Lecture on Daoism
This week, we will be studying the two most central texts of Chinese Daoism: the Dao De Jing (also ‘Tao’) of Lao Zi, and the book of the ‘second patriarch’ of Daoism, Zhuang Zi. “Zi” used to be “Tzu” until recently. It means “master”, the title added to most Chinese philosophers, and it is pronounced like a cross between “zih” and “tzuh”. Give “zih” a bit of a “t” on the front and change the “ih” a bit to an “uh”.
Daoism has always been dear to my heart, as I have an old printing of the Dao (on the book, the ‘Tao Te Ching’, now typically and more accurately written ‘Dao De Jing’) which I loved when I was a kid. It was only, however, later in my studies that I was able to have a real love of the text, which at first seemed simply mysterious poetry.
Daoism is often opposed to Confucianism as a skeptical school of thought vs. Confucianism which is more a traditionalist or rationalist school. Indeed, Daoism is one of the most powerful skeptical schools of thought in history, and we continue to look to it as a champion of opening the mind. However it is also clear that Confucius was a skeptic of individual judgments and Daoism also became an orthodox religious system.
While Confucianism stands for city life, study, and the structure of the family and state, Daoism advocates returning to nature, meditation, and questioning relationships of power. Whereas Confucianism argues that we should cultivate and civilize ourselves, Daoism believes that we should return to our natural state and let nature run its course, thus reaching a state of completion.
The most important concept for Daoism (and, interestingly, the mystics of most religions) is the Great One, the All. Essentially, Daoism argues that one should remove one-sided judgments and desires from the mind such that harmony with the whole, with the One, is achieved. ‘Dao’ means ‘Way’, and thus ‘Daoism’ is the study of the Way of the All, the source of everything.
It is believed that Lao Zi lived sometime after 600 BCE, and Zhuang Zi, the second patriarch of Daoism, lived sometime about 370-300 BCE. Not much is known about either patriarch, but we do know that Chuang Tzu worked in a lacquer house (a place for mass-producing bento boxes and plates with glazes). The things said of Lao Tzu are considered entirely of legend. The most famous of these is the legend that Master Lao rode off on a water buffalo into the West (the direction of the setting sun, sacred and associated with death and the afterlife in many cultures including Egypt and China) at the end of his life, never heard from again. One tradition holds that he went to India to teach the Buddha, but this is clearly a tale told by Daoists to explain how Daoism is quite close to Buddhism in many ways. Daoism was blended with Buddhism in China, so Chinese Daoists would say this to trump the Chinese Buddhists.
The Dao De Jing of Lao Zi:
The first chapter, opening verse, of the Dao De Jing, famously reads: “The Dao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Dao. Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name. As the origin of heaven and earth, it is nameless.” The All, or the One, includes everything. Thus, there is no proper or particular name. The BIG ALL does not need a particular name, because there is nothing in particular that one can judge about the ALL. It is the source of all things, so it could be called ‘green’, ‘not green’, ‘both’ or ‘neither’, with equal meaning. The same, of course, goes for any adjective. Just as any particular thing has its opposite (hot and cold, good and evil), the One is the source of all opposites, and thus is in fact neither and both of each particular thing. Notice the duality of heaven and earth, of open sky and closed ground. Sometimes we think being solid is good, other times we feel that being free is good. In fact, the All is all solidity (order) and freedom (chaos), so the All is above and the source of all closure and openness. In the first three lines, we have much of Daoist thought already.
In chapter 8 of the Dao, we learn that the Dao is like water. This is a common metaphor that Daoism employs to describe how the way (Dao) of things is fluid, like water, getting down into the lowest and tightest cracks of things. Daoists are quick to point out: the Dao has no status or pride, and so like the Daoist sage the Way is down amongst the poor and the common, together as one with the things people despise as well as the things people desire.
Chapter 9 of the Dao is a classic example of Daoist reasoning by contradiction. All things have contradictory properties, but this is hard for our one sided judgments and views to see. Thus, we are told that if we continue to sharpen a sword it goes dull, and if we store up enough valuables they will surely attract thieves. ‘When you have done your work, retire’ here means: judge and do just enough for the present situation, but do not try to build up merit or riches, for it will only bring you trouble.
Chapter 11 of the Dao is my favorite. I find it very important for understanding the duality of positive and negative, the solid and empty we saw in heaven-and-earth of chapter 1. We are told that a wheel is only useful because of the emptiness at the center. When you first look at a wheel, you see it as a simply solid thing. Then, if you look again with a more skeptical mind, you will see that the emptiness, not just the substance, is important too. Imagine if a house was not mostly empty, but was solid through and through. You would not be able to get inside it! May as well build the house in outer space. Solid and empty get their meanings, their uses, from a mutual relationship, not from one being the only thing and the other merely false. I love this verse, as it is very close to Hegel’s idea of positive, negative, and synthesis. The synthesis here would be seeing not just the solid wheel, nor simply the emptiness, but both working together.
There is a Zen Buddhist Koan which says something very similar: “First practicing (Zen), I saw a rock as a rock…then, I saw it as not a rock…finally, I saw it as truly a rock.” This, like Hegel, refers to seeing the thing and the conception of the thing as one and two at the same time.
Chapter 13 tells us that getting a lowly state, a common position, is a gift, and so is losing it! How can both getting something and loosing something be good? Because there is good and bad in everything. If the sage finds the good in anything, turning the good to their advantage, then the sage can find the good in getting a thing, and then find the good in loosing that thing. Don’t assume that nothing else has changed in the mean time.
Chapter 22 has an ethical ring to it. The sage does not boast, and is admired by everyone. Clearly, this is because there is no end to boasting in human beings! Most people assume that they know what is simply good, and what is simply bad, and they are not afraid to tell you so. Only the sage, the wise person, knows not to boast about anything, and thus the sage is much less annoying than the average person. This takes practice and patience, something the average person does not have time for before making a certain judgment. The idea is that if you desire nothing, ‘everything will flock to you’, and you have whatever you need right at hand in any situation. This is opposite the common understanding, which says that you must want something to have it.
Notice at the end of chapter 42, ‘A man of violence will come to a violent end’. This is quite similar to Jesus saying, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’. Try to gain for yourself, and the great balance of all things will cut you down, doing to you what you do to others.
Chapter 71 reads ‘to realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness’. I love this wisdom. A good example of this is racism. Knowledge is always focusing on one thing. When you focus on one thing, you ignore everything else. This is crucial to seeing how our knowledge is always human perspective, and how it can always be improved.
The Book of Zhuang Zi:
In several places, we see the idea of perspective which we encountered in Heraclitus. Mao Quiang and Lady Li were famous beautiful women, but fish, birds and deer were frightened by them. Heraclitus said that all human beauty and achievement is nothing but apes to the gods as apes are only apes to us. Who knows what is beautiful, humans, birds, fish, or deer? Which of them knows what tastes good? Another great passage is the Peng bird who migrates for the Winter, an act which the dove and the cicada (a large insect) find ridiculous. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act. This suggests that the wisdom of Daoism will sound ridiculous and foolish to those who are not experienced and wise. We read in the text "Truth sounds like its opposite!", just as Heraclitus said "The way forward is the way back".
In the Chapter, The Secret of Caring for Life, we meet Cook Ting and his famous butcher’s knife. Cook Ting tells his master that his blade never goes dull, for he can always find the hidden spaces in things, and then his blade goes right through. This is very much like the reasoning of the wise mind, that can use reason to chop anything up easily and naturally, without striking up against anything in opposition.
Notice that Confucius appears many times in the Zhuang Zi, used to argue AGAINST his own position and in favor of a Daoist position. Many times Confucius says that his own way is inferior to the Daoist way. Clearly, these are texts written by Daoists who appreciate the good in Confucianism but think their own school to be superior. For example, page 65, in the chapter ‘The Sign of Virtue Complete’, Confucius says of Wang T’ai, “If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then there is liver and gall, Ch’u and Yueh (two warring kingdoms in China). But if you look at them from the point of view of their sameness, then the ten thousand things are all one.” I still use this contradiction of one and many to this day. It shows you much about how people make judgments and arguments.
Notice on page 92 and 93 that Hu Zi trumps a shaman, who tries to read him but Hu Zi can change how he is read seemingly at will. This seems to suggest that the true sage can identify with everything and everybody, so there is no need to avoid any particular thing or to judge the presence or absence of anything for any situation. Anything desired is always immediately at hand when you have a fluid nature that is the source of all things.