The yin–yang and bagua symbols, both significant to the philosophy of Daoism.

Dao denotes a road, path, or way. Every ancient Chinese thinker interpreted the concept of dao to suite his philosophical system. For the Confucians, dao refers to the way of the early sage kings. For the Daoist, it refers to the way of nature.

Dao (the Way) is one of the most important concepts in Chinese philosophy. Almost every Chinese philosophy employed its own operational definition of dao, which denotes a road or a way. (The character dao is a pictograph representing a head on a path.) Anything that has a consistent course or specific direction is called a dao. Dao is used to connote a process, a method, or an art. In Chinese philosophy dao has two main foci: the dao of nature, or heaven in the Confucian context (tian zhi dao), and the dao of humans (ren zhi dao).

Daoists emphasize the way of nature. They are concerned about living in harmony with the way of nature, believing that social harmony flows spontaneously from nature. They recognize the importance of the human way, the way of the sage ruler, for keeping the community on the path of living in harmony with nature. The way of humans became the focus of Confucianism. Confucians are concerned about the course that humans travel to develop themselves and their communities. In Confucianism dao refers to the way of custom, tradition, and human moral relationships. Confucian texts discuss the dao of heaven or nature, but Confucians are more concerned about the social norms that promote harmony within the family, community, and state.

Most Primitive Reality

Daoists abstracted the concept of dao, transforming it into the most general concept that simultaneously generates, maintains, and diminishes the universe. Some Daoists, such as Master Lao (Laozi, sixth or fourth century BCE), focus on the dao itself as the most primitive reality from which all things and thoughts unfold. Dao was abstracted from nature. For Laozi the dao became the empty void from which all things arise and return. Dao is the primal unity that generates all diversity, and it is the great diversity of the myriad things that return to undifferentiated unity. Laozi raises the concept of the dao to new heights, making it the primordial cosmic force. Consider poem 25 of the Laozi: Daodejing (Master Lao’s: The Way and Its Power):

There is something chaotic and yet completely

Generated before the heavens and earth.

Solitary! Silent!

Standing alone, not changing.

Pervading all without limit.

Regard it to be the mother of all under heaven.

I do not know its name.

Call it dao.

Compelled to name it.

Call it great.

To be great means to pass on.

To pass on means to go far.

To go far means to return.

So it is said, “The dao is great.

The heavens are great.

The earth is great.

And the king is also great.”

Is not the king one of the four great things in the

Humans model the earth.

The earth models the heavens.

The heavens model the dao.

The dao models its own self. (modifying Addiss
and Lombardo 1993, 25

The concept dao is understood to be an independent, objective reality that begins and returns. The reality of dao is unlike anything in this world. As the primordial origin, dao is the nexus of undulating opposites. It is empty but generates and fills things. It has no creator and is prior to the supreme ancestor or god (Laozi, poem 4). Dao is vague and unclear but a reality. It is obscure and dark yet contains the vital source of life (Laozi, 21). A person cannot see, hear, or touch it. Dao is the shapeless shape, the formless reality (Laozi, 14). Dao has various modes of operation. It generates the primordial unity (Laozi, 42). It does not engage in any particular activity, yet nothing is left undone (Laozi, 37). It operates by returning, and being soft, weak, and flexible; it is useful (Laozi, 40). For Laozi the operations of the dao are a model for the sage ruler to emulate.

In contrast, Confucians note that the disciples of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) did not receive instruction concerning the way of heaven (Ames and Rosemont 1998, 5/13). Despite that passage, Confucius believed in the way of heaven and that his life mission was condoned by heaven (Ames and Rosemont 1998, 9/5). Confucius was not a speculative thinker. He was concerned about the decay of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) culture. He felt that people were losing the dao of the early sage kings, the social norms that bound people together in their extended families, communities, and states.

Proper Way of Life

This pragmatic approach led Confucius and his followers to focus on the proper way for maintaining social and political life. So Confucius said, “Set your intention on the dao, sustain yourself with virtue, rely on human kindness, and relax in the arts” (modifying Ames and Rosemont 1998, 7/6). These are closely linked. The arts refer to ritual and music. Listening to the right music was believed to civilize people. Ritual action was the basic norm for controlling behavior and the correct way to express kindness. For the Confucians kindness or benevolence is the most important virtue. Living in accord with the virtues is the means to put the cultural way of the ancient sage kings into practice. The dao for Confucius was the way of the cultural tradition. It was the way of the founders of the Zhou dynasty, King Wen and the duke of Zhou.

Chinese philosophers employed the term dao to describe their own approach. For example, the dao of Mozi (flourished 479–438 BCE) is the way of promoting social harmony by loving each and every person equally. The dao of Zou Yan (305–240 BCE) is to follow the natural cycles of the five phases, namely, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The dao of the militarists is to practice martial arts. The dao of the legalists is to codify laws and standards. For the most part, every philosopher made reference to the way of the ancient sage rulers, the kingly way, and the ways of specific people, such as ministers or craftsmen. Because of these more common expressions, the term dao comes to mean a teaching, a philosophy, or a religion.

Further Reading

Addiss, S., & Lombardo, S. (1993). Lao-Tzu: Tao Te Ching [Master Lao’s The Way and Its Power]. Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing.

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H., Jr. (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Zhang, D. N
. (2002). Key concepts in Chinese philosophy (E. Ryden, Trans. & Ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Alvero College Library.

Source: Sellman, James. (2009). Dao (the Way). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 563–565. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A Daoist priest rings a bell in this historic woodblock illustration.

Dao (the Way) (Dào ?)|Dào ? (Dao (the Way))

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