Chinese Characters for "diversity"

watercolor of garden flowers, original art by lisbeth

Gods have many faces,
But true divinity has no face.

There are so many gods in the world. Taoists have their pantheon. The Buddhists, Hindus, and other religions have theirs. The Islamic and Judeo-Christian schools may be monotheistic, but their sects differ vastly from one another. Those who follow Tao assert that each of us sees the divine in our own way. Is there one
god, or many?

Among those who follow Tao, there are those who say that if there are gods, then everyone is a god. You are a god. There is nothing in the sky, and no one lives your life but you. Whatever one believes in terms of deities is fine. It’s all individual preference, and it ultimately means self-awarenesss. But there is something beyond the diversity of gods, and that is the absolute.

That which is absolute is formless. Thus Tao is nameless and faceless. We cannot consider Tao our god. That would be to give it form and therefore bring it back into the world where the myriad things have names. We use the word Tao for convenience only, but in fact, we are referring to a deep mystery. As long as we lie in the world of diversity, whether it is the frantic pace of our professional lives or the involvement with all the gods of the world, we will not be with Tao. It is only when we leave the diversity of existence and find the formless absolute that we reach Tao.

365 Tao
Daily Meditations
Deng Ming-Dao

“Mountain Hermit”
Lisbeth West
Photograph with photoshop enhancement
actual size 8" x 12"

Stanford Studies on Daoism


  • The Laozi Story
  • Date and Authorship of the Laozi
  • Textual Traditions
  • Commentaries
  • Approaches to the Laozi


Like Heshanggong, Yan Zun also subscribes to the yin-yang cosmological theory characteristic of Han thought. Unlike Heshanggong's commentary, however, the Zhigui does not prescribe a program of nourishing one's qi-energy or actively cultivating “long life.” This does not mean that it rejects the ideal of longevity. On the contrary, it recognizes that the Dao “lives forever and does not die” (8.9b), and that the man of Dao, correspondingly, “enjoys long life” (7.2a). Valuing one's spirit and vital energy is important, but the Zhigui is concerned that self-cultivation must not violate the principle of “nonaction.” Any effort contrary to what the Laozi has termed “naturalness” (ziran) is counter-productive and doomed to failure.

The concept of ziran occupies a pivotal position in Yan Zun's commentary. It describes the nature of the Dao and its manifestation in the world. It also points to an ethical ideal. The way in which natural phenomena operate reflects the workings of the Dao. The “sage” follows the Dao in that he, too, abides by naturalness. In practice this means attending to one's heart-mind (xin) so that it will not be enslaved by desire. Significantly, the Zhigui suggests that just as the sage “responds” to the Dao in being simple and empty of desire, the common people would in turn respond to the sage and entrust the empire to him. In this way, the Laozi is seen to offer a comprehensive guide to order and harmony at all levels.

An early commentary that maximizes the religious import of the Laozi is the Xiang'er Commentary. Although it is mentioned in catalogues of Daoist works, there was no real knowledge of it until a copy was discovered among the Dunhuang manuscripts (S. 6825 in the Stein collection). The manuscript copy, now housed in the British Library, was probably made around 500 C.E. The original text, disagreement among scholars notwithstanding, is generally traced to around 200 C.E. It is closely linked to the “Way of the Celestial Master” and has been ascribed to Zhang Daoling, the founder of the sect, or his grandson Zhang Lu, who was instrumental in ensuring the group's survival after the collapse of the Han dynasty. A detailed study and translation of the work in English is now available (Bokenkamp 1997).

The Xiang'er manuscript is unfortunately incomplete; only the first part has survived, beginning with the middle of chapter 3 and ending with chapter 37 in the current chapter division of the Laozi. It is not clear what the title, Xiang'er, means. Following Rao Zongyi andCapital O with macronfuchi Ninji, Stephen Bokenkamp suggests that it is best understood in the literal sense that the Dao “thinks (xiang) of you (er)” (1997, 61). This underscores the central thesis of the commentary, that devotion to the Dao in terms of self-cultivation and compliance with its precepts would assure boundless blessing in this life and beyond.

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daodejing verse 58

Where government stands aloof
the people open up
Where government steps in
the people slip away

Happiness rests in misery
Misery hides in happiness

Who knows where they end
there is no direction
Direction turns into indirection
good turns into evil
The people have been lost for a long long time

Thus the sage is an edge that doesn't cut
a point that doesn't pierce
a line that doesn't extend
a light that doesn't blind.



When the government is dull and sleepy,
people are wholesome and good.
When the government is sharp and exacting,
people are cunning and mean.

Good rests upon bad.
Bad hides within good.

Who knows where the turning point is?
Whether government or person,
if you aren't tranquil and honest,
the normal flips to the abnormal,
the auspicious reverts to the bizarre,
and your bewilderment lasts for a long time.

Therefore the sage does what is right
without acting righteous,
points without piercing,
straightens without straining,
enlightens without dazzling.



If a country is governed with tolerance,
the people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
the people are depressed and crafty.

When the will to power is in charge,
the higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.

Thus the Master is content
to serve as an example
and not to impose her will.
She is pointed, but doesn't pierce.
Straightforward, but supple.
Radiant, but easy on the eyes.


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