Daoism has nothing to say about what you should do

If you’re new to Daoism, I encourage you to read the original works. Don’t rely on people you follow on social media. The beauty of the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi is the emphasis on living our stories spontaneously without an attempt to control, define, or evaluate them.

Implicit, and to some extent, explicit is the understanding that the Dao cannot be institutionalized or defined by principles. And yet, in so many places I see those proclaiming Dao with lessons about what you should do.

Many people tell you that Daoism defines the world as an “illusion” and the “real” world is “out there” if we can stop our minds from distracting us. And they provide ways for YOU to DO what you SHOULD. Each of those capitalized words is the very antithesis of Daoism.

This. Is. It.

There is no before and after. There is no surface and something-more. There is no doing and not doing. There is no knowing and not knowing. There is no flesh and spirit. There is no beginning and end. There is no being and not being. There is becoming. 

And still, Daoism is your story, told in your words, a path created by your steps. What is your Dao?

 

Let’s get philosophical

Non-doing (wuwei), non-knowing (wuzhi), non-desiring (wuyu). These are the keys to walking with Dao.

What a bunch of bullshit.

When I first read about Dao, I dismissed it as nonsense. Isn’t this “un-ness” what we think of as “chaos,” after all? Musn’t this worldview necessarily end in nihilism? At that time, I was firmly western in my view of life: ontological presence — the belief that there is an unchanging reality behind things — is the only thing that allows us to bring order from chaos. We do this through:

  • principles of action that create order in events (cosmologically as god, nationally as government, and in your everyday life as you yourself or maybe as your boss).
  • principles of reason that create order with regard to knowledge, meaning, and morality.

In Greek, the word for principle is arche. Having no controlling principles or rules for order is anarche. And as any rational adult will tell you, anarchy is destructive, lazy, and selfish. The clearest difference in my mind between western philosophy and western religion is that philosophy will acknowledge that reason creates these principles but religion tells us we merely discover them. In either case, reason and principles are what reveal reality. The West has relegated the aesthetic (emotion, sensation, intuition) to a subordinate role.

Daoism does quite the contrary.

I’m reflecting on Laozi and Zhuangzi in new ways thanks to an American philosopher who truly “speaks my language” (David L Hall). My academic background focused on Greek thought. My scholarly pursuits included reading and editing western philosophy. My personal reading focuses on post structuralism and feminist philosophy. So, when Laozi told me to quit using my reason, I was at a loss.

This is why, I suppose, many people seek out a “master.” I’m not interested in a temple or sage of the modern variety. Daoism, as it’s evolved over the centuries, has become a typical religious experience of humans trying to control everything. Through rituals, self-sacrifice, and occultism, modern Daoists:

  • game the universe by creating contracts with and paying off the gods
  • seek to mitigate death through secret, exotic formulas
  • seek to soften the blow of existential impotence with an internal war, of which they are both ally and enemy. (Asceticism is the favored choice, as a war of attrition.)

All of these approaches are ways to control what we can’t truly control. But we feel better trying and distracting ourselves, and many of us believe in an immortal parent who will care for us regardless.

The earliest Daoist authors (and like Jesus didn’t call himself Christian, these authors didn’t call themselves Daoists), are explicit about not doing any of these things. Non-being came from being, after all. We lose the Way when we act, when we know, when we desire.

Here’s the thing:

An aesthetic perspective, as opposed to a rational or logical one, involves experiencing the world in a relatively unmediated fashion. Mediated experience requires one to grasp or comprehend the essence of a thing, while the unmediated aesthetic experience is simply had as lived experience. (Ames, Roger and David L. Hall. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The key to what Laozi means is to understand that reason defines and discriminates and makes permanent. The West assumes being is the true reality and life as we live it is the becoming part that obscures it; think of the forms of Plato, the god of Christianity.

No, says Daoism. Reality is becoming. Nonbeing arises from being and being from nonbeing. This yin-yang dynamic so often mentioned with regard to Dao is not about two principles, two competing poles, not about “there’s black because there’s white to balance,” but black is always becoming white and white is always becoming black. Yin-yang is process not presence.

Dichotomies may be created by language and reason, but reality is a dynamic equilibrium, transience. Being and nonbeing exist together in motion and as such, reality is a becoming. Becoming can only be intuited through lived experience; using reason and creating principles drives us further from Dao.

This is the “non-knowing.”

As a creative process, intuition allows for transience and change necessary to participating in a becoming universe. This aesthetic cosmology is comprised of self-creativity/self-actualization — the virtue or excellence specific to a thing, the de of Daode Jing (and perhaps the arete of Greek?). There is no one correct order. Each thing has its own. The universe is the sum of all orders, a homogeneous chaos.

I’ll write more on the mediation of experience. Or rather…not mediating…by knowing without universalizing, doing without coercing, and desiring without objectifying.

We create the path as we walk it

Running into Daoist elitists is always a bit surreal. But I feel in good company. Zhuangzi was suspicious of “sages,” too.

I’m reading a book about the globalization of Daoism and trying not to be disheartened by the bickering. Political battles are not of interest to me. But I am enjoying the authors’ analysis contrasting East and West:

American spiritual seekers can be said to begin their quest and practice within a framework of “ontological individualism,” in which spirituality consists in discovering, nurturing, and expressing one’s own “deep self”; Daoist cultivation, on the other hand, is based on a process of “cosmological attunement” in which spirituality consists in the harmonization of the dynamic structure and forces of the body/mind with the corresponding dynamic structure and forces of society and of the cosmos. (Palmer, David A.; Siegler, Elijah. Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.)

Certainly, the culture that evolved Daoism matters. Certainly, cultural appropriation is an act we can examine in the same way we examine privilege: it’s not something we can avoid doing (or having), but recognizing our standpoint gives greater context and respect for others.

But that’s not really my interest today. I’m mulling over “identity.”

A fixed identity (West) vs a process of aligning identity (East) is very meaningful to me. As one who has lived as, and loved others, living in the margins of society, I’ve witnessed the fierce struggle for rights and protections, a struggle that requires of the socially nonconforming to state and defend a permanent and one-dimensional identity:  “I was born gay…I didn’t CHOOSE it…” or “I AM trans…I ALWAYS have been this gender inside…”

The cultural shift that brought equal marriage to the US was won with the idea that sexual attraction is not a choice. This was the mantra of the movement for over three decades. Now, the young people coming out as transgender are being forced to use the same argument. I say “forced” because why should it matter whether they “can’t help it” or they “choose to”?

But it does matter to many people. If a gay man marries a woman, he was never really gay but only confused. If a trans youth detransitions or desists years later, they were never really trans but a victim of social contagion or seeking attention. To be authentic, those expressing their trans experience are expected to tell stories of gender confusion that start before speech, show a consistent nonconforming gender expression throughout childhood, and use keywords like “disgust” for their current bodies.

As my trans son expresses his identity, I won’t demand that he “has always” or “will always.” Maybe one day he will stop being a man, or maybe he will always be a man. It doesn’t matter. It’s his story. Identity is a process. Aligning our personal stories with our intimate sense of spirit is an ever-changing experience.

We create the path as we walk it.

 

The journey begins

Below are the headers for blog posts. I try to update so you can grab the image if you’d like the whole thing. Just click for the larger image. Unlabeled quotes are from Laozi (Lao Tzu) and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). As the image list grows, I’ll note changes.

header-create-without
Create without possessing. Act without expecting. Guide without interfering.
header-it-takes-on
It springs into existence, unconscious, perfect, free, takes on a physical body, lets circumstance complete it.
header-she-steps-out
She steps out of the way and lets the Dao speak for itself,
header-a-path
A path is made by walking on it.
header-when-i-let-go
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
header-not-doing
Not doing, the wise soul doesn’t do it wrong and not holding on, doesn’t lose it.
Peace: To accept what must be, to know what endures.
Peace: To accept what must be, to know what endures.
So the unwanting soul sees what's hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.
So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.
tao taoism
Need little, want less. Forget the rules. Be untroubled.
Compassion. Simplicity. Humility. These are your treasures.
Compassion. Simplicity. Humility. These are your treasures.
Failure is an opportunity.
Failure is an opportunity.
Return is the movement of the Tao. Yielding is the way of the Tao.
Return is the movement of the Tao. Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The true name of eternity is Today.
The true name of eternity is Today.
Your enemy is the shadow that you yourself cast.
Your enemy is the shadow that you yourself cast.