An Introduction to Taoism

Fabrizio Pregadio

2. The Origins of Taoism

Daode jing from Mawangdui

Manuscript of the Daode jing
found at Mawangdui (second
century BCE)

The main early Taoist text is the ☞ Daode jing (Book of the Way and its Virtue), a short work consisting of aphorisms attributed to Laozi (the Old Master, or Old Child ☞ pictures). All movements and lineages within Taoism consider this as the founding scripture of the entire tradition, even though they may venerate their own texts and their own founders. Another early work, the Zhuangzi (Book of Master Zhuang), has provided Taoism with doctrines, notions, and technical vocabulary throughout its history.

The present general consensus among scholars is that the Daode jing was not written by a single author, and that Laozi is the appellation of the symbolic Taoist sage whose doctrines are reflected in this work. The text appears to have existed in a form close to the present one between 350 and 300 BCE, but many of its statements probably derive from oral traditions whose dates are impossible to determine. The Zhuangzi, which is the masterpieces of Chinese literature as a whole, differs from the Daode jing from the point of view of its formal features, largely consisting of stories, anecdotes, and reflections. Zhuangzi himself probably authored the seven so-called Inner Chapters in the late 4th century BCE, with the other portions dating from one or two centuries later.

Despite differences in emphasis, the two texts present fundamentally the same view of the Dao and its relation to the world. This view is outlined below on the basis of the Daode jing (references in parentheses are to the number of sections in this text).

The Dao

The word dao has two main meanings, namely "way" and "method." These two meanings refer, respectively, to the way in which something is or functions, and to the way of doing something (including the extended meaning of "practice" in a religious sense). The early Taoist texts are the first ones to use this word to mean the absolute principle: the Dao has no name and is beyond description or definition, the word dao is used only because one "is forced" to refer to it (25). Non-being (wu) and Being (you) are contained within it.

The Dao is unknowable; it has no form and therefore it is "constant" (1) and does not undergo change (41); it is "invisible, inaudible, and imperceptible" (14), "indistinct and vague" (huanghu). Yet the Dao contains an "essence" (jing) that is the seed of the world of multiplicity (21). Under this second aspect — which can be distinguished from the previous one only in the perspective of the domain of relativity in which we live — the Dao is the "beginning" of the world and its "mother" (1).

The faculty that the Dao has to manifest itself and to generate and nourish the individual entities is its "virtue" (de). The Daode jing outlines the generative process from the Dao to existence, which happens spontaneously and has neither cause nor purpose, in a well-known statement: "The Dao generates the One, the One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things" (42). According to this formulation, the Dao first generates the unmanifested (spaceless and timeless) state of Unity (yi), in which all individual entities are included but are not yet separated from one another in space and time. Then Unity differentiates itself into the two polar and complementary principles, Yin and Yang. The Three is the product of the joining of Yin and Yang; it represents the One reestablished at the level of each individual entity. The "ten thousand things" (wanwu) are the sum of entities generated by the joining of Yin and Yang, i.e., the world of multiplicity.

While these stages, from a relative point of view, occur in sequence and are different from one another, from another perspective they occur simultaneously and are equal to one another. The sentence of the Daode jing quoted above, therefore, is designed to show their ultimate origin in the Dao: the creation of the cosmos does not take place once and for all "at the beginning of time," but is reiterated in a timeless present, which is equivalent to saying that it does not occur at all.

The Saintly Person

There is probably no better way to define the ultimate purpose of Taoism than using the expression "return to the Dao" (fandao, huandao). The person who "returns to the Dao" (28, 40, 52) is called in the Daode jing the shengren, a term that in a Taoist context may be translated as "saint" to distinguish him from the Confucian "sage." As the highest realized human being who has achieved liberation in life, the Taoist saint has transcended the limitations of individuality and form. He remains in the world of multiplicity until he has fulfilled his function in it, but from an absolute point of view, which is the one in which he constantly dwells, his self-identity is already null, for he is identified with the absolute principle. In the human world, he "practices the teaching without words" and "makes it possible for the ten thousand things to function, but does not start them" (2). He does not take an active leading role in society, but benefits other human beings by his mere presence.

Generating without owning,
doing without depending,
letting grow without managing:
this is called Mysterious Virtue.

Book Icon Daode jing (Book of the Way and Its Virtue), sec. 10

Just like the Dao does nothing, so is "non-doing" or "non-action" (wuwei) the way to attain to it. Through "non-doing," one responds to circumstances and events, doing no more and no less than what is required, without taking initiative unless there is an immediate need to do so, and without being moved by personal desire, interest, or advantage (3, 19, 34, 37, 57). There is, in particular, no need of striving to perform what is "good," and even less so of attempting to impose it on others, for "when everyone knows the good as good, evil is already there" (2).

The Human Ruler

This is so even when the saint is the ruler, a figure to whom the Daode jing devotes much attention. In that position, the saint governs according to the principle of "non-doing", and that is how he ensures the well-being of his kingdom and his subjects. In the ideal description given by the Daode jing, one does not even need to know who the ruler is. "Therefore the saint in his government empties their hearts (i.e., their minds), fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones. He always sees to it that people are without knowledge and without desires." He does so because "not exalting the worthy prevents people from competing; not valuing goods that are difficult to obtain prevents people from becoming thieves; not showing desirable things prevents the people's hearts from being confused" (3).