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  • The Daoist Discourse on Nature
  • Dessislava Damyanova (bio)

Recent years have seen an increased turning to “Daoist wisdom” when addressing issues of the environment. Throughout Chinese history, the return to a genuine and simple way of life has been valued by those fed up with the vanity of worldly affairs. As a way of coping with the hardships of life, Daoist philosophy teaches how to live a contented, serene life regardless of all circumstances. Spontaneous and all-encompassing, Dao has no intent or impulse to strive, act, or react as humans do: it simply allows things to take their own course. As the Daode jing notes, humanity respects earth, earth complies with heaven, heaven abides by Dao, and Dao follows the natural course of everything (ch. 25). Paradoxically, because Dao takes no action, it is the source of all actions. That is why we should cultivate the way of nonaction and let everything grow according to its own way.

Dao and Nature

Daoist philosophy of nature implies admiring the perfection of nature and indulging in the spontaneous cycle of transformations. Many poems of water and mountains are rooted in Daoism and its exquisite purity and clarity. Different Daoist masters describe life in the mountains with graceful, elegant words while setting out the basic principles of Dao. It often seems as if poetry and the Daoist mind merged into one. Writers fluidly and poetically express the principle of “the real nature of all things”: all things and natural phenomena present truth as it is.

The symbolic dimension echoes the primary meaning, imbuing particular details noticed—often natural—with human significance. Dao is revealed in universal vitality, just as Dao involves both the spontaneous transformation of nature and the flourishing of the human world. While Daoist thinkers and poets honored the realization of oneness with [End Page 139] the universe, they did not consider it as a thing that must be expressed in metaphors and images. It can be put into words: “The Dao which can be spoken is not eternal Dao” (Daode jing 1).

Although Dao is inexpressable in words, human life takes part in it, forming a small part of the larger process of nature. Accordingly, all human actions must be in accord with the natural flow, most potently envisioned as the unity and close relationship of all dimensions of life through Dao or the Way. At the same time, many Daoist teachings are difficult to grasp not because they are complex, but because they are simple. Great sages point to a source that cannot be defined or located: emptiness, the root wisdom of Dao. Everything is constantly emerging out of the mysterious ineffable source, some no-thing that no words or concept can ever embrace. Thus, also human awareness springs from this and is directly and forever its part.

The substance of this kind of spirit may be identified as “dwelling nowhere and fostering the Dao mind,” the free activity of the spiritual function. To put it simply, it is to live life engendering a mind that is not constrained and working diligently at this within all activities. In actual reality, the easiest way to live this life is in a mountain hut because the situation there is set up for living this way. In terms of characteristics, three points are dominant: simplicity, directness, and depth.

Laozi was the original archetype of the Daoist sage and his life and work resonate deeply with references to paths, roads, ways, and more. He left society for the unknown western regions and vanished in the haze. However, Dao culture is not the exclusive monopoly of sages who live high above the clouds and away from people. The essence of Dao extends its influence across all of Daoist culture, commonly expressed by six major characteristics: tranquility, simplicity, naturalness, the subtle and profound, freedom from the everyday world, and asymmetry.

In all cases, Dao culture requires that one breaks away by oneself from within, denies perfection, and embraces a structure based on the idea that the life in its present form is perfect. The flexibility, toughness, purity, and depth of the human existence then manifest in the cultural creativity that comes from spiritual activity...


Additional Information

pp. 139-148
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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