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Elusive Dao De Jing

Excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7.
© Rowman & Littlefield

This article is excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7.

In Zhuangzi’s philosophy all theories are useless precisely because they depend on words – which lead only to more words. Words alone cannot put one in touch with the ultimate. Philosophical Daoism is particularly strong on this point. As the opening verse of its core text, the Daodejing, asserts:

The Dao that can be expressed in words
Is not the true and eternal Dao;
The name that can be uttered in words
Is not the true and eternal name.

As a result of its allergy to words or to systematic philosophizing, Dao remains elusive to many human beings, who often require something more tangible on which to focus their beliefs. Religious Daoism, emerging early in the Common Era, centuries later than its philosophical originators, provided what had been lacking to make it popular: statues and temples and established rituals, the paraphernalia of popular Daoism.

Rather than words, getting in touch with Dao has to come through felt experience, as Zhuangzi’s parable of the swimmer illustrates. And not just any experience, but one gained by working in the right spirit. Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar” expressed a similar insight when he contrasted a mere farmer to the “Man on the farm.” A farmer, he writes, is a man “metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. . . . He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of [becoming] Man on the farm.” While “Man on the farm” may perform the same actions as the mere farmer, he does so in a completely different spirit, conscious of how his activities fit into a vast cosmic scheme of planting, growing, maturing, harvesting, dying. Through cultivating this consciousness, Emerson explains, “Man on the farm” falls back not on the things of the farm but “on this elemental force of living them” – a force in China best recognized as Dao.

© Rowman & Littlefield
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Taoism and Western Culture

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