The Tao of Odds and Ends


© Barry Kavanagh 2003

Butterfly    Tao

Part two: Laozi and the Daode Jing

Laozi is the man credited with writing the Daode Jing. His dates are traditionally given as 604-531 BC, although he may actually have lived in the fourth century BC. But Laozi has a very interesting biography in that he may never have existed at all! Nevertheless, he is the man credited with writing the Daode Jing, and he is supposed to have done this under the following circumstances. A custodian of historical archives, he retired when he reached old age, and, in dismay at the direction society was taking, left his home in what is now Henan province and travelled West.Yin Xi, the Keeper of the Han'gu Pass in the Zhongnan mountains (60 kilometres South-west of Xi'an in Shaanxi province), requested that Laozi write down a book of his dao, before he left the known world behind him. Laozi may have had no choice in the matter; he may not have been able to pass without appeasing Yin Xi. Laozi is said to have written the Daode Jing there and then, and when he finished, he departed into the West, where he wandered, never to be heard from again.

The Daode Jing, written in Classical Chinese, uses parallelisms; that is, sentences have similar structures. This clarifies the syntax and helps avoid ambiguities, particularly important in philosophical texts. In English, this makes the work look like a book of poetry, but it isn't; it is not classed as a shi (poem) in China [4]. It is divided into eighty-one sections, which seem to be compiled in no particular order. However, the first section is undeniably the most important. A literal translation of the first line of section 1 of the Daode Jing reads, "dao can dao not constant dao." Remembering that a dao is a system for guiding behaviour, this line can be rendered understandable as "to guide what can be guided is not constant guiding"[5]. Laozi was saying that no dao can provide constant guidance. The philosophical debate of the Classical period was about which dao was the correct dao to guide society. Laozi rejected the notion that any dao could be an absolute guide.

One part of Laozi's argument involves undermining the conventional dao of his society. Much of the Daode Jing is an exercise in 'reversal'. Section 40 states "That which is converse is the action of a guide"[6] (another translation of the same line is "Reversion is the action of Tao"[7]). The text contains many unusual aphorisms that reverse all the conventional values, values such as the preference of strength over weakness, or of something over nothing, etc. [8]. Aphorisms like "The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world" (section 43) [9] dictate that the opposite of the usual preference can achieve the same result as the usual preference would. Section 11 shows how 'nothing' can be valuable: "Thirty spokes together make one hub. Where the nothing is, lies the cart's use" [10]. It was contrary to convention to see the value of nothing. 'Something' was the conventional preference, but here Laozi points out the utility of the hole in the hub. Similarly, section 76 shows the value of weakness:

When man is born, he is tender and weak.
At death, he is stiff and hard.
All things, the grass as well as trees, are tender and supple while alive.
When dead, they are withered and died.
Therefore the stiff and the hard are companions of death.
The tender and weak are companions of life. [11]

Not only does the text show the value of weakness, but also it attacks the conventional preference for strength. Section 30 is particularly critical:

The use of force usually brings requital.
Wherever armies are stationed, briers and thorns grow.
Great wars are always followed by famines. [12]

The Daode Jing shows how the opposite of the conventional dao can be the correct dao to use. Adopting the principle of reversal can yield results, as mentioned in section 36:

In order to weaken, it is necessary first to strengthen.
In order to destroy, it is necessary first to promote. [13]

These particular lines have left Laozi open to much criticism, for appearing to advocate deceitful action. However, it is important to realize that this 'reversal' is not itself a 'constant' dao which will work all the time. The exercise of reversal only serves to show that reverse preferences are possible. By showing how the opposite of a dao can guide just as well as that dao, Laozi was questioning the usefulness of any dao. He was questioning the very activity of making value-judgements [14].

Laozi was recommending wu-wei instead of action. Wu-wei is sometimes translated as 'non-action' or 'actionless action'. The latter, as an oxymoron, indicates the difficulty of translating wu-wei into English. To wei is to act according to the conventions of society [15]. Putting wu (which literally translates as "does not exist") before wei indicates that wei should be done without. Laozi encouraged his readers to disregard all social conventions, but furthermore to take no dao as guidance, and avoid all forms of social conditioning. If people do this, Laozi presumed their only actions, then, will be natural, and not socially imposed. By 'natural actions' he meant those actions that people do to survive, and to propagate the species. These actions take place spontaneously, and are not transmitted through a social dao. So, wu-wei does not literally mean taking no action. Laozi was not recommending passivity. Both sections 37 and 48 refer to "nothing" being "left undone" in relation to wu-wei [16]. The sage, or wise man, uses wu-wei when, as stated in the final line of section 64, "he supports all things in their natural state" [17] Examples of supporting things in this way are outlined earlier in section 64:

Deal with things before they appear.
Put things in order before disorder arises.
A tree as big as a man's embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine storeys begins with a heap of earth.
The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands. [18] [19]

It can be seen from the range of activities mentioned here, that wu-wei involves avoiding social conditioning, rather than avoiding deliberative, purposive, or voluntary action.

For Laozi, social conditioning came in many forms. Language was one of these, and the Daode Jing advocates that people "revert to knotting string" [20], as they did before writing was invented. This stance against language is explicable when it is observed that language in Classical China was seen as a social tool that people use to co-ordinate group activities, rather than as a tool for describing reality, as it was for the Indo-Europeans. A dao would be transmitted through language.

Laozi also saw desires as examples of social conditioning (this highlights again the contrast with Indo-European culture, in which desires were associated with the conflict between the physical body and the mind). Section 3 advises, "Do not display objects of desire," lest people "be disturbed," and "Do not value rare treasures, so that the people shall not steal" [21]. Desires are socially imposed; people will only desire such objects and treasures if it is socially expected of them, or if they are socially excluded from having them. The sage, therefore, in section 64, "desires" only "to have no desire"[22].

In his book, Laozi was rejecting guidance, which meant rejecting socially imposed language, desires, and much of the culture in which he was living - or its entirety. According to Laozi, if people were free from these, they would revert to a natural state, and be content in small-sized agrarian societies, like the one he described in section 80:

Let there be a small country with few people.
Let there be ten times and a hundred times as many utensils
But let them not be used.
Let the people value their lives highly and not migrate far.
Even if there are ships and carriages, none will ride in them.
Even if there are arrows and weapons, none will display them.
Let the people again knot cords and use them (in place of writing).
Let them relish their food, beautify their clothing, be content with their homes, and delight in their customs.
Though neighboring communities overlook one another and the crowing of cocks and barking of dogs can be heard,
Yet the people there may grow old and die without ever visiting one another. [23]

To Laozi, all daos were unnatural. The Daode Jing was Laozi's guidebook to rejecting guidance. This is, of course, paradoxical. It is a piece of writing that advocates knotting string instead of writing.

Perhaps Laozi did have a dao of his own, but it could not be expressed in the book, and was extra-lingual, ineffable, something of the language of pure silence. Perhaps there is some meaning behind the myth that Laozi only wrote the Daode Jing to appease the Keeper of the Pass on his journey out of the known world. This would mean that the existence of this guidebook against guidance could be explained as an ingenious response to the ridiculous demand on Laozi to write down his dao. His disappearance into the West would then signify that the book could only be followed by an absence, a silence, and a position beyond language, culture and social control.


Part three: Zhuangzi and the Book of Zhuangzi