Probably the most important thing to know about Daoist writings is that in many cases the author is doing something very different stylistically from what a modern Western essayist attempts. That is to say, what I try to do when I write is to be as clear and precise as possible in my descriptions and explanations. In contrast, in most cases Daoist and Zen writers are trying for something very different---they are trying to be evocative. That is to say, a good essayist pars down most of the ways in which his words can be understood to a very few in order to attempt to limit what the reader's understanding to precisely what the author was thinking of when he wrote them. In contrast, Daoist writers are trying to get people to think in a specifically new, much more creative, way. As such, they are attempting to expand the range of ways in which a reader can understand the words on the page---and, by implication, the way she sees the world around her. So instead of limiting the range of interpretations---like the essayist---the Daoist is often instead trying to expand the range of interpretations beyond the usual.
Let me illustrate this point with a story from the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. (Much of the subject of this post applies equally to Zen Buddhism as Daoism. Since there is a great deal of overlap and back-and-forth between Daoism and Zen, I'm going to ignore the distinction and use the literature of both.)
A philosopher, Tanzan, was visited by a Buddhist priest, Unsho, who was very strict about following the precepts. Tanzan was drinking wine, which is supposed to be forbidden for priests.
"Hello, brother," Tanzan greeted him. "Won't you have a drink?"
"I never drink!" exclaimed Unsho solemnly.
"One who does not drink is not even human," said Tanzan.
"Do you mean to call me inhuman just because I do not indulge in intoxicating liquids!" exclaimed Unsho in anger. "Then if I am not human, what am I?"
"A Buddha," answered Tanzan.
After thinking about the story, I came to the conclusion that the story is "about" the way we attach labels to people---like "philosopher" and "Zen Master"---and project these assumptions onto them. The idea I took away was that we need to constantly "be in the moment" and see what is in front of us instead of what we think we see.
That was when I read it the first time.
When I read the text this time, however, I noticed a lot of different things.
First of all, I notice that there is no mention that Unsho is a Zen Master. Instead, he is identified as a "priest". It may be that I was right in my initial read---years ago---to think that he supposed to be a Zen Master. But it may be that I was projecting my assumptions onto the page.
I also noticed another thing. The philosopher, Tanzan, doesn't simply offer Unsho a drink. He makes the comment that "One who does not drink is not even human". Is this an insult towards Unsho? It seems that Unsho thinks so. At that point he responds and it looks like Tanzan was testing Unsho. Unsho responds heatedly to this "slight", and Tanzan drops the coup de main of suggesting that Tanzan is not living up to his ideal of being a Buddha.
Tanzan is suggesting that Unsho's zeal in following the precepts of Buddhism is getting in the way of Unsho's ultimate goal---achieving enlightenment. The implication is that Buddhas (or to use the Daoist term "realized men") do not do things just because they are the "rules". Instead, they always have the option of doing whatever is physically possible. People who have not realized their true nature, on the other hand, find themselves bound by the rules and conventions of their past history and the world they find themselves inhabiting.
The point of the story isn't any sort of "moral" that I may be able to identify, however. The goal of the story is to get me, the reader, to think about it and all the ideas that it creates in my mind. Indeed, this sort of story is intended to be mulled over while sitting in meditation and then, perhaps, discussed with a teacher. As such, my attempt to write out my particular reaction to the story, in effect, "damages" this story for anyone who might read this blog. This is because any person who reads the story will have his mind cluttered up with my particular thoughts and these will no doubt colour his own particular attempts to wrestle with it.
Another thing that Daoist stories are trying to do is to create a set of conceptual "building blocks" that the reader can use to look at the world around him or her. For example, consider the first chapter of Zhuangzi where he talks about the enormous K'un fish and P'eng bird, the short-lived mushroom, motes of dust, and ordinary creatures. The chapter is about different scales of existence---size, duration, point of view, and so on. If Zhuangzi were writing today, no doubt whe would talk about the enormous age of the earth, the huge number of stars in our galaxy and the astronomical number of galaxies in the universe. (In fact, I suspect that he would express himself something like this Monty Python song.) The point is to not be so immersed in our own particular part of the world that we forget about how limited it really is.
I once referred to this chapter to a Roman Catholic environmentalist who was being a little down about the fate of the earth. I pointed out that the earth is less than a tiny pinprick in the universe. What happens here is of very little ultimate significance. He said he'd never thought of things in that way before. Afterwards, it occurred to me that it made sense he'd never thought of it that way. The Christian faith is based on a worldview that implies that the planet earth is the absolutely most important thing that there is. Man is made in God's image and God is so obsessed by this little blue marble that he sent his son to die on it. That is why the Church felt so threatened by Gallileo's insistence that the earth is not the centre of the universe. Whereas Christianity's stories emphasize the ultimate significance of humanity, Daoist ones tend to emphasize the ultimate insignificance of it. This releases the Daoist from his "burden of guilt" in much the same way that the doctrine of atonement seems to work for some Christians.
Another thing that Daoist texts do is give people hints of the day-to-day life of a Daoist. One thing that you will see over and over again in the literature are examples where initiates have to go through extreme hardships in order to achieve realization. Some stories talk about adepts having to be boiled in caldrons. Others talk about being dumped into pits with tigers. Others talk about masters forcing disciples to eat bowls of rotting, maggot-ridden dog feces.
The book Seven Taoist Masters furnishes several less extreme examples. One student ends up devoting himself to carrying people across a river (probably a metaphor for spreading the teaching.) Another spends his time digging caves for other recluses to meditate in (a metaphor for building institutional infrastructure?) One of the most poignant scenes for me is where the beautiful woman disciple disfigures her face with hot cooking oil to minimise her problems with men while travelling as a mendicant.
These stories are pretty important to me, as contrary to many people's opinions that being a Daoist is not much more than "walking through a woods with a smile on your face", I have gone through a great many difficulties following my path. It is really hard to follow the watercourse way, if for no other reason than it sets you apart from other human beings. The work of internal kungfu is also difficult in that you are burning out the impurities of your being, which is not an easy task. Many is the time I have thought to myself "this is just like that story where the master boils the student in his caldrun".