In just a few words, Daoism could be defined as the study of that which cannot be talked about: ‘The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao,’ the very first line of the Dao De Jing reads. Underlying this statement is the idea that language invariably fails to express the most essential truths because of its inherent imperfection. Accordingly, nothing of value can be said about Daoism, some might argue. And so, we should abstain from discussing it…
However, if we take this reasoning to the letter, then there is strictly nothing that can be talked about. Theology, love, physics, houses, gossip and cooking (to name just a few things in this strange world) all rely on language—that is the very reason that they exist as concepts. And Daoism is no exception to the rule. There is no way around words, concepts and definition if we are to examine the meaning of that thing called ‘Dao’. In recent times, language has often been presented as an all-encompassing system that shapes our reality. Whether we are aware of it or not, deterministic theories in twentieth-century linguistics and philosophy have profoundly affected the way we look at the world. The notion that language and its structures condition our experience of reality on a deep level has seeped into our modern cultural unconscious. In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus(1922), Ludwig Wittgenstein put forward the proposition that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ This philosophical statement crystallises the tendency, in modern times, to envision reality as a self-sustained, enclosed linguistic system.
This way of looking at the world can be traced back to the widely influential linguistic theories developed by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early twentieth century. From Saussure onwards, the overall approach to language started to shift—progressively but inexorably. Acknowledging this shift, the critic Roy Harris makes the following statement (Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein, 1988):
Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.
Saussure argued that meaning depends on difference, not on reference to things or concepts. Accordingly, the value of a sign is determined by all the other signs in a given linguistic system (for Saussure, anything that is ascribed a meaning counts as a sign). The idea of a tree, for instance, is defined by everything else that is not referred to linguistically as ‘tree’. Saussure also emphasised the arbitrariness of the relation between ‘signifier’ (in this case the word ‘tree’) and ‘signified’ (the concept of a tree). Thus, what we refer to as ‘tree’ could be called virtually anything else; and indeed, it is called something different in almost every language: arbor in Latin, arbre in French,etc.
The fundamental arbitrariness of the sign is a central locus in twentieth-century art. René Magritte’s painting, The Interpretation of Dreams, is a good example of how art can provide an aesthetic reflection on the relation between the signifier and the signified.
In ancient times, words and names were understood to be mere signposts that could help us comprehend more abstract and perfect principles. Plato was adamant that what we call reality is only a poor reflection of something more real. In his famous theory of Forms, he suggested that non-material abstract forms possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality, as opposed to the material world known to us through sensation. Thus, language brings a further twist to a picture of the world that is already distorted through sensory perception—language, following that logic, is to be understood as no less than a distortion of a distortion. And yet, Plato had to use language in order to articulate his ideas; he recognised that there is no escape from language, as imperfect as it might be. The same paradox is acknowledged in the Dao De Jing, which alludes to a Dao that cannot be named and yet goes on to talk about it anyway.
We look at it but it is invisible,
We call it something formless.
We listen to it but it is not heard,
We call it something soundless.
We feel it out but it is not to be caught,
We call it something intangible.
Boundless and infinite, it can hardly be named.
Dao is formless, soundless and intangible. It is also boundless and infinite. We cannot ever seem to grasp it; and yet we talk about it. ‘I reluctantly use the term Dao since even this is limiting,’ Laozi explains: ‘For study purposes I place a title on the everlasting / Though it is expansive and infinite.’
As Laozi recognised, it is hard to reconcile ‘infinite’ principles with the more rational practice of ‘study’. Study relies on the mediating function of language to create a link between abstract ideas and the analytical side of our mind (in Daoist terms, these would respectively correspond to the Hun and the Po aspects of our mind). In fact, most things in this world are mediated in one way or another. There is hardly any direct or immediate experience of anything at all. As a general rule, information needs to be translated so that we can make sense of it: in other words, we need a medium. This is how our brain works. We should also bear in mind that we live in a culture of mass mediation: in modern societies, the mediation of information has been exploited to the extreme by governments and corporations. In the so-called ‘developed world’, the vast majority of people have been enslaved to specific types of media. Television and the Internet are some of the most pervasive forms of media at work these days; and it is well-known that they mediate information according to pre-established ideological schemes. How we make sense of the world on a day-to-day basis is shaped by the ‘media’—not only newspapers and tabloids, but whatever mediatesinformation. If we are to make sense of Daoism in our time, it seems essential that we take this crucial parameter into account. For Daoism is anything but a transcendental concept. Just like any other concept, it is always mediated: its meaning is the result of specific historical and cultural contingencies.
Daoism is a multi-faceted concept in that it means different things to different people at different times. For purists, it is essentially a philosophical tradition rooted in Laozi’s (and, to some extent, Zhuangzi’s) teachings. However, various strands of Daoism—including religious Daoism—have developed throughout the long history of this concept. More importantly perhaps, our understanding of Daoism is dependent on our cultural makeup. Concepts do not exist innately but are passed on through an endless series of interpretive processes. This is especially true in the case of an age-old tradition like Daoism, which is bound to be perpetually re-interpreted and re-appropriated through the ages. There is nothing wrong about this process of re-actualisation though as it is what keeps concepts like Daoism alive. When interpretation stops, then concepts simply cease to exist. In this sense, interpretation corresponds to the process of cultural translation that ensures that a concept or tradition keeps its relevance through different cultures. Needless to say that Daoism has been around for a long time; as a result, it has accumulated many interpretive layers. Not necessarily cancelling one another, these layers coexist, all contributing to the historical sediment of the concept.
While composing an unusually rich, fresco-like concept, this sedimentation also complicates what we call the meaning of Daoism. Once we acknowledge the intricate hermeneutic layering that ‘Daoism’ is made of, talking about it in objective terms proves rather tricky. Considered by many as the ultimate repository of the essence of Daoism, the Dao De Jing has given rise to a multitude of translations and commentaries, all of them strikingly divergent in the meanings they produce. The lack of a general consensus over the overarching message of the Dao De Jing provides a significant example of the elusiveness of Daoism. From the twentieth century onwards, philosophical debates around ideas and concepts have been increasingly characterised by a rejection of universal truths or meanings. Rooted in German Enlightenment, the modern European ethos is marked by a strong tradition of cultural relativism—the idea that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference. This tradition can be traced back to the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who articulated the idea that human beings are not capable of direct, unmediated knowledge of the world (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781). The notion that our experience of reality is always mediated has left a strong imprint on European mentalities. Deeply suspicious of grand narratives, our modern sensibilities tend to value subjective meanings over universal truths. Determined by strong historical and philosophical currents, our mind is generally drawn towards specificity and close contextual reading. While other traditions might directly seek the bigger picture, we tend to understand the whole by looking at specific parts in great detail.
Our implicit distrust of transcendental principles explains why mediation occupies such a crucial function in our culture. Generally speaking, we find it difficult to talk about something without referring to something else. We like making comparisons, using images, examples and metaphors—linguistic devices that essentially allow us to avoid talking about something too directly. A good example to illustrate the central function of allusion in our culture would be to consider most people’s approach to sex in the public sphere. While a significant part of social interaction revolves around sexual innuendo (this is especially evident in jokes and banter), talking about sex in a straightforward manner is considered inappropriate. This is only one example, though. We encounter similar issues when faced with generic ideas such as ‘love’: the flock of clichés associated with love obfuscates the fact that it is almost impossible to define love in itself, as an objective idea. But although it cannot be defined rationally, love can be talked about in many different ways. William Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 18 illustrates the tendency, in our cultures, to address love in a metaphorical way.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Throughout history, poetry has always featured as a privileged medium to reflect on the most abstract ideas. Shakespeare’s sonnets have an inward-looking, subjective quality that makes them particularly suited to the exploration of metaphysical concepts such as love and death. For the same reason, the poetic form of the Dao De Jing provides an appropriate medium to examine a nameless and infinite principle. The term ‘poetry’ derives from the Greek ποίησις (poiesis), which can be translated as ‘making’. And indeed, poetry is about making new meanings; it is about finding alternative semantic paths. Using this most allusive of literary forms, the Dao De Jing circles around its object of inquiry—Dao—without ever defining it positively.
You won’t see it.
You won’t hear it.
You will never use it up.
Laozi’s point is that Dao cannot be defined in a straightforward, conventional way but rather has to be experienced: ‘Achieving transcendent comprehension’ is ‘The true aim of all Sages.’ Most of us are definitely not sages though; therefore, we need to find alternative paths to reach towards Dao before we can achieve such transcendent comprehension. Through its very form, the Dao De Jingitself illustrates the idea that mediated accounts can point the way. Thus, the most important thing to bear in mind is that we need a medium. It is no accident that the notion of medium or pivot is fundamental in Daoist cosmology. Because of its affinities with metaphysical ideas, poetry seems to be one of the most powerful forms of media to express the inexpressible. Besides, it has that allusive quality that suits the modern mind perfectly. In a way, what we use in order to talk about Dao does not matter, as long as we use something (instead of trying to grasp its intrinsic meaning ‘in itself’). Such deliberate methodological arbitrariness makes sense insofar as it parallels the psychological chaos in which we live nowadays. Bombarding us with a multitude of clashing messages, the cyber-clutter that surrounds us also causes information to overlap in the most bizarre ways. Navigating through this chaos, we learn to make sense of things in unexpected ways. We produce meaning through the most improbable connections and associations of ideas. The notion that modernity functions in an allegorical mode was explored by the German social critic Walter Benjamin. Not only a figure of speech, allegory constructs a form in which ‘any person, any object, any relationship can mean anything else,’ Benjamin suggested in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1929). In other words, allegory describes the associative mechanism through which we understand reality.
Anything can mean anything else. Emerging from the chaos of modernity, this dazzling formula reminds us that the range of interfaces available to talk about any given topic is virtually infinite. Obviously, we should use this to our advantage (rather than moan about how annoying it is that there are no fixed values anymore these days). In order to talk about Daoism, what we need is a medium with a strong allegorical potential. Anything will do. As long as we are receptive to what goes on around us, we will find the appropriate medium. Here is a passage from Haruki Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore (2005), whose allegorical potential is unusually high.
A faint breeze is cutting through the woods, making the leaves of the trees around me tremble. That anonymous rustling makes ripples on the folds of my mind. I rest a hand against a tree trunk and close my eyes. Those ripples seem to be a sign, a signal of some sort, but it’s like a foreign language I can’t decipher. I give up, open my eyes and gaze out again at this brand new world before me. Standing there, halfway down the slope, staring down at this place with two soldiers, I feel those ripples shifting inside me. These signs reconfigure themselves, the metaphors transform, and I’m drifting away, away from myself. I’m a butterfly, flitting along the edges of creation. Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.
Let this be our interface. Let us see what it tells us about Daoism and its practices (even though, or precisely because, it was probably not the author’s intention to talk about Daoism in this particular passage).
From the very first sentence, the passage is begging us to use it to talk about Daoism—or so it seems. The first few words give us a convenient entry point into the intricate topic of Nei Gong: the ‘faint breeze’ illustrates the crucial function of breathing. More than a tool, breathing is a translator that links the physical and spiritual realms. By keeping us connected with the subtle energies of our environment (the ‘faint breeze cutting through the woods’), breathing is also a privileged interface between inside and outside. In Daoist cosmology, man sits between Heaven and Earth—the two main energetic poles above and below. Conscious breathing helps us tune in to the more refined vibration of the energetic realm surrounding us. What characterises the environmental energies is that they vibrate: in the extract quoted above, ‘the leaves of the trees around’ are said to ‘tremble’ under the influence of the ‘faint breeze’. Rather than an objective material reality, the trembling leaves indicate that a heightened level of perception has been reached; once we manage to connect with our energy body, we might feel as if we are pulsing in time with our environment. In Daoist symbolism, trees are often used to stage the interaction between the Yin and Yang aspects of the soul—respectively referred to as Po and Hun. The elaborate image of the wind blowing through trees specifically represents the interaction between the Hun and the Po. This is made clear in the Nei Jing Tu, a classical Daoist diagram on internal alchemy. As the Yang aspect of our soul, the Hun is what allows us to connect with Heaven, while the Po relates to Earth. Our Yi (intent) constitutes the central pivot that mediates between the Hun and the Po. Ultimately, the Hun and Po themselves are only translators that give us access to the Shen (mind) and the Zhi (will power), which in turn directly communicate with Heaven and Earth. As the extract indicates, the function of mediation within the Nei Gong process is crucial; we need to identify points of access in order to elicit spiritual change. Together, the Zhi, Po, Yi, Hun and Shen constitute the five subdivisions of the Yuan Shen (original spirit): they are our points of access.
The trembling of the trees is referred to as an ‘anonymous rustling’ that ‘ripples on the folds of my mind’—a description which illustrates respectively the transcendental and vibrational character of information. In order to understand how information works, its vibrational frequency can be represented as sine waves.
Depending on the point where information is experienced on the Earth/Heaven compass, its density varies greatly. The closer to Earth, the less refined it is; as it moves towards Heaven, it becomes more and more refined.
In the passage from Murakami’s novel, the ripples are understood to be ‘a sign, a signal of some sort, but it’s like a foreign language I can’t decipher’. This alludes to the key notion, in Daoism, that information is not processed by the brain; in fact, the main function of the brain (Nao) is to block out and select information so reality can be arranged into a comprehensible whole. Instead, it is our Yuan Shen that is in charge of receiving and translating information. Through our practice, we refine our perception and learn to translate the different types of information passing us through into something we can understand. Internal practices, and especially Nei Gong, help us develop our sensitivity to the informational streams surrounding us. Standing postures can be used to heighten our energetic receptivity. ‘Standing there, halfway down the slope, staring down at this place with two soldiers, I feel those ripples shifting inside me,’ the passage reads. In Nei Gong, the ‘place’ that we ‘stare down at’, ‘halfway down the slope’, is the lower Dan Tien (literally ‘elixir field’). Located in the exact centre of the body (within the lower abdomen), the lower Dan Tien is the locus where Heaven and Earth—the ‘two soldiers’—meet.
‘Standing there’, gazing at our lower Dan Tien and listening to our breath, we may ‘feel those ripples shifting inside’. By experiencing the ever-shifting quality of information within us, we become aware of the constant change that everything else undergoes around us too. We glimpse at the perfect correlation between microcosm and macrocosm—a central tenet of Daoist cosmology. The ‘brand new world’ that opens up is that of a universe in perpetual change, where ‘signs reconfigure themselves’ and ‘metaphors transform’ ad infinitum. By positing a picture of complete chaos where everything is systematically changing into something else, Daoism can be said to anticipate key aspects of contemporary European philosophy. In both traditions, what is called ‘reality’ is ultimately treated as a series of interchangeable allegories. As an intrinsic part of the bigger frame of ‘reality’, what we refer to as the ‘self’ is also subject to the implacable law of universal change—which essentially amounts to saying that ‘reality’ and ‘self’ are nothing but linguistic constructs. Ideas of selfhood rely on a fundamental principle of separation underlying the cosmos. Once we experience the intrinsic correlation between microcosm and macrocosm within ourselves, division ceases to exist and the ‘self’ appears as what it is: a mere linguistic category. What we thought was ‘our’ own individual self instantly dissolves—‘I’m drifting away, away from myself. I’m a butterfly, flitting along the edges of creation’.
The butterfly figures in one of the most famous Daoist allegories, generally attributed to Zhuangzi. At the heart of Zhuangzi’s mad rhetoric, the butterfly epitomises the universal principle of ‘the transformation of things’.
Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Zhuangzi. Then suddenly I woke up and was Zhuangzi again. But I could not tell, had I been Zhuangzi dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Zhuangzi? However, there must be some sort of difference between Zhuangzi and a butterfly! We call this the transformation of things.
Questioning common notions of identity and individuality, Zhuangzi’s allegorical account illustrates the drifting quality of reality, in which everything constantly changes into something else. ‘There must be some sort of difference between Zhuangzi and a butterfly!’, Zhuangzi notes with more than a touch of irony. In the extract from Murakami’s novel, the butterfly is described as ‘flitting along the edges of creation’. Through Nei Gong, we aim at working our way backwards from an acquired state to a congenital state of being by clearing the distortions of our ego. A symbol of carefree simplicity, the butterfly epitomises the return to the Yuan Shen. When the three bodies of man (the physical, energetic and consciousness bodies) eventually fall into balance, it is said that the Xuan Men or ‘mysterious pass’ opens, giving us unimpeded access to the original, undifferentiated state of the universe. ‘Flitting around the edges of creation’ like a butterfly immersed in total presence, our Shen merges into the primordial emptiness known as Wuji. Only then can we reach an unmediated state of being.
The quality of this state is described at the end of the extract from Kafka on the Shore:
Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.