Daoism: The Way That Is and Is Not


LAOZI: THE CLASSIC OF THE WAY AND VIRTUE

Few if any philosophies are as enigmatic as Daoism - the teachings of the Way (Dao). The opening lines of this school's greatest masterpiece, The Classic of the Way and Virtue (Dao Dejing), which is ascribed to the legendary Laozi, immediately confront the reader with Daoism's essential paradox: "The Way that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Way. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name." Here is a philosophy that purports to teach the Way (of truth) but simultaneously claims that the True Way transcends human understanding. Encapsulated within a little book of some five thousand words is a philosophy that defies definition, spurns reason, and rejects words as inadequate.
The Dao is limitless and its origins are infinite; somewhat like the Way that it purports to teach and not teach, Daoism has many manifestations and numerous origins. No one knows when or where it originated, but its roots probably lie in the animistic religions of prehistorical China. Daoism's earliest sages are equally shadowy. According to tradition, the author of Daoism's greatest classic was Laozi, who supposedly was born around 604 B.C.E. and died about 517, making him an older contemporary of Confucius (source 24). According to one popular story, when Confucius visited him, Laozi instructed the younger man to rid himself of his arrogant airs and then bade him farewell. As another story has it, the aged Laozi decided to leave the state in which he lived because he foresaw its imminent decay. At the frontier he was delayed by a border official, who implored him not to depart without first leaving behind his wisdom. In response Laozi dashed off the Dao Dejing and left, never to be heard from again (although according to one story that sprang up in Daoist circles in the fourth century c.E., Laozi went to India where he became the Buddha). The fact that Laozi means "Old Master" suggests to many that this sage was more a composite figure of legend and imagination than a historic individual of flesh and blood. Indeed, many scholars con-
clude that the bulk of the language, ideas, and allusions contained within this classic indicate an intellectual environment closer to 300 than to 500 B.C.E. Whatever its date and circumstances of composition, the Dao Dejing is one of the most profound and beautiful works ever written in Chinese. This little book has exercised an incalculable influence on Chinese life and art over the centuries. There is a good deal of truth to the clich6 that traditional Chinese upper-class men were Confucians in public and Daoists in private. As you study the following selections, pay particular attention to the Daoist notion of Actionless Activity, Known in Chinese as wuwei and also translated as "Effortlessness," "Nonaction," and "Nonstriving," this idea pervades all Daoist thought and comes closest to being Daoism's universal principle and driving force, if such is possible.


THE WAY

The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name. Conceived of as having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; conceived of as hav-ing a name, it is the Mother of all things.

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The Dao produces all things and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as itís own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them. This is what is called "The mysterious quality" of the Dao.

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When the Great Dao ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness came into vogue. Then appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy

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Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is.

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All-pervading is the Great Dao! It may be found on the left hand and on the right.
All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience to it. When its work is accomplished, itdoes not claim the name of having done it. It clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being their lord; it may be named in the smallest things; ... it may be named in the greatest things.
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He who has in himself abundantly the attributes of the Dao is like an infant.

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The Dao in its regular course does nothing, for the sake of doing it, and so there is nothing which it does not do.

THE WISE PERSON

When we renounce learning we have no troubles!

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If we could renounce our sageness and discard our wisdom, it would be better for the people a hundredfold. If we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly. If we could renounce our artful contrivances and discard our scheming for gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers.

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Therefore the sage holds in his embrace the one thing of humility, and manifests it to all the world. He is free from seif-display, and therefore he shines; from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished; from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is acknowledged; from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires superiority. It is because he is thus free from striving that therefore no one in the world is able to strive with him.

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When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and hon-ors lead to arrogance, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one's name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.


THE IDEAL GOVERNMENT

A state may be ruled by measures of correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; but the kingdom is made one's own only by freedom from action and purpose. How do I know that it is so? By these facts: -In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and rob-bers there are. Therefore a sage has said, "I will do nothing, and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity."

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Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones. He constantly tries to keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act on it. When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.