, Zhuangzi (among the other Daoist works of which these are but the central texts of a huge canon) have many things to say about how to live with the Dao and in accordance with it.
These principles are worthy of entire articles in themselves and indeed there is much you can read out there to assist. They are, like Dao, also endlessly translated, here is the outline of two:
That which things get in order to live is called De.
De is the second core principle of Daoism along with Dao itself, its rough translation means “inner integrity” or “virtue”, but it basically can mean to grow, to ascend, graciousness and even heart as in “heart and mind.”
It is virtue in the sense that a medicine has the virtue of healing. For the Daoists, this virtue comes from living in accord with the Dao. So, if you act with wisdom and inner integrity then you are having a positive effect on your life and expressing De. In other words if you wish to be a “good man”, do so. Don’t wish it, do it. If you can achieve the focus “on the now” required to be able to move from wishing for things to doing them, then you are expressing De.
When they clearly understand the Dao and De (Virtue), they then understand benevolence and righteousness.
A person like that could ride through the sky on the floating clouds, straddle the sun and moon, and travel beyond the four seas.<
Neither death nor life can cause changes within her, and there’s little reason for her to even consider benefit or harm.