The Tao of Odds and Ends


© Barry Kavanagh 2003

Butterfly    Tao

Part one: Classical Chinese philosophy

Dao, also transliterated as tao [1], 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 [2]. 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 [3].

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 beyond appearances.

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.


Part two: Laozi and the Daode Jing