The Tao of Odds and Ends
Part one: Classical Chinese philosophy
Dao, also transliterated as tao , is a word you have probably seen
countless times, on the covers of books, invariably in conjunction with
subjects great and worthy. You may already know what this word means,
or you may not be so certain. But dao has a great deal to do with my
novel. Hence, this appendix will attempt
to explain what dao is. However, first there must be a modicum of context
setting. The first question to ask is not "What is dao?" This
question, though valid, must follow after "When, where, and why did
dao become so important?"
The time and place where dao was the subject of great philosophical
debate was the Classical period of philosophy in China. The start of this
period can bet set at around 500 BC. It lasted through the Warring States
era (403-222 BC), when the Chinese empire had been broken up into competing,
conflicting states, and ended with the foundation of the authoritarian
Qin dynasty in 221 BC, which unified China, and suppressed schools of
philosophy in an effort to control thought and regulate society.
The chaos at the time of the Warring States had an inevitable impact
upon philosophy. Understandably in the circumstances, traditional custom
and morality were called into question. Many different schools of thought
emerged, and many texts were written that would go on to have an influence
for thousands of years. However, despite the diversity in this explosion
of philosophy, all 'schools' shared the same basic conceptual framework.
They shared the same language and culture. They shared the same conception
of the human mind and body. Furthermore, this Chinese conceptual framework
differed significantly from that of India and the West, where philosophy
was also emerging.
An important example of this 'shared conceptual framework' in the Chinese
philosophy of the period was the assumption that human beings are inherently
social. It was not assumed that people act out of beliefs that they have
reasoned in their thoughts, or desires that they have felt emotionally.
Instead it was assumed that they are guided socially, by a dao,
a system for guiding behaviour.
Dao is most often translated from Chinese as 'way'. It is not
that English word exactly, but dao is 'way' in the sense of a way
to do something, a programme for action, or a path to follow. Although
there can be daos of, ways of, all sorts of things - cooking, painting,
etiquette etc. - Classical Chinese philosophers were interested in the
social dao. People were able to distinguish between right action
and wrong action, by following the publicly transmitted dao. Philosophical
schools differed over which dao was the correct dao to guide society.
For example, Kongfuzi (551-479 BC, also known as Confucius) taught that
the correct dao was the preservation and continuance of Chinese
society's inherited traditions, while Mozi (fl.479-438 BC), took an opposing
view, arguing that the correct dao was to establish a preference
of what is beneficial for human beings, over what is harmful.
This general social approach to philosophy contrasts with the Western
culture of the same period. Chinese thought did not exhibit features common
in the West, such as the dichotomies between the mind and the body, and
between reason and emotion. In the same approximate time period as when
Chinese philosophers were reflecting upon dao, Western philosophy
was born in Greece, where there occurred the conception of something called the psyche. The Greeks
conceptualized a metaphorical 'space' where thoughts took place. This
metaphor they called the psyche. It is better known today as, of
course, the mind.
By comparison, in early literature from pre-philosophical Greece, the
mind is very notably absent. It has often been noted that in Homer's Iliad
and Odyssey (8th century BC), there are no words referring to mental
activity, no 'think' or 'believe' or 'desire'. The literary characters
instead refer to feelings coming from their bodies. The conceptualization
of the mind was, then, revolutionary, but this theory of mind went hand-in-hand
with some other concepts, namely the dichotomies mentioned above - the
dichotomies between the mind and the body, and between reason and emotion.
The Greeks divided the ego into reason and emotion. Reason was associated
with the mind, while emotion was associated with the body. The theory
was that reason alone provided human beings with judgement, for example,
the ability to choose between right and wrong. Ethical behaviour involved
overcoming (emotional) desires if they conflicted with (reasoned) beliefs.
This was also a period of epoch-making philosophy further to the East,
on the Indian subcontinent. The Upanishads, the reflections of
forest hermits, were transforming Vedism into Hinduism; and Buddhism had
begun its transmission, from Siddharta Gautama (560 to 480 BC). What is
of most relevance to note, though, is that Indian thought shared its conceptual
framework not with China, but with the West . This makes historical
sense; there was cultural contact with the West. It also makes linguistic
sense; Greek and Sanskrit are from the same language family, Indo-European
(a family which, incidentally, also includes the language this appendix
is being written in, English). Indian philosophy shared concepts with
the Greek; its theory of mind included the mind-body dichotomy, from
Uddalaka in the Upanishads, who argued that the life-soul (jiva)
is separate from the body .
In both traditions, reason was the faculty by which human beings could
tell right from wrong, but deeper than that, reason was the faculty for
distinguishing between what 'is' and what 'is not'. Emotions, senses like
hunger or thirst, and all perceptions that arose from the physical body,
were considered to be in conflict with the workings of reason, because
reason took place in a purely mental space. The world, as it appeared
in this mental space, was a distorted 'reality' because of the interference
of perceptions associated with the body. Reason was to be used to get
an accurate understanding of what is 'real'. The philosophical problem
then arose of how to understand what is 'real' when the mind has to rely
on information from the 'physical' senses and the physical world is constantly
changing in appearance. There was a requirement for true 'reality' to
be something beyond mere appearances.
Greek philosophy attempted to address this problem. Plato (429-347
BC) theorized about
a world of 'ideal forms'. This theory was that the objects we perceive
through our senses are not 'real' at all, they are imperfect copies of
the true 'reality', which is made up of eternal, unchangeable types of
these objects. Similarly, Aristotle (384-322 BC) had a theory of the fundamental
principles of being: matter and form. Matter was the basis of all that
exists, and form was what makes something what it is. Like Plato's theory,
it was an attempt to explain how something can retain a constant identity,
despite perpetually changing.
In both the Western and Indian philosophical traditions, scepticism arose
from the dichotomy between the realm of the mind and the realm of the
physical world. Do the two realms correspond? Mental perception is not
always reliable; how do we know that all we perceive is not an
illusion? Is the physical world an illusion? Because of these sceptical
questions, objective 'reality' became something that was presumed to be
Mysticism also arose from this kind of thinking. Mystics seek the true
'reality' and to reach a state of unchanging, pure existence, an experience
of the self unmediated by the flux and change of the physical world. Knowledge
of the 'true reality' and the 'true self' is to bring about salvation
for the mystic (the unquestioned assumption being that once we understand
the 'reality' of the universe we will know how to live). It can be seen
here that mysticism, with its separation of mind from body and reality
from appearance, is Indo-European in character; it did not feature in
Classical Chinese culture.
To the Chinese philosopher who was interested in dao, it was irrelevant
to what degree our perception of the world is illusory. A constant dao
was a much more important issue than notions of a constant reality. Chinese
thinkers were seeking to know how, rather than to know what.
That is, knowledge of how to live, how to undertake activities, and how
to deal with death.