When the founder of China’s Taoist philosophy Lao Zi first began to write Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Virtue), he believed the concept in his mind was too profound to be described in words.
Lao Zi subsequently denied the meaning of writing this classic in its first sentence. “The Tao [way] that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name,” reads Daodejing. The short text of about 5,000 characters, while teeming with similar seeming self-contradictions, is the oldest and most important of Taoist works as well as one of the most read books of all time. A total of almost 500 translated versions in 32 languages have been printed, arguably trailing only the Bible in the circulation stakes.
Although Taoists account for only a tiny portion of China’s population, Taoist philosophy, which later evolved into an indigenous Chinese religion called Taoism and visibly influenced the great philosopher Confucius, is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and in the minds of the people. Almost every literate Chinese is familiar with idioms contained in Daodejing, many of which deal with the daily life of the community.
Between April 22 and 26, China Religious Culture Communication Association and Chinese Taoist Association sponsored an international forum on Daodejing in Xi’an of Shaanxi Province and Hong Kong. The event attracted scholars, priests and business leaders from 17 countries all keen to discuss the wisdom contained in the book and how it could be of practical use today. The forum’s theme, “building a harmonious world through the Tao,” was a contemporary adaptation of ancient thought with the current plan of the Chinese Government.
Many speakers at the forum believe Daodejing’s emphasis on the relationship between man and nature is a primitive version of today’s sustainable development concept. While exploring the origin of the universe, the sage Lao Zi, who is often compared to Buddha Sakyamuni or Socrates, introduced the concept of Tao, a larger and united power ruling the sky, the earth, rivers and mountains and an unnamed benevolent force behind the workings of the universe. A core idea in the book is recorded in Chapter 25, “People follow earth, earth follows heaven, heaven follows Tao and Tao follows nature.” And as if sensing what was to come, Lao Zi predicted in Chapter 46 that with greed running wild and without the guidance of Tao, the world is in danger.
Ji Xianlin, a celebrated scholar of traditional Chinese culture, echoed these sentiments when he told the China Religious Culture Communication Association and Chinese Taoist Association forum, “We can learn from Daodejing that nature can never be conquered. People have to develop a friendship with nature and merge with nature.”
From a sociological perspective, Daodejing, essentially anti-war, sees conflict as a deviation from Tao and the resolution of conflict due to the return to Tao. This concept is related to the use of non-action. Chapter 30 of Daodejing says that, “Whoever advises a ruler according to Tao opposes conquest by war. Policies of war tend to rebound. Where the armies march, brambles grow. Whenever a great army is formed, hunger and evil follow.”
If seen as a religion, Taoism is certainly one of the world’s most tolerant. Ho Chi Ping, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Home Affairs and a participant in the forum, said China being the only surviving ancient civilization is attributed to its tolerance toward imported cultures and religions, which is partly conferred by Daodejing. He quoted from Daodejing, “the highest good is like that of water.”
Anthropology Professor Jean DeBernardi of University of Alberta, a guest speaker at the forum compared the openness of Taoism and Christianity in her paper. She said that although Christianity also seeks a just and harmonious world, some Christians practice a form of Christianity that does not recognize the spiritual value of other religions, which might undermine religious harmony in a multicultural society.
It was this need for harmony that Xu Jialu, Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, referred to in his keynote address at the forum. Xu said that to build a harmonious society, China should look back to the timeless wisdom in Daodejing. Encouraging different sectors of society to respect each other and work together should be the first step, he said, adding that China could set an example for the world in this regard.
The world has changed enormously since Lao Zi first penned Daodejing, but Tao has not changed, nor has the human mind. If this international forum can popularize the wisdom of Taoism and its virtues in the long term, the tension between individual initiatives and social cohesion may be eased in a young market economy like China. We might then see a turnaround in the attitude of individuals who believe they must only act in their own best interests to achieve success.
The Tao, in the broadest sense, is the way the universe functions, the path taken by natural events. It is characterized by spontaneous creativity and by regular alternations of phenomena (such as day following night) that proceed without effort. Effortless action may be illustrated by the conduct of water, which unresistingly accepts the lowest level and yet wears away the hardest substance. Human beings, following the Tao, must abjure all striving. The ideal state of being, fully attainable only by mystical contemplation, is simplicity and freedom from desire, comparable to that of an infant or an uncarved block.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition