Philosophical Daoism?

Thoughts on Daoism as Philosophy and Religion

Progress & Conservation🔰
15 min readSep 21, 2023

I have very mixed feelings about Daoism. On the one hand, I like philosophical Daoism and, particularly, the ways in which it fits well into my secular Buddhist and naturalist worldview. On the other hand, I don’t really care that much about religious Daoism with its liturgy, rituals, deities, magic, alchemy, etc. Nevertheless, the two are entangled and inseparable. There is no such thing as “philosophical Daoism” abstracted from the religious and cultural milieu. What I find is that I like aspects of Daoism, typically those aspects that were incorporated into Chan/Zen Buddhism, but that I don’t feel that I could ever consider myself to properly be a Daoist. I do, however, feel comfortable describing myself as a Buddhist.

Lao zi, Investiture of the Gods at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia Photograph from the Ping Sien Si Temple in Perak, Malaysia taken by Anandajoti. CC BY 2.0

Philosophical-Mystical Daoism

I believe that Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and Wen-tzu, the great masters of Daoism, had independently discovered the truths that comprise the core of Buddhist teachings. When I read their works, it’s clear to me that the Dao described is not something like the Judeo-Christian concept of God but more like the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” or “openness” as the true nature of all things.

The Dao is described as a primordial singularity, like the singularity that scientists hypothesize to have preceded the Big Bang. “There is something, an undifferentiated whole, that was born before heaven and earth. It has only abstract images, no concrete form. It is deep, dark, silent, undefined; we do not hear its voice. Assigning a name to it, I call it the Way (Dao).”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 1) The Dao is described as devoid of any concrete essence, which is to say that it is “empty” in the Buddhist sense. “So the Way is empty and unreified, even and easy, clear and calm, flexible and yielding, unadulterated and pure, plain and simple…. Empty nonreification is the abode of the Way.”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 3) The Dao can, therefore, be thought of as a sort of substratum of the universe. It is, however, not a concrete substance. It is the universal substratum of “emptiness” or “openness,” an underlying substance of pure potentiality. It is called the “Source” of the universe but it is not a Creator in the Judeo-Christian theological sense. All things emerge from the underlying emptiness, abide in it for a time, and ultimately merge back into it. It is not an Intelligent Designer, a personal God, or a benevolent Creator. The Dao is the primordial singularity prior to the Big Bang and the cosmic stuff that it exploded into.

The Dao is the substratum of emptiness but it is also the spontaneous order that emerges from that emptiness. Thus, the Dao is in some sense, synonymous with nature. We can think of this in terms of “Universal Darwinism.” The things emerging from the indeterminate chaos of emptiness (popping in and out of existence in the “quantum foam,” if you will) will either be suited to survive and abide for a time or will instantly fade back into oblivion through a process of natural selection akin to the familiar process in biological evolution. From this natural selection, patterns and “laws of nature” emerge as natural epiphenomena. The Dao is the infinite void, the quantum foam, and Mother Nature. The Dao is both the primordial emptiness and the spontaneous order of natural laws that emerges from it. “Mountains are high because of it, oceans are deep because of it, animals run because of it, birds fly because of it. Unicorns roam because of it, phoenixes soar because of it, the stars run their courses because of it.”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 1) The Dao has a spontaneous ordering function but it is not a conscious guide or designer. “The natural constant Way gives birth to beings but does not possess them; it produces evolution but does not rule it.(Wen-tzu, Ch. 1) Life and biological evolution are things that naturally emerge out of the Dao but the evolutionary process is not guided by the Dao in any way.

Photo by Soyoung Han on Unsplash

“Empty nonreification is the abode of the Way. Even ease is the basis of the Way. Clear calm is the mirror of the Way.” — Wen-tzu, Ch. 3

But Daoism is not merely a theoretical philosophy. Like Buddhism, it is primarily something you practice and do and not merely something you believe in. Daoists believe that an individual can become one with the Dao through meditative practices. If you empty your mind through mindfulness meditation, you can reunite with the Dao and experience the truth of non-dualism. Ultimately, everything is one because the essence of everything is the Dao or emptiness. The dualities that emerge (this vs. that, good vs. bad) are temporal phenomena that are ultimately illusory. When you get back to the Dao and realize the single ultimate nature of everything, the dualities fade away and you attain the unitive experience of non-dual insight. This is done through “sitting in forgetfulness” or “sitting in oblivion.” When you still the water of the mind by bringing thoughts to an end, the still water of the mind becomes a mirror reflecting the Dao. “The reason people use limpid water for a mirror, not a moving stream, is that it is clear and still. Thus when the spirit is clear and the attention is even, it is then possible to discern people’s true conditions…. When a mirror is clear, dust does not dirty it; when the spirit is clear, habitual cravings do not delude it. So if the mind goes anywhere, the spirit is there in a state of arousal; if you return it to emptiness, that will extinguish compulsive activity, so it can be at rest. This is the freedom of sages.” (Wen-tzu, Ch. 35)

“Yen Hui said to Confucius, ‘I have made progress.’
“Confucius said, ‘What do you mean?’
“Yen Hui said, ‘I have forgotten about humanity and duty.’
“Confucius said, ‘That’s all right, but still not enough.’
“Another day, Yen Hui saw Confucius again and said, ‘I have made progress.’
“Confucius said, ‘What do you mean?’
“Yen Hui said, ‘I have forgotten about ritual and music.’
“Confucius said, ‘That’s all right, but still not enough.’
“Another day, Yen Hui saw Confucius again and said, ‘I have made progress.’
“Confucius said, ‘What do you mean?’
“Yen Hui said, ‘I sit in forgetfulness.’
“Startled, Confucius said, ‘What do you mean by sitting in forgetfulness?’
“Yen Hui said, ‘I ignore my body and dismiss my intelligence: detaching from physical form and leaving knowledge behind, I assimilate to the Universal. This I call sitting in forgetfulness.’” —
Chuang-tzu (Ch. 6)

Daoism is highly political and is a libertarian philosophy though it is not individualistic. The sage as ruler or advisor to kings is a recurring theme. The ruler must cultivate inner stillness and develop the ability to “act without acting.” The sage-king must react and intervene only when necessary, being reactive instead of active; he ought not to attempt to steer society from the top. (Cf. the Daoist concept of wu wei) The sage-king must allow the “ship of state” to flow down the river naturally, only steering it away from obstacles as necessary, making the task effortless in comparison to trying to maneuver against the stream.

“Confucius said, ‘[Wang T’ai who had had one of his feet chopped off] is a sage…. Even I would consider him a teacher…. I would invite the whole continent to follow him…. Death and life are indeed important, yet cannot get him to change. Even if heaven and earth overturn and fall, that cannot deal him any loss…. When you look in terms of their difference, even the liver and gall bladder are separate. When you look in terms of their sameness, all things are one.
“Assuming that is so, he does not concern himself with what ear and eye prefer, and lets his mind wander in the peaceful harmony of the virtue of equality. He looks at the unity of things, and does not see any loss. He sees the loss of his foot as like dropping a quantity of earth….
“People cannot use flowing water for a mirror, they use still water for a mirror. Only the still can still the masses so they become still.” —
Chuang-tzu (Ch. 5)

Once the sage has become enlightened, he is fit to rule. He no longer lives in a manner where he “contrives” or “actively schemes” but instead takes a laissez-faire approach to life. This is what is meant by wu-wei or “non-action.” He sees the true nature of things and does not try to make things be something that they are not. “Therefore the affairs of the world are not to be contrived, but promoted according to their own nature. Nothing can be done to help the changes of myriad beings but to grasp the essential and return to it. Therefore sages…activate their vital spirit and lay to rest their learned opinions. Therefore they are open and uncontrived, yet there is nothing they do not do; they have no rule, yet there is no unruliness. To be uncontrived means not acting before others. To have no rule means not to change nature.”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 2)

The Daoist sage alone is fit to be a libertarian monarch and rule in accordance with the laissez-faire (wu-wei) principle of the Dao. And, yet, the Daoist sage has no desire to rule and realizes that any attempt to advise kings is likely bound to end in calamity for the would-be sage-advisor. (Cf. Chuang-tzu, Ch. 1 & Ch. 4) “Leaders who want to govern are rare; ministers worthy of participation in government are virtually nonexistent. The rare seek the virtually nonexistent; this is the reason why perfect government is hardly seen once in a thousand years.”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 129)

The Doaist laissez-faire principle of we-wei can be applied more broadly, even outside the scope of politics. It interests me how this idea seems to be expressed in Judo as seiryoku zenyo (“maximum efficiency”). Jigoro Kano’s philosophy of martial arts holds that one should learn to subdue an opponent with maximum efficiency and minimal effort. If I’m wrestling with an opponent who is pushing into me, I could push back. This, however, is unwise because it only works if I am stronger than the opponent. It would be wiser, then, to simply step off to the side and prop the leg for sasae-tsurikomi-ashi or hiza-guruma. Alternatively, I could drop underneath him to do a sacrifice throw, passively allowing myself to become the fulcrum over which the opponent throws themself. If the opponent is stepping forward and pushing into me, he’s making himself off balance so that it’s easy for him to be thrown. “What is tilted is easily overturned, what is leaning is easy to push over. When something is almost done, it is easy to help.”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 94) Kano Sensei argued in his book Mind Over Muscle that to truly understand the doctrine of seiryoku zenyo in Judo is to achieve enlightenment. It is to attain the wu-wei (“non-action”) of the Daoist sage or the mu-shin (“no-mind”) of a Buddhist bodhisattva.

“Those who are known as zhenren (‘genuine persons’) are united in essence with the Way…. They govern the inside, not the outside. Clear and pure, utterly plain, they do not contrive artificialities but return to simplicity…. Their attention is focused internally… They sit unconscious of doing anything, they walk unconscious of going anywhere…. They respond to feeling, act when pressed, and go when there is no choice… They take the Way as their guide; when there is any opposition they remain empty and open, clear and calm, and then it disappears.” — Wen-tzu (Ch. 42)

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Another expression of wu-wei would be the Gandhian notion of non-resistance. The concept of “non-resistance” employed by advocates of non-violent civil disobedience is paradoxical — they resist by not resisting. On the one hand, they are resisting insofar as they are refusing to comply with unjust laws. On the other hand, they are not actively resisting. This is what made non-violent civil disobedience effective. The protesters were disobeying but not actively resisting — when the cops resorted to outright violence to get them to comply, it exposed the injustice of the system. Since they weren’t striking the cops, it hardly seemed reasonable for the cops to resort to violence — yet there was no other way for the cops to enforce the law. Wu-wei might, therefore, be better translated as “natural action” or “effortless action” than as “non-action.” In spite of “non-action” being technically linguistically precise, it leads to confusion and doesn’t really convey the meaning well. Wu-wei is not apathetic passivity or laziness. “Therefore return to simplicity, with no contrivance. No contrivance does not mean inaction, it means adapting to what is already going on.”(Wen-tzu, Ch. 161)

We would, of course, be missing something if we were to forget the concepts of Yin (dark) and Yang (light), which symbolically represent duality and oppositions — negative vs. positive, good vs. evil, male vs. female, this vs. that, etc. The Dao gives rise to unity, the primordial oneness, as all things exist undifferentiated within it. Nevertheless, duality emerges from this oneness. When the first differentiated thing emerged from the primordial substrate of emptiness, its emergence led to the co-arising of its opposite. “The Way produces one; one produces two, two produces three, three produce all beings: all beings bear yin and embrace yang, with a mellowing energy of harmony.”(Tao Te Ching, Ch. 42) Differentiated things have, behind them, harmonious unity, and cannot exist without their opposite. Darkness can’t exist without light, evil cannot exist without good, etc. All things ultimately emerge from and return to the Dao.

The Yin-Yang dichotomy in Daoism is also used to teach that one should pursue a middle way of moderation, avoiding extremes. Yin and Yang become symbolic of dichotomies, dualities, and opposites in general. For each force, value, sentiment, or object, there is an opposite. One goal of Daoism is to harmonize the forces of Yin and Yang, to steer between the extremes on both sides. Engaging in extreme forms of “righteousness” (asceticism and charity) can be harmful, just as extreme “wickedness” can.“If you do not approach fame for doing good, do not get near punishment by doing evil, and focus on the center as the norm, it is possible thereby to preserve your body, fulfill your life, support your relatives, and live out your years.”(Chuang-tzu, Ch. 3)

“Of the energies of the universe, none is greater than harmony. Harmony means the regulation of yin and yang… accumulated yin does not produce and accumulated yang does not develop; only when yin and yang interact are they capable of producing harmony.
“Therefore the Way of sages is to be magnanimous yet stern, strict yet warm, gentle yet straightforward, fierce yet humane. What is too hard snaps, and what is too soft folds: the Way is right in between hardness and softness. Benevolence pushed too far becomes weakness, which is undignified. Strictness pushed too far becomes ferocity, which is inharmonious. Love pushed too far becomes indulgence, which is ineffectual. Punishment pushed too far becomes calamity, which means loss of familiars. This is why harmony is valued.” —
Wen-tzu (Ch. 153)

The sage must, therefore, strive to harmonize Yin and Yang and pursue a middle way between the extreme opposites that these terms represent. This middle way is what Daoists mean by harmony.

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

One thing that particularly interests me about Daoism is how similar a lot of its ideas are to Buddhist philosophy. Like the Buddha, Chuang-tzu observes that the “self” is impossible to pin down:

“If not for others, there would be no self. If not for self, nothing is apprehended. This is not remote, but we don’t know what constitutes the cause. There seems to be a real director, but we cannot find any trace of it. Its effectiveness is already proven, but we don’t see its form. It has sense, but no form.
The whole body is there with all its members, openings, and organs: with which is the self associated?…” — Chuang-tzu (Ch. 2)

Chuang-tzu also talks about the emptiness of lanuage and words, a theme found in Buddhist texts like the Vimalakirti Nirdesa and the Bodhidharma Anthology. “Words are not just puffs of air; words carry something. But what they say is not definite…”(Chuang-tzu, Ch. 3) Self and words exist and are meaningful but they ultimately lack any concrete and permanent essence. From the emptiness of self and language, Chuang-tzu goes on to espouse what any Buddhist would recognize as the doctrine of pratitya-samutpada or inter-dependent co-arising:

“There is nothing that is not a ‘that’ and nothing that is not a ‘this.’ One does not see from the standpoint of another; knowing by oneself is knowing something. Therefore it is said, “‘That’ comes from ‘this’; and ‘this’ is based on ‘that.’This explains how ‘that’ and ‘this’ arise simultaneously.
But when there is arising, there is passing away; and when there is passing away, there is arising.”
Chuang-tzu (Ch. 3)

The ideas of emptiness and interdependence become a springboard for launching into a discussion of non-dualism. One must seek enlightenment through mindfulness meditation or “sitting in forgetfulness,” whereby one can come to realize the non-dual nature of reality. And, like Buddhists, Chuang-tzu describes the realization of the truth of non-dualism as an “awakening.” “Whenever there is no definition or disintegration, all things are resolved into unity. Only the enlightened know how to comprehend all as unity…. When they are dreaming, they don’t know they are dreaming…. Only after waking up do they know they were dreaming….”(Chuang-tzu, Ch. 3)

Chuang-tzu also advocates a path of moderation, steering between opposite extremes, something that Buddhists will recognize as the Buddha’s doctrine of the “Middle Way.” “If you do not approach fame for doing good, do not get near punishment by doing evil, and focus on the center as the norm, it is possible thereby to preserve your body, fulfill your life, support your relatives, and live out your years.”(Chuang-tzu, Ch. 3)

The reason Buddhism spread so easily in China is simply because it didn’t conflict with Daoism. It shared a lot of ideas with the indigenous Daoist faith and the two schools of thought were easily synthesized and reconciled. But this is not to say that there aren’t significant differences between Daoism and Buddhism. Daoism also entails rituals, deity worship, magic, and alchemy — things that may be foreign to many Buddhists.

雲角 — Own work, 正殿中脊_福祿壽三仙 Attribution

Religious Daoism

There is a lot to like about Daoism as philosophy but it is unfair to present philosophical Daoism abstracted from religious Daoism as being Daoism proper. This distinction between “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism” was made popular by Western scholars. It is, however, a very Westernized view that isn’t quite true to Daoism as practiced by Daoists. In the works of Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and Wen-tzu, the deities are very much real (at least, as real as anything else). You’ll run across the Jade Emperor, the Queen Mother of the West, and the Three Pure Ones in the classic Daoist texts, though they are easy to miss if you aren’t familiar with Daoist religious beliefs. Daoist occultism, magic and internal alchemy, is there to be found in the oldest texts of Daoism as well. The I Ching is literally a text about divination! And ever since the time of Zhang Daoling, who was roughly contemporaneous with Jesus Christ, Daoism has been an organized religion with formal liturgy, rituals, and holidays.

The Sanxing (Lu, Fu, and Shou) are the three central deities venerated by Daoists. These three are deified humans from prehistoric times and not totally mythical figures. The deity Kitchen Lord spies on those living within a household and reports their deeds to the Jade Emperor, who is the lord of destiny and who metes out reward or punishment by bringing longevity and health to those who do good and calamity to those who do bad. Each person is born under the guardianship of one of the gods of the stars of the Big Dipper. There’s also the veneration of ancestors. Then there’s the Steps of Yu, the shamanic dance of the Celestial Ladder, and the way of spiritually ascending into the heavens via trance. There’s also entire occult systems based on the notion of internal alchemy, where you try to purify internal energies in order to manufacture the elixir of life within yourself. There’s also the use of physical exercises like Tai Chi for meditative purposes. Various forms of meditation, ritual, and deity worship would be central practices for any modern Daoist. Daoism emerged out of shamanism and is very much a magical religious occultism and not merely a theoretical philosophy.

You can talk about the Dao, emptiness, wu-wei, yin and yang, and other Daoist concepts as philosophy but it’s impossible to speak of either historical or modern Daoism without getting entangled in religion. Daoism is not theistic in the Judeo-Christian sense but there’s a lot of ancient superstitions and religious stuff there too. It’s philosophy is mystical and religious and you can’t have a true understanding of Daoism while only approaching it as philosophy. Personally, I’m more interested in the philosophy side of Daoism than the religious side, but it would be fair to say that most practicing Daoists wouldn’t recognize “philosophical Daoism” as encapsulating their beliefs and practices. In fact, the ancient Daoist masters also would not recognize any sort of Daoism that had been abstracted from mysticism, liturgical religious practices, rituals, and deity worship.

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