The Central Theme of Daoism

This posting is referring specifically to philosophical Daoism. Religious Daoism is an entirely different subject and as such, not meant to be considered here. I will lead off by giving you two suggested books for reading:

Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation and Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters

I own both of these books and highly recommend them for your own Daoism reference library.

There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dao de jing, so often you will see it spelled multiple ways, even Daodejing). I would say reading multiple versions would help. The reason there are so many, is because the original Chinese texts cannot be simply translated by character. You need to fully understand the culture and time when it was written. This holds true for any language. For example: In the 1940s, I could say, “I’m feeling so gay today!” and people would think I’m talking about how happy I am. Of course, that sentence has an entirely different meaning in popular English today.

So if you were a translator from the future, say after English had developed 4,000 years from now (about the estimated age of the original Chinese texts), you would have to study Ancient English, and then try to pinpoint the time when the text was written and understand the social and political culture influencing the writer. Translating texts as old as these is a challenge for anyone, and the translations can vary, sometimes greatly.

The translation of the Dao De Jing I listed above is a very in-depth study, including not only the translated text, but also detailed explanations. It’s one of the most well researched versions I have personally read.

Next, as with any philosophy, different people take different things from it. Unlike more defined religious beliefs and practices, philosophy is by nature a venue for discussion and debate about ideas. There are very few absolutes which is why you will come across conflicting views such as “setting goals is good” vs. “do not be concerned with the future”.

My personal stance is somewhere in the middle. If I could live as a hermit, having no connections to society, I could certainly spend my days taking care of “now” and not be worried with the obligations of social living. But even then, I would still have to consider things such as storing up food for the winter.

Living with others however does need planning. We have to consider what we need to do to meet our needs. That is determined by the society in which we live. In many parts of the world,that commonly means developing useful skills, find employment (hopefully related to your chosen skills), and pay for the things you need. This requires planning and training. Both of these things require us to consider the future.

It is also worthwhile to know how to let go of certain worries. Being able to “go with the flow” is preferred to needing to “always be in control”. A Daoist in the 21st century will have to find a comfortable balance between the two ideas. I do not feel the desire to direct situations that are very far removed from my immediate influence. More often than not, I will see how things develop and adjust my own actions accordingly.

Some people call this “conforming” and are strongly opposed to it. In my perspective, moving to conform is the way of nature. Water flows down the hill, conforming to the contours of the land. Over time, the land conforms to the motion of the water.

Obviously, there are times when you are better off making the effort to stand against the current and resist the status quo. And therein lies the most important concept of Dao: balance. The universe’s most consistent observable truth is it strives for balance, equilibrium. It naturally seeks a state of rest between all other influences. The orbits of the planets around the sun are a balance between gravity and velocity.

When considering Daoism as a philosophy to live by, this is what I believe you should keep as your base. Are extreme activities ok? Certainly, but not all the time. Is it ok to eat that rich food? Alright, but not regularly. Oscar Wilde is quoted saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” The concept was not new with him. I’m sure idea of “nothing in excess” has been attributed to great minds from all cultures throughout the ages.

Moderation calls for balance. The universe calls for balance. The most central theme for Daoism is balance.

The Effects of our Choices: There’s No Getting Even

We make choices every day. Some of those choices are “defining”. Every interaction we have with someone else becomes a precedent for future interactions. When these are negative, or harmful to the other person, in some part we are also hurt.

We can try to feel neutral, or impartial, but we cannot separate ourselves from our choices.

Imagine a sudden summer downpour. The water rushes over the dirt, cutting channels as the torrential flow makes its way across the ground. When the next rain comes, the water will naturally flow through those channels. The past course taken by the water influences the future course of the water.

Our choices carve channels in the landscape of how we act. They define how we relate to others, both now and down the road. If we choose to take revenge, or simply give someone “payback” for a wrong committed against us, we are creating channels of negative responses that will guide our subsequent choices. The more often we follow those destructive paths, the more predisposed we become to following them.

Keep this awareness in mind. Make positive choices that strengthen yourself and if possible everyone else. It doesn’t matter if someone else hurt you. There is nothing to gain from doing the same. There is no such thing as “getting even”. All this accomplishes is hurting yourself more, and setting yourself up to follow those “channels” naturally in the future.

That can even lead to making a choice that is hurtful to someone you didn’t intend to hurt.

Wei Wu Wei: Being Passive vs. Doing Nothing

Dualism is key to wei wu wei.

Dualism is key to wei wu wei.

In the Daodejing we encounter a concept known as wei wu wei, or “action without action”.  This is seemingly a paradox.  How can you do something without doing something?  The confusion arises from our concept of opposites in the West.  We see them as distinctly different.  A central theme in Taoism is philosophical duality.  This means that opposites are seen as two parts of a whole, and not separate, opposing states.

Understanding this begins with the idea that opposites create and depend upon each other:

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 bad.

Therefore being and non-being produce each other;
difficult and easy complete each other;
long and short contrast each other;
high and low distinguish each other;
sound and voice harmonize with each other;
beginning and end follow each other.

Sanderson Beck Translation

This coupled view of all things is a key tenet in Taoism.   The idea behind wei wu wei is to do without imposing on the natural process.  A common example is water.  A flowing river carves its way through earth and rock, but it does so without intent.  The path it creates is the most efficient and natural.

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