Tao Thought: Smothered and daodejing 71

It's daybreak and already
The prostitutes are on the street,
Addicts are searching the corners with a feral
An obese woman, winded from a few steps,
Passes an anxious man scavenging a garbage
Jesters to winos in a fiefdom of pigeons.
The summer sky is obscured with leaden clouds.

Tao is all around, but sometimes the weight of our poor habits, our bad circumstances, or our lack of exposure to philosophy hampers us. Although every person should be equally valued as a human being, not every person is equally sensitive to Tao.

Ignorance is our predominant mode in life. We may pass through ghettos and consider ourselves more fortunate, but don’t we all have dense layers of misfortune, confusion, and selfishness to dissolve?

Tao can be known by progressive purification and cultivation. The opposite is also true. Ignorance can be compounded, made denser, until the light of our spirit is smothered.

The light of the soul is bright, but dense clouds of human ignorance* obscure it. Where are you in terms of your effort to make your life brighter?

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

seems like I comment on this passage every year,
the issue remains. Addiction is a disease
and is as painful
and gripping as other chronic diseases.
It is not ignorance that compels the addict to search

for wine or dope, addicts live in the grips of

a progressive and potentially-terminal disease.
We either keep digging the hole
or throw out the shovel and climb out
before the disease takes us down with it.
Recovery is possible. Carry the message, not the addict.

dao de jing translated by current scholars

To understand yet not understand is transcendence
not to understand yet understand is affliction

The reason the sage is not afflicted
is because he treats affliction as affliction
hence he is not afflicted



Moving from knowing to not knowing - this is good.
Moving from not knowing to knowing - this is sickness.
You have to become sick of your sickness
before you can get rid of it.

The sage isn't sick.
He's sick of his sickness.
Therefore he's not sick.



Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole.


Stanford Studies on Daoism

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

Approaches to the Laozi

A sixth and influential view is that the Laozi is above all concerned with realizing peace and sociopolitical order. It is an ethical and political masterpiece intended for the ruling class, with concrete strategic suggestions aimed at remedying the moral and political turmoil engulfing late Zhou China. Self-cultivation is important, but the ultimate goal extends beyond personal fulfillment (Lau 1963; LaFargue 1992). The Laozi criticizes the Confucian school not only for being ineffectual in restoring order but more damagingly as a culprit in worsening the ills of society at that time. The ideal seems to be a kind of “primitive” society, where people would dwell in harmony and contentment, not fettered by ambition or desire (Needham 1956).

This list is far from exhaustive; there are other views of the Laozi. Chad Hansen (1992), for example, focuses on the “anti-language” philosophy of the text. Different combinations are also possible. A. C. Graham, for example, emphasizes both the mystical and political elements, arguing that the Laozi was probably targeted at the ruler of a small state (1989, 234). The Laozi could be seen as encompassing all of the above -- such categories as the metaphysical, ethical, political, mystical, and religious form a unified whole in Daoist thinking and are deemed separate and distinct only in Western thought. Alternatively, coming back to the question of multiple authorship and coherence, it could be argued that the Laozi contains “layers” of material put together by different people at different times (Emerson 1995).

Is it fair to say that the Laozi is inherently “polysemic” (Robinet 1998), open to diverse interpretations? This concerns not only the difficulty of the Laozi but also the interplay between reader and text in any act of interpretation. Polysemy challenges the assertion that the “intended” meaning of the Laozi can be recovered fully. But it does not follow that context is unimportant, that parameters do not exist, or that there are no checks against particular interpretations. Questions of provenance, textual variants, as well as the entire tradition of commentaries and modern scholarship are important for this reason. Put differently, while hermeneutic reconstruction should be given full attention, it remains an open process. The following presents some of the main concepts and symbols in the Laozi based on the current text, focusing on the key conceptual cluster of Dao, de (virtue), ziran (naturalness), and wuwei (nonaction), in a way that highlights their philosophical significance and suggests a degree of coherence.

photograph and photoshop
by lisbeth west

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