Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Daoism (piece written for an encyclopedia)

Daoism (Taoism) is an ancient Chinese tradition of philosophy, ethics, and mystical thought.  Purportedly, its origins go back to the sixth century B.C.E. when the sage Laozi (or Lao Dan) created the foundational text known as the Daodejing, or Classic of the Way and Its Power. (It is sometime designated by the older rendering of the Tao Te Ching.) While some elements may indeed stem from that early era, the text probably received its developed form somewhat later, towards the end of the fourth century B.C.E.

The Daoist school arose as one of the major components of the Great Age of Chinese classical thought, which flourished during the closing centuries of the Zhou dynasty, the longest in Chinese history (ca. 1045-221 B.C.E.).  In this concluding phase, which lies largely in the era of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.E.), the status of the Zhou monarch had dwindled to that of a mere figurehead.  A number of competing states struggled to maintain themselves in the national territory.  This historical setting recalls that the major phase of classical Greek philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. when the Hellenic realm was apportioned among a number of poleis or city-states.

According to the analysis of the historian Sima Tan writing during the Han dynasty, six major schools of thought flourished in the late-Zhou Great Age: the Yinyang school; the Confucians; the Mohists; the Legalists; the Linguistic school; and the Daoists.  Of these only Confucianism and Daoism survived.  In fact they are vital features of Chinese culture even now.

The ostensible founder, Laozi  (Lao Tzu in the older transliteration) was sometimes regarded as a contemporary and opponent of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.), whose career is well documented.  By contrast, the historicity of Laozi is doubtful, and many have concluded that he was not a real person.  (The name Laozi simply means “the old master.”)  Still, this does not mean that the book ascribed to him, the Daodejing was a mere jumble of accumulated material.  It has just as much consistency as if it were compiled by a single person, a consistency that helps to account for the fact that the text enjoys enormous prestige not only in China, but in the world at large. 

When in fact did the Daodejing actually originate?  Until very recent times scholars were dependent on a learned edition compiled by Wang Bi in the third century C.E., almost half a millennium after the apparent time of the work’s creation.  This situation changed dramatically in 1973, when the excavation at a tomb at a place called Mawangdui revealed two basically complete copies of the book that date to about 200 B.C.E.  While the ordering of the two main parts was the reverse of what we are accustomed to (with the De half preceding the Dao half), the text was essentially the same as the one edited by Wang Bi.  In 1993 a new find was made at Guodian, consisting of about 40 percent of the text inscribed on bamboo strips. This version has been dated to the late fourth century B.C.E.

As a result of these discoveries we now may be certain that the Chinese text we are reading is the one honored during the late-Zhou flowering.  It is possible that further excavations will push back the date even further, though probably not by very much.  And it may well have been that an oral recitation was in circulation before the Daodejing text was written down.

Consisting of about 5000 characters arranged in 81 chapters, the Daodejing is a laconic book, sometimes enigmatically so.  By the same token, this concision has encouraged a number of divergent interpretations. For example, is its scope primarily philosophical?  Or does it contain mystical elements that foreshadow the later evolution of Daoism into an organized religion?  Does it primarily address the cosmos, or is it most usefully applied to individual flourishing?  Is it quietist, or does it encourage action, carefully calibrated?  Does it have a political dimension?  Is the book just the remnant of an exotic teaching from a distant time and a far-away land?  Or does it embody vital lessons for the present?

In both classical and modern Chinese, the basic meaning of the word dao iis “road, way, path, or channel.”  Over the centuries that root sense has lent itself to a variety of extended interpretations.  While the term plays a role in all the early schools of Chinese philosophy, it enjoys a unique centrality in Daoism. As  deployed in the Daodejing and the other foundational classic, the book of Zhuangzi, the Dao represents much more. It is both ineffable and pervasive, imperceptible and primordial.  It is an absolute and transcendent principle, “the utterly unspeakable ground of all existence that lies beyond the world of experience” (S. Coutinho).  In its ceaseless operations Dao is the spontaneous process inherent in all entities and manifested at all levels - in the human body, in society, in nature, and the cosmos.  To act in accordance with the Dao is to achieve health, harmony, and inner peace. It may even assure worldly success, though this can occur only by observing the principle of Wu-wei, or action through inaction.

De (“efficacy, power, virtue, integrity”) is the second most important term in the Daodejing, where it occurs 44 times, as compared with 76 occurrences of Dao. The Dao establishes and maintains its hegemony by the application of the De.  In fact Dao and De are complementary in the sense that the first is the field, the second the focus.  De must not be regarded as some powerful, thrusting force.  Rather it acts like water, persistently and patiently seeking its level.

In addition to functioning as a cosmic force, the De may be accessed by individuals. When rulers deploy it, it is corresponds to the Western concept of charisma.  Without the beneficent intervention of the De, successful rulership will remain forever elusive.

The important concept of Wu-wei has engendered some controversy.  It seems clear, though, that the traditional rendering of the expression as “nonaction” or “no action” is mistaken, for Daoism is not a philosophy of pure quietism.  Wu-wei is probably best understood as “effortless action” or “nonwilful action.”

The contrasting, yet complementary pair of yin and yang is found in the Daodejing.  Originally, it probably referred to the contrast between the dark and light sides of a hill. Later it came to be associated with gender contrast.

In some passages the Daodejing expounds a sort of quasi-feminism, in which the female principle prevails precisely because it is soft and lowly. Understandably, this concept of the feminine has had little appeal for today’s feminists.

A central concern is the belief, shared with some other Chinese classical schools, that society and the individuals that comprise it had somehow lost their way from a more authentic state that had prevailed in the past.  Artifice and guile had supplanted primordial innocence. This is the approach that some Western scholars term primitivism.  At all events, it is only with the greatest effort that one can strive to return to the desired condition of primordial innocence.  Pu, meaning “unworked wood; inherent quality; simple,” provided an early Daoist metaphor for the natural state of humanity.  It relates to the broader concept of Ziran (literally, “self-so”), “natural, spontaneous.”

 Any confidence we may have about the doctrines taught in the Daodejing must be provisional because of the way that the narration deploys the technique of apophasis or the via negativa.  “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.”  In different form apophasis is found in Christian mystical thought.  A related concept is emptiness, not unlike the kenosis of Christian tradition.

The other foundational text of early Daoism, the Book of Zhuangzi, differs greatly from the Daodejing in both tone and presentation, though many of the same doctrines are affirmed.  The earliest part of the text, presumably going back to the sage Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) himself, is the first seven chapters, known as the Inner Chapters.  The other twenty-six chapters, probably later accretions, present a variety of allied viewpoints.  The original core seems to belong to the second half of the fourth century B.C.E., roughly contemporary with the Daodejing according to current reckoning.

The title of one translation, Wandering on the Way (Victor Mair), captures the casual, sometimes light-hearted tone of Zhuangzi’s account. Most of the thirty-three surviving chapters contain parables and allegories.  In fact these play a central role in the exposition, and are typically witty, emotional, and sometimes fantastic. They do not seem to be retellings of earlier stories, but invented for the purpose.  Some tales are whimsical, such as the curious account of evolution from misty spray through a series of substances and small creatures to horses and human beings.  There is also an episode where a man fears that his left arm will turn into a rooster, his right arm will become a crossbow, and his buttocks assume the form of cartwheels.

Because of the vivid tales it contains, the Book of Zhuangzi is rightly regarded as the first book of Chinese short stories.

The best-known of all the tales, “Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly.” appears at the end of Chapter Two.  Zhuang Zhou (another name for Zhuangzi) had  a dream that he was a butterfly happily flitting about.  When he awoke, and was palpably human again, he did not know whether he was Zhou, who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhou.  This tale has lent itself to various interpretations; and this labile creativity is probably the best way to understand its purpose.

The stories and anecdotes of the Zhuangzi present a striking set of principles and attitudes.  Some of the most salient are living one’s life with genuine spontaneity, merging one’s inner self with the Dao, keeping oneself aloof from politics and social obligations, accepting death as part of the process, showing appreciation for small things, and determined opposition to social values and conventional reasoning. The Zhuangzi teaches that the key to true happiness lay in freeing oneself from the world and its standards through the application of the Wu-wei principle.

The book interprets the universe as something that changes spontaneously, without a supreme divine figure to guide it.  It is the obligation of human beings to strive for happiness by living spontaneously, in keeping with the principle of Ziren.  In actuality, though, the human intellect is tempted to dwell on artificial distinctions, such as good versus bad, big versus small, and usefulness versus uselessness.

The Book of Zhuangzi has frequent recourse to analogies with craftsmen and artisans, such as the skilled woodcarver and the skilled butcher.  These people do not tie themselves into knots pondering about the theory of their activity, but simply do it.

The term wandering (You) recurs in the text to characterize how an enlightened person progresses through all of creation, enjoying its delights without becoming attached to any one part of it.

The Zuangzi opposed formal government, regarded a problematic at its foundation, for as soon as government interferes in human affairs it destroys all chances of individual happiness.  For this reason the book has been regarded as proto-anarchist.

Although the text is written with great verve, it also expresses concerns about the limitations of language.  Produced in an age that was much concerned with logical reasoning the Zhuangzi is disdainful of this concern, sometimes turning logical arguments upside down to satirize and discredit them.  However, the Zhuangzi does not urge abandonment of reasoning, only recommending caution with regard to dogmatic assertions that could inhibit the flexibility of thought.  

The views canvased so far represent the approach of the Inner Chapters (1-7), though they are echoed in some passages of the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters (8-22). 

Two distinct independent strands have been detected in the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters.  The first of these (8-10, 29, 31) are commonly termed Utopian, showing affinities with modern anarchism and libertarianism.  The other independent strand is termed Syncretistic or Eclectic. It occurs only in a few isolated passages.  This latter strand, anticipating concerns that came to the fore in the Han dynasty, is concerned with correct government.  The ideal ruler, it is suggested, is not an activist, but succeeds by incorporating the Dao and, through “effortless imperialism,” succeeds in communicating the essential features of his rule to his subordinates, who will carry out the principles. 

A third early Daoist text is the Liezi, or Book of Lie.  While it was composed in the Han dynasty or even later, it echoes many of the themes found in the Book of Zhuangzi.

All in all, then, five different variants of early Daoism, are known, a seen in the Daodejing, the Book of Zhuangzi (documenting three separate tendencies), and the Liezi.  These texts do not so much as contradict one another as display the richness of classical Daoist thought, where they show a family resemblance.

The term Daoism is also applied to religious movements that emerged in the second century C.E.  For these Chinese usage deploys the term Daojiao, or Teachings of the Dao.  While they build on earlier themes, this formation seems radically new.  Accordingly, it may be termed neo-Daoist.  The Way of the Celestial Masters hosted a congeries of mythology and rituals, some derived from Chinese folk religion,  This trend laid the foundation for a set of institutions that have flourished in all subsequent neo-Daoist groups.  In due course Laozi assumed the status of a god.  Other gods appeared as well, constituting a whole neo-Daoist pantheon

The movement divided itself into a series of parishes, with each member household being required to pay an annual tithe of five pecks of rice - hence the common name for the group in its early years, the “Way of Five Pecks of Rice” (Wudoumi Dao).

The movement claimed to have originated with divine-human contact, whereby a god reveals a teaching, bestowing a rank on a person.  Later Daoist groups claimed revelations from successively more exalted deities.

In the Way of the Celestial Masters, local communities crystalized around priests who possessed special knowledge.  By virtue of their expertise, they held  privileged places in the divine-human bureaucracy.  Knowledge and position complemented each other.  Proficiency in performing the appropriate rituals and the authority to petition gods and spirits were the priests’ prerogative.  Successful ritual performances affirmed this status.

Some later Daoist groups actively intervened in politics, occasionally in the form of millenarian groups promising to supplant the secular government, and sometime in the form of an established church providing social services to believers.  In some respects Daoism shared qualities associated with Chinese Buddhism, which was also organized as a church.  Today in the West there is some overlap between the appeal of Daoism and Zen (Chan) Buddhism.

A major goal of later, religious Daoism is the prolongation of a healthy life, sometimes represented as a quest for immortality - a state superior to the afterlife as usually conceived.  Attaining this goal is difficult, as there are various challenges that the adept must embrace in order to qualify for this status, The two major aspects are internal alchemy and external alchemy.  Internal alchemy includes visualization, strict dieting, sexual exercises, and the practice of self-control.  Strict dieting would serve to quell demons lurking within the body, and to stimulate and maintain energy.  

External alchemy required mastering special breathing techniques, physical exercises, yoga-like practices and, if possible, consuming purified metals and complex compounds, which were thought to be medicinal.  Apart from these requirements, the adept must lead an upright, moral, and cheerful life.

Today, Daoism is one of five religions officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China.  The government regulates its activities through the Chinese Daoist Association.  In addition, Daoism thrives in Taiwan, where it claims millions of inhabitants.

In the West religious Daoism has had little resonance, though some, like Carl Gustav Jung, have interpreted its precepts symbolically.  By contrast, the early foundational works, especially the Daodejing, enjoy remarkable popularity, a status that does not necessarily entail any specific commitments or practices on the part of the reader.

Classical Daoism has sometimes been equated with anarchism, though this does not accord with the Daodejing, which holds that its precepts can be useful to rulers. Perhaps a closer fit is with libertarianism.  Murray Rothbard, a leading thinker of this tendency, has opined that “The Taoist were the world’s first libertarians, who believed in virtually no interference by the state in economy and society”  (History of Economic Thought, chapter one).

Other affinities are with modern concepts of ecology and the simplicity movement.  A more diffuse connection is with popular books entitled The Tao of Physics, The Tao of Leadership, and the like, which have little to do with any of the historical varieties of Daoism.

Wayne R. Dynes

See also:

Robert G. Henricks, trans. Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching. New York: Ballantine, 1989 [with Chinese text from Mawangdui].
Robert T. Ames and David L. Hall, trans., Daodejing “Making This LIfe Significant”: A Philosophical Translation.  New York: Ballantine, 2003. 
Victor H. Mair, trans. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu.  Honolulu: University of Hawa’i Press, 1994. 
Burton Watson, trans.  The Complete Works of Zhuangzi.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Further Reading.  

Steve Coutinho. An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 
Livia Kohn, ed.  Daoism Handbook.  2 vols. Leiden, 2004.
Hans-Georg Moeller.  Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory.  Chicago: Open Court, 2006.
Fabrizio Pregadio, ed.  The Routledge Encyclopedia of Taoism. 2 vols. London: Routledge, 2008.


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