The western image of an immortal is someone who lives forever. One of the main terms used to describe an immortal in Chinese is Xiān 仙, and becoming such a being has been one of the primary goals of Daoism. The character Xiān 仙 has two parts, the first meaning person and the second meaning mountain. Thus an immortal is a person who lives on a mountain.
Mountains are holy places in Daoism. One of the reasons for this is that it is very hard to build on mountains, and thus they remain bastions of an archaic heritage that pre-dates the negative effects of civilisation. Daoist asceticism has been practiced on mountains four thousands of years, pre-dating the historical development of the religion itself.
A Daoist immortal is one who has come to the realisation that they are not separate form Nature, but wholly part of it. This realisation is not of the mind alone, but of the mind, body and spirit acting together in unity. Thus, one who is not differentiated from Nature is immortal in the same way that Nature is immortal.
The phrase “Heaven and Earth” (天地 Tiān Dì) is one of the ways in which Daoists refer to the Universe, and is a synonym for everything. Heaven and Earth emerged from the Dao, and represent its unity in two mutually supportive aspects:
– Heaven, Tian, represents the order that emerged from the primordial chaos (Hundun) and regulates its workings. If the Universe were a computer, Tian would be its operating system.
– Earth, Di, represents the nurturing quality of the Dao which supports the continual change that is regulated by Tian.
Daoists seek a more direct perception of reality in which Heaven and Earth are seen as they really are, rather than through a veil of names, judgements, opinions and categorisations. Such direct perception is of the body and spirit as much as it is of the mind.
The duality of Heaven and Earth is like the duality of Yang and Yin. They are not opposing forces, but rather mutually supportive, symbiotic, and each is useless without the other.
Very often in life we want to know why we are doing something before we actually do it, especially if it’s something new. Daoism isn’t always like that, and if you try to make it that way sometimes you move further away from the Dao instead of towards it.
There are many aspects to Daoist practice, but by far the easiest and best starting point is good deeds. So do some good deeds. It doesn’t matter what they are or how many you do, just do some. Don’t ask yourself why you are doing it – try not to think about that, and don’t tell anyone else why you’re doing it. Simply do good deeds – that’s it.
Through practice, The Great Way accepts you – you feel like you are becoming part of it or merging with it. Actually you were always part of it, but you will become more aware of it. The “why” usually comes later and isn’t something that can easily be put into words.
Daoist texts are often like this – they re-inforce the progress you have already made, they don’t cause you to make the progress in the first place.
Don’t stop doing good deeds – from now on, good deeds are what you do.
Both of these words relate to patterns. In Chinese civilization from the time of the Han onwards, Wén (文) has held primary importance, partly through the influence of Confucius. Wen has also held importance in the West through the influence of Plato, Aristotle and many others. Wen can be thought of as human-constructed cultural patterns that occur in various places, and conspicuously in Confucian literature. Wen is one way that human beings pass down knowledge and wisdom through the generations. It is simultaneously one of the main vehicles for passing down culturally conditioned delusions. The word Lǐ (理) can be used as a compliment to Wen, but also as a contrast.
The Analects of Confucius can be taken as an analogy for Wen. The analects represent a mechanism by which the thought patterns of the past can be transmitted forwards and conveyed to others. We have this cultural facet in the West as well – if we want to know about something we often turn to a book. Indeed, our western religions are often described as “religions of a book”.
On face of it, Li is a similar thing to Wen, but the book of Li is not made of paper – it is the whole of Nature. Li does not originate from a person (however eminent), but directly from the Dao. In one sense, this makes Li a more reliable source than Wen.
In mythology, Li can be thought of as being the patterns of Nuwa, and Wen as being the patterns of Fu Xi. Some of the Wen patterns can be useful, while others are delusional/misleading, even though they may seem convincing.
Part of Daoist practice is the mitigation of the dominance of Wen in a person’s life, and merging with the Dao so that Li can come to the fore. In contrast to the variable situation with Wen, Li patterns are always reliable, though their utility can take more effort.
When approaching Daoism, it is natural to turn immediately to books and start reading. There is some value to this, but on the other hand there is the pitfall that you end up learning Daoism, not doing it. This is also true of the various schools of Daoism – they are not exclusive clubs, but rather the collected Wen and associated Li of Daoist masters of the past. In setting out upon The Great Way, books and schools are less important than you might initially think. This is not to say that they have no value, but rather that Nature has more, and doing Daoism has far more value than learning Daoism.
“Daoism” is, to a great extent, a concept arising from the western preoccupation with the primacy of thought. Before the development of a western-style academia in China, the word had no direct equivalent in the Chinese language.
Da Dao (大道), or The Great Way, is not a system of thought. It is something that cannot be understood with the mind acting alone, nor is it something that can be easily categorised. The Great Way is something that is experienced, in part, through the mind, body, spirit, Nature and the Divine all acting together as one single, unified whole. Historically, several words related to The Great Way have been used in China:
- Daojiao (道教) means the Teachings of the Way, and is taken to mean the Religion of the Way.
- Daojia (道家), is frequently mis-translated as “Daoist Philosophy”, however jia does not mean philosophy in the western sense, but rather a school, family or house, and can just as easily be translated into English as religion as the previous term can.
- Daoxue (道學) simply means the Study of the Way.
In all three cases, there is a holistic assumption in which thought or thinking carries no more weight than breathing, movement, energy or feeling, and in which the differentiation between self and other that gives rise to a strongly categorised worldview is viewed as a delusion, not something to be promoted.
A good example of the western miscomprehension of The Great Way is the great emphasis that has been placed on the book known as the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching 道德經), which comes closest in style to a western philosophical text, and the corresponding de-emphasis of thousands of other texts.
The Dao De Jing was originally a very specialised text aimed at rulers (Wang 王), not a general readership. Even in this specialised case, the Dao De Jing can present itself though the cultural lens of the reader’s worldview, especially in translation, but that does not make it a book of philosophy in the western sense. Its famous opening line makes this clear from the outset.
In any event, the Dao De Jing has eclipsed the most important of all texts that pertain to The Great Way, the Yi Jing (I-Ching 易經), as the most representative text of “Daoism” in the western mind. The Yi Jing, the most thorough exposition of The Great Way, is often denigrated to the level of a book of fortune telling. This is true in both East and West, largely because it is not properly understood.
In studying The Great Way, not understanding is more often than not a superior starting point than misunderstanding, and the Yi Jing is a greatly superior starting point than the Dao De Jing, at least when the profuse confucian commentaries are understood as just that, confucian commentaries, and are not taken as part of the original text as they are often presented.
This website makes use of the familiar English word Daoism (also written Taoism) as a collective term for Daojiao, Daojia and Daoxue in their original Chinese senses. This should not be taken as an acceptance of Daoism as a school of thought that can be compared to schools of thought such as Platonism or Confucianism. Just the opposite is true. In reality there is no English word that acceptably describes what Daoism is, but “religion” certainly comes much closer to the mark than “philosophy”.