On this episode of the podcast, we learn about Daoism, the first of several Eastern philosophies we’ll be studying.
Daoism arose from a demand for creative and effective ways to govern the Chinese population when the Zhou Dynasty began to crumble. As the dynasty fell apart, the officials who had worked within the courts and government of the dynasty began to spread out and teach their own versions of how to most effectively govern people. Collectively, all of their ideas became known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, and Daoism was one of those hundred.
The most important text in Daoism is a book called the Daode Jing, which is attributed to a man named Laozi. There is no hard evidence that Laozi actually existed, but according to legend, he was one of the displaced Zhou Dynasty officials. After losing his job, he grew weary of civilization and decided to leave and live in isolation for the rest of his life. When he reached the final outpost, the guard asked him to write down all of his wisdom before he left so that it wouldn’t be lost. The short book he wrote is said to be what we now know as the Daode Jing. While this story is certainly possible, another possibility is that the Daode Jing was a collaborative effort by many people who simply attributed the finished product to Laozi.
The most common interpretation of the Dao is the path the universe naturally follows. The ancient people thought of this in regard to the relationship human beings have with nature. Because of our innate ability to reason, we are able to stray from the natural way all other animals interact with their environments.The Dao is the balanced path that humans should follow by living in harmony with nature and making decisions based on intuition.
Despite the many interpretations of the Dao, there are many commonalities in the ways people practice Daoism and the ideas they value. One of the most important concepts in Daoism is called Wu Wei, which means “non-action.” Daoists believe that you shouldn’t resist or strain against the balance and harmony of the Dao; to put it simply, you should just “go with the flow.” The flow of the universe!
Although Laozi was the founding father of Daoism, a philosopher named Zhuangzi is often credited as the man who turned Laozi’s philosophy into the version of Daoism that massively impacted Chinese culture and society for thousands of years. Zhuangzi lived during the Warring States period of China, which took place after the Zhou Dynasty had completely crumbled. By that time, Daoism had existed for several decades (since the dynasty had first begun to fall apart), but hadn’t yet been applied in the political realm since the Zhou Dynasty hadn’t completely collapsed yet. During the Warring States period, most philosophical texts aimed at trying to establish the most effective way of governing a state; contrarily, Zhuangzi’s book (which was self-titled) aimed at establishing the most effective way to be a happy individual.
Both Laozi and Zhuangzi applied the concept of Wu Wei to government, meaning they believed that the best government is one that doesn’t govern at all. Laozi thought that people work best when they aren’t governed; if there is no societal order to disrupt, disruptive behaviors cease to exist. Along the same lines, Zhuangzi thought that good order results spontaneously when things are left alone.
The most important symbol in Daoism is the Yin Yang, which represents a mysterious force of the universe having to do with the interdependence of opposites. The way of the Dao is to keep Yin and Yang balanced at all times, and the constant flux of the two forces represents the unity out of which all existence arises. This concept of Yin and Yang significantly predates Daoism and still pervades nearly every aspect of Chinese culture to this day.