What Is Daoism?

A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead.
Grass and trees are pliant and fragile when living, but dried and shrivelled when dead.
Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of death;
The supple and the weak are the comrades of life.

Therefore a weapon that is strong will not vanquish;
A tree that is strong will suffer the axe.
The strong and big takes the lower position,
The supple and weak takes the higher position.

- Laozi, Dao de Jing, Ch. 76

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Daoism. An ancient Chinese tradition of philosophy and religious belief, Daoism first appeared more than two thousand years ago. For centuries it was the most popular religion in China; in the West its religious aspects are not as well known as its practices, which include meditation and Feng Shui, and for its most celebrated text, the Daodejing.The central aim in Daoism is to follow the 'Dao', a word which roughly translates as 'The Way'. Daoists believe in following life in its natural flow, what they refer to as an 'effortless action'. This transcendence can be linked to Buddhism, the Indian religion that came to China in the 2nd century BC and influenced Daoism - an exchange which went both ways. Daoism is closely related to, but has also at times conflicted with, the religion of the Chinese Imperial court, Confucianism. The spirit world is of great significance in Daoism, and its hierarchy and power often take precedence over events and people in real life. But how did this ancient and complex religion come to be so influential?

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Daoism on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

According to Lao Tzu’s teachings, the Tao (Dao), or ‘Way’ is at the center of all life –conceived as the complete totality of existence. The way to mystical freedom is by way of letting go of conventional concerns and achieving union with the Tao. Once union has been achieved, such conditions as poverty and wealth will become meaningless, and ordinary societal values will no longer apply.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy 2nd edition states that:

“The basic tenet of Taoist thought is that the operation of the human world should ideally be continuous with that of the natural order, and that one should restore the continuity by freeing the self from the restrictive influence of social norms, moral precepts, and worldly goals.”

In essence, Taoism advocates humility, religious piety and harmony with the Tao. Lao Tzu was seen as the living representation of the Tao – bringing salvation and unity into the world.

Continue reading Mohamed Sesay's article on Lao Tzu

Further Reading

Both the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi are composite texts written and rewritten over centuries with varied input from multiple anonymous writers. Each has a distinctive rhetorical style, the Daode Jing terse and poetic, the Zhuangzi prolix, funny, elusive and filled with fantasy dialogues. Both texts flow from reflections on the nature of dao (way) and related concepts that were central to the ethical disputes of Ancient China. The concept of “Daoism” as a theme or group did not exist at the time of the Classical Daoists, but we have some reasons to suspect the communities focusing on the Zhuangzi and Laozi texts were in contact with each other. The texts share some figurative expressions and themes, an ironic detachment from the first order moral issues so hotly debated by the Mohists and Confucians preferring a reflective, metaethical focus on the nature and development of ways. Their metaethics vaguely favored different first-order normative theories (anarchism, pluralism, laissez faire government. The meta-ethical focus and the related less demanding first order ethics mostly distinguishes “Daoists” from other thinkers of the period.

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Daoism by Chad Hansen

Related Topics

 Authenticity | ExistenceMindfulness | Religion

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.