Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Openness of the Dao De Jing

In recent years, many Asian political leaders have come out advocating ‘Asian Values.’ This has been an attempt to thwart what they consider to be western interference in their part of the world as well as a push for some sort of separation from western cultural influences. This has been particularly true as a way to avert democratic institutions such as direct elections. Many times these leaders use the convenience of calling for ‘Asian Values’ in order to quell dissent from within their own borders and keep a tight grip on their power. Western leaders and thinkers have all too many times engaged them in dialogue or debate to no fruitful end as they tend to continue citing western values as universal values. Perhaps an alternative would be to cite the universal aspects of certain ‘Asian Values.’ Values are such that people defend them with their lives, but in order to achieve a more open and tolerant global society, we need to delve deeper into their roots and find what is common instead of different.

As stated previously, Daoist philosophy has been an invaluable source of insight to thinkers throughout the history of Chinese thought. It has given Buddhists and Neo-Confucian philosophers material to strengthen their own systems of thought while, in the spirit of the Dao, staying pretty much in the background. Daoist philosophy has been able to accomplish this through the tenants of one of its own most powerful books, the Dao De Jing. The Dao De Jing gives us unlimited potential through the development of the Dao and the De. The Dao is seen not through the manifestations of the things, but from the eternal source of creation that is non-being. Non-being here is not nihilistic or devoid of essence, but rather the very encompassing of unlimited essence. This non-limiting aspect of the Dao is then shown in the world of temporal beings through the De. Although the world of things is subject to change and ultimate passing, we have a connection with the Dao through our De. The De is more than virtue and even more than attainment, as it also allows us to ascend back into the realm of the eternal.

The sage who intuits this is one best suited to rule. This ruler, however, is not absolute, as he owes his power to the Dao. This power too is not one of power over things, but one of internal power that comes about through identification with the humility that is emphasized throughout the Dao De Jing. This power does not come from controlling others, but rather through ‘non-action’ that leaves nothing undone.

The Dao De Jing thus does not advocate the type of government that has come down to us in some Asian nations as ‘father knows best’. The patriarchal hierarchy that some hold may be an unhappy byproduct of Confucian thought wrapped in the garb of modern rhetoric. Perhaps like the Legalists of old, some modern Asian leaders are reading into their past what best suits their needs. In the Dao De Jing, we have an implicit respect for each and every individual thing as it is connected ultimately with the greatest principle of all in the Dao. The open nature of the Dao De Jing in particular and Daoism in general is something that we need to examine in order to help make Asian values universal.

Lao Zi’s philosophy usually evokes different reactions from different mindsets. The content of the Dao De Jing is at once varied and complete, but can be rendered in many ways to suit the purpose at hand. The Legalist School in China interpreted passages such as “the sage governs by emptying the hearts and filling the stomachs of his people. He weakens their wills and strengthens their bones. He always keeps them ignorant and free from desire, so those that know will not dare to act. (chapter three)” quite literally, advising kings to keep the people docile so as not to challenge the authority of their rule. While this passage may be taken literally, it would not fit in with the rest of the Dao De Jing that advises rulers to be humble and sell-effacing. The point here is that any great book is usually taken in many different lights to serve the purposes of those quoting or commenting on it. This makes my little endeavor here a tenuous one as well, because I tend to look at the book as a metaphysical treatise on the eternal source of all creation. The emphasis on the sage and the rule through the eternal Dao may have been the original purport of the author, as it ties in well with the other intellectual activity happening during the time, but we are left undeniably with an overall picture of the process of creation and its link with the eternal, which may be described as a happy accident for Chinese philosophy. Perhaps Lao Zi inadvertently backed into a metaphysics, but there is one nonetheless.

Another label often times foisted on Lao Zi and the writings of the Dao De Jing is one of ‘mysticism.’ If you look at the passages that describe the goal of good governing through identification with the Dao, then it could be argued that the Dao De Jing is far from mystic. Looking at the original meaning of the word mysticism in English, we see it comes from the Greek root ‘mysterion,” which meant one initiated in the mysteries or secrets of a truer reality. The key in whether or not to render Lao Zi a mystic may lie in the verb initiated. If a mystic is initiated, then the reality in which he is part is not easily accessible to others, as he has a direct intuition into a higher reality. For Lao Zi and the rest of the more pragmatic minded Chinese thinkers, a sage was not necessarily a ‘chosen one,’ as any person could become a sage. Thus initiation had nothing to do with it. For Lao Zi, the identification with the Dao came through observation, not any mystic connection with an ultimate reality. While Confucius himself did not make any proclamation either way over the original nature of man, later Confucian thinkers, such as Mencius with his theory of human nature as originally good and Xun Zi with his theory of human nature as originally evil, developed their philosophies from these premises. Lao Zi gives us no clear-cut theory on the original nature of man, but rather an ideal sage that transcends good or evil. This is achieved through an understanding of the De that is the eternal part of temporal things. This then is given expression though an ordered state governed by the sage. There may be traces of mysticism in the Dao De Jing in the description of an ultimate reality that transcends sensual knowledge, but in the end the though is made applicable to the world of things and mankind’s place in it. Anyway, who ever said that mystics couldn’t be practical?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Of course, the world in which we live today is not accustomed to spitting out anything. The tradition of positivism in the west renders any metaphysical statement unverifiable, thus unworthy of consideration. Positivists say there is no way to empirically determine the truth of metaphysical statements and thus relegate them to nonsensical utterances. (see Peter Angeles Dictionary of Philosophy page 217)

Positivist thinkers are left with knowledge derived empirically through the senses. This would mean they would have no time or inclination to read the Dao De Jing, as the Dao itself is one of those ‘nonsensical utterances.’ In chapter 14, the description of the Dao makes it clear that it is not to be understood through the senses:

“We look, but do not see it, so we call it invisible. We listen, but do not hear it, so we call it inaudible. We grasp for it, but do not reach it, so we call it the subtle (formless).”

The Dao is something that cannot be experienced the way we experience created things. If the Dao could be experienced in this way, it would be equal to the things it creates instead of being their source. Thus it takes an entirely different approach to intuit the Dao. We cannot take a logical or rational approach that is required by scientific thought, but must ‘empty day by day’. The transcendent Dao is ‘no thing,’ but the eternal principle underlying all things.

Previously, we took a look at the notion of ‘non-action,’ here in chapter 48 we see what it takes to get there: ‘an emptying’. This non-action is integral for the sage to govern properly:

“…He who takes action fails. He who grasps things loses them. For this reason the sage takes no action and therefore does not fail. He grasps nothing and therefore does not lose anything. People in their handling of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure.

Therefore the sage desires to have no desire, he does not value rare treasures. He learns to be unlearned, and return to what the multitude has missed (Dao). Thus he supports all things in their natural state but does not take any action.”

Here again we have a picture of what it takes to rule through the Dao. Paradoxically, the sage ‘learns to unlearn,’ which is a poetic way of saying that we empty instead of increase.


Illumination gives a new angle toward understanding, but what, if any, would be the way to go about cultivating this. Book learning, with all its emphasis on the external, would be anathema to the endeavor:

“Abandon learning and there will be no sorrow. How much difference is there between ‘yes sir’ and ‘of course not’? How much difference is there between ‘good’ and ‘evil’? What people dread, do not fail to dread. But, alas, how confused, and the end is not yet. The multitude are merry, as though feasting on a day of sacrifice. Or like ascending a tower in the springtime.

I alone am inert, showing no sign (of desires), like an infant that has not yet smiled. Wearied, indeed, I seem to be without a home. The multitude all possesses more than enough. I alone seem to have lost all.

Mine is indeed the mind of the ignorant man, indiscriminate and dull! Common folk are indeed brilliant; I alone seem to be in the dark. Common folk see differences and are clear-cut; I alone make no distinctions.

I seem drifting as the se; like the wind blowing about, seemingly without destination. The multitude all have a purpose: I alone seem to be stubborn and rustic. I alone differe from others, and value drawing sustenance from the mother (Dao)”

(Chapter 20, translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

This chapter gives an insight into what it takes to intuit the Dao. The first line is ‘abandon learning and there will be no sorrow.’ Once again we see a denial of one of the cardinal principles of Confucianism; learning. The accumulation of knowledge for the Confucians is central in the cultivation of the type of moral character that leads to right government. Lao Zi, on the other hand, dismisses the notion, saying that learning leads to sorrow. We spend our time in the pursuit of external knowledge, breaking down the differences among the things that surround us. While this has lead to a scientific understanding of the world, it has separated us from the source of creation. Lao Zi says that others have purpose and see differences and that he alone values drawing sustenance from the Dao. Lao Zi also points out that the differences among things are small. Differences can be attributed to comparison of opposites, thereby bestowing artificial value upon the thing. The beginning of chapter two attributes the value judgment as the source of alienation:

“When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, there arises the recognition of ugliness. When they all know the good as good, there arises the recognition of evil. Therefore:

Being and non-being produce each other; difficult and easy complete each other; long and short contrast each other; high and low compliment each other; sound and voice harmonize each other; front and behind accompany each other…”

(Chapter 2, translation by Wing-tsit Chan with slight modification)

The crux of Lao Zi’s philosophy brings about the harmony of opposites; through learning we come to know differences, but through the Dao we come to know their harmony. Wing-tsit Chan states that “the traditional Chinese ideal that opposites are to be synthesized and harmonized can be said to have originated with Lao Zi.” (page 101)

But learning does not lead to the insight that opposites are essentially two sides of the same coin, as the goal of pursuing external knowledge is to value the differences. In chapter 40, Lao Zi gives another look at what he thinks about learning:

“To learn is to increase day by day, to intuit the Dao is to decrease day by day. Decrease upon decrease until you get to the point of taking no action. When no action is undertaken, there is nothing that is left undone. All under heaven can be brought to order through non-action. Those who enjoy taking action are not fit to rule all under heaven.”

Here Lao Zi equates learning with a daily increase, but the Dao with a daily decrease. Perhaps what he means is that we are taught to accumulate facts and knowledge since birth. This will lead to an increase of knowledge, but farther and farther away from the source of creation which is the Dao. Once again I would like to bring up the myth of the fall from grace in the Book of Genesis. The myth provides the Judeo-Christian tradition with a symbol that the beginning of knowledge and wisdom came from eating the forbidden fruit. Knowledge and wisdom are thus the second best thing to having the kind of enlightened bliss reserved for the gods. In his short story entitled Teddy, JD Salinger says through the main character that the way to understanding would be through spitting out the apple of knowledge that has been our burden. Lao Zi is showing us the same idea in saying the Dao is a daily decrease, not increase.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


When the sage is one with the Dao, he is one with the realm of the limitless. The process of understanding or ‘knowing’ of this realm requires a different course than the scientific approach to knowledge that we have become accustomed to in this day and age. The word science itself has a very interesting etymological background, coming from the Latin present participle sciere ‘to know.’ While western thought certainly has had its mystical thinkers as well, the whole of our intellectual history could be defined more or less by the pursuit of something certain. Even with the proofs of the existence of god, many thinkers have tried to make the transcendent adhere to principles that could be proven beyond all doubt, providing us with a ‘scientific’ grounding for our believes as well. The great scientific-philosophical mind of Aristotle gave us the categories from which to break down being into more measurable and easier to handle beings. Like an army commander dividing his enemy, Aristotle divided being, making it easier for later generations of scientific-minded thinkers to conquer.

What we have with the Dao of Lao Zi, perhaps, is being undivided, the mystical source of all creation. Thus we also have to have a different way of thinking, a new approach that is less ‘scientific,’ one that sees the source instead of the manifestations. In the Dao De Jing we thus see Lao Zi draw a distinction between ‘zhi’ or wisdom and ‘ming’ or illumination. Wisdom is thus an understanding of the external appearances. This perspective, however, is not complete and prevents the ‘knower’ from achieving identification with the highest ‘de,’ which is the created things connection with the Dao:

“To know others is wise, to know yourself is illumination.

To conquer others requires force, to conquer yourself takes strength.

Contentment brings true wealth, to persevere requires will.

He who does not lose his place (with the Dao) endures.

Through this although one dies, it is without extinction, which is true longevity.”

(Chapter 33, own translation based on Wing-tsit Chan’s rendering)

Wu Yi comments on this chapter:

“The contrast between the two lines ‘knowing others and knowing yourself’ is one in which Lao Zi obviously downplays knowing others and values knowing yourself. Knowing others is using your own knowledge to understand others, which is a value affirmed by Confucians. In the Shang Shu, it is written that ‘knowing others is wisdom (zhe). Zhe means wisdom and is the word Japanese scholars later used to translate the western notion of ‘philosophy,’ that is in use in the Chinese language today. The western notion of philosophy, however, is the love of wisdom and in this ancient book it meant more the knowledge of the external thing. So whether it is knowing others or knowing the thing, both are a pursuit of something external.”

(Wu Yi page 265)

Ming or illumination thus becomes an important idea in Lao Zi’s thought. The contrast between ming and zhi is one of the external and the internal. Ming is the understanding of the internal while zhi is the understanding of the external. This internal understanding is that of the higher ‘de’ and comes about not through the hustle and bustle involved with the pursuit of external, objective knowledge, but through a quite reflection of inner principles.

“”Attain complete vacuity, maintain steadfast quietude.

All things come into being, and I see thereby their return.

All things flourish, but each one returns to its root.

This return to its root means tranquility. It is called returning to destiny.

To return to destiny is called the eternal (Dao). To know the eternal is called enlightenment.

Not to know the eternal is to act blindly to result in disaster.

He who knows the eternal is all-embracing. Being all-embracing, he is impartial.

Being impartial, he is kingly (universal).

Being kingly, he is one with heaven.

Being one with heaven, he is in accord with Dao.

Being in accord with Dao, he is eternal, and free from danger for a lifetime.”

(Chapter 16, translation by Wing-tsit Chan with minor alterations)

In this passage, we see the close connection between ‘ming’ and the Dao. Wing-tsit Chan translates ‘to return to destiny is called the eternal; (Dao). To know the eternal is called enlightenment (ming). The word ‘chang’ in the passgage indicates the eternal, constant Dao, which could be said to be the key to the inner principle of quietness. This quietness is shown through an observation of the return to the source instead of a grasping of the outward principles of the manifestation. As all things inevitably rtrun to the source, Lao Zi states:

‘…all things come into being, and I see thereby their return. All things flourish, but each one returns to its root.’

‘Ming’ or illumination allows us to see the profound process of return. Chen Gu-ying explains:

“Ming: the movement and change undergone by the myriad of created things all depends on the principle of return. The understanding of the principle is what is known as ‘illumination’ (ming).”

(Chen Gu-ying page 91)

In chapter 16, Lao Zi also mentions the affects of not knowing the eternal, which is to act blindly that leads to disaster. Thus the sage needs to substitute the ordinary wisdom of seeking the external with the quiet illumination of inner reflection. The leader who does not identify with the eternal Dao leads the people on the path to disaster, but the one who holds fast to the quietness of the Dao allows things to transform of themselves. Wang Bi offers this commentary:

“Eternity is a thing without bias or illustriousness, without decay or obscurity, and without warmth or cold. Therefore, to know eternity means enlightenment. Only this return can embrace and contain all things. If one loses this and moves on, then the perverse will enter and cause division. Then all things will disintegrate. Therefore, not knowing eternity is to do evil things blindly.”

(translation by Paul Lin page 29)

In chapter 52, we come across the notion of ming again:

“…seeing the small is called illumination (ming), keeping to the weak can be considered a strength…”

Wu Yi states here that:

“Generally speaking when we enter the door of consciousness, we begin to pursue what is external. Toward things we pursue understanding, toward matters we pursue strength. Lao Zi, on the other hand, advocates the opposite in ‘seeing the small and keeping to the weak…’Wang Bi interprets this as ‘to see the great things is not illuminating, to be able to see the subtle is. To preserve what is strong is not true strength, to preserve the weak is.’ That is to say to see the great things and think one is illuminated is not true illumination and to stay with the strong and feel one gains strength is not true strength. Here the small is not the smallness of things, but the subtleness of their natures. The eye that sees this subtleness is not the physical eye but the eye of the (inner) mind. To be able to see the small and know the large, to see the subtle, that is the wisdom eye.”

(Wu Yi page 406)

Illumination is thus a special characteristic needed by the leader in order to rule properly. This illumination is not a process of external examination of the affairs and things of the world. Perhaps Lao Zi was reacting to another important Confucian notion, namely the investigation of things. In chapter one of the Confucian classic The Great Learning, we read that …’things being investigated, knowledge becomes complete…’Here we have something diametrically opposed to what Lao Zi was trying to advocate, an external pursuit of knowledge. There is a famous story in Chinese philosophy about the renowned Neo-Confucian thinker Wang Yang-ming. Wang took to heart the lessons of the classics and when he read the passage concerning ‘investigating things,’ he observed a bamboo branch outside his window with so much zealousness that he made himself sick in the process. Perhaps the message Lao Zi was trying to send us many centuries before Wang was that such a pursuit will only lead to disaster, for either the individual or the state. The grasp of the manifestation is never as good as the identification with the source. Man has within him the power to become the sage due to his internal De that is his connection with the eternal Dao. This ability to reflect puts human beings in a pantheon with the other greats of the universe, the Dao, heaven and earth. This reflection requires a quiet reflection. Wing-tsit Chan says that “Generally speaking, in Daoist philosophy, Dao is revealed most fully through tranquility rather than activity.” (page 21) This is a general statement and does not throw much light on the details of why this tranquility is so important. But if we are left to conjecture, perhaps one of the underlying reasons was the hubbub caused by the thinkers during the Spring and Autumn Warring States period in trying to influence the various leaders of the states that made up China during this time. When conflicting forces are vying for the upper hand, chaos is sure to ensue. The quietness of the sage then for Lao Zi is not one that brings about chaos, but is able to see the inevitable return to the source and identify with that. We have seen that the sage is one who intuits the Dao and so may achieve all things through the non forcefulness of non-action. Here the sage transcends the desire for personal gain and conventional wisdom to become self illuminating. In chapter 72, Lao Zi continues:

“…therefore the sage knows himself but does not show himself. He loves himself but does not exalt himself…”

(translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

Knowledge is thus consistent with the internal De and glory is not the goal.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wu Wei

The sage is best fit to govern based on his identification with the Dao:

“The Dao always takes no action and yet nothing is left undone. If rulers abide by it, the myriad of things transform themselves. If after the transformation, intention arises, then they should be restrained with nameless simplicity. This nameless simplicity is free from desires. Freedom from desires brings with it tranquility that will set the course for the world.” (Chapter37)

This passage is key to Lao Zi’s overall philosophy as it ties together the eternal Dao with the world of creation and the role of man. The eternal Dao is the basis and creates without purpose or through non-action. The sage intuits this and maintains order not through rules and edicts, but from following the natural rule of the Dao that flows through all.

The notion of the non-action of the Dao is also key. The word for non-action in Chinese here is the wu, or nothingness, as we have seen described before as an ‘attribute’ of the Dao. This nothingness is meant to show the Dao as unlimited, not as something vacuous or devoid of substance. If the Dao is not limited by any appellation, then its creative force must be granted the same courtesy. The Dao is not limited in its actions as well, as it is eternal non-action. But least we get bogged down into thinking this non-action is akin to inertia, we see Lao Zi explain further that it is through the non-action that nothing is left undone. The main gist here is that when ulterior motives take precedent, opposing forces cancel each other out. In the affairs of the state, this leaves us with eternal that leads to the ‘tranquility that will set the course of the world.’ The sage adheres to the principles of the eternal Dao instead of cunning or manipulative statecraft. In doing so, things are free from desire and follow the simplicity of their proper course.

Some may say that Lao Zi is offering us an idyllic state, one perhaps too good to be true. Perhaps that is right, as we would be hard pressed to cite historical examples where leaders followed the simplicity inherent in the Dao and the people lived happily without conflict. In fact, the case can be made that there has never been a time when these principles held sway in the realm of human affairs. Let’s look back at chapter 18 again:

“When the great Dao is in decline, there appear the virtues of Ren and Yi. When wisdom appears, there appears the great artifice. When the six relations are out of harmony, there appear filial piety and love. When the nation is in disorder, there will be a need for loyal ministers.”

To reiterate a point made earlier, the great Dao can never be in decline. The guiding principle of Lao Zi’s philosophy is the eternal Dao, and it would be illogical for anything that was eternal to be in decline. The decline of the Dao here could be likened to a ‘fall from grace’ We as human beings have within ourselves the seed of the eternal, but our temporal nature leads us away from eternal principles. For Lao Zi, the decline of the Dao in the world of human affairs is the beginning of the need for named morals. The simplicity of the Dao does not require this need, as it is one, undifferentiated and nameless. The sage rules along these lines. This sort of government takes a special kind of knowledge, or perhaps more accurately an intuition of the Dao. We would probably be wrong to look for an epistemology in the Dao De Jing, at least in the sense of searching for scientific valid explanations. What we see in the philosophy of Lao Zi is more like an intuition or illumination that requires an entirely different approach to thinking.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dao and Man

In Chinese thought, human beings are known as the “spirit of creation” (萬物之靈).

People hold a unique place in the makeup of the world, as we are the only being able to reflect on the meaning of our existence. Mankind’s ability to remember, speculate and deduce places us in a unique as well as precarious situation. Gods (or the Dao) dwell in the realm of the eternal; most animals live in the world of the constant present. That is to say they do not reflect on the past nor speculate on the future. Neither the gods nor most animals then have much use for the concept of time. Time is thus a human concern; as an animal caught between the temporal and the eternal, there is a need to embrace both realms. In the Dao De Jing, we see the place mankind has in the makeup of the cosmos.

The Status of Man

In chapter 25, Lao Zi makes states:

“Therefore the Dao is great, heaven is great, the earth is great and man is great. There are four great things in the universe and man is one of them..”

It goes without saying that the Dao holds the highest place in Lao Zi’s philosophy, thus can be considered great. Heaven and earth are great because they offer the backdrop that brings together the whole of creation. That leaves us with mankind. Man’s greatness lies in his ability to reflect on the relationship with the Dao. Although these notions are all listed as containing greatness, there is a hierarchy involved. Later on in chapter 25, Lao Zi continues to expound on this relationship:

“Man models himself after the earth, the earth models itself after heaven, heaven models itself after the Dao and the Dao is the self-so.”

We have already seen that the Dao bestows the eternal on the created thing; consequently the bestower would naturally hold a higher place than the bestowee. This does not mean that there is any relationship of ‘control’ between the created thing, but we can see the necessity of giving the Dao the upper hand. As the earth is thus the place that sustains us, we thus follow that as our model. Similarly, the earth is sustained by heaven and thus models itself accordingly. The heavens are molded upon the eternal Dao, which is the self-so.

In some renditions of the Dao De Jing, the word king is used instead of man as one of the ‘four greats.’ Chapter 25 in the Mawangdui texts excavated in Hunan province in the early 1970’s reads as follows:

“…heaven is great, earth is great, the king is also great. There are four greats within the nation and king is among them.”

Other texts also use the word ‘king’ instead of ‘man’ including the Wang Bi and He Shang Gong versions. In ancient China, there probably wasn’t much concern for overall human rights that we so value today. The king was the representative of man. It was natural for the people to want a ruler that could keep order, a wise man that could maintain the nation. In ancient China, the king was thus the representative and extension of man. Of course there were good rulers (kings) and bad rulers, just as there are good people and bad people. In the chaos that defined the Warring States period, each school of thought was looking for the criteria that would produce a ‘good king.’ The ruler would thus be able to bring order to society again. Lao Zi’s notion of the ruler was one that was in accord with the principles of the eternal Dao. For Lao Zi, this was manifest in his ‘sheng ren’ or sage.

The Rule of the Sage

The sage is uniquely equipped to rule due to his intuition of the Dao. As mentioned previously, the Dao is the creative force of the universe, but does so without purpose. There is no struggle in the process nor is there any control exerted over the things of creation. Lao Zi’s sage ruler follows this principle and exerts no control over those he governs. Chapter 2 of the Dao De Jing describes it as thus:

“Therefore, the Sage administers without action and instructs without words. He lets all things rise without dominating them, proceeds without attempting to possess, and acts without asserting, achieves credit without taking credit. And because he does not take credit, it will never leave him.”

(Translation by Paul Lin)

In the history of Chinese philosophy, Lao Zi was alone in advocating a sage who does not act yet gains so much in the process. This could be an attempt to advocate quality over quantity. The goal of thinkers in the development of early Chinese thought may have been similar, however the ways they went about it were quite different. Feng You-lan gives more insight into the difference between the Confucian and Daoist sage:

“The Daoists agree with the Confucianists that the ideal state is one which has a sage at its head. It is only the sage who can and should rule. The difference between the two schools, however, is that according to the Confucianists, when a sage becomes a ruler, he should do many things for the people, whereas according to the Daoists, the duty of the sage is not to do things, but rather to undo or not to do at all. The reason for this, according to Lao Zi, is hat the troubles of the world come, not because there are many things not yet done, but because too many things are done. In the Lao Zi we read, ‘The more restrictions and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer people will be. The more sharp weapons the people have, the more troubled will be the country. The more cunning craftsmen there are, the more pernicious contrivances will appear. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be.’ (chapter 27)” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy page 102)

Analyzing the above commentary, Feng You-lan makes a key point. Even when we have the best of intentions, too much effort may bring about adverse results. To reiterate a point, the reason so many schools of thought emerged during the chaotic times of the Warring States period was that they were all trying to find a way (or Dao) to bring order back to society. Of course, some of those schools pursued the matter according to their own interests instead of what may have been good for the whole. This created even more conflict and strife instead of making things any better, with the end result being more suffering for the people. The Legalist school was one such faction. The ultimate unification of the various states at that time into one China saw the ascendancy of the Legalist philosophy, but its draconian nature was the reason the Qin Dynasty did not last very long. For Lao Zi, the actions of self-interested rulers could not result in the improvement of the situation. The ruler had to be one with the Dao, as when it is embraced by men, the harmony of the eternal holds sway in the realm of human affairs. As we have seen in chapter 18, the Dao can be in decline, but only in the world of human affairs, so the sage ruler knows how to govern without action. Of the many passages in the Dao De Jing depicting this philosophy, one metaphor in chapter 60 is especially poignant:

“Governing a huge nation is akin to cooking a small fish. If the Dao is followed in ruling all under heaven, then ghosts will not have supernatural powers. These powers will no longer harm the people. Not only will these powers be unable to harm the people, the sage will not harm the people. When both can do no harm, the De will be manifest for the benefit of all.”

In this passage, the idea of governing a huge nation is compared to cooking a small fish. Excessive handling of the fish will make it inedible. Too many laws and edicts will confuse the people and take away their original simplicity. In English, the similar proverb ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ may convey a similar sentiment; overdoing anything can lead to disaster.

The other important notion here is that when the Dao does permeate the human world, the sage will not harm people. Lao Zi’s idea here according to Wing-tsit Chan’s interpretation of the chapter is that the sage will not harm people by interfering with their lives. This picture of what amounts to a laissez faire state of affairs has its core in the important notion of ‘wu wei’ or non-action.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The common meaning of De is virtue and in the Dao De Jing it was interpreted as to obtain by Wang Bi. That leaves us with De as ascension, a meaning that can be found in the ancient dictionary Shuo Wen, but one that has never been used to define the meaning of De in the context of the Dao De Jing. I find, however, that it ties in well with the overall relationship of the Dao and the De and may have been a meaning overlooked by many commentators. If the De is what is obtained by the thing from the Dao, there is nothing that is not part and parcel of the Dao. Thus the description of the De as a bridge between the myriad of creation and the Dao fits in well with the notion of De as ascending. This is because in De we have what is obtained by the thing of the Dao as well as the possibility of ascending back into the realm of the Dao. A bridge is never a one-way avenue; if you can cross it one way, it necessarily has to let you cross it back. If the created had no recourse back to the source of creation, then existence would be rendered meaningless. In the obtainment of the De, temporal things have in them the spark of the eternal. In the ability of De then to ascend back to the realm of the Dao, the relationship is thus made complete.

That being said, there is another point worth bearing out in the relationship between the Dao and creation, which is that there is no teleology involved. In the process of creation, the Dao does not control what is created; there is no ultimate goal. Chen Gu-ying explains:

“The Dao creates things but there is no conscious effort nor ultimate objective involved. That is why we see (in chapter two) ‘there is growth without possession, action without dependence.’ Growth here explains the creative capacities of the Dao. Without possession and without dependence describe the lack of any purpose in the process. In the entire process of creation, there is a complete naturalness; the growth of each and every thing is completely free.” (page 177)

There is no emotional attachment between the Dao and created things. Lao Zi substituted the notion of a personal or anthropomorphic deity with that of a more impersonal creative force. This in essence was the direct opposite of the mandate of the right to rule by the “decree of heaven” that the Zhou Dynasty used to usurp the Shang. There is no favoritism in the notion of the Dao, it treats all things in a similar fashion. In chapter 79, Lao Zi writes

“The Dao of heaven is unbiased…”

This line sums up the general theme of creation without purpose in the Dao De Jing. Wu Yi explains the line:

“Bias in this line depicts a closeness or solicitude, but the essence of Dao is the self-so. It has no particular fondness or affection for myriad of created things. It treats all things equally without discrimination.” (page 534)

The importance of the relationship between the Dao and the De is that it is eternally manifest in creation. The eternal Dao is thus not only transcendent, which would make it completely inaccessible to the things it created, but also immanent within things. The Dao as merely a transcendent notion would be meaningless, but with the De as the bridge back to the realm of the eternal, we see a starting point that allows for the Dao to become a stable base.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dao and Creation

The Dao is a metaphysical notion in that it is eternal and limitless. However, it is from the world of the temporal and limited that we are able to extract this notion, making the relationship between the two realms a vital one for deeper philosophical understanding. If the transcendent and world of temporal beings had no connection, speaking of metaphysical concepts would be rendered absurd, making these concepts truly empty and vacuous. There thus needs to be a bridge between the two worlds of the eternal and temporal that brings the two together, without which existence would become meaningless.

For Lao Zi there is the eternal Dao and the bridge that brings us to the world can be found in the De. According to the Han Yu Dictionary (pages 353-354), the term De had the following meanings in ancient China: a. to ascend, b. moral character and c. to obtain.

I believe these three meanings of De all come into play in Lao Zi’s description of the relationship between the Dao and the De. While the word De in the Chinese language today means simply morality, in the ancient usage these three meanings may have held some significance to this profound relationship. Before delving into this further, lets first take a look at Lao Zi’s description of the relationship in chapter 51:

“The Dao creates, the De cultivates.

Matter gives form (to things) while the situation completes them.

This is why there is nothing that does not esteem the Dao and honor De.

There is no order to esteem Dao and honor De, as the come spontaneously.

So the Dao creates, the De cultivates. The two rear and develop creation, give things

security and peace, nurture and protect. Dao produces things, but does not possess them, acts without assertion and develops without control. This is called the profound De.”

In this chapter, Lao Zi clearly states the relationship between the Dao and De. The Dao creates while the De cultivate. In this relationship, the De acts as the bridge between the eternal Dao and the temporal world of things. The creative power of the Dao is manifest in the De, which is why Wang Bi writes:

“Dao is where all things come through. De is what all things obtain, Through Dao, one can obtain De; therefore one cannot help but respect Dao. Losing De, one will get hurt; therefore one cannot help but value De.”

(Translation by Paul Lin with slight variation)

The interpretation of De as “obtain” originated with Wang Bi. In chapter 38, we see another possibility of the loss of De:

“He with the highest De, does not display it and so maintains it.

He with the lowest De, does not let it go and so loses it.

He with the highest De does not act and yet nothing is left undone.

He with the lowest De acts and shows his intent to act…”

(Translation by Paul Lin with slight variation)

Here Wang Bi comments that:

“De means to obtain…how is De obtained? Through the Dao…”

The De thus represents the Dao in the world of things; the De is what is eternal in the temporal while the Dao is eternity itself. But if the De is what is obtained through the Dao, what could a lower De be? The idea here is that any deliberate action taken leads to disaster. If a person is not in accord with the source that is the Dao, then he or she acts with intent or ulterior motive. This results in the loss of the original De. There then arrives a need for the artificial rules and laws that tend to govern society. Some passages in the Dao De Jing that address this situation are:

“The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer people will be. The more sharp weapons people have, the more troubled the state will be.

The more cunning and skill man possesses, the more vicious things will appear.

The more laws and orders are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

(Chapter 57, Translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

“When the Dao is in decline, the notions of humanity and righteousness come to the forefront.

When knowledge and wisdom appear, hypocrisy follows.

When the six familial relations are disordered, there is a need for filial piety and affection.

When a nation is in chaos, there will appear loyal ministers.”

(Chapter 18)

These two chapters are interesting in they describe a world that has always been in place. Since the beginning of civilization, there has been a need for rules, laws and moral dictates. Some would contend that this is the glue that keeps society together. However, Lao Zi is painting a different picture. The more laws there are, the more crime you will have. When the Dao is in decline, then morals come to the forefront. Humanity and righteousness were two of the cardinal virtues advocated by Confucian thinkers. As De itself also has the connotation of virtue, we see Lao Zi treading a different path than the Confucians. In chapter 18, he states that these virtues appear when the Dao is in decline. But as an eternal principle devoid of name, shape or any other defining characteristics, how can the Dao ever be in ‘decline’? It might serve us well here to make a comparison of sorts with the myth of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. The fall from grace of Adam and Eve describes a situation where mankind was in paradise before being tempted by evil, thus being cast out of the garden. In this story, perhaps we can say that as a being caught between the temporal and the eternal, man needs a story that explains the imperfection. While the Dao itself can never be in decline, man can fall from it through purposeful action. The interesting comparison here regarding the myths of the decline of Dao and the fall from grace in the Old Testament is that for the Daoists, the decline of the Dao was the beginning of morality, while in the Old Testament, the fall from grace was the beginning of sin.

The Dao’s relationship to the things of the universe is one of bestowal, while the things relationship with the Dao is one of obtainment. In this obtainment, virtue is one of the manifestations, but perhaps another comparison with a western philosophical term will help us shed some light on the special nature of De as virtue in the Dao De Jing. The epitome of the philosopher in the western world was the image of Socrates. Socrates may have fit in well with the world of Chinese thought, as he was a man concerned with what it took to lead the good life, the moral life. In the Platonic dialogue Meno, Socrates goes about finding the meaning of virtue, which in the Greek world was represented by the word ‘arete.’ Arete meant the goodness of a thing or that which a thing excels (Dictionary of Philosophy, Peter Angeles) For Socrates, the arête of man was the knowledge of the good.

“This arête was not knowledge of an abstract proposition, but rather a turning of the eye to the soul, to a direct and therefore compelling vision of the good. A man does not really know it unless he knows it as a whole, unless he has a permanent single realized vision of human goodness as such which will serve to guide him in all circumstances.” (A.H. Armstrong, Ancient Philosophy, pages 30-31)

Thus we see here a bit of a similarity between the De and arête in that they were not concerned with an outward manifestation of morals as such, but more with the inherent excellence of a thing. For Socrates, this arête was seen through man’s ability to reason and associate with the highest good. For Lao Zi, it was the intuition of the Dao. Both Lao Zi and Socrates cultivated the inherent excellence of the De and arête through looking inward to their connection with the eternal and not outward toward the artificial mores of society. Socrates opposed the Sophist notion that arête was something that could be taught instead of searched for from within. Lao Zi was the same in that the De was an inward expression of the eternal Dao. Perhaps it could be stated that Socrates and Lao Zi had no qualms with morality; it was the individual morals that were the problem. Morality itself would be a tacit expression of a well-ordered society, while morals would be the unhappy byproduct of a chaotic one.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A. Dao and the Thing

The paradoxical aspect of trying to describe the limitless with limiting words leaves us with interesting linguistic problems. The remainder of chapter 14 is a case in point:

“These three cannot be investigate further, so they merge together to make one. The upper part is not bright; the lower part is not dark. So subtle, it cannot be named, but returns to nothingness. This is called the shape without shape, the image without image. This is called the indistinct: confronting it, one cannot see the head; following it, one cannot see the back. Grasp the ancient Dao to manage present existence. Thus we may know the beginning of the Ancient. This is called the record of the Dao.”

(Translation by Paul Lin A Translation of the Dao De Jing and Wang Bi’s Commentary)

In this passage, there appears the word Chinese word for physical thing ‘wu.’ This word is meant to designate the Dao, which of course is not a thing. We are thus left with the dilemma of trying to describe something transcendent with limiting words. The Han Dynasty commentator Wang Bi explains this passage as:

“If we speak of its non-being, everything comes from it. If we speak of its being, its shape cannot be seen. So it is called the shape without a shape, the image without object.” (Translation by Paul Lin)

While in this chapter we see the Dao described as the ‘shape without a shape’ and the ‘image without object,’ in chapter 25, we run into the term ‘wu’ once more:

“There is a thing formed in chaos, existing before heaven and earth.”

Here again we are faced with describing the Dao as ‘something,’ yet trying not to delimit it to the realm of ‘things.’ Wu Yi says:

“Here the thing (wu) is not a material thing, but rather a description of the basic entity that produces within the universe… ‘chaos’ here is the state of being undivided.” (pages205-206)

In order to understand the completeness of the Dao as explained in this chapter, we need to reflect on what, if anything, in the world can be seen, heard or felt but cannot be divided. Coming up with such a thing is an impossible task. Everything in the world is something that can be divided; so the source of these things has to be something that cannot be divided. This is the complete unity of the Dao. Wang Bi offers this commentary:

“Chaos cannot be known, but all things take shape from it. Therefore it is said to be ‘formed from chaos.’”

(Translation by Paul Lin)

In chapter 21, we run into similar language:

“…The thing that is called Dao is eluding and vague. Vague and eluding, there is in it form. Eluding and vague, in it are things. Deep and obscure, in it is the essence. The essence is very real; in it are evidences…”

(Translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

The Dao is described as elusive and vague, something that cannot be pinpointed and examined in any scientific way. But though the Dao is unnamable, we can deduce its profoundness through the things, essence and evidences it provides. This is also a description of the relationship between the transcendent Dao and the non-transcendent things of the universe, a relationship we will explore further with the Dao and De. While the Dao cannot be described with any sort of limiting language, we still understand it through the clues it leaves in the myriad of creation with which we are familiar.

A. Dao Existed before God; Dao Existed before Heaven and Earth

In chapter four of the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi writes that the Dao existed before god. This may be a bit misleading for the western reader used to an anthropomorphic god prevalent in occidental religions. In his book Explaining Lao Zi, Wu Yi states:

The notion of god here is not a religious one because Lao Zi’s Dao replaces that of god. What role does the word god here play? Undoubtedly this ‘god’ is the one mentioned once in the Yi Jing (Book of Changes) ‘the god resides in zhen.’ Zhen indicates the direction of east here. As the sun rises in the east, zhen indicates the notion of creation. In the zhen hexagram, this represents the primacy of yang and the beginning of creation. This is why ‘god’ here can be construed as creation or the beginning of life.” (page 36)

Lao Zi provides the Dao as an impartial universal force in place of a personal god. This impartial universal principle and driving force necessarily transcends the world of creation. In placing Dao before the god of creation, it thus transcends time.

In chapter 25, we see a similar description:

“There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, which existed before heaven and earth…” (Translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

Here heaven and earth indicates the firmament and the terrestrial. As the myriad of creation relies on this space for its existence, this space is prior to the things that occupy it, but the Dao precedes the existence of this space. The Dao being eternal has no beginning or end, but the appearance of space comes before creation. The Dao is thus before the god of creation as well as the space that things occupy.

Time and space are the two categories in western philosophy that allow us to understand beings. In these two passages, we see a Dao that is posited before time and space. The Dao that existed before god is prior to any deification and time while the Dao that existed before heaven and earth is prior to space.

It is difficult for a non-transcendent person to describe transcendental notions. The language used is often negative, as we can not say what a transcendent thing is are left with only saying what it isn’t. This is why in chapter 14 we read:

“We look at it and do not see it; It’s name is The Invisible.

We listen to it and do not hear it; It’s name is The Inaudible.

We touch it and do not find it; It’s name is The Subtle (formless).”

(translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

Metaphysical Dao

People are in a very interesting state of affairs, as we are caught between the eternity of the gods and the temporality of animals. That is to say mankind straddles the two realms of the eternal and temporal. Divinities dwell in the eternal and animals in the temporal. As both divine and animal, man is in the state somewhere in between. We strive to find a foothold in the eternal, yet are limited by the time and space continuum of the temporal. In developing our notions of the transcendent, we reach beyond our temporal existence and grasp at things metaphysical. The metaphysical notions that supply the basis of our principles in themselves cannot be limited to the same temporality that our physical beings are. The Dao is one such notion that transcends time and space. In his book Lao Zi for Today, an Assessment, Chen Gu-ying states:

“Lao Zi considers the Dao to be prior to anything that is. The Dao is not limited by either time nor space restrictions. It is not affected by the coming to be and extinction of things. From this perspective, it is easy to see that the Dao has a transcendent nature.” (page 5)

The meaning of what constitutes metaphysics is not generally agreed on in western philosophy. It can encompass a wide range of ideas such as cosmology, ontology, an ultimate reality and the underlying self-sufficient ground of existence. (Peter Angeles Dictionary of Philosophy page 169) These ideas are some that the Dao in the Dao De Jing address. While many contend that the Dao De Jing was written, like any other book of its time, with a view to providing the basis for a sage to order the state, the byproduct was the beginnings of a metaphysical outlook that was to have a profound influence on the development of Chinese thought. In as such, we could say that the metaphysics in the Dao De Jing turned out to be a happy accident for Chinese philosophy.

In analyzing the metaphysical aspects of the Dao in the Dao De Jing, we can divide our investigations into three parts: the metaphysical Dao, the relationship between the Dao and the myriad of creation and the relationship between the creation that reflects on its relationship with the Dao, human beings. It is thus important to understand this triangular relationship in order to grasp the basic philosophy laid out in the Dao De Jing. Each link of the relationship is as important as the other. The Dao was an important concept for all schools of thought in ancient China; each school was looking for the Dao or way to order the state and make things peaceful. It was, however, the thought of Lao Zi and later Zhuang Zi that became known as Daoism. As Win-tsit Chan points out in his book the Way of Lao Zi (page 6):

“The word Dao consists of one element meaning a head and another meaning to run. It means that on which something or someone goes, a path, or road, later extended to mean ‘method,’ ‘principle,’ ‘truth,’ and finally ‘reality.’ All of this is well summed up in the common English translation, ‘the Way.’ It is a cardinal concept in practically all ancient Chinese philosophical schools. Hitherto the connotation had been social and moral, but in Lao Zi it connotes for the first time the metaphysical…” It is the metaphysical Dao that we will look at first.