Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Dao pt. 1

My final paper as an undergraduate (eek!) was for a class I took on ancient Chinese religions.  The class was fascinating, as was my topic for the paper: a comparison between Christianity and the thought of Zhuangzi*, a Daoist philosopher. 

Zhuangzi was sort of the Apostle Paul of Daoism.  He didn’t create the system of thought (that was done by his predecessor Laozi, whose name means “old master”), but he did develop it and expand on its implications for ethics, society, language, and more.  Most Daoist thought is based on Zhuangzi.

Western philosophy since the time of Socrates has emphasized the importance of defining key terms before one starts making arguments.  Unfortunately, no one told this to Zhuangzi.  He never explains exactly what the Dao is.  The word “dao” literally means “way,” a straight path with a single destination.  Thus, the translation I quote will use “Way” where I would say “Dao.”  Zhuangzi held that the Dao was so far above our understanding that “There is no name that fits the Way.”  There is a sense in which the Dao incorporates everything in the universe.  Zhuangzi says that just as when we see all the parts of a horse’s body, we treat it as one unit (a horse), the Dao is “the generality that embraces” everything.  Everything other than the Dao is composed of varying amounts of yin and yang, two fundamental principles that correspond to earth/cold/dark/female and heaven/hot/light/male, respectively.  The Dao is the source of yin and yang, which are the source of everything else.

However, this idea of the Dao as a general term for everything that exists falls short of the reality of the Dao; as Zhuangzi says, “the distance between them is impossibly far.”  This distance shows up in a passage in which Zhuangzi addresses a philosophical debate about whether the universe came from something or from nothing.  Zhuangzi argued that both views were wrong; the universe came from the Dao, which is not nothing, but it was more than a mere “thing,” as calling it something would imply: “The Way cannot be thought of as being, nor can it be thought of as nonbeing.”

When I got my first Chinese Bible after just over a year of learning Chinese, the first thing I did was turn to John 1.  The main reason was that I wanted to see how they translated the word “logos” or “word.”  To my delight, I recognized the character, which was Dao.  This is actually a far more accurate translation than the English “word” – both “Dao” and the original Greek term “logos” refer to transcendent principles that create and govern the universe (for more on “logos” see the post on my blog’s name).

This raises a question: how much of John 1 would a Daoist philosopher like Zhuangzi agree with?  This is the issue I plan to examine in future posts, using John 1 as a starting point to compare and contrast Daoism with Christianity.  At this point, it looks like it will be a fairly long series, which made me wonder whether it would be worthwhile to spend so much time analyzing a worldview that few people in today’s world (including China) really believe.  However, I decided to go ahead for three reasons:

1. I think it’s interesting, so I’ll enjoy writing it, and others may find it interesting too.

2. Daoism has a fair amount in common with other Eastern religions, and it still influences some people through the New Age movement and Star Wars.  (Hint: force = Dao)

3.  I already had a fair amount of analysis written for my paper, so why not use it?

I hope that you enjoy and benefit from this series.  Feel free to leave comments about the comparison itself or places where you’ve seen similar ideas.

*Elizabeth’s Guide to Not Completely Butchering Chinese Names:  “Zh” sounds more or less like the “g” in “giraffe,”  “zhuang” rhymes with “long,” not “clang,” and the “i” at the end is pronounced more like the “i” in “igloo” than like “eee.”  This gives you a pronunciation that isn’t exactly the way the Chinese say it, but it’s much better than the average English speaker does.

1 comment:

  1. I like the concept of the Dao alot. I have actually used it to explain aspects of Christianity before. C.S. used it also in his book The Abolition of Man.