Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Dao of Daos

People who talk about Daoism often---if not usually---talk about the Dao as if it is some sort of God. Take for example the following quote, which I pretty much randomly selected from the net using a Google search for "cosmic dao".

Who Is God?

Dao is analogous to God, but Dao is not a being. Rather, Dao is the source of all and the ultimate reality, and Dao is the cause of all change in life. Dao permeates the universe and is the principle behind all that is. Dao can only be experienced through mystical ecstasy. Daoists seek transformation of their self and body into a cosmic, Dao-focused entity. This is achieved through ritual and meditation.

I'm not about to say that there haven't been a lot of people over the ages that have thought the same thing, but I don't. Instead, I believe that this way of looking at the term makes a few pretty substantive mistakes---ones that lead people up a spiritual blind alley.

The first thing to remember is that originally (i.e. at the time of Zhuangzi) "Dao" simply meant "way". And all sorts of jobs had a "dao" to do them. (This means that all those self-help books that purport to teach us the "dao" of something or other are actually not that far off.) For example, there is a "way" or "dao" to being a good carpenter. I'm not talking about following the building code, however, even though that is part of the picture. The closest English word I can think of is "knack" or "gift". A carpenter who has the Dao of carpentry is one that seems to be able to effortlessly do the job in a way that is far superior to everyone else. Indeed, Zhuangzi several times makes specific mention to tradesmen and their ability to perform quite mundane tasks.

What I would suggest is that Daoist is someone who has not only looked at a specific example of someone who has managed to develop a "knack" at a special vocation, but has spent time thinking about what it means to develop a "knack" as a "knack" itself. The point is not to become a master carpenter, but rather to become someone who has spent time trying to understand the concept of "Mastery" in and of itself. In effect, a Daoist is someone who seeks to find the Dao of Daos, or the "knack" of "knacks".

It can be easy to start to see this in the same terms as Western religion.

For example, anyone who really deeply looks at a subject can develop what appear to be magical abilities. The example that just about everyone acknowledges is that of the martial arts master who can do seemingly amazing feats. But there are others. One story I came across was that of two friends who met for dinner and totally surprised each other with a seemingly magical act. The first one surprised his visitor by providing him with a sumptous meal when he showed up. The secret was not clarivoyance, however, just that he happened to be on a hill and see him coming from a long way off, which gave him time to tell his cook to prepare a meal. The other feat was that guest had brough some fruit without any pits. This was not fairy food, however, for the visitor had simply pulled the part of the flower that developed into seeds out after they had been pollinated.

Another fascinating example comes from Arthur Koestler's The Lotus and the Robot, which describes his travels across the orient. He decided that he would investigate the "magical" abilities of fakirs while in India. He went to one place where he was told a very magical person lived who was able to "walk" on water. It turned out that in this part of India no one had ever seen anyone swim, and this fakir had simply learned how to float on water instead of sinking. (This sort of radically diminished expectations might explain why magical abilities seem to decline with the spread of rapid communications and literacy.)

With the above points in mind, it should be clear that people who put a lot of effort into observing the world around them, and how to work best with it, will begin to be able to do things that may seem like miracles. But being able to do the unexpected, as the example with the swimming fakir, is far from evidence of divinity.

Having said the above, there are some very mysterious elements to mastery. Where does the spontaneous ability to see, say or do the exactly right thing at the right time come from? I would suggest that there is evidence that part of this ability comes from understanding how our minds work and what it means to be a human being. (Especially if one seeks to be more than simply a gifted "savant" in particular field.) This is where the meditation practice of Daoists becomes important. But as I see it, this is about personal self-awareness rather than a prayer to some God in the sky.


gukseon said...

Interesting entry! I think I tend to agree with you about Dao---it's not so much a metaphysical absolute as much as it is the "way" things "go"---whether of the universe or a carpenter.

Now I do happen to think there are "cosmic" aspects to Dao, but as you mention aligning oneself with or using the Dao is primarily a process of increasing one's awareness. High-blown talk about Dao can sometimes lead people away from the life right in front of them. And I think it's in this life that is the real access we have to Dao.

Bill Hulet said...

Perhaps I over-stated my case about "cosmic" things. But I believe that it is best for people who do dabble in the "cosmic" to have their feet very firmly set on the ground. Moreover, I have a conviction that people who really do have a connection with a higher reality should manifest that connection by being very good at the prosaic.

gukseon said...

Well, even if you did overstate it (and I don't think you did), I think the overwhelming tendency on the internet is to overstate the Dao as "Ultimate Reality". Dao is vast (perhaps infinitely so), but we partake of its vast-ness only through the here-and-now. I also agree that the mark of somebody who understands the cosmic is a high degree of proficiency in the mundane.

Bill Hulet said...

This gets me thinking about some ideas I've recently come across from Joseph Campbell. Perhaps the "cosmic" element of reality comes from the perspect we bring to things. When a man (or woman) changes their way of looking at the world (or what politicians call the "frame") everything changes. So when a Daoist starts seeing different elements of life as "Daos", the world seems to rearrange itself.

Add to this the mysterious quality of consciousness. Campbell believed that in some way mystics have found that each one of us is actually the universe looking at itself. (Think of the Upanishad that says "that art thou" or the Buddhist "Indra's net" analogy.)

As I've said before, people miss the mind-blowing weirdness of ordinary existence and tend chase altered states of consciousness (what I believe Rumi called "fruit and nuts".)