Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Scott Bradley

The Tao penetrates
into every last corner of the universe.
Because it is deep and wide
and extends its power everywhere,
it transcends all things
(Chung Yung 26; Mitchell's adaptation)
I have previously explained my aversion for the use of the definite article "the" when referring to Dao. (In fact, I've had to go back and correct my references to Mitchell's title The Second Book of the Tao, because I had instinctively omitted the "the".) "The Dao", for me, suggests an object. "The dao of archery" can be so specified; but Dao as a term for what cannot, in fact, be named, is best left as amorphous as possible. There is no "The Dao".

Of course I feel somewhat apologetic for quibbling. Does it really matter? If we wish our thinking to point us in the direction of the non-dual, then it does. Yet, we must also understand that as long as we are talking about it, no matter how we think about it, we are dwelling in the dual. Nothing is accomplished in the quibbling, but the quibbling is not without value.

I would suggest that Dao does not "penetrate"; it is not "deep and wide"; it does not "extend"; it does not "transcend"; and it is not an "it". Dao is all things; what universe is there left to penetrate? But to say that things are Dao is not to say that Dao is a thing. It is simply to understand that, as the first chapter of the Daodejing tells us, the "named" and the "unnamable" are the same (just as Nirvana and samsara are the same).

Nor are things "named" truly known; everything, in fact, is nameless. Dao is nameless because it is unfathomable; the mind cannot think it. Things are "named" because the mind believes it can in some sense grasp them. But, in the end, there is in truth nothing nameable. Every "thing" remains utter mystery. There is nothing that is not Mystery. We dwell as and in absolute Mystery. We know absolutely nothing, if knowing something requires knowing its root. Everything is entirely ungraspable. Were I to name the unnamable, as did Laozi, (though he followed precedent) I would name it Mystery.

The Chung Yung (The Doctrine of the Mean) is an expression of Confucianism heavily influenced by Daoism; it gives Dao a metaphysical spin which Confucius did not do, but it has not lost its Confucian need for the definitive. Confucianism requires truth, something known, since this is the only way it sees to establish the moral character of reality. Speaking of the authors of Chung Yung, Fung Yu-Lan writes, "For them, what transcends shapes and features [things], was not nameless. Here lies the fundamental difference between these thinkers and the Taoist thinkers." (The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy) Ironically, for Daoism, there is, in effect, no “Dao”.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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