dao judgement

Chinese characters for "judgement"

stark beige canvas, animal head skeleton

The accused stands helpless before the judge.
Pen is poised to determine right from wrong.
In one arbitrary stroke,
Life is suddenly decided.

Do judges have Tao? Dispassionate to the point of cruelty, making distinctions on the basis of arbitrary rules, can they be part of a humanistic view of Tao? The answer depends on context. If you are speaking of the Tao of nature-loving hermits, the answer is no: No one has the right to pass judgment on another. If you are speaking of society, however, those who follow Tao accept the necessity of set rules.

These laws are the Tao of the society. Once you are in the world of people and away from the world of nature, you are immersed in dualistic distinction. Then concepts such as righteousness and mercy have meaning. Judgment is the process of comparing ideas in order to find agreement or disagreement with the Tao of society. The facts must be thoroughly examined. Judges must clearly and wisely apply distinctions. That which agrees in the truth.

In the same way, we are all compelled to examine the ongoing circumstances of our lives. That is part of the responsibility of being human. Embracing Tao will not exempt you from the need to render judgments and make decisions. We are both the ultimate judge and the accused. When your final day comes, you yourself must be the examiner. Did you do well? Or did you squander your precious existence? You must decide.


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

"White Space"
Kuang Jian 1998
Oil on canvas 24" x 29"

Kuang Jian was born in 1961 in Hefei City, Anhui province. He began studying art privately in 1974 and in 1979 was accepted into the Academy of Arts of the People's Liberation Army, Beijing. Since his graduation in 1983 he has been an art director for the Army Day Movie Studio, Beijing. He was awarded the Bronze prize at the Seventh National Exhibition in 1989 and has participated in shows in Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Germany. He currently resides in Beijing.

Inventory #: CC-0835
© The Hefner Collection lisenced one time use only

Stanford Studies on Daoism, cont.

Dao (Way, Guide, Road)

Now for some interesting differences between dao and ‘way’. Chinese nouns lack pluralization, so dao functions grammatically like a singular term and semantically like a plural. The first tempts translators to render each occurrence as "the way." The advice is to treat dao as a collective noun — as the sum of ways. What we think of as one way would be one part of dao.

Multiplicity emerges in ancient Chinese most clearly when we modify common nouns. So we can talk about, e.g., my-dao, Sage-King's-dao, natural-dao, past-time's-dao and so forth. This feature explains why dao appears more metaphysical than ‘way’ and invites the familiar Daoist spatial metaphors like "humans encounter each other in dao as fish do in water" (Zhuangzi Ch. 6). Dao is a little like the water -- an expanse constituting the realm in which humans live, work and play. To be human is to be in a realm of ways to act/go. Daoists are more likely to play with these metaphysical metaphors than Confucians or Mohists -- who mainly point to (their favored part of) dao.

Another difference is that while both dao and ‘way’ are almost ineliminable terms in their respective languages, Westerner philosophy has hardly noticed the word ‘way.’ It's barely visible in the history of Western philosophy – more like a bit of grammatical filler. Western philosophers have endlessly analyzed and dissected a cluster of terms thought to be central to our thinking, e.g., ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘being’ (to be), ‘know’, ‘believe’, ‘true’, ‘beautiful’, ‘reason’, ‘change’, ‘subject’, ‘mind’, ‘meaning’, ‘refer’, ‘object’, ‘property’, and so forth. Yet one looks in vain to find a Western philosopher showering her analytic attention on the concept of ‘way’.

Dao, by contrast, was the center of Chinese philosophical discussion. It occupies the position at the center of thought that in Western philosophy is filled by terms like ‘being’ or ‘truth’. The centrality tempts interpreters to identify dao with these central concepts of the Western philosophical agenda, but that is to lose the important difference between the two traditions. Metaphysics and epistemology dominated early Western philosophy while ethics, politics and philosophy of education/psychology dominated Chinese thought. Although it's insightful to say humans live in dao as fish do in water, the insight is lost if we simply treat dao as being. Dao remains essentially a concept of guidance, a prescriptive or normative term. In the late Classical period, dao paired with de virtuosity to form the Chinese term for ‘ethics’ "dao-de." Dao is the key to Chinese philosophy -- but it still translates as ‘way’, not ‘being’.

A third difference is that unlike ‘way’, dao may be used as a verb. The best known example is the famous first line of the Daode Jing. Literally "dao can be dao not constant dao." For the dao in the middle of the three daos in the passage, roughly one out of three translators uses ‘speak’, another third use ‘tell’ and the rest use near synonyms such as ‘expressed’, "defined in words", or ‘stated’. In a famous Confucian example of this use, Confucius criticizes dao-ing the people with laws rather than dao-ing them with ritual. (This verbal sense is now often marked by a graphic variation dao to direct).

Throughout classical texts, we find that daos are spoken, heard, forgotten, transmitted, learned, studied, understood and misunderstood, distorted, mastered, and performed with pleasure. Different countries and historical periods have different dao. Footprints of the linguistic component of the concept of dao are scattered through all kinds of modern Chinese compound words. ‘Preach’ is jiang-dao -- speak a dao. To know is to know a dao. The character dao is part of ‘doctrine’ ‘truth’ ‘principle’ ‘law’ and of course, ‘morality’ or ‘ethics’ ‘reason’, ‘religion’, ‘philosophy’ ‘orthodoxy’, ‘thank’ ‘apologize’ ‘tell’ ‘explain’ ‘inform’ and so on.

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