ISSN 1562-059X

World Hongming Philosophical Quarterly

Vol. 1999, No. September


The Dao and the Chinese Philosophy



Dr. Hengyucius[1]

President of World Hongming Philosophical Quarterly





The purpose of this paper[2] is to make the essential points of Dao and the relative aspects in Chinese philosophy more easily approached. It is divided into four parts concerning the four aspects of the concept of Dao respectively. Part One covers the manifestations of Dao in Daoism. Part Two describes the doctrines on Dao in Confucianism. Part Three introduces the thought of Dao in Chinese Buddhism. And Part Four interprets the effects of Dao on various concepts of the Chinese people and Chinese cultures. In this paper, we emphasize that the essential points of Dao are quite different perceived in different cultural backgrounds. We must take more notice of this problem and identify these differences in our studies if we want to grasp the essentials of the most important concept of ancient Chinese philosophy more accurately. In this paper, some chief differences on the Dao are presented directly and discussed systematically and all-sidedly.


Keywords: Dao, Daojia, Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Chinese philosophy



Dao[3], a word in the glossary of people's daily life of China, is very common in Chinese philosophy. But the content of it is quite indefinite. It is quite different in the concepts of different philosophical schools in China. Indeed it is quite difficult for all the schools to grasp the concrete definition of Dao. A consensus of opinion has not been achieved yet.


Now we're going to talk about some main ideas on the Dao in different Chinese philosophical schools.


The Dao of nature


In China, there is an idiom "Each of the Eight Immortals displays his or her special prowess when crossing the sea". It means that, in the choice of methods, they are free.


Why could they be free in the choice of methods?


That's because they are Immortals.


Why could the Immortals be free in the choice of methods?


That's because they have the Dao.


And what is the Dao?


I think we may understand it by studying Chinese cultures.


For most Chinese people, "Dao" is a very familiar word with them. One of the causes should perhaps be given to the people's great desire.


You know, being a Chinese, he has usually been taught some fables since he was a child. There are all kinds of Immortal figures in the fables who have different abilities. Almost each of them has such a feature that he could live long, almost forever. And at the same time, there are enough treasures and happiness in the fairyland for them to enjoy. No pains, no delusions, but only leisure and happiness. It is so attractive for most of the Chinese young people that a lot of Chinese people would rather build their ideals of being an Immortal than of being an official or others. They often hope that they could get some infinite powers by this way so that they could do anything whatever they want to do, go anywhere wherever they want to go and change into any other things whatever they want to change into.


Although they want to be such Immortal beings, they are often puzzled by some problems. Such as: How could I turn into an Immortal? How could I get infinite powers? What should I do if I would like to live long?


In order to get the answer of these questions, many Chinese young people prefer to give up their families and treasures to seek for the tutor who could lead them to the paradise. They will to do anything that they are required to do. If necessary, they might even cut off their limbs or do some other sacrifices.


We don't know whether they have got the approaches or not. But through their efforts, it becomes more and more visible that many Chinese people love the Immortal figures very much and the relative messages. In the course of their efforts, the Dao becomes more and more clear for people. This makes us easier to understand the features of the Dao.


According to the descriptions of aged people, any Immortal has its own oddities. The first one is long life and infinite powers. The second one is a pair of wings and feather. The third one is cure-all medicines. Since has long live and infinite powers, he can achieve anything that others cannot be able to accomplish. Since has a pair of wings and feather, he can fly anywhere and get anywhere in time of breath. Since has cure-all medicines, he can cure any kind of diseases for others. That is to say, one who makes himself become an Immortal can get the happiness at any point. This is the mind of the Chinese people.


Well, perhaps you could ask me this kind of question: "how could I become an Immortal?"


Yes, it's a good question. And also it is a quite easy question.


For anyone who wants to be an Immortal, only one thing is necessary to perform. That is you must try your best to get the Dao and correspond to the Dao completely. If you come to this level, you must be an Immortal. All energies in the world belong to the Dao at any time. It can make things this and that, here and there. Maybe the Dao is really like that what is described from Laozi.


About the unfathomable Dao, Laozi[4] says that:


It is the nature of the Tao, that even though used continuously, it is replenished naturally, never being emptied, and never being over-filled, as is a goblet which spills its contents upon the ground. The Tao therefore cannot be said to waste its charge, but constantly remains a source of nourishment for those who are not so full of self as to be unable to partake of it. When tempered beyond its natural state, the finest blade will lose its edge.  Even the hardest tempered sword, against water, is of no avail, and will shatter if struck against a rock. When untangled by a cutting edge, the cord in little pieces lies, and is of little use. Just as the finest swordsmith tempers the finest blade with his experience, so the sage, with wisdom, tempers intellect. With patience, tangled cord may be undone, and problems which seem insoluble, resolved. With wise administrators, all can exist in unity, each with the other, because no man need feel that he exists, only as the shadow of his brilliant brother. Through conduct not contrived for gain, awareness of the Tao may be maintained.  This is how its mysteries may be found.


These descriptions come from the ancient Chinese scripture written by Laozi, the greatest philosopher of China about 2,500 years ago. He tells us the nature of the Dao. Through his words we know that the Dao is very natural. It belongs to the nature. All kinds of things could not exist at all without its function. It is the Dao of the nature.


If you do things by nature, you could eventually become an Immortal. This means that:


1)     You must do things without intent.

2)     You must do things without desire.

3)     You must do things without contriving.

4)     You must do things without possessing.

5)     You must do things without form or image.

6)     You must do things without existence.

7)     You must do things without unnecessary speech.

8)     You must do things without the need of borders.

9)     You must do things without respect.

10) You must do things without rejoicing.

11) You must do things without exclusion.

12) You must do things without the use of forced energy.

13) You must do things without the wish for self-advancement.

14) You must do things without interfering.

15) You must do things without cunning.

16) You must do things without restraint.

17) You must do things without attacking.

18) You must do things without request.

19) You must do things without recognition.

20) You must do things without dwelling upon it in any way.

21) You must do things without display.

22) You must do things without virtue of your own.

23) You must do things without the need of bolts and bars, and so on.


This situation is just like the words from "The Exercise of Leadership"[5] of Laozi: "To act without contrived intent is to act without contriving, and is the way of nature, and so is the way of the Tao."


Obviously, the Dao of nature belongs to Daoism in China. It comes from the thoughts of Daojia, one of the most important schools in Pre-Qin.


The Dao of humanness


However, different from the Dao of nature, in Confucianism, the Dao has its quite different manifestations.


In the past thousands of years, many, many Chinese people struggled for their lives. They hoped that they could obtain some political power by studying hard while behaving themselves well. They usually dreamed that they could return home bearing official titles and honors, or be crowned with success of one kind or another one day. Once he realized his dream, he could make people around him do their lives more easily and happily under his administration. Thus his fame could last through time. In fact it is the most important thing to do for a person who wants to be a good person in China. If you don't get your official titles and honors or are not crowned with success of one kind or another, you must be regarded as rubbish in the world. Anyone can look down on you. To this situation, self-abandonment must come up to you and you yourself must be placed in an embarrassing situation.


In order to avoid this kind of awkward predicament, and also to get a success, countless Chinese people had to do their best to study under teachers or mentors. There were only two different ways for them to choose. One was to practice China Wushu. And the other was to read the works of far ancient sages. Any way, a society could be kept in peace and development by the practice of the words of sages, and the government could defend itself out of foray by forces of China Wushu. Without referring to which way, if you do it well, the possibility of success will come to your fortune.


Although there were different ways for most of Chinese people to do, all of them had to learn the basic disciplines from Confucianism. He must do everything right that he had to do. He must create himself into a superior man and a man of virtue.


But how could he achieve that?


The Master Confucius said, "The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man."[6] That is to say, if you want to be a superior man, you must do everything according to the righteousness and the rules of propriety, you must be in humility and use your sincerity.


The Master Confucius has described the mind of himself that, "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow; -- I have still joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud."[7]


The Master's words tell us: riches and honors maybe necessary for anyone. But if the riches and honors are acquired by unrighteousness, as a superior man, he prefers to give all of them up. Further more, at this moment, as a superior man, contemplating good, and pursuing it, as if he could not reach it; contemplating evil, and shrinking from it, as he would from thrusting the hand into boiling water. This is important, important for a man, important for a family, important for a town and also important for a country.


Judging from the sayings of Confucius, to be a useful man for others, you must learn to be a superior man. But if you want to be a superior man, you must find your way to do everything according to the righteousness and the rules of propriety, you must find your way to be in humility and use your sincerity. And this requires that you must manage to attain sincerity in yourself. The Doctrine of the Mean says that, "Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought; -- he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast."[8]


Then, how could a man get the sincerity?


To the attainment of this, there is requisite of extensive study of what is good, accurate inquiry about it, careful reflection on it, the clear discrimination of it, and the earnest practice of it. -- This is the edification of Confucianism.


Unquestionable, all the efforts are relating to humanity, relating to how to be a good man for others. This is just the trait of Confucianism, and also the Dao of Confucianism. That means the Dao of Confucianism is the Dao of humanity.


The Dao of liberation


For most people, to be a good man is necessary and important. To be a superior man is difficult. To be an Immortal is dreamy. Man's force is very limited to solve people's basic problem -- people's delusion.


Perhaps you could say that the existence of people's delusion is people as people's feature. Yes. It's quite true for anyone. You could get your official titles and honors easily. But you could not get rid of you delusion easily. Even that you could not find any ways to do with it; it makes you painful, sad and angry in your life. At the time of painful and sad, you could perhaps try your best to keep them away from you by the Dao of Confucianism or of Daoism. And also you are perhaps shiftless as though your hands are bound. We don't deny that it is sometimes useful for you. But most of time, it's invalid extremely.


Since then, how could a man be free from his delusion? Is it possible for a man to get free from his delusion?


We believe that it is possible for a man to get his liberation from his delusion to the tips of his fingers. But it is impossible to reach the goal by the Dao of Daoism or of Confucianism. If you want to attain this kind of aim, you shall have to find other ways to use. For instance, you could treat your delusion by practice the principles of the Buddha. That is to say, you can get your liberation in Buddhism.


In Buddhism, the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment is very normal and important for people's liberation. It is thirty-seven kinds of practice for the attainment of enlightenment. These include the four bases of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four occult powers, the five roots of goodness, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment and the eightfold holy path. A man, who wants to get his liberation, he must practice the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment whole-heartedly. He must practice the eightfold holy path in his daily life. He must practice the seven factors of enlightenment from morning to night. He must practice the five roots of goodness to get his happiness. He must get the four occult powers and the five powers to treat his delusions. He must practice the four bases of mindfulness at any time. He must practice the four right efforts without deduction.


Why does he need to do like this?


That's because the practices for the attainment of enlightenment are completely essential for his liberation.


Among these practices, the four bases of mindfulness and the eightfold holy path are the most important for our human beings. The eightfold holy path can make you stand on the ways of the Buddha, and prevent you from all kinds of misfortunes. The four bases of mindfulness can make you clear your mind and realize the real status of yourself through insight. The four bases of mindfulness are:


1)    Contemplating one's body as defiled;

2)    Contemplating one's feelings as painful: even though there are agreeable sensations, they are deceptive, and there is not any true pleasure in the world;

3)    Contemplating one's mind as constantly changing; and

4)    Contemplating things in general as devoid of inherent existence.


Through contemplating one's body as defiled, you could get rid of your "holding to bodies and being unable to let go". Through contemplating one's feelings as painful, you could get rid of your "holding to your feelings and being unable to let go". Through contemplating one's mind as constantly changing, you could get rid of your "holding to subject and being unable to let go". Through contemplating things in general as devoid of inherent existence, you could get rid of your "holding to object and being unable to let go".


In the Mah”¼parinirv”¼na S”¼tra[9], the Buddha tells his followers, "You must do things like what I do that when I stay with you. After my entry into nirvana, you must dwell on the four bases of mindfulness." This is to say the four bases of mindfulness are the essential of the doctrines of the Buddha. If you don't practice the four bases of mindfulness, you will be kept out of liberation forever.


In line with the experiences of Buddhists, a man, who wants to get his liberation, must obtain enough the necessary conditions. When he gets his wisdom deep enough, gets his ability great enough, gets the right ways to treat his delusions indeed, and also gets his right recognition of his mistakes and delusions, liberation will be possible for him. Anyway, any ignorance of the factors of the attainment of enlightenment will be pretty pitiful.


Since liberation in Buddhism means spirit becoming free from afflictions, especially from suffering, birth, old age and death, etc., how to get your liberation is the Dao of Buddhism.


The role of the Dao in Chinese philosophy


It's beyond all doubt that Chinese philosophy is the philosophy of the people of China. It comes from the practices of the people of. And it also develops from the practices of the people of.


In the history of China, there is a very important and also a pretty basic concept in the philosophy of the people of. It is called "Dao". No philosophies can exist in China without the Dao. Chinese people usually talks about it here and there, now and then, although only few people know the concrete content of the Dao clearly in fact. Some of the Chinese people want to get themselves out of death through the gain of the Dao. So they are fond of studying Daoism in their life. And even go into big mountains to practice as a Daoist. Some of them want to make themselves become free from afflictions, awaken to reality and break attachment, to get the peaceful condition result from escaping the suffering and vexation of the world, or to get into nirvana through the practice of the Dao. So they are fond of studying Buddhism in their life. And even go into big mountains to practice as a Buddhist. Meanwhile, most of the Chinese people want to get themselves become wise men through the treating of the Dao of the Sages. They need people's respects. They need the government's paying respect to them. They need official titles and honors to content their lust. So they are fond of studying Confucianism in their life and to be real Confucians are the biggest hope for them.


All Chinese people have their own ideas. However, all of them could be categorized into the three above-mentioned kinds of philosophies. Without which, systematic Chinese philosophy will be out of existence. As one of the Pre-Qin schools of thoughts, Fajia sparkplugs the superiority of law. But no one in China likes it. Mojia believes that brotherliness ought to be the normal interpersonal relations. But others criticize it by exclaiming its unitarity to animals. That is to say if one does like that, he must be regarded as an animal. That's because he must be thought of losing his ethic that a person must have. And in fact it is also impossible to realize in the society with people's selfishness.  Mingjia thinks that one must distinguish the name and the fact clearly. Name is name, fact is fact, and name is different from fact. Although it belongs to the extent of logic, most of Chinese people regard it as sophistry. Only few men believe its thoughts to be right or necessary for people's life. Yinyangjia believes that everything in the world consists of yin and yang. It is the force of yin and yang that control the changes and developments of things, which is an idea too mysterious for a man to accept. Bingjia thinks that only applying forces is a general rule for a country. Peaceful life is the most important thing for Chinese people so no one like it generally. And from Han Dynasty to today's China, the thoughts of Fajia, Mojia, Mingjia, Yinyangjia and Bingjia exist almost only unofficially. In politics, Confucianism is the orthodox thought. People in China must learn Confucianism from their childhood.


And now, you could find many, many memorials throughout China. Except tens of thousands of monasteries of Buddhism and Daoism, all of others belong to the productions of Confucianism. In the history of thousands years of China, the influences of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism to Chinese people and Chinese culture are very obvious. It is Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism that the main body of the Chinese philosophy consists of. No matter in politics or in life, they are all comparatively more familiar with Chinese people, especially Confucianism.


And at the same time, it's the Dao that the kernel of the three kinds of Chinese philosophy -- Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism -- consists of. People could do nothing without the Dao. There is the Dao of humanities to be a man. There is the Dao of being officials to be an official. There is the Dao of calligraphy to write characters well. There is the Dao of music to play a piece of music well. There is the Dao of running a business well. There is the Dao of nature to be an Immortal. There is the Dao of long life to live long. There is the Dao of liberation to enter into nirvana”K all of these are included in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.


To our exact attention, it is quite different of the Dao from Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. The Dao of Daoism is the final aim for a man to practice. It is something that can be grasped through an understanding heart but cannot be expressed in words. The Dao of Confucianism is the course and touchstone for a man to do things as a man. It is something that can be grasped through reading the texts of ancient sages. But the Dao of Buddhism is the only way to attain liberation. It will be disastrous for a man to apply the ways without allowance for varying circumstances.


Where there is a will, there is a way. The Dao of Daoism is the Dao of nature. The Dao of Confucianism is the Dao of humanness. The Dao of Buddhism is the Dao of liberation. Then, what's the role of the Dao in Chinese philosophy?


Dao is the most essential concept of Chinese philosophy. By nothing but sinking in the action of the Dao, nothing but learning about the Dao itself correctly, one can hopefully grasp the main ideas of Chinese philosophy well. And also by doing like this, misunderstandings and misleading ideas could be avoided in our life, studies and works at a considerable degree.



[1] An earlier version of this paper was arranged for poster presentation at the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Philosophy, New Zealand Division, in Hamilton, N.Z., from 29 November to 3 December 1998.

[2] The author gratefully acknowledges Prof. Benjamin Gibbs from the Department of Philosophy of University of Waikato, New Zealand for his invitation. Special thanks go to Prof. Cong Cong from the School of Foreign Studies of Nanjing University for her useful suggestions of this paper.

[3] "Dao" equals to "Tao". They are different spellings in English. The "Tao" is the previous translation. And the "Dao" is the present one according to the pronunciation of mandarin.

[4] Laozi is a very important work of ancient China. Quotations here were cited from Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching translated by Stanley Rosenthal in the British School of Zen Taoism, Cardiff, in September 1984. Electronic documentation, URL: Here was cited from chapter 4 "The Unfathomable Tao".

[5] Chapter 37 of Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching

[6] Chapter 15 "The Duke Ling of Wei", Analects (Chinese text with English translation). The sources for the text are:

(1)  "The sayings of Confucius," (Chinese text with English translation) James R. Ware, trans., Taipei: Wenzhi Publishing House, 1980; and

(2)  "The Chinese Classics with a Translation, Critical and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, and Copius Indexes"(Chinese text with English translation) James Legge, trans., Taipei: Southern Materials Center Publishing, Inc., 1991.

[7] Analects: Chapter 1, the same edition as above.

[8] Cited from an electronic documentation. URL: gopher:// or

[9] Mah”¼parinirv”¼na S”¼tra is a very important Buddhist scripture in Chinese Buddhism. The main idea of it is the four attributes of nirvana. These are permanence, bliss, self and purity. It belongs to Mah”¼y”¼na in the three different vehicles of Buddhism.



Dr. Hengyucius

Dr. Chen Jian


Dr. Hengyucius

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