dao dissent

Chinese characters for "dissent"

abstract figures, appear Mao and another face suspicion? — with two monks praying

Old man: Dissent is not disloyalty.
Be careful before you retaliate.
Your steel wrapped in cotton
May only be brittle bone wrapped in fat.

No one is a supreme authority. People seek leaders, priests, gurus, and hermits thinking that someone has a precise formula for living correctly. No one does. No one can know you as well as you can know yourself. All that you can gain from a wise person is the assurance of some initial guidance. You may even spend decades studying under such an extraordinary person, but you should never surrender your dignity, independence, and personality.

There is no single way to do things in life. There are valid paths, even though they may differ from the ways of respected elders. Diversity is good for tradition. Too often, elders confuse dissent with disloyalty and punish people for the crime of having a different view. They are no longer in touch with Tao but instead mouth self-serving convention. Perhaps the panic of their own impending death makes them clutch. When the leaders become repressive, it is a sign that their time is drawing to a close.

A saying about old masters was that they were like steel wrapped in cotton: They appeared soft on the outside but still held great power on the inside. We all hope for elders like that. But oftentimes, the old masters have lost their mandate of Tao. Then, when tested, they are merely brittle bone and fat. How can we respect such people?


365 Tao
Daily Meditations
Deng Ming-Dao
ISBN: 0-06-250223-9

"Sweet Life #38"
Zhu Wei 1999
Watercolor and ink on paper
Dimensions: 76" x 102"
Zhu Wei was born in Beijing in 1966 and studied art at the Beijing Children's Palace from 1974 to 1975. In 1982 he joined the People's Liberation Army and graduated from the Art College of the P.L.A. in 1989. In 1993 his army unit was demolished and the following year he graduated from the Beijing Academy of Film and established his own studio, Zhu Wei Art Den.

Inventory #: CC_0827
The China Collection

Stanford Studies on Daoism

Definition of "Daoism"

The underlying distinction between the philosophical and religious poles is an epistemic issue. Both species of Daoism start from a common critique of "ordinary" knowing of dao way:guide. From this mildly skeptical or relativist base, philosophical Daoism tends toward pluralism, perspectivalism, skepticism, political equality and freedom. Religious "mysticism" professes to control of an esoteric way of overcoming the skepticism and typically claims some "superlative" or direct access to a single correct dao way:guide. As the special insight cannot be justified to those with "ordinary" perspectives and/or cannot be put into language and argument, it tends to generate esoteric, hierarchical and authoritarian forms.

The latter tendency is associated with a Confucian-like emphasis on "cultivating" this special epistemic ability, obediently following teachers and traditions. The philosophical strains emphasis on natural spontaneity, freedom and egalitarianism, leads them to favor political anarchy. This is because in the context of Ancient China, the assumed role of government is cultivating moral character, that is, instilling the same moral dao way:guide in everyone whether by education, attraction or force.

The gap between the religious and political attitudes can partly be closed by claims that the content of the religious dao is egalitarian, empty or anarchist.

Confucianism argues that the religious strains shared interest in cultivating a special moral status means that Confucianism and Daoism are ultimately compatible. Both have at their core a dogmatic asseveration of a "special," cultivated ability of direct (not mediated by language or reasons) access to the single, correct, dao -- which cannot be cast in the form of "fixed" principles. The supposedly shared presupposition is the possibility of cultivating an intuitive guidance that is not undermined by the philosophical Daoist arguments. Insofar as they are accountable for justifying or answering those arguments, tendencies in that direction can still count as ‘philosophical.’ We draw the line of definition when the claim to special insight rests on dogmatic claim, special pleading or "revelation."

The domination of Confucianism in Chinese intellectual life has brought with it the wide acceptance of this "friendly" orthodox religious interpretation of Daoism. History does little to settle which line of interpretation is "original" since lines of thought leading in each direction can be found in early classical sources. This difficulty is compounded by the diffidence of the writing styles in both the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi -- which is so marked that it is often tempting to suspect the writers intended to be ambiguous, to invite divergent interpretation as an object lesson in the "inconstancy" of any discourse-based dao. Conceivably, therefore, both trends may have drawn "support" from reading the early texts as expressing ideas compatible with their own.

a reading list of books and interpretations of the Daodejing is available at

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