The Dao, the Dao-De-Jing, and Yang Sheng
Kevin W Chen, Ph.D. MPH
Laozi and the Concept of Dao
According to the Records of the Grand Historian (史记 Shiji) by Chinese historian Sima Qian (司马迁 ca. 145–86 BCE); Laozi, the alleged author of Dao-de-jing, lived in the 6th century BCE and worked as the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou kingdom. He grew weary of the moral decay of city life, noted the kingdom’s decline, and decided to venture west to live as a hermit in the unsettled frontier at the age of 160. At the western gate of the kingdom, he was recognized by a guard official (Yi Xi). The sentry asked Laozi to leave his wisdom in writing before he would allow him pass. With no other option, Laozi wrote down about 5000 words of his life philosophy and wisdom for the first time.… This is the legendary origin of the Dao-de-jing. In some version of the tale, the sentry is so touched by the work that he left with Laozi to never be seen again. Some legends elaborate further that the “Old Master” was the teacher of the Buddha, or was the Buddha himself.
Although Laozi started the Dao-de-jing with a statement “the Dao that can be told is NOT the eternal Dao,” many ancient Sages and masters have still tried many ways in the attempt to “tell” or “show” what “the Dao” is, or how it should be interpreted, so as to help ordinary people like us to “wu” (悟 comprehend and illuminate) “the Dao.” My bachelor’s degree is in philosophy and during my training I had two courses in the history of Chinese philosophy with “Dao-de-jing” as the core of the course; however, after reading Dao-de-jing multiple times, I would not say that I really understood ”the Dao” in its true meaning at that moment. But I did learn something new every time I read Dao-de-jing. I will share my perspective and knowledge on this subject. I hope readers will find this interpretation stimulating and serve as a conduit to share more insightful opinions. My intention is to help us get closer to “the Dao,” and eventually illuminate “the Dao” with our own intuition, understanding and cultivation.
There are multiple meanings or interpretations for Dao, most scholars agree that the two most outstanding or common laws in Dao are: (1) unity and transformation of the opposites (对立转化), and (2) return to the root or the beginning (返本复初). The theory of unity and transformation of the opposites in exposition of the universe and its change derives from the primitive thought. We can find many similar descriptions in western philosophy. However, in Laozi’s philosophy or writing, not only the pairs of opposites are overwhelming in the book, numbered over seventy (such as being vs. not-being, difficulty vs. easiness, height vs. low and so on), but also the concept of universality is emphasized with the pair of Yin and Yang. “All creatures cannot turn their backs to the shade (Yin) without having the sun on their bellies ( a myriad of things shoulder the yin and embrace the yang).” (Ch. 42). Meanwhile, Laozi emphases the balance and harmony of the contradictions, and the change is the process of transformation of the opposites toward each other. These myriad of things are not only opposite and interdependent, but also mutually changeable and the change is definite to take place.
The second most important law of Dao is that “in Dao the only motion is returning.”(返者道之动；Ch. 40) In other words, to return to the root and the beginning is another law of circular movement manifested by Dao. However, what Laozi emphasizes is to go back to the root and return to the beginning, to maintain tranquility and submit to the fate (or the nature). As he explains in chapter 52: “That which was the beginning of all things under the sun we may speak of as the ‘mother’ of all things. He who apprehends the mother thereby knows the sons. And he who has known the sons, will hold all the tighter to the mother, and to the end of his days suffer no harm.” (天下有始，以为天下母。既得其母，以知其子，复守其母，没身不殆。)
The Dao and the Dao-De-Jing
“The Dao” is a unique concept in Laozi’s “Dao De Jing,” the classic book everyone is talking about these days, but no one so far can claim a true understanding of it. According to my professor of Chinese philosophy, “the Dao” refers to the laws behind everything in the universe that integrates the unnamed (our intuition) and the named (our reasoning) together. This can only be truly understood or comprehended through our intuition with experience. All the languages and names are attached to certain reasoning and manifestations, therefore “the Dao” that can be told or communicated by language is not the original or real Dao. All the books, stories and talks about “the Dao” are just some examples of, or the path toward, the Dao. In other words, the true Dao can only be illuminated through our own cultivation, meditation and comprehension.
Students who attended the medical qigong training by World Institute for Self-Healing (WISH) may remember master He’s only recommendation of additional reading after qigong cultivation, the Dao-de-jing (DDJ) in its original Chinese version. All translations have already added the translator or author’s own understanding and commentary, which is most likely to lead you far away from the true Dao. According to some Daoist masters or practitioners, even though you may not understand the words well when you read the DDJ the first few times, just read it through, and remember those words. You will have a better chance to understand them once you continue your qigong cultivation-practice since the real Dao cannot be expressed in words any way…. For those who understand Chinese, this is a possible way to illuminate the Dao. However, for those who do not understand Chinese, how are they going to illuminate the Dao effectively?
Well, I am not sure how to solve this technical problem, but I know a web site that lets you compare 29 versions of English translation at once. Although this could make the simple “Dao” more complicated or confusing. For those who intend to study “Dao” or DDJ, this could be a great way to deepen your understanding of the message in DDJ (although 29 at once can be a bit overwhelming; you can pick the ones you like). http://www.wayist.org/ttc%20compared/index.htm
This web site could become a useful tool for the beginner to study how different English language translators rendered the ancient Chinese text of the Dao-de-jing (or Tau Teh Ching). You can browse the DDJ chapter by chapter and see 29 different translations in line-by-line comparisons. However, keep in mind that each version of translation is already implanted with the translator’s values and “misunderstanding.”
In my opinion, the degree of truth in each translation is not correlated with the understanding of ancient Chinese, or scholastic capability and the depth of knowledge. Instead, it is the translator’s ability to comprehend and illuminate the unnamed Dao which you are actually reading and comparing. Ironically, the more knowledge one has, the more names or restrictions will limit one’s thoughts and expressions; therefore, making this person less likely to be one who would reach the level of true Dao. However, living in the sea of “names” and “rules,” we need some lights or signals to lead us toward the path of true Dao, which is what the reading of DDJ would serve.
The Dao De Jing and Yang Sheng
One thing really wonderful about DDJ is that, no matter what profession you are in, or what political or philosophic perspective you possess, you will find something appropriate or useful for yourself. In DDJ, a physicist will find the rules and insight of the universal forces, a mathematician will find unique solutions to some math problems, a politician may find the ultimate way to manage a country or an entity, and a qi practitioner will find the path toward the Dao – the peak of mind-body integration and cultivation….
As to Yang Sheng, or nurturing life for health, the main ideas in Dao-de-jing can be summarized in three basic points: (1) fewer desires or lowering desire (寡欲), because “the five colors confuse the eye, the five sounds dull the ear, the five tastes spoil the palate; and excess of hunting and chasing makes mind go mad.” (Ch. 12) Thus one should “block the passages, shut the doors, let all sharpness be blunted, all tangles united, all glare tempered, all dust smoothed.” (Ch. 56). (2) No addition to one’s vitality (不自益其生). “To fill life to the brim is to invite omens,” (Ch. 55) because “whatever has a time of vigor also has a time of decay. Such things are against Dao, and whatever is against Dao is soon destroyed.” (Ch. 55) “How is it that the death-spots in man’s life and activity are also thirty percent? (Those who could have lived long but walk into death of their own accord also number about three-tenths. Why?) It is because men feed life too grossly.” (人之生，动之于死地，亦十有三。夫何故？以其生生之厚。 Ch. 50). (3) To keep vital qi – “empty the mind and solid the abdomen” (虚其心、实其腹)。A man should always “keep the unquiet physical-soul from straying, hold fast to the Unity (keep the spiritual and sentient souls united).” (载营魄抱一，能无离乎？) and “concentrate your breath make it as soft as infant (concentrate the vital qi to attain a state of pliancy).” (专气致柔， 能如婴儿乎？ Ch. 10)
Of course, I am sure we can learn much more than these three points on Yang Sheng from Dao-de-jing. The above discussion is intended to just serve as a starting brick that may attract the true jade out…. (抛砖引玉). In Chapter 67 of Dao-de-jing, Laozi clearly states the essence of his thought and life philosophy: “here are my three treasures, Guard and keep them! The first is kind or mercy; the second is frugality; the third, refusal to be foremost of all things under the heaven.” (我有三宝，持而保之。一曰慈，二曰俭，三曰不敢为天下先。)
Dao is everywhere in our life. The true Dao is supposed to be very simple, around us, and deep inside us. A good practitioner can illuminate Dao in everyday life, like Michelle Wood has been doing the past few years in the column “Illuminating the Dao”. I received a greeting card from a friend a while ago, which touched me deeply in a special way. There are many statements full of meaning which correlate to the true Dao in the card. I would like to share some with you as my conclusion to this introduction to “the Dao”:
- We seldom think of what we have, but always think of what we miss.
- The more precisely you plan, the harder destiny will hit you.
- What happens, happens for a reason.
- Don’t make an extra effort because the best things happen when you least expect them.
- The greatest events aren’t the loudest, but the quietest hours.
- The most difficult lesson to learn is: Which bridge in life to use or which one to break off.
- Everybody sees how you seem, however, only some know who you are.
- He who would like to have something he never had will have to do something well that he hasn’t done yet.
- Plan for tomorrow but live for today.
- Love doesn’t require that two people look at each other, but that they look together in the same direction.
I hope this would add something to your understanding of Dao, and you would search out your path and find your own interpretation of Dao…
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