What Is Daoism?

I caught this quite fitting image at the end of the path I was walking while filming the video titled "What is Daoism?"

I caught this image at the end of the path I was walking while filming the video titled “What is Daoism?”

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

Along with the post titled “The Dao to Buddhism” I made an accompanying video. In the comments of the video someone asked me if I could explain what Daoism is. Not only did I make an epic long 40 minute ramble plus random video clip session (plus dancing with what I didn’t know was a poisonous Bamboo Viper) but I’m writing this blog post as a more well thought out and organized companion to the video.

Daoism 101

I don’t really see a need to put what already exists on Wikipedia into my own words, but I’ll give a quick summary.

Daoism (most commonly written Taoism) is a philosophy and religion based on the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching). Philosophically the text can stand alone without any religious elements and can be interpreted to shun religion. People who follow the numerous religious variants don’t necessarily adhere to the philosophy. The authorship of this text is attributed to a man by the name of Laozi, but it really isn’t known whether he truly existed or the book is really a collective work (nor does it matter). The book dates back to 400 BC during China’s warring states period. There have been a number of additional Daoist texts written since the Daodejing, most notably Zhuangzi’s text carrying his name.

The text is comprised of 81 chapters with the first 37 being the book of Dao (Way) and the second 44 being the book of De (Virtue). Each chapter is extremely brief and poetically written in classical Chinese. Each chapter can be interpreted in a seemingly endless number of ways.

The core of the philosophy primarily focuses on understanding the subtleties of nature and reality pointing towards something referred to as the “Dao” as being the source of any, every and no thing. It’s based on yingyang theory which can be summarized as the theory of opposites.

How Do I Become A Daoist?

You already are. 😉 While there are truths and principles embedded in the texts which us humans describe as “Daoist,” these truths and principles are not unique to nor exclusive to Daoism. As a Daoist you are a seeker of truth. The ULTIMATE truth. Daoists have a particular way of explaining these ultimate truths, but that doesn’t mean they’re right or that they don’t exist elsewhere. Figuring it all out is a process we all, ultimately, do alone. Everyone and everything is acting and reacting according to these ultimate truths right now. Daoists train to “see” this interplay and keep this sight with them. There is nothing you need to do. If you’re interested in training this “awareness” I suppose the next question would be…

Where Do I start?

“You” started long ago, before “you” were born even. 😀 That said if your looking for “the next step” Google is your friend. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there aren’t many Daoist temples or churches. It’s ultimately a “religion” of self discovery. That said there are a variety of groups and organizations which either formally or informally hold meetings to discuss and share. This guy seems pretty awesome (I just found that site with Google and watched a minute of one video 😉 ). You might want to check out meetup.com and look for various spiritual groups. Often times Buddhists are familiar with or “former” Daoists.

Books are an excellent place to get started. I here good things about “The Tao of Pooh.” I’ve never read it but, being someone who often labels myself as a Daoist, I tend to hear about it when others have. The translation of the Daodejing I started with was Stephen Mitchell’s version. While some may criticize it for being overly subjective, I praise it for being written in a way that was easily approachable for a young high schooler looking for the answers to life’s questions. The two translations I go to most are Red Pine’s and Thomas Cleary’s. Red Pine’s because it includes the Chinese, has commentary from influential figures in Chinese history, attempts to keep the poetic feel and includes notes on why he translated things a certain way or modified the Chinese based on more recently discovered version of the Daodejing. Thomas Cleary’s because he is a prolific translator of numerous Daoist, Buddhist and texts from other spiritual traditions and does his best to shed light on the darkness the text attempts to illuminate. There’s this Daodejing comparison project that allows you to look at side by side translations from 29 authors or read each author alone. I use it often.

My absolutely favorite renditions of Daoist everything are the comics done by Taiwanese artist Tsai Chih Chung. Here’s a list of his works on Goodreads.com. You wouldn’t be disappointed with any of them (check used books stores if the prices are crazy online).

One of the keys to Daoism is to keep things loose, fresh and fun. Mix it up. Read hard stuff, read easy stuff, learn Chinese and read Chinese stuff. Just always be true to yourself about the authenticness of your pursuit to “understanding reality.” As a Daoist you’re free to investigate any and all religions, spiritual practices or be an anti-religious atheist. If you think mixing things up will get you “there,” do it! If you think you need to get serious about one religion, do that! If you think you need to stop thinking for a while, watch this! It may give you instant enlightenment.

Daodejing Chapter One Line One

I think the meat and potatoes of Daoism is summarized on page one, line one.

“A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path.” – Cleary

“The way that becomes a way is not the Immortal Way.” – Red Pine

“There are ways but the Way is uncharted.” – Blackney

“The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao.” – Chan

“The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.” – Legge

Questions / Comments?

If there’s anything you’d like to ask me to expand on or you’d like to share with readers that may stumble upon this page, please do so.

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4 Responses to What Is Daoism?

  1. newloud says:

    My friend Mandy and I were talking about Daoism when she said Daoism was all about being in the moment regardless of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’- if the moment called for you to kill someone or cause harm that’s what you would do and be in line with Dao.

    While I kind of see what she’s talking about, I also feel it is ‘wrong’. But my Daoism skillz aren’t yet high enough to explain why I feel like this killing people business is not Daoism… I kind of got stuck by knowing its useless to say Daoism “is” or “Isn’t” anything. Which is where I am now.

    I wanna say that the ‘right’ flow would lead you away from situations of certain violence.

    What would you say about the being-in-the-moment thing leading to violent outcomes like killing or murder or general harm as acceptable reactions?

    • miltownkid says:

      Killing, murder and harm are all human ideas. One only needs to look to nature to see the “violence,” killing and “murder” which happens, but isn’t. TV and movies cause too much cluttered thought. Sure, a situation could arise which would lead to a “murder” (for yourself or another), although I see no reason why most people could not go their whole lives without committing murder or harming other beings. Why does that thought even need to enter the mind of one who is “living in the present”? Things act and things react. That’s all.

      If you feel like it’s wrong, investigate why. Check out chapters 31, 73 an 74. Daoism definitely is and is not some things, that is if you’re wanting to be a skilled Daoist and not one who is content with knowing all things are a part of the Dao, thus whatever one does is “Daoist.” That’s not skilled. Not skilled is not Daoist. The Daodejing makes clear distinctions between “sages” and commoners. Studying Daoism is attempting to join the company of sages. Movement towards “sagehood” is Daoist. Movement away is not Daoist.

      Don’t get caught up in trying to discern what Daoism “looks” like or what Daoists do or do not do. That will only make an already confusing subject of inquiry exponentially so.

      But back to your original question, the thinking that led to it and your idea of “Daoist Flow” keeping you out of a situation which would lead to violence, think about this. If a Daoist has conquered desires and respects life, how could they possibly end up in a situation which would require murder? I’m not saying it couldn’t happen but it’s worth reflecting on with those pieces of information (and as you undoubtedly know, there are more elements to the “Daoism of Sages” to be considered).

      • newloud says:

        Mandy Montanye: I wasn’t trying to say killing is cool or right or something I’d ever do; but if I was in the position, I’d do my best to protect where I am and who I care about; don’t think Buddhists or Hindus can do that; killing kills their karma. I also think that, historically, a lot of taoists were a lot like pirates, and sometimes ppl add western morals to their M.O.’s. Just because taoists are generally passive and look for cues from the Universe, doesn’t mean they won’t fuck u up. I think if Taoism was a Star Wars character, it would be Boba Fett. Dig deeper. Just sayin’…

  2. newloud says:

    Mandy Montanye: And, also, in terms of violence, there’s a huge difference between being outwardly aggressive and honorably defensive. I think that’s why Taoism survived… They should make security guards take tai’chi.

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