dao sitting (from the January Project)


beautiful abstract of turkey, with great heart

Cat sits in the sun.
Dog sits on the grass.
Turtle sits on the rock.
Frog sits on the lily pad.
Why aren’t people so smart?

Those who follow Tao are fond of pointing out the wisdom of animals. When they see a cat sitting motionless in the sun or a turtle who stretches her head upward in a still pose, they say that these animals are meditating. They know how to be still and conserve their internal energy. They do not dissipate themselves in useless activity but instead withdraw into themselves to recharge.

It is only people who label meditation as some sort of odd religious activity. This is not the actual case. Something like meditation happens when we sleep, or when we are absorbed in reading a book, or when we “daydream” and become so lost in a thought or an image that we do not notice what is going on around us.

There is no reason to think of meditation as something out of the ordinary. Quite the opposite. Meditation is the purest and most natural expression we can have. When you next look at a cat or a dog sitting still, and admire the naturalness of their actions, think then of your own life. Don’t meditate because it is a part of your schedule or is demanded by your particular philosophy. Meditate because this is natural.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9


Motorola 220 Camera Phone
©2005 lisbeth west

(The January Project)* this is available as a card with the caption "I don't eat your family, please don't eat mine!"
at my special holiday shop

and also on many great products (kids LOVE this design!)

original photo used for design

*(The January Project was created to show that the photographer's eye is the most important "tool" in creating a great photo. All shots were taken during the month of January, 2005 with a Motorola camera phone.)

original photograph of Thelma

Two philosophical "dead ends."

The history of Daoism in the Zhuangzi mentions neither Mencius nor Yang Zhu. It places two other developments between Mozi and Laozi. We will discuss only the second here. Shen Dao represents a stage in the dialectic that Zhuangzi comes to view as a reductio of the Mohist appeal to nature--as well as the consequent intuitionism. Shen Dao's doctrine and the mature Daoist rejection of it are crucial steps in the meta-ethical dialectic in ancient China and the ultimate complexity of the metaphysics of dao.

Shen Dao coins a term, 'Great dao' to refer to the actual, total process--i.e., the actual history of the world. Then he observes that we do not have to "know" any guidance to follow Great dao. We can relax and mimic him in "floating like a leaf on the water." I have been suspicious of the common analysis on which Shen Dao's doctrine represents a kind of fatalism. His importance, I believe, lies in revealing that the Great dao, as he conceives it, has no normative force. The history in the Zhuangzi puts the point by saying that Shen Dao's is a dao that is not dao--a dao for the dead.

The important point about the nature of dao is that token performance of itself has no normative force--offers no guidance. If we take the sum of all actual performance of all things (the great Dao) as a normative guide, we have no guide. To get guidance, we need some other source of normative direction that guides us in selecting a performance. That meta-ethical insight clearly would also undermine the idea of a natural constancy. The injunction to conform to natural constancies gives us no guide. There is a dao of nature (the course of nature), but it is not one of the options among which we are to make a dao choice. I interpret the opening of Qiwu Lun as expressing this insight. All the normative daos that compete for our real choice as guides are similarly "pipes of tiannature:sky." They are natural by virtue of being "puffed out of us" by our nature, i.e., it is our nature to generate these ways of speaking and making distinctions to guide our behavior. The appeal to nature does not settle anything once we have noticed that the problem is a choice among rival actually occurring daos.

Thus, there is insight in the traditional assertion that Daoists take daoguide rather than tiannature:sky as the guide. Without some dao other than natural constancy, we have no guidance. However, as the reflections so far have shown, without "reading nature" accurately as we execute or perform some dao, we also don't get any guidance. Extracting guidance always requires a mixture of nature and "discourse." Themes in the Zhuangzi develop this insight into an extended reflection on the complex and puzzling inter-relation between the natural and the social--the discussion of tiannature:sky and renhuman. It expands on the point we noticed earlier in discussing Mozi, that anything we do with a dao presupposes some other dao --of interpretation, or of evaluation. In any dao activity, we depend on some meta-dao.

A similar line of reasoning yields the Zhuangzi's rejection of intuition. We could undermine Chinese versions of intuitions as we do Western ones by noting that the intuitionist owes us an account of why we should care about the "simple moral property" grasped by the intuition. That an object possesses that property makes it analogous to any other natural property--potentially irrelevant to our practical concerns. The Zhuangzi expresses this point by noting that we have to choose the intuition as a guide--from among alternative potential "ways" of guiding our behavior and we have to choose which intuitions (of the conflicting kinds available in any medium sized community) to grant this authority. His conclusion, as in the case of nature and the Great dao is that we cannot get a shithis:right out of our 心xinheart-mind without presupposing one.

The Daoist theme clearly cautions against choosing daos that conflict with nature -- "do not let the human harm the natural" but it otherwise removes the authority of tiannature:sky and intuition. Ultimately our authority for choices and interpretation are some presupposed dao. Tiannature:sky by itself makes no choices. The Zhuangzi tries to balance its emphasis on the theme of the dependency of social daos on nature with the insight that when we use any dao, our dependencies are on dao all the way down. We can't escape presupposing some guidance that is not fixed by nature or history.

The insight, I argued, is expressed negatively in the Laozi in the famous opening passage. Any dao that can dao is not a constant dao. I believe it surfaces in many of the allegedly metaphysical passages precisely in the insistence that dao is somehow like a thing but not a thing--not a natural kind. Many of the allegedly "metaphysical" passages in both texts read better as denials that dao is a natural kind than as affirmations. That daos guide our language (stereotypically in guiding our classification of features that we count as constituting a thing-kind for the purposes of acting) together with the observation that natural kinds have to do things in certain ways to live, usually makes as much or more sense of any alleged "creation" passages than does an Indo-European story of supernatural creation. This view of the nature of dao has trouble neither with passages that deny the "visibility" of dao nor with those that note that dao can't be exhausted in language or ideas.

The skill passages fit this account better than they do those that portray dao in terms of supernatural perfection. A recurring theme in these passages is how someone having the skill might fail at teaching it to others. That yields a far more plausible sense in which dao cannot be "captured" in language. The famous "difficult" part of the Cook Ding story illustrates how dao outruns any content we acquire in past practice--not only in language.

Finally, though we did not find a straightforward metaphysical solution to the problem of individuating dao, we can make sense of its nature. Much of the account comes via negation. Dao is not simply an object, though aspects of dao may take the form of a road, a map, or a written score or book of instructions. Process objects, such as the Great Dao are daos in one sense, but are irrelevant to our living choices--not daos in another. Similarly Natural processes are daos but represent mainly the limits on our possible choices, not guidance in making them. Dao is not limited to language or discourse except in an extended sense -- where we consider as "language" everything that is interpretable into xingbehavior performance.

Dao always involves a mix of nature but can never consist in mere "receptivity."[25] Social or explicitly discourse dao always requires interpretation in ways that entail reading some natural dao along with it. Natural and normative dao are inextricably blended in all dao guidance. The normative side does not follow from the mere existence of a social practice--nor does it require one. When social practice is an aspect in dao, it is subject to interpretation in some act--including the speech acts that constitute pronouncing dao. These speech acts can be evaluated as correct or incorrect as performances of a dao of advocating or pronouncing (writing) dao. Choice of which dao to perform, qua act, can also be evaluated as a performance of some dao of choosing a dao. Interpreting a chosen dao is itself an action, for which there are several ways among which we may choose. The we should choose among them is a dao and so forth. Dao questions require dao answers all the way down--they do not come to rest in either history or nature.

The picture could be a counterpart of McDowell's claim that humans experience the world conceptually. Our rephrasing of his Sellarsian picture using a normative conception of concepts translates it into a claim that humans encounter a world via dao. Zhuangzi's picture of humans being in dao in the way fish are in water starts to seem fully apt. To be human is to be in a reality viewed as open invitations to ways to "carry on."

archived at

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

Join the daily Taoist meditations mailing list

email to:
See new designs & be first to hear about special sales
duckdaotsu RT

No comments: