The Naturalism of Lao-zi

An excerpt from The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism by Peter M.K. Chan

An abridged and systematic reconsitution of their words


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                                           The Naturalism of Lao-zi


3.1 About Lao-zi

3.2 The Dao of Nature

3.3 The Operation of Dao

3.4 The Sagely Way of Life

3.5 Government by Non-action

3.6 The Contrarianism of Lao-zi


          In the landscape of ancient Chinese philosophy, while Confucius and Moh-tze were both trying to educate the people and promote their ideas to those in power, Lao-zi (c550 - 450bc?) was already not sanguine about such projects. He had already come to the view that neither moral pursuation nor religious beliefs are able to secure peace and harmony in the world. What would really take is for all concerned to abandon the Way of Man and emulate the Dao of Nature.


      For what history has seen fit to record, Lao-zi was actually the national record keeper and curator during the waning years of the late Zhou Dynasty. As such, he was already known to be one of the most knowledgeable in the land. As we are also told, the Dao Der Jing (usually mispronounced as the Tao Te Ching) was actually forced out of him (by the commander of the last check-point for exit to China’s remote northwest) as he was on his way searching for a new way of life beyond China’s central plain. Being un-contentious in temperament, or so it was said, he wrote and submitted the whole thing (as a kind of ‘bribe’ for exit) in about three to four days. It is a short aphoristic piece of work containing only five thousand characters. 


3.1 About Lao-zi 


    Before we get into his teaching, it will serve know what he had to say about himself in the Dao Der Jing


My great trouble is that I have a body.

If I had no body, what is there to trouble me?

者,為 身,

身,吾 患。(Dao Der Jing, Section 13)

Comment: Saying that, I believe, is indicative of a man who was aware that his body had already past its prime. As such, he was worrying about his decline in physical fitness associated with the coming of old age. But it is not to be assumed that at the point of writing, Lao-zi was already a very frail old man. As the story is told, he was still fit enough to travel on a buffalo from the central plain to China’s remote northwest. 


I am drifting alone aimlessly, like a dumb infant, yet to become a child.

Wearied, I do not seem to have a home.

Everyone has more than what he needs,

but I seem to have lost everything.

I have the mind of a stupid man.

Whereas ordinary folks are bright and observant, I am muddle-headed.

Everyone knows what he is about, but I am naughty and unrefined.

I am different from others, (still) eager to be fed by Mum.

兮,其 兆﹔沌 兮,如 孩﹔
兮,若 歸。眾 餘,而 遺。

哉。俗 昭,我 昏。

察,我 悶。眾 以,而 鄙。
人,而 (Ibid, Section 20)

Comment: In this seeming paradoxical passage, Lao-zi, I believe, was trying to tell us about the state of mind he was then in. To venture into China’s remote Northwest in search for a new kind of life, or so he seem to be saying, is like losing everything with which he was familiar. It is like going home without knowing where it really is. And for his not knowing what really lies ahead, he also seemed to be wandering aimlessly – not unlike a dumb infant or an ignorant man. The only thing that he could count on was the fact that Mother Nature is still the Mother that he used to know.


I know the advantage of non-action (無為).

Few in the world can understand teachings without words,

and the advantage of non-action.

(Ibid. Section 43)

Comment: As we shall see, the concept of “non-action” is central to Lao-zi’s philosophy of life and government. But it is not the same as not doing anything at all. His basic idea is that it is better for an individual act according to nature (i.e., naturally), rather than trying to reach for what is really beyond one's natural capability. By the same token, it is also better for those who govern not to interfere with people’s life


I treat those who are kind with kindness.

I also treat those who are unkind with kindness.

Kindness is thus attained.

I trust those who are trustworthy, and also those who are not trustworthy.

Trust is thus attained.

者,吾 之﹔不 者,吾 之﹔德 善。

者,吾 之﹔不 者,吾 之﹔德 信。 (Ibid. Section 49)   

Comment: As a trusting person, he believed that if one is trusting and kind to everyone, everyone would also be trusting and kind to him. 


I have three treasures to hold and keep:

The first is called love, the second frugality,

And the third is called not daring to be ahead of the world.

Because of love, I am courageous.

Because of frugality, I am generous.

For not daring to lead the world, I have become a useful implement.

寶,持 之。

慈,二 儉,三 先。

﹔儉 廣﹔

先,故 長。(Ibid. Section 67)

Comment: Three principles are axiomatic to Lao-zi. Love is the spring of courage: he who dares not stand up for what he loves has not really loved. Frugality is the source of generosity: he who consumes more than he gives is not really generous. To lead the world is to leave it behind. Leaving it behind is to loose one’s relevance. It is by staying with the world that one can be of service to it. 


My teachings are easy to understand and practice.

But the world does not understand and practice them.

People do not know about me.

What make me valuable is that I am known only by a few.

知,甚 行。

知,莫 行。

知,是 知。

希, 貴。(Ibid. Section 70)

Comment: He did not know that the Dao Der Jing would have attracted so much attention for generations to come. As we shall see, even though his teaching is not really too difficult to understand, putting it into practice is something else altogether. 


     As we shall see, the central teaching of Lao-zi is that the usual way of Man is contrary to the Dao of Nature. This is why society is not able to find peace, and people satisfaction. That is to say, if all were to abandon the Way of Man and emulate the Dao of Nature, the end result would definitely be more to their liking. As readers can see, Lao-zi’s overall message is indeed not too difficult to understand. What requires a bit of explaining though is what he really meant by the Dao of Nature, and in what way is Dao different from the Way of Man. What must man and society do to emulate the Dao of Nature? In the following Sections, we shall try to savor what Lao-zi has really brewed in his Dao Der Jing. 



3.2 The Dao of Nature


     First of all, it is important to come to grips with what Lao-zi meant by the Dao ( or Way) and Der ( or virtuous accomplishments) of Nature. Consider the following statements: 


Any Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao (常道).

Any name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth.

It is called the Mother of all things.

I seek to apprehend the mystery of Non-being (常無).

I also like to observe the subtlety of Being (常有).

Though different in name, their source is one and the same.

This is the mystery of mysteries, the doorway to all mysteries.

道,非 道。名 名,非 名。

﹔有 母。

無,欲 ﹔常 有,欲 徼。

者,同 名,同 玄。

玄,眾 門。(Ibid. Section 1)

Comment: What Lao-zi is saying is that Dao is not something that one really can nail down with a name and talk about. It is nameless and eternal. For its having existed before Heaven and Earth, call it the Mother of all things. In Lao-zi’s view, how the Non-being (常無) of Dao and the Being (常有) of all things could have existed together is the most mysterious of mysteries.


Being and Non-being produce each other,

Difficult and easy complement each other.

That which is long contrasts with what is short.

What is high juxtaposes with that which is low.

Different sounds harmonize with one another.

Front and back follow each other.

(Ibid. Section 2)

Comment: What Lao-zi is saying, I believe, is this. The Being of things and Non-being of Dao are the two inseparable, contrasting, and complementary aspects of what is known as reality. 


The exuberance and usefulness of Dao is not exhaustible.

Deep and profound, it seems to be the ancestor of all things.

I do not know whose son it is.

It might have existed before the Lord (of Heaven).

兮,似 ﹔湛 兮,似 存。

子,象 先。(Ibid, Section 4) 

Comment: Dao is the ancestor and inexhaustible source from which all things arise, including perhaps the Lord-on-High (i.e., Supreme Being or God).


We look but cannot see, call it invisible.

We listen but cannot hear, call it inaudible.

We touch but cannot find; call it subtle….

Call it elusive, or form without shape and shape without form.

Meeting it will not see its head, and following it will not see its back.



(Ibid. Section 14)

Comment: Dao is invisible, inaudible, and untouchable. Being subtle and elusive, it could only be characterized as a kind of shapeless form or formless shape.


Only Virtue ( der) and its like follow from the Dao.

Dao’s operation on things is vague and elusive.

Within its vague elusiveness are phenomena and appearances.

Within its elusive vagueness are things.

容,惟 物,惟

兮,其 ﹔恍 兮,其 物。(Ibid, Section 21)

Comment: Though vague and elusive, Dao and its Der (or virtuous accomplishment) are to be found in the form and shape of things. That is to say, things with shape and form are the virtuous accomplishment of Dao.


Something came into being before Heaven and earth.

With neither sound nor form, it is self-sufficient and unalterable.

Operating without fail, it is fit to be the mother of Heaven and earth.

I do not know its name.

If forced to come up with one, call it Great.

(Ibid, Section 25)

Comment: Dao already existed before Heaven and earth. Its operation is self-sufficient and everlasting, good enough to be called the “Great Mother of Heaven and earth”.


The great Dao permeates everywhere.

It can turn right as well as left.

All things depend on it for their existence.

It does not turn things away nor possess them as its reward.

It clothes and feeds all things, but does not become their lord. ....

For not claiming to be great, its greatness is thus attained.


(Ibid. Section 34)

Comment: The omnipresence of Dao supports and nourishes everything without having to control anything. This is why it is able to accomplish so much, such as sustaining both Heaven and earth.


Dao produces one, and one produces two,

Two produces three, and three produces all things.

All things carry yin and embrace yang,

When these are fortified with chi (), harmony is attained.

(Ibid. Section 42)

Comment: Dao produces everything by way of two material forces known as yin (that which is cool and passive) and yang (that which is warm and active). The outcome of their coming together must also depend on the function of chi (air or vital energy).


Dao produces, and Der (Virtue) nourishes.

The shapes of things are formed according to circumstance.

This is why everything had to respect Dao and value Der.

(Ibid, Section 51)

Comment: The productivity of Dao is nourished by its Der or virtuous accomplishments. This is how the shapes and forms of this world have come to be. This is perhaps why Lao-zi’s work has come to be known as the Dao Der Jing.

     For those who are not familiar with the above metaphysical talk, allow me to repackage it a little here. (a) Before there were Heaven and earth, there was Dao (), the source of all things. It is nameless because it is neither a thing nor the totality of things. As such, it could only be characterized as a kind of nothing ( or Non-being) as against Being () or the totality of all things. (b) Although conceptually distinct, the Being of things and the Non-being of Dao must yet be deemed as the two inseparable components of one and the same reality. (c) Dao is the inexhaustible source from which all things arise. Its operation is self-sufficient, and unceasing, capable of sustaining the formation and transformation of everything. (d) Dao supports and nourishes everything, but not for its own sake. It does not control or try to possess anything. Such great accomplishments are the Der () or virtuous accomplishments of Dao


Comment: It may be of interest to note that the Dao of Lao-zi could actually be looked upon as the metaphysical counterpart of logos (or cosmic principle) in ancient Greek philosophy. As the idea of logos was the forerunner of natural law or cosmic principle in Western theoretical thought, what Lao-zi was calling attention to are the same law-like processes that seem to govern and regulate the formation and transformation of everything. Under this light, the operation of Dao (law or principle of Nature) could indeed be characterized as invisible, elusive, unceasing, and so on; and that it is not separable from the form and shape of things. Further, as Law or Principle is indeed not anything that could be apprehended by way of the senses, it is also not farfetched to conceive and think of Dao as a kind of nothing or Non-being (), as against the totality of that which is perceivible, or Being ().



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