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  • Goodness Is Like WaterLaozi's Vision of Fundamental Nature, Life, and Light
  • Manuel Parreño Piñol (bio)

In the Daode jing,Laozi describes Dao as "… the beginning of all things under heaven" (ch. 52; Wei et al. 1992, 119)1 and says that "Dao gave birth" to all beings (1992, 117). Dao is the backbone of Laozi's naturalistic philosophy. All things in the universe have come from Dao through the interaction of yin and yang so that, for Laozi, creation is ex material: an ongoing ordered process of change is applied to unorganized matter which then becomes organized matter—a tree, plant, human being, etc.

Two key concepts to better understand Dao are our "fundamental Dao-nature" (de 德) and "light" (guang 光), which Dao has put in all human beings. Through the latter we know what the right thing to do is, that is, it represents our conscience. I call (de 德) "fundamental Daonature" for a reason. Both our physical body and our (inner) de have come to us from Dao. The difference is that our physical bodies are the result of the interaction of forces that came into existence leading to the creation of more life in a chain of events expanding over many generations. Thus, Dao made yin and yang and their interaction produced a third thing and so on till the myriad things we now have in the universe have been produced, us including. It is not the same with de. Laozi believes that at some point in that process of things coming into existence Dao directly (and not through the interaction of other forces or events) [End Page 153] put in each thing created their de. This de or "fundamental Dao-nature" in all beings is that by which "they could exist" (Fung 2007, 170).

For practicality and to avoid the repetition of the use of the word Dao, from now on I will refer to de as (our) fundamental nature. Our fundamental nature is the reason why Laozi trusts that humankind can and indeed should be allowed to act naturally, rather than depending on too many rules for proper conduct. It also manifests through a light within people. Both our fundamental nature and light come directly from Dao. Our inner light guides our behavior so as to follow what, according to our fundamental nature, is natural in us. Consequently, we all know what the right thing to do is (ch. 78; Wei et al. 1992, 177). Indeed, it is through our adherence to the dictates of Dao's light that Dao can preserve us.

In a nutshell, what is Dao? While remaining obscure, it is the source from which all sprang (1992, 119). Found in all things that exist, it guides behavior and operates through a persuasive organized process—almost like natural law in Western thought—something that works through flow rather than force. Dao represents the proper way to lead our lives and is the source of all goodness (shan). Thus, Laozi speaks of goodness as a standard to be worked on: it must be pursued because it means adhering to Dao. The way to pursue this goodness, then, comes from within: it starts with the way we use our fundamental nature and light

Inasmuch as Dao is "the very progenitor of all things" (ch. 4; Wei et al. 1992, 9),2 Laozi describes the creation in terms of Dao: "Dao gave birth to the One; the One gave birth to the two; the two gave birth to the three; and the three gave birth to the ten thousand things" (ch. 42; 1992, 99).3 Dao and the One are very close, describing the unfolding cosmos in its state of nonbeing (Dao) and first being (One), from which all else come into existence. As for the meaning of the two and the three, Fung Yu-lan states that it "may simply be the same as saying that from being come all things. Being is one, and two and three are the beginning of the many" (2007, 156). The Huainanzi explains it in terms of yin and yang arising from Dao, which in turn interact to bring about a level of harmony, a three...


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pp. 153-170
Launched on MUSE
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