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The Daodejing and its Tradition

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Alan Chan’s opening essay from The Daoism Handbook provides a solid scholarly overview of the history of the text and commentaries……..

 

 

The Daodejing and its Tradition

 

The Daodejing, commonly translated the "Classic of the Way and Virtue," must be ranked as one of the most important classics in world literature. It also poses a strong challenge to interpreters, past and present, in China and beyond. Known also as the Laozi, on account of its reputed author, the Daodejing is the foundational classic of Daoism, taken broadly to include all forms of Daoist thought and practice. Inasmuch as Daoism forms a pillar of Chinese culture, the influence of the Daodejing is pervasive. The sheer number of commentaries devoted to the classic—some 700, according to one count, of which about 350 are extant (W. T. Chan 1963, 77)—is itself a telling indication of its enduring popularity and hermeneutical openness.

 

The influence of the Daodejing extends beyond China; in Japan, approximately 250 commentaries have been identified. The first translation of the Laozi seems to have been into Sanskrit dating to the seventh century (Pelliot 1912). During the 18th century, a Latin translation was brought to England (Legge 1891, xii), after which a steady stream of translations into Western languages has appeared, totalling some 250 to date (LaFargue and Pas 1998, 277). this makes the Daodejing the most translated work in world literature, next to the Bible (see also Mair 1990, xi).

 

The Daodejing has been a chief source of inspiration for Chinese intellectuals and in the modern period for lovers of wisdom and spirituality in the West as well. In pre-modern China, emperors, high officials and other personages of note—as even a cursory reading of the standard dynastic histories testifies—were fond of citing the Daodejing. Followers of the Daoist faith revered it as a revealed scripture. On politics, literature, art, religion, philosophy and other domains, the Laozi has left a mark that is both deep and far-reaching. In the West, while other sources of influence are at work, the contribution of the classic to such best-selling works as The Tao Physics (Capra 1975) and The Tao of Pooh (Hoff 1982) is considerable. Regardless of what the scholarly community may think of these works, they play a role in what some have called the movement of "new-age" spirituality that has claimed a substantial following in recent decades. Overall the work has had a long history and widespread influence and has also been surrounded by many controversies. All this renders mapping "the Daodejing and its tradition" in a short essay a hazardous undertaking.

 

HISTORY

 

THE LEGEND OF LAOZI. Few scholars today would subscribe fully to the traditional view that Laozi, the "Old Master," wrote the Daodejing before he left China on a westward journey. However, scholarly consensus on such basic issues as authorship and date of composition remains elusive. The official "biography" of Laozi offered by Sima Qian it (ca. 145-86 B.C.E.) in the Shi Shiji (Records of the Historian), on which the traditional view is based, provides a point of departure for debate.

 

The current (Sibu beiyao) version of the biography begins: "Laozi was a man of Chu.... His surname was Li; given name, Er Boyang; he was called posthumously Dan (Shiji 63). Unambiguous as they may seem, even these details have given rise to intense disagreement. Since the Tang dynasty, for example, scholars have pointed out that the "original" Shiji version gives Laozi's style-name as Dan, and that the name Boyang derives from a later source. Early sources such as the Zhuangzi (Writings of Master Zhuang) and Lushi chunqui (Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lu) refer to Lao Dan consistently. It has also been suggested that the word Lao is a surname, although the majority view remains that "Lao Dan" should be rendered simply "Old Dan." These examples give an indication of one kind of debates with which students of the Laozi have been preoccupied. Sima Qian goes on to relate that Laozi was a historiographer or archivist at the court of Zhou, and how Confucius consulted him on the rites (possibly funeral rites). This establishes the traditional claim that Laozi was a senior contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.). In this story, which also appears in Zhuangzi, ch. 14, Laozi instructed Confucius in a tone that clearly affirms his superiority, chiding the latter for his pride and ambition. Confucius was full of admiration for the Old Master likening him to a "dragon," which further reinforces Laozi's standing.

 

"Laozi cultivated Dao and virtue," Sima Qian adds, and "his learning was devoted to self-effacement and not having fame. He lived in Zhou for a long time; witnessing the decline of Zhou, he departed." When he reached the northwest border separating China from the outside world, the official in charge of the border pass, Yin Xi, pressed Laozi to commit his thoughts to writing. The result was a book in some five thousand characters, divided into two parts, which discusses the meaning of “Dao and virtue." Thereafter, Laozi left; no one knew where he spent the rest of his days. There is some disagreement about the name Yin Xi, but this completes the main part of Sima Qian's account. The remainder seeks to match the legendary Laozi with known historical individuals, including a list of Laozi's purported descendants.

 

In an influential paper entitled "The Origins of the Legend of Lao Tan [Dan]," A.C. Graham (1986) argues that the story of Laozi reflects a conflation of different legends. The earliest stratum, which came from a Confucian source and was current by the fourth century B.C.E., revolves around the meeting of Lao Dan with Confucius. Subsequently, Laozi was made a champion of Zhuangzi's philosophy. During the first half of the third century B.C.E., Lao Dan was recognized as a great thinker in his own right, the founder of the Daoist — or more precisely, as Graham suggests, "Laoist"—school. Only during the Han dynasty, when the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi were seen to share certain insights centering on the concept of Dao, were they classified together under the rubric of the "Daoist school" (daojia).

 

It could well be the case that the meeting between Confucius and Lao Dan had a basis in fact. Various dates have been suggested—for example, 501 B.C.E., following the account in the Zhuangzi (ch. 14). Nevertheless, the meagre evidence at our disposal cannot confirm the historicity of the encounter or that Lao Dan was more than a fictional construct. Sima Qian's account, as William Boltz writes, reflecting a widely held view among Western scholars, "contains virtually nothing that is demonstrably factual; we are left no choice but to acknowledge the likely fictional nature of the traditional Lao tzu [Laozi] figure" (1993, 270). According to Fung Yulan (1983, 171), Sima Qian had "confused" the legendary Lao Dan with Li Er, who flourished during the Warring States period and was the "real" founder of the Daoist school. According to D. C. Lau (1963, 148), there were probably two versions of the meeting between Laozi and Confucius—a Confucian one highlighting Confucius's humility and eagerness to learn, and a Daoist one which emphasized Laozi's critique of Confucian values (see also W. T. Chan 1963).

 

The story of Laozi takes on a religious turn since the Han period. Anna Seidel (1969) and Livia Kohn (1998a) offer an indispensable guide to this development. Simply put, the divinity of Laozi was recognized as the Daoist tradition took root. In the eyes of the faithful, a new revelation of the Dao by the divine Laozi, traditionally dated 142 C.E., resulted in the formation of the "Way of the Celestial Master" (Tianshi dao), the first organized religious Daoist establishment.

 

In the mature Daoist tradition, Laozi is seen as the personification of the Dao. He is thought to have undergone a series of "transformations" (bianhua; some texts speak of the eighty-one transformations of "Lord Lao"); that means, throughout history he appeared in different guises to selected individuals to initiate them into the mysteries of the Dao, to secure cosmic harmony and sociopolitical order. Lao Dan here is but one manifestation of the divine Laozi. Also, to the religious Daoist imagination, it is not true that no one knew where he went after he left Zhou China. He journeyed to India to "transform the barbarians" (huahu), Daoist sources claim, to convert them to the truth of the Dao (Kohn 1991). During the Tang dynasty, the imperial Li family traced its ancestry to Laozi. In 666 B.C.E., Emperor Gaozong officially bestowed the title Taishang xuanyuan huangdi   (Most High August Sovereign of Profound Primordiality) on him (Barrett 1996, 32). In this context, the writing of the Daodejing was no ordinary event, but marked the arrival of a profound scripture that promised not only wisdom but to those who submit to its power, immortality and salvation.

 

AUTHORSHIP AND DATE OF COMPOSITION.

With both imperial and popular support, the story of Laozi contributes significantly to the Daodejing and its tradition. As scripture, moreover, the text commands a particular kind of response from its readers and shapes religious practices. The full story thus warrants careful attention, although it does not help resolve the question of the actual authorship and date of composition of the Daodejing, of which only a structural navigation map can he provided here.

 

The date of composition refers to the time when the Laozi reached more or less its final form: it does not rule out later interpolation or corruption that crept into the text over its long course transmission. An interesting development in contemporary sinological scholarship is that traditional accounts are increasingly coming back into favor. This stems in some cases from recent archaeological discoveries; but more generally the trend may be seen as a reaction against the radical distrust of tradition that characterizes much of 20th-century sinological research. In the present case, there have been calls to redress the common verdict that the Laozi was a "forgery" of the late Warring States period. Liu Xiaogan, for example, has argued that we should on the whole accept Sima Qian's account; that is to say, the Laozi was written by Lao Dan towards the end of the Spring and Autumn period, in the sixth or early fifth century B.C.E. (1997, 65). Admittedly, this represents a minority view at present. However, there are reasons why the claim of an early date—although not necessarily Lao Dan's authorship—may enjoy a sunnier scholarly fortune in future.

 

A second and more popular view traces the Laozi to the early fourth century, before the time of Zhuangzi (see Baxter 1998), while a third would argue for an even later date, not earlier than the third century B.C.E. These are general markers. The situation is far more complex, for the composition of the Daodejing does not necessarily follow the idea that one author (A 1) wrote the book at one time (TI).

 

One variation is that the Laozi can be seen to have preserved the ideas of Lao Dan. W. T. Chan, for example, believes that the text "embodies" the teachings of Laozi, although it was not written until the fourth century (1963, 74). According to Graham, the Laozi was ascribed to Lao Dan around 250 B.C.E. by the text's author or "publisher," capitalizing on Lao Dan's reputation (1986; 1989). This may appear a variation of the basic "A I /TI" model, but it leaves open the possibility that the book existed before the middle of the third century. It also raises the question whether the Dadejing was the work of a single author. Conceivably, the publisher or final redactor could have brought together diverse sources. Chad Hansen, for example, describes the "dominant current textual theory" as one which "treats the text as an edited accumulation of fragments and bits drawn from a wide variety of sources ... there was no single author, no Laozi" (1992, 201). If the Laozi were a composite work— an "anthology," as D.C. Lau (1963) puts it—then the further question would be whether there was more than one editor, compiler or redactor who put the material together.

 

The idea of an oral tradition that preceded the writing of the Daodejing has gained wide acceptance in recent years; yet it is not always clear what that entails. On the one hand, it could lend support to W. T. Chan's view cited above, that Lao Dan's disciples kept alive the teachings of the master orally before some later student(s) committed them to writing. On the other hand, it could also mean that the redactor's or compiler(s) had access to disparate sayings originated from and circulated in different contexts. As Ellen Chen has it, although the book may not have been written until the fourth century, the "predominant theme ... reaches back to the primordial consciousness of the Chinese" (1989, 21).

 

The various permutations are too numerous to mention. Mair (1990) and LaFargue (1992) give a strong account of the "oral tradition" thesis. LaFargue, in particular, is careful to point out that oral tradition need not refer to the sayings of one person; it functions rather as a reservoir of "aphorisms," which were circulated among like-minded "Daoist" scholars and formed the basis of the Daodejing (1992, 197; see also Kimura 1959; Hurvitz 1961). This does not prejudge whether the final product contains sayings that were put together at random, or reflects a careful distillation on the part of the redactors who arranged and/or altered the material at their disposal. LaFargue appears to favor the latter view; other scholars (e.g., Lau and Mair), however, see little sign of tight editorial control.

 

Both external and internal clues have been employed in determining the date of the Daodejing. Quotations from the Laozi in other classical works are often cited as evidence. For example, if the Mozi quotes from the Laozi, and if the Mozi can be dated to the fifth century B.C.E., then the Laozi would have been current by that time. There is in fact one such quotation preserved in the Taiping yulan (322.5b), although this is not found in the present Mozi. Unless new archaeological evidence comes to light, the available external evidence can only confirm that the Laozi was widely recognized by the middle of the third century, when it was quoted extensively in such works as the Hanfeizi (Writings of Master Han Fri), Laski chunqw, and the 'outer" and "miscellaneous" chapters of the Zhuangzi.

 

The language of the Daodejing also proves fertile ground for debate. Much of the text is rhymed. Focusing on rhyme patterns, Liu Xiaogan concludes that the poetic structure of the Laozi is much closer to that of the Shang (Book of Songs) than that of the Chuci (Songs of Chu; see Liu 1994; 1997). For this reason, the traditional view should be upheld. Examining the wider linguistic evidence, while disagreeing with Liu on some points, William Baxter also believes that the Laozi should be dated earlier than the Zhuangzi and Chuci, "to the mid or early fourth century" (1998, 249). Both Liu and Baxter provide a concise analysis of the different theories of the date of the Daodejing.

 

In view of the above, beginning students may find it intimidating to venture into the maze of Laozi studies, but one can expect some help from recent archaeological discoveries. The difference between 500 B.C.E. and 250 B.C.E. may seem insignificant and it may appear immaterial to interpretation whether the text is the work of one author or reflects multiple interests. This need not be disputed, if the goal is only to catch a glimpse of the Dao or be illuminated by its power as it transcends historical or cultural specificity. Traditional commentaries have operated largely on this premise; and a number of modern interpretations insist on the "timeless" nature of the Daodejing.

 

The question of date and authorship is important, however, if context has any role to play in the production of meaning. Different methodological assumptions underlie these approaches, which should be distinguished and made to work together in understanding the Daodejing.

 

THE TEXT

The discovery of the two Laozi silk manuscripts at  Mawangdui, near Changsha, Hunan province, in 1973 has spurred a fresh wave of interest in the Daoist classic. Before this, access to the Daodejing was mainly through the received text of Wang Bi (226-249 C.E.) and Heshang gong , a legendary figure depicted as a teacher to the Han Emperor Wen (r. 179-157 B.C.E.). There are other manuscript fragments and versions preserved in commentaries, but by and large they play a secondary role in the history of the Daodejing. A recent archaeological find in Guodian, the so-called "Bamboo Laozi," promises to bring further excitement to Laozi studies. But first a note on the title and structure of the Daodejing.

 

The Laozi did not acquire its canonical status until the Han dynasty. According to the Shiji (49.5b), the Empress Dowager Dou—wife of Emperor Wen and mother of Emperor Jing (r. 156-141 )—was a dedicated student of the text. Later sources relate further that it was Emperor Jing who established the text officially as a "classic" Jing Nevertheless, the title Daode jing appears not to have been widely recognized until later, towards the close of the Han period. Wang Bi's commentary in the third century, indeed, is still called simply the Laozi zhu.

 

The Laozi is also referred to as the "five-thousand character" text, on account of its approximate length. Most versions exceed five thousand characters by about five to ten percent, but it is interesting to note that numerological considerations later forged their way into the history of the Daodejing. According to the seventh-century Daoist master Cheng Xuanying, Ge Xuan (fl. 200 C.E.) shortened the text that accompanied the Heshang gong commentary to fit the magical number of five thousand. The claim cannot be verified, but a number of Laozi manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang contain 4,999 characters.

 

The current Daodejing is divided into two parts and 81 chapters. Part one, comprising chapters 1-37, has come to be known as the Daojing, while chapters 38-81 form the Dejing. The  division into two parts was established since the early Han dynasty, if not earlier. It is understood to be a thematic division—chapter 1 begins with the word Dao, while chapter 38 begins with the expression "superior virtue"—although the concepts of Dao and virtue (de) feature in both parts. Still, one can say that the Daojing is sometimes more "metaphysical," while the Dejing focuses more on sociopolitical issues.

 

In this context, it is easy to appreciate the tremendous interest occasioned by the discovery of the Mawangdui Laozi manuscripts. Identified simply as "A" and "B", the two manuscripts are similarly divided into two parts, but in contrast with the current version, in reverse order; i.e., both manuscripts begin with the Dejing, corresponding to chapter 38 of the received text. "Part one" of the "B" manuscript ends with the editorial notation, "Virtue, 3,041 [characters]," while the last line of "Part two" reads: "Dao, 2,426." Does this mean that the classic should be renamed? One scholar, in fact, has adopted the title Dedaojing in a recent translation (Henricks 1989)—with important implications for interpretation.

 

The division into 81 chapters is associated particularly with the Heshang gong version, which also has chapter titles, and reflects numerological interest. It was not universally accepted until much later, perhaps the Tang period, when the text was standardized under the patronage of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-755). Traditional sources report that some versions were divided into 64, 68 or 72 chapters; some did not have chapter division at all (see Henricks 1982). The precise course of textual transmission can no longer be reconstructed. I suspect that there were a number of manuscript traditions circulating from an early time. The two Mawangdui manuscripts were found in a tomb sealed in 168 B.C.E. The texts themselves can be dated earlier, the "A" manuscript being the older of the two, copied in all likelihood before 195 B.C.E. (Lau 1982; see also Boltz 1984).

 

Until recently the Mawangdui manuscripts have held the pride of place as the oldest extant manuscripts of the Daodejing. In late 1993, the excavation of a tomb (identified as M 1) in Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei province, has yielded 804 inscribed bamboo strips, containing over 13,000 characters. Some of these, amounting to about 2,000 characters, match the Laozi (see Wenwu 1997.7, 35-48). The tomb is located near the old capital of the state of Chu and is dated to around 300 B.C.E. Unfortunately it suffered considerable damage as a result of two robberies in 1993, so that some bamboo strips may have been stolen. A transcribed version was recently published under the title Guodian chumu zhujian (Beijing: Wenwu, 1998), which divides the text into three groups.

 

Group A contains thirty-nine bamboo slips, which correspond in whole or in part to the following chapters of the present text: 19, 66, 46, 30, 15, 64, 37, 63, 2, 32, 25, 5, 16, 64, 56, 57, 55, 44, 40 and 9. Groups B and C are smaller, with eighteen (chs. 59, 48, 20, 13, 41, 52, 45, 54) and fourteen slips (chs. 17, 18, 35, 31, 64), respectively. The arrangement of the text differs significantly from the received version, and there are numerous variant and/or archaic characters. Details concerning both the structure and content of the Guodian Laozi and how it compares with the Mawangdui manuscripts and the received text still await careful study, but preliminary results generally support the authenticity of the find. This makes the Guodian text the oldest extant Laozi fragment and speaks strongly for an early date of the classic.

 

The new discovery will give fresh impetus to Laozi research but it is unlikely that it will bring forth a definitive rendition of the "original" text. When the Mawangdui manuscripts were found, there were great expectations as well, but conflicts of interpretation continue to plague or, to the more sanguine, enrich the field. For example, the opening word of chapter 10 of the current Laozi has long puzzled scholars. The character zai seems out of place, and since the Tang dynasty has sometimes been emended or moved to the end of the previous chapter. The Mawangdui B manuscript gives the variant din which has led D.C. Lau to conclude that dai, to "carry," should he the correct wording. Henricks, however, believes that the Mawangdui evidence supports the view that the character serves as an exclamation particle ending the previous sentence.

 

The fact that the Mawangdui manuscripts differ from the current text points to the existence of different lines of transmission. The two Mawangdui manuscripts quite clearly belong to the same textual family (see Xu 1985 for a dissenting opinion). But it is an altogether different claim that because they are older than the other extant versions, they are therefore "truer" to the "original" Laozi.

 

TEXTUAL RECENSION involves an interpretive process. The Mawangdui manuscripts make use of a far larger number of grammatical particles when compared with the received text of Wang Bi and Heshang gong. They do clarify the meaning in many instances. But the question is precisely whether they do not reflect an interpretive stance. For example, the phrase guchang wuyu yiguan qimiao in the current Wang Bi text (ch. 1) is clearly marked by grammatical particles in both Mawangdui versions so as to leave no mistake that wuyu is to be read together, meaning "not having desires." This seems to rule out the alternative reading, found in both traditional and modern studies, that the line should break after the character wu, yielding a different interpretation centering on the concept of "nonbeing."

 

Does this mean that the "original" Laozi had wuyu, or that the line was read in a particular way in the Mawangdui manuscripts? There is no question that the Mawangdui evidence is extremely valuable, but prudence dictates that we do not inflate it. In the same way, the reversal of the order or placement of the Daojing and Dejing may reflect an interpretive context, in which the Laozi is seen to have a special contribution to make towards governance. The same arrangement is reflected in the Hanfeizi and in the Yan Zun version.

 

As mentioned, the current Laozi, on which most reprints, studies and translations are based, is the version that comes down to us along with the commentaries by Wang Bi and Heshang gong. Three points need to be made in this regard. first, technically there are multiple versions of the Wang Bi and Heshang gong Laozi—there are over thirty Heshang gong versions at present—but the differences are on the whole minor. Second, the Wang Bi and Heshang gong versions are not the same, but are sufficiently similar to be classified as belonging to the same line of textual transmission. Third, the Wang Bi and Heshang gong versions that we see today have suffered change. In particular, the Laozi text that now accompanies Wang Bi's commentary bears the imprint of later editorial alteration, mainly under the influence of the Heshang gong version, and cannot be regarded as the Laozi that Wang Bi himself had seen and commented on. Boltz (1985) and Wagner (1989) have examined this question in some detail.

 

The "current" version refers to the Sibu beiyao and the Sibu congkan editions of the Daodejing. The former contains the Wang Bi version and commentary, together with a colophon by the Song scholar Chao Yuezhi e aft z (1059-1129), a second note by Xiong Ke (c. 1111- 1184) and Lu Deming's (536-627) Laozi yinyi  (Glosses on the Meaning and pronunciation of the Laozi). It is a reproduction of the Qing dynasty "Wuying Palace" edition, which in turn is based on a Ming edition. The most, detailed textual study of Wang Bi's Laozi commentary is Hatano 1979.

 

The Heshang gong version preserved in the Sibu congkan series is taken from the library of the famous bibliophile Qu Yong 9 A (fl. 1850). According to Qu's own catalogue, this is a Song version, probably published after the reign of the emperor Xiaozong (r. 1163-1189). Older extant versions include two incomplete Tang versions and fragments found in Dunhuang. Interestingly, the famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi (321-379) is reported to have made a copy of the Heshang gong Laozi for a certain village Daoist in exchange for a herd of geese, to which Wang as a gourmet was apparently partial. A work that claims to be Wang's copy of the Dade jing exists, although most scholars hesitate to accept it as genuine.

 

Besides the Mawangdui texts and the received text of Wang Bi and Heshang gong, there is an "ancient version" (guben) edited by the early Tang scholar Fu Yi (fl. 600). Reportedly, this version was recovered from a tomb in 574 C.E., whose occupant was a consort of the Chu general Xiang Yu (d. 202 B.C.E.), the rival of Liu Bang before the founding of the Han dynasty. A later redaction of the "ancient version" was made by Fan Yingyuan in the Song dynasty. There are some differences, but these two can be regarded as having stemmed from the same textual tradition. According to Wagner (1989), judging from Wang Bi's commentary, the Laozi text that Wang had worked on was similar to the "ancient version."

 

Manuscript fragments discovered in the Dunhuang caves form another important source in Laozi studies. Among them are several Heshang gong fragments (S. 477, S. 3926, P. 2639) and the important Xiang'er Laozi  with commentary. Another Dunhuang manuscript that merits mention is the Suo Dan fragment, now at the University Art Museum, Princeton University, which contains the last thirty-one chapters of the Daodejing beginning with chapter 51 of the modern text. It is signed and dated at the end, bearing the name of the third century scholar and diviner Suo Dan, who is said to have made the copy, written in ink on paper, in 270 C.E. According to Rao Zongyi (1955), the Suo Dan version belongs to the Heshang gong line of the Laozi text. A more recent study by Boltz (1996) questions its third-century date and argues that the fragment in many instances also agrees with the Fu Yi "ancient version."

 

While manuscript versions inform textual criticism of the Laozi, stone inscriptions provide further ammunition. Over twenty steles, mainly of Tang and Song origins, are available to textual critics, although some are in poor condition (Yan 1957). Students of the Laozi working with several important Chinese and Japanese studies which make use of a large number of manuscript versions and stone inscriptions (Ma 1965;Jiang 1980; Zhu 1980; Shima 1973; see also Boltz 1993).

 

In general, the various different versions of the Laozi do not yield differences so radical as to lift the interpretive veil that continues to resist and attract critical advances. For this reason, and for their intrinsic value, the study of the Daodejing and its tradition cannot afford to ignore the many commentaries that seek to lay bare the meaning of the classic. A considerable number has been preserved in the Daoist canon. In an effort that can only be described as Herculean, Yan Ling has published two massive collections of the available commentaries on the Daodejing (1965a, 1965b).

 

COMMENTARIES.

Two chapters in the Hanfeizi chs. 21-22) are entitled Jie Lao (Explaining the Laozi) and Yu Lao (Illustrating the Laozi). These can be regarded as the earliest commentaries to the classic. The "bibliographical" section of the Hanshu (History of the Han) lists four commentaries to the Laozi, which have not survived. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Laozi learning flourished during the I fan period, only to grow in the succeeding dynasties (see Robinet 1977; 1998).

 

Traditionally, the Heshang Gong commentary is regarded a product of the early Han dynasty. The name Heshang gong means an old man who dwells by the side of tile river; some have identified the river in question to be the Yellow River. An expert on the Laozi, he caught the attention of Emperor Wen, who went personally to consult him. Heshang gong revealed to the emperor his true identity as a divine emissary sent by the "Highest Lord of the Dao"—i.e., the divine Laozi—specifically to teach him. The emperor proves a humble student, as the legend concludes, worthy of receiving the Daodejing with Heshang gong's commentary (Chan 1991 a).

 

Recent Chinese studies generally place the commentary towards the end of the Han period, although some Japanese scholars would date it as late as the sixth century C.E. I see no compelling reason not to accept it as a second-century work (Chan 1991b). Called in early sources the Laozi zhagju, it belongs to the genre of zhangju literature, prevalent in Han times, which one may paraphrase as commentary "by chapter and verse." Its language is simple; its imagination, down-to-earth. The Heshang gong commentary shares with other Han works the cosmological belief that the universe is constituted by vital qi-energy. On this basis, interpreting the text in terms of yin-yang theory, the Laozi is seen to disclose riot only the mystery of the origin of the universe, but more importantly the secret to personal wellbeing and sociopolitical order.

 

What the Laozi calls the "One," according to Heshang gong, refers to the purest and most potent form of qi-energy that brings forth and continues to nourish all beings. This is the meaning of de, the "virtue" or power with which the "ten thousand things" have been endowed and without which life would cease. The maintenance of "virtue;' which the commentary also described as "guarding the One" (shouyi), is thus crucial to self-cultivation. A careful diet, exercise and some form of meditation are implied, but generally the commentary focuses on the diminishing of selfish desires. The government of the "sage"- a term common to all schools of Chinese thought, but which is given a distinctive Daoist meaning in the Commentary—rests on the same premise. Aggressive policies such as heavy taxation and severe punishment are to be avoided, but the most fundamental point remains that the ruler himself must cherish what the Laozi calls "emptiness" and "nonaction." Disorder stems from the dominance of desire, which reflects the unruly presence of confused and agitated p-energy. In this way, self-cultivation and government are shown to form an integral whole. I have argued elsewhere that the Heshang gong commentary reflects the influence of the "Huang-Lao" school, which flourished during the early Han dynasty (Chan 1991b, 1998a).

 

A second major commentary is the Laozi zhigui (The Essential Meaning of the Laozi) attributed to the Han dynasty scholar Yan Zun; (fl. 83 B.C.E.- 10 C.E.). Styled Junping, Yan's surname was originally Zhuang; it was changed in later written records to the semantically similar Yan to comply with the legal restriction not to use the name Zhuang, which was the personal name of Emperor Ming (r. 57-75) of the Later Han dynasty. Yan Zun is well remembered in traditional sources as a recluse of great learning and integrity, a diviner of legendary ability and an author of exceptional talent. The famous Han poet and philosopher Yang Xiong (53 B.C.E.- I8 C.E.) studied under Yan and spoke glowingly of him. In later religious sources, Yan is remembered as an "immortal." During the Song dynasty, he was officially endowed with the title "Perfected of Wonder and Penetration" (Miaotong zhenren).

 

The Laozi zhigui, as it now stands, is incomplete; only the commentary to the Dejing, chapters 38-81 of the current Laozi, remains. The best edition of the Laozi zhigui is that contained in the Daoist canon (CT 693), which clearly indicates that the work had originally thirteen juan, the first six of which have been lost. Judging from the available evidence, it can be accepted as a Han product (Chan 1998b). The Laozi text that accompanies Yan Zun's commentary agrees in many instances with the wording of the Mawangdui manuscripts.

 

In some places, the Laozi zhigui exhibits a strong philosophical interest. In particular, the Dao is said to be the "emptiness of emptiness" and the "non-being of nonbeing" (8.1 b; 11.4b). This seems to suggest that the Dao in itself transcends even the duality of having and not having any determination. In this respect, as we shall see, the Laozi zhigui may have a role to play in shaping later interpretations. Viewed as a whole, however, Yan Zun's commentary is clearly concerned with the more practical issues of self-cultivation and government.

 

Like Heshang gong, Yan Zun also subscribes to the yin-yang cosmological theory characteristic of Han thought. Unlike Heshang gong's commentary, however, the Laozi zhigui does not prescribe a positive 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). There is little question that valuing one's spirit and vital energy is important, but the Laozi 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 so that it not be enslaved by desire. Simplicity is singled out as a key expression of ziran. Significantly, the Laozi 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.

 

The concept of "response" (ying), a common Han idea which articulates the perceived reciprocal relationship between the "way of heaven" and human affairs, figures prominently in Yan Zun's commentary. The important point is that the essentially cosmological insight is applied directly to the art of rulership. The Laozi zhigui does not question the hierarchical structure of society; Daoist naturalness has little to do with social or political anarchy. What the commentary is concerned to show is that the Laozi offers a comprehensive guide to order and harmony at all levels. My view is that Yan Zun's commentary, like Heshang gong's, reflects the influence of the Huang-Lao school. Yan Zun flourished during the reign of Emperor Cheng (r. 33-7 B.C.E.), who undertook to reform the Han imperial cultic practices. At one point, the emperor admonished the officials for having neglected the doctrine of yin-yang. The Laozi zhigui seems to fit this context. The Heshang gong commentary, though equally concerned with realizing the rule of the Dao in both self-cultivation and government, perhaps stems from a slightly later period when religious ideas and practices associated with nourishing one's vital energy became more fully integrated into the Daoist vision.

 

An early commentary which maximizes the religious import of the Laozi is the Xiang'er zhu. 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). The manuscript copy, now housed in the British Library, was probably made around 500 C.E. The original text, disagreement notwithstanding, is generally traced to around 200 C.E. It is closely linked to the Celestial Masters and has been ascribed to Zhang Daoling or his grandson Zhang Lu (see Bokenkamp 1993; 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. It is not clear what the title, Xiang'er, means. Following Rao Zongyi and Ofuchi 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.

 

The Xiang'er commentary accepts without question the divine status of Laozi, which distinguishes it from the commentaries discussed earlier. In addition, it seems to have been influenced by the Taiping jing (Scripture of Great Peace), one of the earliest scriptures in the Daoist religion, and one particularly concerned with the establishment of universal, political harmony. But just as the Heshang gong commentary reflects a keener religious sense when compared with Yan Zun's, there is an even more pronounced religious focus in the Xiang'er. The man of Dao "wishes only long life" (Rao 1991, 36); attaining the "life-span of an undefiled, godlike being" (xianshou ),as the commentary repeatedly emphasizes, more pronounced religious focus in the Xiang'er. The man of Dao "wishes only long life" (Rao 1991, 36); attaining the "life-span of an undefiled, godlike being" (xianshou), as the commentary repeatedly emphasizes, forms the highest goal. While Yan Zun and Heshang gong direct their insight primarily to those in a position to effect political change, the Xiang'er invites a larger audience to participate in the quest for the Dao, to achieve union with the Dao through spiritual and moral discipline.

 

In terms of self-cultivation, the Xianger is keen to dispel false practices. Nourishing one's vital qi-energy remains the key to liberation, to attaining "long life" and ultimately forming a spiritual body devoid of the blemishes of mundane existence. The commentary alludes to proper meditation and sexual arts in this regard, which are crucial to purifying and preserving one's vital energy. It criticizes those who believe that "immortality" is an inborn gift and not the result of constant effort.

 

Spiritual discipline, however, is not sufficient; equally important is the accumulation of moral merit. Later Daoist sources refer to the "nine practices" or "nine precepts" of the Xiang'er. There is also a longer set known as the "twenty-seven precepts" of the Xiang'er. These include general positive steps such as being tranquil and yielding, as well as specific injunctions against any action that may injure one's vital energy--envy, killing, and other evil acts. Likening the human body to the walls of a pond, the essential qi-energy to the water in it, and good deeds the source of the water, the Xiang'er commentary makes clear that deficiency in any one would Iead to disastrous consequences (see Bokenkamp 1993).

 

Compared with the Xiang er, Wang Bi's commentary, the Laozi zhu, could not be more different. There is no reference to "immortals"; there is no deified Laozi or any other understanding of the Dao as a divine being. The Daodejing, as Wang Bi sees it, is fundamentally not concerned with the art of "long life" but offers profound insights into the radical otherness of the Dao as the source of being, and the practical implications that follow from it. Styled Fusi, Wang Bi was one of the acknowledged leaders of the movement of Xuanxue (Profound Learning), a revival of Daoist philosophy which came into prominence during the Wei period (220-265) and dominated the Chinese intellectual scene well into the sixth century. The word xuan, which also means "dark" or "mysterious" when used as an adjective, derives from the Laozi; as such, Profound Learning should also be reckoned a part of the tradition of the Daodejing.

 

The movement, often identified as "Neo-Daoism" in earlier Western sources, signifies a broad philosophical front united in its attempt to discern the "true" meaning of the Dao, but is not a homogeneous, sectarian school. Alarmed by what they saw as the decline of the Dao, influential intellectuals of the day initiated a radical reinterpretation of the classical heritage. They did not neglect the Confucian classics, but drew inspiration from the Yjing, Laozi and Zhuangzi, which were then referred to as the "three profound treatises" (sanxuan).

 

According to Wang Bi, the Dao is the "beginning" of the "ten thousand things." Unlike Heshang gong or the Xiang'er, however, he did not pursue a cosmological or religious interpretation of the process of creation. Rather, Wang seems more concerned with what may be called the logic of creation. The Dao constitutes the absolute "beginning" in that all beings have causes and conditions that derive logically from a necessary foundation. The ground of being, however, cannot be itself a being; otherwise, infinite regress would render the logic of the Dao suspect. For this reason, the Laozi would only speak of the Dao as "nonbeing" (wu).

 

The transcendence of the Dao must not be compromised. To do justice to the Laozi, it is also important to show how the functions of the Dao translate into basic "principles" (li) governing the universe. The regularity of the seasons, the plenitude of nature, and other expressions of "heaven and earth" all attest to the presence of the Dao. Human beings also conform to these principles, and so are "modeled" ultimately after Dao.

 

Wang Bi is often praised in later sources for having given the concept of "principle" its first extended philosophical treatment. In the realm of the Dao, principles arc characterized by "naturalness" and "nonaction" (wuwei). Wang Bi defines ziran as "an expression of the ultimate." In this regard, attention has been drawn to Yan Zun's influence. Nonaction helps explain the practical meaning of naturalness. In ethical terms, Wang Bi takes nonaction to mean freedom from the dictates of desire. This defines not only the goal of self-cultivation but also that of government. The philosophical acumen and literary elegance of Wang Bi's commentary has won much acclaim in the modem period, although it did not always enjoy the same respect in traditional China. In English, there are three translations available (Lin 1077; Rump 1979; Lynn 1999).

 

Among these four commentaries, Heshang gong's Laozi zhangju occupied the position of pre-eminence in traditional China, at least until the Song. For a long period, Wang Bi's work was relatively neglected, which explains the many textual difficulties confronting its students today. The authority of the Heshang gong commentary can be traced to its place in the Daoist religion, where it ranks second only to the Daodejing itself. Besides Heshang gong's work and the Xiang'er, there are two other commentaries entitled the Laozi jiejie (Sectional Explanation) and the Laozi neijie; (Inner Explanation) closely associated with religious Daoism. Both have been ascribed to Yin Xi, the keeper of the pass who "persuaded" Laozi to write the Daodejing and who, according to Daoist hagiographic records, later studied under the divine Laozi and became an "immortal." These texts, however, only survive in citations (see Kusuyama 1979).

 

From the Tang period, one begins to find serious attempts to collect and classify the growing number of Laozi commentaries. An early pioneer is the eighth-century Daoist master Zhang Junxiang, who cited some thirty commentaries in his study of the Daodejing (Wang 1981). Du Guangting (850-933) provided an even larger collection, involving some 60 commentaries (Guangsheng yi, CT 725). According to Du, there were those who saw the Laozi as a political text, while others focused on spiritual self-cultivation. There were Buddhist interpreters (e.g., Kumarajiva and Sengzhao), and there were those who explained the Dao of Chongxuan (Twofold Mystery)--an important development in the tradition of the Daodejing.

 

The term "Twofold Mystery" comes from chapter 1 of the Laozi, where the Dao is said to be "mysterious and again mysterious." As a school of Daoist learning, Twofold Mystery seizes this to be the key to understanding the Daodejing. Daoist sources relate that the school goes back to the fourth-century master Sun Deng. Through Gu Huan (5th c.) and others, the school reached its height during the Tang period, represented by such thinkers as Cheng Xuanying and Li Rong in the seventh century.

 

The school reflects the growing interaction between Daoist and Buddhist thought, in particular, the influence of Madhyamika philosophy. Unlike Wang Bi, it sees nonbeing as equally one-sided as being when applied to the transcendence of the Dao. Nonbeing may highlight the profundity or mystery of the Dao, but it does not yet reach the highest truth, which according to Cheng Xuanying can be called "the Dao of Middle Oneness" (Kohn 1992, 144). Like other polar opposites, the distinction between being and nonbeing must also be "forgotten" before one can achieve union with the Dao. This last point is important, because it shows that "Twofold Mystery," like other approaches to the Daodejing, is ultimately concerned with the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. Later proponents of the school were to develop this further, linking it to the practice of "internal alchemy" (neidan).

 

The diversity of interpretation is truly remarkable (see Robinet 1998). The Daodejing has also been viewed in other ways. For example, a Tang commentary by Wang Zhen the Daodejing lunbing yaoyi shu (CT 713), presented to Emperor Xianzong in 809, highlights the text as a treatise on military strategy (Rand 1979-80; see also Wang Ming 1984, Mukai 1994). The Daodejing has received considerable imperial attention, with no fewer than eight emperors having composed or at least commissioned a commentary on the work. These include Emperor Wu and Emperor Jianwen of the Liang, Xuanzong of the Tang, Huizong of the Song andTaizu of the Ming (see Liu C. 1969).

 

By the thirteenth century, students of the Daodejing were already blessed, as it were, with an embarrassment of riches, so much so that Du Dao- jian (1237-1318) could not but observe that the coming of the Dao to the world takes on different forms each time. That is to say, different commentators were shaped by the spirit of their age in their approach to the classic, so that it would be appropriate to speak of a "Han Laozi," "Tang Laozi," or "Song Laozi," each with its own different agenda (Xuanjing yuanzhi fahui, CT 703). While some would purposely ignore the tradition of commentaries so as not to be influenced by them in their own reading of the text, others find them an indispensable aid to understanding. This applies to both traditional commentaries and modern studies.

 

WORLDVIEW

 

Is the Daodejing a manual of self-cultivation and government? Is it a metaphysical treatise, or does it harbor deep mystical insights? There is no question that the Laozi is an extremely difficult text. The language is often cryptic, the sense or reference of the many symbols it employs remains unclear, and there seem to be conceptual inconsistencies. Is it more meaningful to speak of the "worldviews" of the Daodejing, instead of a unified vision? If the Laozi were an "anthology" put together at random by different compilers over a long period of time, coherence need not be an issue. Traditionally, however, this was never a serious option. Most modern studies are equally concerned to disclose the "deeper" unity and meaning of the classic. While some seek to recover the "original" meaning of the Laozi, others celebrate its contemporary relevance. Consider, first of all, some of the main modem approaches to the Daodejing (see Hardy 1998).

 

According to some, the Laozi reflects a deep mythological consciousness at its core. The myth of "chaos," in particular, helps shape the Daoist understanding of the cosmos and the place of human beings in it (Girardot 1983). The myth of a great mother earth goddess may also have informed the worldview of the Daodejing (Erkes 1935; Chen 1969), which explains its emphasis on nature and the feminine (Chen 1989). For others, the Daodejing gives voice to a profound mysticism. According to Mair (1990), it is indebted to Indian mysticism (see also Waley 1958). According to Schwartz (1985), the mysticism of the Daodejing is sui generis, uniquely Chinese and has nothing to do with India. It is possible to combine the mystical and mythological approaches—although the presence of ancient religious beliefs can still be detected, they have been raised to a higher mystical plane in the Daodejing (Ching 1997).

 

Yet others see the Daodejing mainly as a work of philosophy, which gives a metaphysical account of reality, and does not neglect the importance of ethics, but cannot ultimately be seen as a work of mysticism (W. T'. Chan 1963). Even if one admits that there is a mystical dimension to the Laozi, it is unlike the mystical writings of other traditions. For example, there is no indication that ecstatic vision plays a role in the ascent of the Daoist sage (Welch 1965, 60). According to another view, however, there is every indication that ecstasy forms a part of the world of the Laozi, although it is difficult to gauge the "degree" of its mystical leanings (Kaltenmark 1969, 65). In either case, the strong practical interest of the Daodejing distinguishes it from any mystical doctrine that eschews worldly involvement. It is "purposive" and not "contemplative" (Creel 1977).

 

To numerous people, moreover, the Laozi offers essentially a philosophy of life. Remnants of an older religious thinking may have found their way into the text, but they have been transformed into a naturalistic philosophy. The emphasis on naturalness and spontaneity translates into a way of life characterized by simplicity, calmness and freedom from the tyranny of desire (see Liu 1997). Unlike the claim that the Laozi espouses a mystical or esoteric teaching directed at a restricted audience, this view tends to highlight its universal appeal and contemporary relevance.

 

Many also agree that the Daodejing is above all concerned with realizing the reign of great peace. 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 as not only ineffectual in restoring order, but also 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 of alternative views of the text is far from exhaustive, and different combinations are also possible. Hansen, for example, focuses on the "anti-language" philosophy of the Laozi (1992), and Graham has emphasized 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 comprises different "layers" of material put together by different people at different times (see Emerson 1995).

 

Is it fair to say that the Laozi is inherently "polysemic" (Robinet 1998), open to diverse interpretations? Interpretation involves both reader and text. Hermeneutical reception is never rigid. It varies among readers; to the same reader, the text may also disclose different meanings under different circumstances. Indeed, it is often said, the power of the Laozi is precisely that it gives new insights every time a reader engages it.

 

This challenges the claim that the original, "intended" meaning of the Laozi can be reconstructed. The question is whether any hermeneutic reconstruction does not depend, in addition to the object of interpretation, on the interpreter's own worldview. I am inclined to recognize the hermeneutical openness of the Daodejing. This does not mean that context is not important to the production of meaning. It is also not the case that parameters do not exist, or that there are no checks against particular interpretations. On the contrary, there is every need to be historically informed and critically vigilant. Questions of date and authorship, textual variants, as well as the entire tradition of commentaries and modem scholarship are important. Nevertheless, any attempt to reconstruct the original context or meaning of the Laozi can hardly claim a privileged vantage untouched by individual or social influences. The task of reconstruction, in other words, must be given full attention, but it remains an open process, drawing every new generation of students into the world of the Daodejing and its tradition. There is little doubt that the debate will continue. The following presents some of the main concepts and symbols in the Laozi, in a way that highlights their ethical significance and suggests a degree of coherence.

 

DAO. The etymology of the word suggests a pathway, or heading in a certain direction along a path. There is no disagreement in translating the word dao as "way." As a verb, perhaps on account of the directionality involved, the word also conveys the sense of "speaking." "Thus, the opening phrase of chapter 1, dao ke dao, is often rendered "The Dao that can be spoken of"; in most cases, the capitalized form—"Way" or "Dao"—is used, to distinguish it from other usages of the term. The concept of dao figures centrally also in Confucian writings, and most scholars agree that some parts of the Laozi represent a strong critique of the Confucian school (chs. 18, 19). In general, while the term dao signifies a means to a higher end in other schools of Chinese philosophy, the Laozi considers it an end in itself. The word dao in the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as follows: "In Taoism, an absolute entity which is the source of the universe; the way in which this absolute entity functions." "In Confucianism and in extended uses”, however, the term means "the way to be followed, the right conduct; doctrine or method."

 

The Daodejing (ch. 1) underscores both the ineffability and creative power of the Dao. Whereas the former suggests radical transcendence, the latter depicts the Dao as the origin of the "ten thousand things." The Laozi also specifies that the Dao nourishes all beings (ch. 51). The Oxford definition thus reflects the emphasis on the creative and sustaining power of the Dao. In this sense, the word dao is often translated as "the Way," with the definite article. Daoist creation involves a process of differentiation from unity to multiplicity (ch. 42). This has been read cosmologically, for instance, by the Heshang gong commentary, which sees the Dao as the original vital energy. Formless and indescribable, it can therefore only be called "nonbeing" or "no-thing" (ch. 40).

 

Read metaphysically, however, the Dao signifies a conceptually necessary ontological ground. As nonbeing, the Dao is not a something of which nothing can be said; otherwise, the problem of infinite regress cannot be overcome. As the source-of being, the Dao cannot be itself a being, no matter how powerful or perfect. This seems to be Wang Bi's point. Historically, the cosmological reading enjoys near universal acceptance. Support for the metaphysical interpretation did not gain momentum until the rise of Neo-Confucianism, which integrates the two readings in its reformulation of the teaming of the Dao.

 

DE. The character de has also made it into the Oxford Dictionary: "In Taoism, the essence of Tao inherent in all beings"; "in Confucianism and in extended use, moral virtue." De has been translated variously as virtue, potency, integrity, or power (for an etymological study, see Nivison 1978- 79; Hall and Ames 1987, 216). The Confucian usage is quite clear; virtue is a matter of moral character and presupposes self-cultivation. The Laozi seems to suggest a "higher" de against any moral achievement attained through hard effort (ch. 38). The different translations aim at bringing out the uniquely Daoist sense of the term.

 

Traditional commentaries beginning with the Hanfeizi often play on the homonymic relation between de and de, "to obtain." De is thus what one has "obtained" from the Dao, a "latent power" by "virtue" of which any being becomes what it is (Waley 1958, 32). Heshang gong and other commentaries are quick to relate this to one's qi-endowment. This is a "descriptive" definition, but there is also a "prescriptive" dimension to the concept of de. The empowerment enables a person to conform to the way in which the Dao operates, but "virtue" must be allowed to flourish. When realized, "virtue" signifies the full embodiment of the Dao. As such, the Dao does not only point to the "beginning," but through de also suggests the "end" of all things.

 

The marriage of Dao and de effectively bridges the gap between transcendence and immanence, and brings into view the ethical interest of the Daodejing. It is useful to recall the late Zhou context, where disorder marched on every front. The Laozi, one assumes, is net indifferent to the forces of disintegration tearing the country asunder. In other words, I am suggesting that a "nihilistic" reading of the classic should be ruled out, nor does escapism do justice to the text. The metaphysical or religious import of the Dao may remain a point of contention, but few would dispute that the Laozi is keenly concerned with arresting the decline of the country.

 

ZIRAN, Laozi makes use of the concept of ziran, literally what is "self so," to describe the workings of the Dao. As an abstract concept, it gives no specific information, except to say that the Dao does not "model" after anything but itself (ch. 25). This is the way Wang Bi understands it. However, since "heaven and earth" are born of the Dao and come to be in virtue of their de, the Laozi seems to be saying that the ways of heaven and earth reflect the Dao's function. Human beings are born of heaven and earth. At the practical level, ziran—translated "naturalness" or "spontaneity"—thus suggests a mode of being and way of action in accordance with the ways of "nature" (see Liu 1998). The question is, what does "nature" mean?

 

Modern commentators tend to equate "heaven and earth" with "nature." This is convenient, but one should bear in mind that "nature" in the "Laoist" sense need not exclude the spiritual and the social. The existence of gods and spirits was hardly questioned in ancient China. The Laozi makes clear that they, too, stem from the Dao (chs. 39, 60). Further, "nature" encompasses not only natural phenomena, but also sociopolitical institutions. The "king" clearly occupies a central place in the realm of the Dao (chs. 16, 25); the family should also be regarded a "natural" institution (chs. 18, 54). This means that as an ethical concept ziran extends beyond the personal to the political level. Commentators are generally in agreement on this point, leaving aside whether ziran does not also translate into a form of spiritual discipline.

 

WUWEI The concept of nonaction serves to explain ziran in practice. It does not mean total inaction. Later Daoists may see a close connection between wuwei and techniques of spiritual cultivation. The practice of "sitting in oblivion" (zuowang) described in the Zhuangzi is often mentioned in this regard. In the Laozi, the concept seems to be used more generally as a contrast against any form of action characterized especially by self-serving desire (chs. 3, 37). Nonaction entails at the personal level simplicity and quietude. At the political level, the Laozi cites a number of "troublesome" policies that the ruler must avoid. These include war (ch. 30), stiff punishment (ch. 74) and heavy taxation (ch. 75). In this sense, it also opposes the Confucian program of benevolent intervention, which as the Laozi understands it, addresses the symptoms but not the root cause of the disease.

 

The concept of nonaction is exceedingly rich (see Liu 1991). It brings into play a cutting discernment that value distinctions are ideological, that human striving and competitive strife spring from the same source. Nonaction entails also a critique of language and conventional knowledge, which to the Daoist sage has become impregnated with ideological contaminants. The use of paradoxes—the man of Dao is depicted as "witless" or "dumb," while the common people can show off their intelligence and scheme cleverly (ch. 20) —specially heightens this point. But rather than stipulating what one ought to or ought not to do, the Laozi seems more concerned with transforming the way in which one does anything at all. Thus, while there is some concern that technology may bring a false sense of progress, the antidote does not lie in rejecting technology altogether but rather in a calmness of mind that would ensure freedom from desire (ch. 80). From this perspective one can understand some of the provocative statements in the Laozi telling the ruler, for example, to keep the people in a state of "ignorance" (ch. 65).

 

These remarks are not acceptable to all scholars. Some would say that they miss the religious import of the Daodejing, while others would question whether they are too eager to defend the philosophical coherence of the classic. Perhaps the Laozi in chapter 65 of the current text did mean to tell the ruler literally to keep the people ignorant or stupid, which as a piece of political advice is not that extraordinary. Certain terms such as the "valley spirit" (gushen) and the "soul" (po ch. 10) seem to have a religious reference, and these cannot be reconciled easily with an ethical reading of the Laozi. The remarks offered here take nonaction as pointing to a higher mode of knowledge, action, and being; once realized, the transformative power of nonaction would ensure wellbeing at both the personal and sociopolitical levels. The concept of "virtue”, in other words, seems to depict a pristine state of affairs, in which naturalness and nonaction are the norm. The ethics of wuwei rests on this insight.

 

In this interpretive framework, a number of symbols which both delight and puzzle readers of the Daodejing can be highlighted. Suggestive of its creativity and nurturance, the Dao is likened to a mother (chs. 1, 25). This complements the paradigm of the feminine (chs. 6, 28), whose "virtue" yields fecundity and finds expression in yieldingness and non-contention. The infant (chs. 52, 55) serves as a fitting symbol on two counts. First, it brings out the relationship between Dao and world; second, the kind of innocence and wholesome spontaneity represented by the infant exemplifies the pristine fullness of de in the ideal Daoist world.

 

Natural symbols such as water (chs. 8, 78) further reinforce the sense of yielding and deep strength that characterizes nonaction. The low-lying and fertile valley (chs. 15, 28) accentuates both the creative fecundity of the Dao and the gentle nurturance of its power. Carefully crafted and ornately decorated objects are treasured by the world, and as such can be used as a powerful symbol for it. In contrast, the utterly simple, unaffected, and seemingly valueless pu it, a plain uncarved block of wood, brings into sharp relief the integrity of Daoist virtue and the person who embodies it (chs. 28, 32). Finally, one may mention the notion of reversal (chs. 40, 65), which suggests not only the need to "return" to the Dao, but also that the Daoist way of life would inevitably appear the very opposite of "normal" existence, and that it involves a complete revaluation of values.

 

PRACTICE

Once the Laozi gained canonical status, it began to impact on Chinese culture with sustained force. Later sources credit Emperor Jing of Han for having decreed that all officials at court and the people at large should recite the Daodejing (Ma 1965, 7). This may be open to doubt, but without question the classic has secured its place in Chinese tradition since the Han dynasty. Under imperial patronage scholar-officials paid close attention to it, and during the Wei-Jin period after the Han, no one could claim to be a member of the intellectual elite who did not know the Daodejing. In 731 C.E., Xuanzong decreed that all officials should keep a copy of the Daodejing at home and placed the classic on the list of texts to be examined for the civil service examinations.

 

In this context, commentaries on the classic began to appear in great numbers. This helped bring the classic to a wider audience and shape the very course of Chinese intellectual history. In terms of setting policies, the political impact of the Daodejing was probably slight, but philosophic and religious interest was evidently strong and readily spilt over into the cultural arena. On the aesthetic front, the Daodejing and its tradition provided an alternative to the dominant Confucian theories. From the martial to the medical arts, the Daodejing has also been cited as a source of influence. More generally, it is worth mentioning that the concept of ziran continues to inform conceptions of beauty and romantic love in Chinese thinking. These broad indications serve to remind us of the tremendous reach of the Daodejing and its tradition. As a religious scripture, the Daodejing plays a particularly important role in Daoist practice (see Kohn 1998b).

 

As scripture, the Daodejing commands constant devotion. One principal feature of early Daoist worship is the recitation of the Daodejing, or more formally the Taishang xuanyuan Daodejing (Scripture of the Dao and Virtue of the Highest Primordial Mystery), as the work was called in recognition of its scriptural status since the Tang period. This helps bring the devotee closer to the divine Dao. It also facilitates petition, especially the asking for forgiveness and blessing. In the hands of the religious expert, the efficacy of the scripture extends to healing and exorcism. The Daodejing has been set to music from an early time. In the mature Daoist tradition, recitation of the Daodejing involves proper training and figures centrally in ritual performance.

 

The scripture is also used as a moral guide. As mentioned, associated with the Xiang'er commentary are the "Nine Practices" and the "Twenty-seven Precepts." The "Nine Practices" refer directly to ethical precepts — nonaction, being yielding and not having desires—derived from the Daodejing (see Bokenkamp 1989). Ethical practice purifies and prepares the individual for higher spiritual pursuits. It is also closely related to the idea of accumulating merit, the benefit of which extends beyond the individual to the family, clan and country at large. As an instrument of the divine, the individual for higher spiritual pursuits. It is also closely related to the idea of accumulating merit, the benefit of which extends beyond the individual to the family, clan and country at large. As an instrument of the divine, the moral and religious application of the Daodejing thus proves decisive to individual well being, social harmony, a healthy environment, and harmony between the human and the sacred. Because of the sense of completeness that the number signifies, Daoist sources often recommend reciting the Daodejing ten thousand times.

 

Recitation of the scripture can be performed in conjunction with meditation as well. One form of Daoist meditation concentrates on inwardly directed "visualization" techniques, through which the presence of divine beings can he secured within one's body. A second aspires to an "ecstatic" vision in which the devotee merges with the divine Daoist reality. In both instances, the recitation of the Daodejing is much more than an aid to spiritual discipline; it is a necessary and even sufficient condition for the highest form of religious experience. For those who devote their lives to serving the Dao, training in the Daodejing, both doctrinally and in terms of ritual performance, can be an arduous process marked by different stages. Basic training involving recitation and other techniques must be completed, before the adept could be initiated into the higher mysteries of the Daodejing. An ordination rite would mark the adept's progress, but the study and practice of the Daodejing, in the final analysis, remains a lifelong task.

Edited by Yueya
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According to Wang Bi, the Dao is the "beginning" of the "ten thousand things." Unlike Heshang gong or theXiang'er, however, he did not pursue a cosmological or religious interpretation of the process of creation. Rather, Wang seems more concerned with what may be called the logic of creation. The Dao constitutes the absolute "beginning" in that all beings have causes and conditions that derive logically from a necessary foundation. The ground of being, however, cannot be itself a being; otherwise, infinite regress would render the logic of the Dao suspect. For this reason, the Laozi would only speak of the Dao as "nonbeing" (wu).

 

In the west too, a similar logic is at work in Plotinus, where "the One" is not merely the highest being, but rather "beyond being"-- which in turn influenced the Christian apophatic tradition, or via negativa (Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart, John of the Cross, and the Cloud of Unknowing being some good examples).  It is in this sense that John of the Cross referred to God as "nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, nada..."  But it is even found in Augustine.  This is now largely forgotten in Christianity, which has become "ontologically tone deaf," therefore unknowingly reducing God to a mere empirical object.  It is also in other religious traditions, such as with the Sufi, an-Niffari, and others.  

 

It's interesting that this same ontological or mystical tendency has manifested itself in different religious and philosophical contexts. 

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Yueya, I'd like to contribute a little bit of information here as well, if you don’t mind.  This regards the possible etymological origins of the word dao itself and its relation to nature, specifically in terms of lunar cycles.  This is from an introduction by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter).  

 

~ ~ ~

 

The Taoteching is at heart a simple book.  Written at the end of the sixth century B.C. by a man called Lao-tzu, it’s a vision of what our lives would be like if we were more like the dark, new moon.

 

Lao-tzu teaches us that the dark can always become light and contains within itself the potential for growth, and long life, while the light can only become dark and brings with it decay and early death.  Lao-tzu chose long life.  Thus, he chose the dark.

 

The word that Lao-tzu chose to represent this vision was Tao, [ _ ].  But tao means “road” or “way” and doesn’t appear to have anything to do with darkness.  The character [tao] is made up of two graphs: [ _ ] (head) and [ _ ] (go).  To make sense of how the character came to be constructed, early Chinese philologists concluded that “head” must mean the start of something and that the two graphs together show someone starting on a trip.  But I find the explanation of a modern scholar of comparative religion, Ti Er-wei, more convincing.  Professor Tu says the “head” in the character tao is the face of the moon.  And the meaning “road” comes from watching this disembodied face as it moves across the sky.  

 

Professor Tu also notes that tao shares a common linguistic heritage with words that mean “moon” or “new moon” in other cultures: Tibetans call the moon da-ua; the Miao, who now live in southwest China but who lived in the same state as Lao-tzu when he was alive, call it tao-tie; the ancient Egyptians thoth.  Tu Er-wei could have added dar-sha, which means “new moon” in Sanskrit.

 

However, the heart of Tu’s thesis is not linguistic but textual, and based on references within the Taoteching.  Lao-tzu says the Tao is between Heaven and Earth it’s Heaven’s Gate, it’s empty but inexhaustible, it doesn’t die, it waxes and wanes, it’s distant and dark, it doesn’t try to be full, it’s the light that doesn’t blind, it has thirty spokes and two thirteen-day (visible) phases, it can be strung like a bow or expand and contract like a bellows, it moves the other way (relative to the sun, it appears/rises later and later), it’s the great image, the hidden immortal, the crescent soul, the dark union, the dark womb, the dark beyond dark.  If this isn’t the moon, what is it?

 

Tu Er-wei has, I think, uncovered a deep and primitive layer of the Taoteching that has escaped the attention of other scholars.  Of course, we cannot say for certain that Lao-tzu was consciously aware of the Tao’s association with the moon.  But we have his images, and they are too often lunar to dismiss as accidental.

 

In associating the Tao with the moon, Lao-tzu was not alone.  The symbol Taoists have used since ancient times to represent the Tao, [Yin-Yang symbol], shows the two cojoined phases of the moon.  And how could they ignore such an obvious connection between its cycle of change and our own?  Every month we watch the moon grow from nothing to a luminous disc that scatters the stars and pulls the tides within us all.  The oceans feel it.  The earth feels it.  Plants and animals feel it.  Humans feel it, though it is women who seem to be most aware of it.  In the Huangti Neiching, or Yellow Emperor’s Internal Book of Medicine, Ch’i Po explained this to the Yellow Emperor, “When the moon begins to grow, blood and breath begin to surge.  When the moon is completely full, blood and breath are at their fullest, tendons and muscles are at their strongest.  When the moon is completely empty, tendons and muscles are at their weakest” (8.26).

 

The advance of civilization has separated us from this easy lunar awareness.  We call people affected by the moon “lunatics,” making clear our disdain for its power.  Lao-tzu redirects our vision to this ancient mirror.  But instead of pointing to its light, he points to its darkness.  Every month the moon effortlessly shows us that something comes from nothing.  Lao-tzu asks us to emulate this aspect of the moon — not the full moon, which is destined to wane, but the new moon, which holds the promise of rebirth.  And while he has us gazing at the moon’s dark mirror, he asks why we don’t live longer than we do.  After all, don’t we share the same nature as the moon?  And isn’t the moon immortal?

 

Scholars tend to ignore Lao-tzu’s emphasis on darkness and immortality, for it takes the book beyond the reach of academic analysis.  For scholars, darkness is just a more poetic way of describing the mysterious.  And immortality is a euphemism for long life.  Over the years, they have distilled what they call Lao-tzu’s “Taoist philosophy” from the later developments of “Taoist religion.”  They call the Taoteching a treatise on political or military strategy, or they see it as primitive scientific naturalism or utopianism — or just a bunch of sayings.  

 

But trying to force the Taoteching into the categories of modern discourse not only distorts the Taoteching but also treats the traditions that later Taoists have associated with the text as irrelevant and misguided.  Meanwhile, the Taoteching continues to inspire millions of Chinese as a spiritual text…

 

[from Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching, translated by Red Pine, with selected commentaries from the past 2,000 years]

 

~ ~ ~

 

…I’d like to add that in light of this connection between lunar cycles, menstrual cycles and female fertility, that much of the feminine imagery is used in the Dao De Jing.  It seems to suggest all the more that proto-Daoism, however it came about, arose out of an earlier matriarchal culture.  The modern day Mosuo in eastern China could be one of the few surviving offshoots of this earlier Chinese culture.  

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Also to add, regarding Red Pine's comments on modern scholars all-too-neat separation of "philosophical" and "religious" Daoism... The word "philosophy", as understood in the west, has taken on more narrow connotations over the centuries.  Pierre Hadot's groundbreaking scholarship points to Greco-Roman philosophia as something practiced -- philosophical discourse in conjunction with what he calls "spiritual exercises."  One did not have to write or teach to be a philosopher in the Hellenistic world-- one's deliberate way of life is what determined this designation.  In other words, the schools of Pythagoreans, Platonists, Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and Pyrrhonian Skeptics were practiced-- something foreign to our modern day notion of "philosophy" (the Existentialists came close to reproducing the spirit of the Greco-Romans).  Ancient philosophia was not "philosophy" in the modern sense, nor was it exactly "religion."  It lay somewhere in between.  Our concepts have gotten more rigid -- but how did this change occur in western thought?

 

With the rise of Christianity, the Church did not completely eliminate all its "competition" but utilized it for developing their own theological concepts.  Christian theology as we know it today could not have existed without Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.  Even Tertullian (!) admired Seneca, and there were letters circulating which claimed to be between Seneca and Paul of Tarsus.  Epictetus' discourses were read widely in monasteries for centuries.  Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy is more stoic in spirit than Christian -- and was one of the most widely read books in the Middle Ages.  But the role that the ancient philosophia was altered to suit the theological needs of the Church, hence the epithet "handmaiden of theology."  Later, by the Renaissance, for a variety of reasons, a newer philosophy began to emerge which was not necessarily "Christian" and asserted a greater independence from the Church over time.  But the nature of philosophy had become conditioned over all the centuries of Christian domestication: it became more abstract, more intellectual -- it was not something "practiced" as the Stoics, Epicureans, etc. understood philosophia.  

 

And this brings us to the modern day assumptions of what the word "philosophy" entails.  The division between "philosophy" and "religion" is so much more inflexible than in the Greco-Roman world that "true" Daoism in the eyes of western scholarship is either originally a philosophy or a religion.  These categories are too coarse.  Westerners overvalue abstract consistency over messy concrete reality, but such consistency won't be found in ancient China in any uniform way.  Daoism has more varieties than what the modern-day pigeonholes of "philosophy OR religion" allow.  

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I noticed that the pictographs are missing.

 

Yeah, I just left those with brackets [ _ ] -- I could probably track them down on the internet and copy and paste them, but I don't have them ready at hand, manually typing the text in.  (short version: I'm lazy!)

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The characters and symbol in order in that text are:  道  首  辶    ..if that makes things easier ^_^

Edited by dustybeijing
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@ Old River

 

Thanks for posting Red Pine’s introduction. I like it! I have many translations of the Daodejing but not his. I’ve read some of his other works and I like his approach.  I’ll contemplate his thoughts.

 

By way of contrast and as a reference here is a more conventional analysis from Ames and Hall, Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation……..

 

There is one general point that we would make in our interpretation of this classical Chinese language. Above we have argued for a processual understanding of classical Daoist cosmology. If this account is persuasive, it means that the vocabulary that expresses the worldview and the common sense in which the Daodejing is to be located is first and foremost gerundive. Because "things" in the Daodejing are in fact active "processes" and ongoing "events," nouns that would "objectify" this world are derived from and revert to a verbal sensibility. The ontological language of substance and essence that is sedimented into the English language tends to defy this linguistic priority, insisting upon the primacy of "the world" rather than the process of the world "worlding" and the myriad things "happening." It is a fair observation that a careful reading of the introduction and this glossary are made necessary by the fact that our European languages can only most imperfectly "speak" the world being referenced in the Daodejing.

 

道 dao. Etymologically, the character dao 道 is constructed out of two elements: shu "foot," and hence, "to pass over," "to go over," "to lead through" (on foot), and shou首meaning "head"—hair and eye together—and therefore "foremost." The shou "head" component carries the suggestion of "to lead" in the sense of "to give a heading." Dao 道  is used frequently as a loan character for its verbal cognate dao 導, "to lead forth." Thus the character is primarily gerundive, processional, and dynamic: "a leading forth." The earliest appearance of dao is in the Book of Documents in the context of cutting a channel and "leading" a river to prevent the overflowing of its banks.

 

Taking the verbal dao as primary, its several derived meanings emerge rather naturally: "to lead through," and hence: "road, path, way, method, to put into words, to explain, teachings, doctrines, art." At its most fundamental level, dao seems to denote the active project of "moving ahead in the world," of "forging a way forward," of "road building." Hence, our neologism: "way-making." By extension, dao comes to connote a pathway that has been made, and hence can be traveled. It is because of this connotation that dao is often, somewhat problematically, nominalized by translating it "the Way."

Edited by Yueya
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Also to add, regarding Red Pine's comments on modern scholars all-too-neat separation of "philosophical" and "religious" Daoism... The word "philosophy", as understood in the west, has taken on more narrow connotations over the centuries.  

 

I’ve heard contemporary philosophers described as people who merely study the works of older philosophers. It's certainly no longer generally thought of as a lived experience. But from my very limited knowledge of the ancient Greeks you reference, the impression I had was that they were living according to the dictates of their human rationality. Today's equivalent would be a person who tries to live according to empirical science and logic to the exclusion of 'irrational' feeling and those pesky emotions. 
 
Aren't these people attempting to live their lives by an act of human will - and hence to limit their lives to the known - rather than by the surrender of will to the Dao (to use Daoist terminology for the indescribable) - and hence allow expansion into the ineffable unknown?  
Edited by Yueya
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...Above we have argued for a processual understanding of classical Daoist cosmology. If this account is persuasive, it means that the vocabulary that expresses the worldview and the common sense in which the Daodejing is to be located is first and foremost gerundive. Because "things" in the Daodejing are in fact active "processes" and ongoing "events," nouns that would "objectify" this world are derived from and revert to a verbal sensibility. The ontological language of substance and essence that is sedimented into the English language tends to defy this linguistic priority, insisting upon the primacy of "the world" rather than the process of the world "worlding" and the myriad things "happening." ...

 

...Hence, our neologism: "way-making." By extension, dao comes to connote a pathway that has been made, and hence can be traveled. It is because of this connotation that dao is often, somewhat problematically, nominalized by translating it "the Way."

 

I need to re-acquaint myself with the Ames & Hall translation -- it was for this reason that you quoted, Yueya, that I liked their translation and commentary -- dao as a verb, not a noun.

 

I find western philosophy problematic in that it almost inevitably tends toward essentialism.  Certainly in that sense, Whitehead was right to say that all western philosophy was a footnote to Plato.  It is difficult to shake off because it is so embedded in western culture and we are generally unaware of it.  Grammar is a way of carving up the world, and without having an awareness of this, we believe "time" and "being" are separate.  Essentialism rests upon this assumption that things (including ourselves) "exist" in a fixed way, and temporality is just something extra.  From this metaphysical assumption, a series of errors are compounded.  The problem isn't grammar per se, but that we remain unaware that our native grammar provides only one possible perspective among many.  From the broader metaphysical perspective no thing "is" except in a provisional and imperfect sense -- including dao.

 

The Dao De Jing (expressed in a more fluid grammar, incidentally), acknowledges temporality rather than fleeing it.  I do think Ames & Hall are closer to understanding dao as a temporal process (a verb!) rather than a metaphysical substance underlying physical reality.  Thought as a substance, Daoism becomes Platonized, and as such, it misses what is truly unique about Daoism -- it includes time in its metaphysics rather than attempting to sever itself from it. 

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Some more about the origin of the character might be noted. It has had a few incarnations..

 

One, mentioned above, is 'foot' or 'walk'  辶  辵  with 'head'  首, which together form  道

 

Before this, though:

 

One was 'crossroads' or 'route'  行  and 'head'  首, which together form 

 

Another was 'crossroads' or 'route'  行  and 'person'  人  (there is no modern character like this)

 

We can clearly see the early relationship between 'walk'  辶  and 'route'  行, so  道  and  衜  are pretty close, but the version of 'dao' depicting a person in the middle of the crossroads intrigues me.

 

In the Guodian Laozi, both the 'road/person' and 'walk/head' versions of the character are found:

 

post-111592-0-66901200-1463350868.png   post-111592-0-02685000-1463350869.png

 


Relative lack of study of the Guodian seems to mean that many are unaware of this other version -- or that they think it's a mistake, or that they don't care, I suppose. I find the character itself, and the use of two different characters for what is now a single 'dao' character, intriguing.

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But from my very limited knowledge of the ancient Greeks you reference, the impression I had was that they were living according to the dictates of their human rationality. Today's equivalent would be a person who tries to live according to empirical science and logic to the exclusion of 'irrational' feeling and those pesky emotions. 
 
Aren't these people attempting to live their lives by an act of human will, rather than by the surrender of will to the Dao (to use Daoist terminology for the indescribable)?  

 

There's so much that is lost in translation with Greco-Roman philosophy because so many of the words used either don't translate over into English well, or the English word works well, but the meaning of the word has changed so much over the years, and so it is easy to misinterpret anachronistically.  This was a stumbling block for me when I first started delving more deeply into Greco-Roman philosophia, especially Stoicism which interested me for a time.  

 

Even the names of the schools imply something different from the original meanings -- Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic, Cynic.  The Greek "Logos" was a metaphysical principle, not "reason" in the modern sense of the word.  The Greek word "nous" is often inaccurately translated as "mind" or "intellect" which is entirely misleading.  Eudaimonia doesn't quite mean "happiness," and so on.  "Apatheia" is entirely misunderstood if literally translated as "apathy."  It is not quite correct to equate the "passions" with "emotions" per se.  The possibility for anachronistic errors are at every turn.  

 

In the case Stoicism, their motto, "Live according to nature" meant to live according to the whole rather than a resisting ego.  Pierre Hadot's study on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) explains in detail how the ancient Stoics accomplished this.  Of course, the methods are imperfect, but empiricism, as we understand the term today, was a foreign concept to them.  

 

A lot of this is due to Hadot's painstaking philological work, because scholars for centuries superimposed their own notions of "reason" anachronistically.  It is through this anachronistic lens that Marcus Aurelius was thought of as morbid or gloomy.  The Meditations was never a book of philosophy intended for public reading, nor was it a personal journal.  Framed as such, there is much in the Meditations that simply don't make sense.  Rather it was a "workbook" intended, through the act of writing, to induce a shift toward a cosmic perspective and a loosening of apprehensions which cause only more anxiety.  

 

This may still be an imperfect approach (it certainly has its flaws and isn't always convincing), but it is also a far cry from the kind of arid speculation that later philosopher assumed about the ancient world.  It's all very fascinating, though my interests have moved on since then.

 

Here's an all-too-brief overview of Pierre Hadot: http://www.iep.utm.edu/hadot/

Edited by Old River
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Excellent, as usual. I now remember glimpsing these dimensions of the Stoics and Epicureans and even remember explaining it to a young friend just coming into knowledge of the various ancient Greek traditions. Oh, we forget so much! or at least I do. Perhaps it's because my natural affinity rests with Chinese culture. 

 

(BTW This sentence needs correcting...."Of course, the methods are perfect, but empiricism, as we understand the term today, was a foreign concept to them." )   

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Oh, don't talk to me about bad memory -- I'm too well-acquainted with that fellow. 

 

--And thanks for catching my slip -- fixed!  

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Some more about the origin of the character might be noted. It has had a few incarnations..

 

One, mentioned above, is 'foot' or 'walk'  辶  辵  with 'head'  首, which together form  道

 

Before this, though:

 

One was 'crossroads' or 'route'  行  and 'head'  首, which together form 

 

Another was 'crossroads' or 'route'  行  and 'person'  人  (there is no modern character like this)

 

We can clearly see the early relationship between 'walk'  辶  and 'route'  行, so  道  and  衜  are pretty close, but the version of 'dao' depicting a person in the middle of the crossroads intrigues me.

 

In the Guodian Laozi, both the 'road/person' and 'walk/head' versions of the character are found:

 

attachicon.gifgd dao1.PNG   attachicon.gifgd dao2.PNG

 

 

Relative lack of study of the Guodian seems to mean that many are unaware of this other version -- or that they think it's a mistake, or that they don't care, I suppose. I find the character itself, and the use of two different characters for what is now a single 'dao' character, intriguing.

 

I find those two Guodian characters intriguing too. Thanks for posting them. I'd like to see larger, clearer versions. I assume these were the best you could find? I'd particularly like to see a larger image of thispost-111592-0-02685000-1463350869.png.  I'm thinking I'd like it for a wall hanging. Have you ever tried reproducing any of these using your digital art talent?

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The GD characters are beautiful eh. Those 2 are screenshots from the best copy of the original Guodian Laozi slips I have come across so far. It would be lovely to have them at a higher res but haven't had much luck. I imagine that the slips are about that size, so it wouldn't get much more defined anyway.

 

This is from the GD Taiyi Shengshui, the largest version I have found:  post-111592-0-05611000-1463399535.png

 

I've had a go at writing some of the characters, though not manipulating them digitally. Maybe will have a go ^_^

 

You may get back to the philosophical stuff now...

Edited by dustybeijing
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Thanks you all for this thread,

 

one course of philosophy long ago did nothing for me ( though I remember thinking that there was more to it than the books and the prof told us..)

but this thread  makes it tasty

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The GD characters are beautiful eh. Those 2 are screenshots from the best copy of the original Guodian Laozi slips I have come across so far. It would be lovely to have them at a higher res but haven't had much luck. I imagine that the slips are about that size, so it wouldn't get much more defined anyway.

 

This is from the GD Taiyi Shengshui, the largest version I have found:  attachicon.giftyss dao2.PNG

 

I've had a go at writing some of the characters, though not manipulating them digitally. Maybe will have a go ^_^

 

You may get back to the philosophical stuff now...

That, I think, would be a worth-while hobby, to clean up the characters of ancient Chinese text.

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Professor Tu also notes that tao shares a common linguistic heritage with words that mean “moon” or “new moon” in other cultures: Tibetans call the moon da-ua; the Miao, who now live in southwest China but who lived in the same state as Lao-tzu when he was alive, call it tao-tie; the ancient Egyptians thoth.  Tu Er-wei could have added dar-sha, which means “new moon” in Sanskrit.

 

 

Very interesting connection to moon. 

 

Here I wrote the origin of Heng (replaced by Chang) and it encompassing a moon.  Fourth most common word in the Mawangdui and in some ancient text it is said to be synonymous with Dao.

 

http://www.thedaobums.com/topic/32313-heng-original-use-in-ancient-times/

 

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Very interesting connection to moon. 

 

Here I wrote the origin of Heng (replaced by Chang) and it encompassing a moon.  Fourth most common word in the Mawangdui and in some ancient text it is said to be synonymous with Dao.

 

http://www.thedaobums.com/topic/32313-heng-original-use-in-ancient-times/

 

Fascinating, Dawei...

 

I see how Red Pine's redaction in his translation also uses heng in chapter 1 instead of chang.  He doesn't go into near as much detail, but he does say this much, echoing your own findings:

 

"...In lines two and four, I've used the Mawangtui heng (immortal) over the standard ch'ang (eternal), which was introduced to avoid an emperor's personal name.  Heng also means "crescent moon," a not accidental change in light of Lao-tzu's emphasis on lunar images when talking about the Tao..."

 

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