dao teaching


woman playing guitar at festival

Give back what you’ve learned.
Share your experiences.

If you are in the position of teaching others, then you should teach without reservations. What need is there to hold back? You could tell the secret of life ten times over, and it would still be safe. After all, the secret is only known when people make it real in thiner own lives, not when they simply hear it.

In the past, masters were selfish. They had only learned with extreme difficulty, and so they in turn made it difficult to others. In addition, they were afraid of being surpassed by their students, and so they always held back some key. How foolish this attitude was! How can a student ever challenge a master, unless that master allows his or her abilities to decline? You should teach dispassionately and without holding back.

When you cultivate internal power, it begins to accumulate within you. But there is one odd thing. You cannot hold it in forever. If you tr to do that, the spiritual energy will destroy you. But if you use it prudently—to heal others, to teach others, to comfort others—then the energy will surge back stronger and stronger, like a well that always replenishes itself. The more you give, the more you gain in return. The more selfless you are, the more the self benefits.

Deng Ming-Dao
365 Tao
Daily Meditations

Guitar Woman
© 2005 lisbeth west

The Nature of Dao

Technically, I will not be seeking any specifically metaphysical account of dao. I prefer to think of the project as explicating the nature of dao and will not argue that my account fits any standard definition of 'metaphysical'. An account of the nature of dao will still differ from a theory of the meaning of the term daoguide. It would not be rebutted, for example, by evidence that some Daoist gave an account that contradicted it. Daoists, in my view, offered a variety of accounts so we need not conclude that knowing the meaning of the term was sufficient to settle the matter.

However, an account of the nature of dao should be consistent with the meaning in the sense that it is plausibly specifies what different theories are talking about--what the ancient thinkers were disagreeing about. An account of the nature of dao thus amounts to taking a position on the issues ancient Chinese thinkers themselves were discussing.

Calling a position 'Daoist,' in the reading of the traditional reference-fixing formula proposed here, does not attribute a commitment to any particular answer to second-order questions. Metaethical questions include reflections about the nature of dao but are not limited to these. In addressing these metaethical issues about dao, I am seeking to illuminate doctrines that are more characteristic of Daoist reflections than they are of first-order thinkers who also use the word dao (those dealing with simple casuistry or first order ethics). Daoists may be skeptics, relativists, monists or mystics.

Daoists, on this proposal, may engage in first order dao theorizing and may even draw inferences about such commitments from their metaethical reflections. However, again I will not treat any particular first-order dao as distinctively Daoist. Daoists may well disagree with each other in these first-order inferences. My version of traditional naming convention is that we treat given thinkers as Daoist philosophers in virtue of their centrally addressing metaethical questions. This way of explaining their focus on dao effectively distinguishes theirs from early Confucian, Yangist, Mohist and legalist discussions about dao in classical China.

A second reason I won't offer a straightforward account of the metaphysics of dao is that I leave open the possibility that a satisfactory purely metaphysical account of the nature of dao may be overwhelmingly difficult. That difficulty itself should explain why Daoist metaphysics turns out to be so obscure and does so without having to import Western mysticism as its explanation. The failure of traditional metaphysical categories will serve to explain the Daoist penchant for evasive and skeptical accounts of the nature of dao without the assumption that Daoists use the word differently, or that they used it to refer to some obscure object newly introduced into the discussion by their changing the meaning of the term. The obscurity, we will have discovered, is inherent in specifying the nature of the dominant normative concept in Ancient Chinese disputes about dao.

A final reason my account may not seem like straightforward metaphysics is my view that metaphysics play a radically different role in Chinese thought. I can characterize the contrast best by borrowing recent talk about the "place" of meaning. Consider this statement of that place: "the meaning of words is determined by the role they play in the evidence-inference-action game.”[3] Meaning mediates between two poles of human interaction with the world and contributes to the mental process of inference. Brandom calls the two interactions "entry and exit transitions with the world." Traditional Western metaphysics has been preoccupied with the evidence or entry side, i.e., with the "passive knower" and a dominant appearance-reality form and setting of the problems of metaphysics. Metaphysics and epistemology motivate each other in Western philosophy. Idealism and dualism are familiar and fairly obvious examples of the link of metaphysical and epistemic views. The epistemic preoccupation of Western metaphysics invites the positivist critique of metaphysics as cognitively meaningless--because it seeks descriptions of reality that are not subject to empirical testing.[4]

Chinese metaphysics inclines just as strongly to the exit-action end of the "transitions with the world." It addresses how conceptions of reality fit with the project of guiding human action.[5] My metaphysics will, accordingly, seem like distant cousins to the interpretive accounts usually found under the title "the metaphysical Dao." Considering the possibility of this difference in fundamental outlook, we needn't read metaphysical passages about daoguide as evidence that Daoists have changed the subject. Treating dao as a subject matter does not require that the word dao need be other than the one at home in the discussion of practical and normative issues. In addressing metaphysical issues, we need not infer that Daoists must be referring to a reality in a classical Western, (e.g., Parmenidean) sense—as something independent of or transcending sense experience, conceptions and beliefs. Keeping this difference in mind should help refrain from the temptation to situate metaphysical statements into our familiar appearance-reality structure. We needn't assume that meta-passages about the nature of dao must be about ultimate reality (or an ultimate source or creator of reality). We needn't take claims about the ineffability of dao as claims about the ability to experience ultimate reality or of language to represent, define, denote, prove, confirm or "capture" some ultimate reality.

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