dao uncertainty

Chinese characters for "uncertainty"

beautiful temple door and bench, duck nesting near bench with babies in the nest

Kicking a pebble by the side of the road,
Watching it tumble pell-mell.
Chance and randomness become order.

There is chance in this world. Things happen randomly. When a pebble is accidentally kicked down the hill, there was no arrangement, there was no plan. It simply happened—a colliding of bodies. Some people argue that there is order to this universe, asserting that “God doesn’t play dice.” What is the relationship of order and disorder?

We might say that randomness becomes order. There might be an overall framework to things—like procreation, for example—but with that framework, we have the random combination of cells that accounts for the vigor and creativity of the system. By the same token, we may have some constants to a system, such as gravity, but within the constraints of that system, there is chance. One wonders if this means that everything tends toward disorder.

For this to be true, there would have had to be order in the first place. Where did it come from? How was it imposed? Or was there always disorder and chance inherent in the universe, and did they somehow become part of the fabric of reality? Those who follow Tao say that there is no definitive way to resolve this question. They are more interested in accepting the fact that there is always uncertainty in the universe and working with that. For them, incorporating uncertainty into life is at the heart of Tao. That is when they feel the most human.

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

“Door To The Temple”
Chen Yanning 1990
Oil on canvas 30" x 24"

Inventory #: CC_0765
Source: The Hefner Collection

Chen Yanning was born in 1945 in Guangzhou, Guangdong province and attended the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1965 and remaining there for further study through 1986. He was a professional artist at the Guangdong Painting Institute, a member of the Council of the Chinese Artists' Association, and a member of the Guangdong Literature and Art Union. In 1987, he accepted an invitation from Robert Hefner to come to the U.S. for the opening of the Harkness House Exhibition. He has remained here ever since, developing an impressive career as a commissioned portrait painter. Chen has traveled extensively and has been a guest artist in Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, France and the United States, presenting one-man exhibitions in all of these countries. His work has been acquired by major museums including the Chinese National Gallery, the Museum of Chinese History and the West Australian National Gallery. Today, he and his family live in New Jersey.

© The Hefner Collection
liscenced one time use only

Russell Kirkland
University of Georgia © 2002


Today’s scholars debate the dating, contents, and significance of the classical texts associated with Taoism.

The Tao te ching ["Lao‑tzu"] (compiled ca. 300 BCE; some contents older)

(1) “real-life wisdom” from anonymous people (not intellectuals) of 6th‑4th centuries BCE, probably the local elders ("lao-tzu") of the southern land of Ch’u, possibly including women;

(2) teachings about bio-spiritual practices and ambient spiritual realities influenced by the tradi­tion that produced the Nei-yeh.

Transmitted orally for generations, shifting and expanding in content; committed to writing ca. 300 BCE by an unknown intellectual, who converted the material into a socio-politi­cal pro­gram to compete with the programs of Confucians, etc., among the in­tel­lectual elite in the political centers of Chou lands. Eventually the fact that it went back to teachings of “the elders” was forgotten, and “lao-tzu” was assumed to be the name of a character called "Lao‑tzu."

1. Early Layers: Emphasis on personal simplicity, self-restraint, and "feminine" behaviors“Tao”: The source and natural principle of things, likened to a universal Mother
Ethics: One should act selflessly, thereby benefiting self and others alike
2. Later Layers: Emphasis on sagely government; rejection of Confucian moralism
Human Ideal: The "Sage" (sheng‑jen)—one whose behavior is like that of Tao

1. Wang Pi: “the received text” on which most translations have been based; assumed to be the work of Wang Pi (226-249), though his commentary reflects a different edition.

2. The Ma-wang-tui Texts: two incomplete editions of early Han date (ca. 200 BCE) discovered by Chinese archaeologists in the 1970s; main differences from the “received text”: (a) minor wording differences; (b) chapters 38-81 come before chapters 1-37.

3. The Kuo-tien (Guodian) Text: discovered in a Ch’u site by archaeologists in 1993; consists of fragments corresponding to passages of chapters 1-66; datable to ca. 300 BCE; lacks attacks on Confucian values.

Other "Classical Taoist" Texts:
Huai-nan-tzu: a collective work from the court of Liu An, King of Huai-nan, 139 BCE; a comprehensive explanation of all of life; applies cosmic principles to problems of government.

Lieh-tzu: purportedly pre-Han, but really by Chang Chan, 4th-cen­tu­ry CE; uses material from Chuang-tzu, but with a twist: here, one is urged to live life authentically because death is inevitable; intended to divorce the “cultivation of life” (yang-sheng) from the goal of transcending mortal life.



Taoism never became an “organized religion” in the sense of having any centralized authority that at­tempted to maintain orthodoxy or orthopraxy. It was always diverse and fluid, with no clear bound­aries. New traditions constantly sprang up, and interwove themselves with older traditions. The following outline shows how scholars at the opening of the 21st-century conceptualize the phases and segments of Taoism, based on historical and textual research, and on categories sometimes used by Taoists themselves.

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