What Is Daoism?


The Tao has reality and evidence, but no action and no form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be attained but cannot be seen. It exists by and through itself. It existed before Heaven and earth, and indeed for all eternity.

Joseph Needham

What gives life to all creation and is itself inexhaustible-that is Tao.

Joseph Needham

It is the unmanifest potentiality from which all manifestations proceed.

Hua-Ching Ni

Tao is the everlasting rhythm of life, the unity of the polarity of non-being and being.

Ellen M. Chen

Tao is the pointing finger and, at the same time, the direction.

Hua-Ching Ni

The Dao is an empty vessel;

It is used but never exhausted.

It is the fathomless source

Of the ten thousand beings!

Laozi (Chapter 4)

“Dao that can be told, or described in words is not the Eternal Dao”. So begins the Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching) of Laozi (Lao Tzu), written some 2500 hundred years ago.

This book has become the most widely translated book in the world after the Bible. It contains much wisdom in its few pages. We will be quoting Laozi throughout this book. His writings are spare and poetic and leave much room for reflection.

How then to describe the indescribable? How to fit into words that which is beyond words? The Dao can only be pointed to, or referred to, say the ancient sages. It cannot be held, only experienced. It cannot be touched, only felt. It cannot be seen, only glimpsed, with the inner eye.

The term Dao is used to describe the indescribable, to put into words what is wordless, to give sound to the great silence. For the Dao is our source, our path, our end as it is our beginning.

The Chinese word Dao is made up of two characters. One means to follow or to run and the other is a human face. In this way it can be translated as a person moving along a path. It can also be thought of as the path or Way itself.

Dao is at once the universal pageant of the constellations and the budding of each new leaf in the spring. It is the constant round of life and death and all that falls between, an undying cycle of change and renewal.

While Dao is not personalized, it sustains all of creation, giving life and supporting the life of all living beings – human, plant, animal, water, even the very rock foundation of the earth itself. And, in the end, when we have shrugged off this mortal coil, we return to the bosom of the undifferentiated consciousness, the Dao.

The Path of Dao is dedicated to discovering the dance of the cosmos in the passing of each season as well as the passing of each precious moment in our lives.

By paying attention only to what you can see with your eyes you will miss seeing what is really there. It is only by seeing with the inner eye that one can see the true Way. By connecting to our eternal self, by finding a way back to our source, we can experience a sense of peace, of safety, and of harmony with the world around us.

The Path of Dao, with its emphasis on self cultivation and self responsibility and its many forms of energy work and exercise are perfect for today’s world.

The Dao is easy to lose, hard to find, impossible to describe, difficult to see, yet is ever before us, shining like a light in the darkness. Laozi said: “My words are easy to understand yet no one puts them into practice.”

The Ancient Achieved Masters

Once there lived men and women who were not conscious of their separation from Dao, therefore they were at one with it. Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), one of the important Daoist sages of ancient times, describes this kind of person as not minding being poor. They took no pride in their achievements. They made no plans. In this way, they could commit an error and not regret it. They could succeed without being proud. They could climb mountains without fear, enter water without getting wet, and pass through fire without being burned. They slept without dreaming and awoke without anxiety. Their food was simple and their breath was deep.

They did not love life or hate death. When they were born they felt no elation, when they died there was no sorrow. Carefree they came. Carefree they went. That was all. They did not forget their beginning yet did not seek their end. They accepted all that was given them with delight and when it was gone, they gave it no more thought.

Nowadays we strive and struggle, never content, always sure there is something greater to achieve, something of greater value and worth if only we can become successful in the eyes of the world. Yet at the end of the day, in the deep of the night, in the first glare of the morning light, we feel empty and bereft. We have lost the Way and are very far indeed from those ancient men and woman who lived so lightly and so well.

It is in acknowledging the interconnectedness of all life that we can open ourselves to experiencing life in all its manifestations. By paying close attention to the flow of life around us we can feel ourselves being carried along on the currents of energy and spirit that make up the universe.

The Path of Dao gives us ways to cultivate ourselves spiritually, energetically and emotionally. It gives us specific practices to bring all our varying and vying selves in focus, harmony and the oneness where we truly dwell—the eternal, ever evolving Dao.

Dao, then, is the Way, as in direction, as in manner, source, destination, purpose, and process. In discovering and exploring Dao the process and the outcome are one and the same. The Way to the goal, the Way along the way, the one who is going along the Way – they are all one and the same. Those who think that they can separate out what is spiritual from what is not spiritual, what is real from what is not real, what is eternal from what is not eternal – they are lost and confused. There is no Way out or through but through the Way or Dao itself. But just as there are many different kinds of trees in the forest so to are there many different approaches to the Dao.

All paths are aspects of the one path, all truths are but the one truth. Everything that rises must converge. The man or woman of Dao understands this and acts accordingly. For them the past, the present and the future are of all of a piece. They make no distinctions between things, persons or states of being. In this way they free themselves from the cycle of change and dwell in the infinite Dao.

It has been said that words can actually get in the way of true communication. It is when we leave the world of words behind and enter deeply into the world of spirit that we can truly be said to be saying something.

How then are to be able to “know Dao”? How can we experience, consciously, our connection with the divine? For without the connection to that eternal part of ourselves all our suffering is in vain. This has been the mystic quest for thousands of years, in many different cultures.

We come from the eternal, before birth, clear and whole. We are then immersed in the dust of the world and lose our clarity, our wholeness. It is only through spiritual work that we can regain that original pure nature so that at death we can go back into the eternal realm with clear vision and pure understanding. What is good and true about our natures must be cultivated.

The Path of Dao

On the Path of Dao we call spiritual work self-cultivation. We plant the spiritual seeds into our beings and wait patiently for them to grow. We attend them and water them with our tears of joy and grief and mulch them with the negative experiences of our life. And then, if we are patient enough, we can experience the flowering of our Dao Nature and flourish like a great flower in the sun.

You look at it and it is not seen,

it is called the Formless.

You listen to it and it is not heard,

it is called the Soundless.

You grasp it and it cannot be held,

it is called the Intangible.

( Daode Jing, Chapter 14)

The Daoist seeks to dig deep under all the layers of cultural and psychological silt that has accumulated in us humans over the millennia and bring forth the shining pearl that lies beneath.

To enter the Path of Dao means simply to be the best, the most sincere, the most devout, the most understanding, the most patient, the most conscious person we can be. And as such we can truly call ourselves followers of the grand and divine Way.

Daoism has its roots in the ancient practices of Chinese shamanism. It has evolved over the millennia, mixing shamanism, folk rites and beliefs, the deep self cultivation practices of many sages – both men and women, as well as the two other great philosophies of China – Confucianism and Buddhism. It is eminently flexible. Indeed, flexibility is one of its most prized principles (more on this later).

Over the years there has developed, in modern China, two different strands of Daoism – Dao Jia and Dao Jiao. Dao Jia is sometimes called Philosophical Daoism or Classical Daoism, the Daoism of Laozi and Chuang Tzu and of many modern practioners of qigong, taiji (tai chi), or other Daoist arts such as fengshui, internal alchemy and Chinese medicine. This is also the kind of Daoism that is found most often in the West. It is said to date to the ancient sage-king Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, who reigned during the third millennium BCE. It continues down through the sages such as Laozi, Zuangzi, Ge Hong, Lu Dong Bin and countless other “invisible” sages, both men and women, who have carried on the ancient traditions and created new practices even up to today.

Dao Jiao, on the other hand, is referred to as Religious Daoism and is the Daoism of monks and nuns, temples and liturgy. This type of Daoism also incorporates divination, exorcism, talismans, chanting, officiating at funerals, and other rituals. This is the type of Daoism one finds at many modern temples in China and Hong Kong, with even a few in the West. It contains both celibate, vegetarian monks and nuns and priests with families. This type of Daoism was created by a man called Zhang Daoling, who created a movement called the Heavenly Masters (Tian Shi) around 142 CE. As mentioned earlier, it incorporated various strands from shamanism, magical practices and Buddhism, which was becoming very popular in China at the time.

Today there are primarily two branches of religious Daoism – the Heavenly Masters and the Complete Realization (Quanzhen) with several sub-sects of each such as the Dragon Gate sect of the Quanzhen school.

This type of Daoism is beyond the scope of this article. While religious Daoism venerates and uses the teachings of the ancient classical Daoists like Laozi and Zhuangzi, its emphasis of liturgical practices makes it not as relevant to our subject.

Of course there is a lot of debate among Western scholars about these two terms and whether they are indeed two different strains of Daoism. But both from my Chinese Daoist teachers here in the West as well as my interactions with Chinese Daoists in China it seems very clear to me that they do exist.

Spirituality, on the path of Dao, is seen as a tangible, even physical thing. Followers of Dao believe that spirituality is connected to qi (chi), the life force. It is this basic life force that enables us to experience spiritual insight and feel a connectedness to All That Is, Dao itself. Whether we are practicing meditation, chi gong (chee goong), or studying the words of the ancient masters, we are utilizing this life force to enable us to see more clearly into our own lives. In this way we can begin transforming ourselves from our low, often troubled states into higher, more refined stages of spiritual life.

The early sages of Dao, like Laozi and Zhuangzi, used images from nature, or metaphors of the great sage ruler to educate us in how to become more balanced, more harmonious, more in touch with our essential spiritual nature. Indeed, the character for master, zi, is also the character used for child. Much like Master Jesus, who said that we must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, Laozi says:

Holding the body and spirit as one.

Can you avoid their separation?

Concentrating your chi and becoming pliant,

Can you become like a new-born baby?

( Daode Jing, Chapter 10)

It is in attaining this child-like state of purity, flexibility, humbleness and innocence that we become spiritual beings. It is in learning, not only how to go with the flow, but become one with it, that we may be better able to live our lives in joy, harmony, and with a deep sense of wonder and delight in the world around us.

Daoism teaches us that all life forms exist in relation to all other life forms. Indeed, it may be said that nothing in the universe has its own intrinsic reality but only in relation to everything else in the universe. Daoists do not view the world as a static form but as something that is continually coming into being. Not only that, but all parts of that world are coming into being in relation to all the other parts. They are, in turn, acting upon or influenced by these other “coming into being”

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