道 (dào) is
首 (shǒu) 'head' and
辶 (辵 chuò) 'go'
|Japanese: Dō, (tō), michi|
|Korean: 도 (To)|
Tao or Dao (道, Pinyin: Dào, Cantonese: Dou) is a Chinese character often translated as ‘Way’ or 'Path'. Though often seen as a linguistic monad (especially by Westerners), the character dao was often modified by other nouns, each of which represented a subset of the terms multifarious meanings. Three such compounds gained special currency in classical Chinese philosophy: 天道 Tian dao (sky or natural dao—usually translated religiously as "heaven's Dao") 大道 Da Dao (Great dao—the actual course of all history—everything that has happened or will happen) and 人道 Ren dao (human dao, the normative orders constructed by human (social) practices). The natural dao corresponds roughly to the order expressed in the totality of natural (physical) laws. The relationship between these three was one of the central subjects of the discourses of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and many other Chinese philosophers.
From the earliest recorded religio-philosophical texts onward, Tian Dao is explained using the concepts of yin and yang. The resulting cosmology became a distinctive feature of Chinese philosophy, one which was particularly expounded upon by members of the Daoist school. The early thinkers, Laozi and Zhuangzi, expressed the view that human dao was embedded in natural dao. If human lives are lived in accord with the natural order of reality, then human beings can truly fulfill their innate potentialities.
The composition of 道 (dào) is 首 (shǒu) meaning "head" and 辶 (辵 chuò) "go." The decomposition etymology for the character 首 is distinguished by the tufts at the top, representing the distinctive hairstyle of the warrior class (a "bun"). The character 首 itself is used to refer to concepts related to the head, such as leadership and rulership. The character 辶 (辵 chuò) 'go' in its reduced form, 廴 resembles a foot, and is meant to be evocative of its meaning "to walk," and "to go," as well as the generic radix for "the way of." This reduced radical 廴 is a component in other radicals and characters. As such, the combined characters signify directed, forward movement (and perhaps even "process" in a Whiteheadian sense).  See also: 
Though the concept of Dao is most often understood in light of its Daoist exponents, the term was actually an important element of Chinese religio-philosophical discourse since time immemorial. However, these thinkers almost exclusively utilized in the human context (ren dao 人道) rather than the cosmological notion that came to dominate later usage. The clearest example of this early understanding can be seen in the Analects of Confucius.
In this formative text, the Master Kong uses dao to describe the optimal, praxis-based path for individual aspirants and the verbal act of following that path (a distinction that relies on the grammatical ambiguity of classical Chinese). This path is open to all people, but is dependent upon heartfelt study of the Five Classics and internalization of the rules of ritual propriety (li). As described in Ames and Rosemont's masterful introduction to the Analects, "to realize the dao is to experience, to interpret, and to influence the world in such a way as to reinforce and extend the way of life inherited from one's cultural predecessors. This way of living in the world then provides a road map and direction for one's cultural successors." Inherent in this notion is the view that following (or embodying) the dao is a difficult process requiring constant study and effort:
Another distinctive element of the Confucian Dao is that it is particularistic: different disciples are given specific instruction based upon their innate qualities and characteristics:
In this way, while the dao is interpreted as a single path (that one is either walking or has strayed from), it is still adapted to each individual's aptitudes. In this context, harmonious behavior results from the optimizing one's tendencies and attitudes through the emulation of classical models: a moral vision that is most clearly described in the Zhong Yong (Doctrine of the Mean).
A. C. Graham's Disputers of the Tao elegantly summarizes the Confucian dao: "the Way is mentioned explicitly only as the proper course of human conduct and government. Indeed he think of it as itself widened by the broadening of human culture: 'Man is able to enlarge the Way [dao], it is not that the Way enlarges man' (15.29)." However, he also notes a single passage in the Analects that could presuppose a Daoist understanding of the cosmos (17.19), stating that it "implies a fundamental unity of Heaven and man. [As such,] it suggests that with the perfect ritualisation of life we would understand our place in community and cosmos without the need of words."  This humanistic understanding was prevalent in the pre-Daoist period.
This being said, the fact that most key terms (i.e., dao, de, tian, wu-wei) were shared throughout the religious and philosophical corpora meant that later developments and modifications had considerable significance, even outside their tradition of origin. For instance, Neo-Confucian thought expanded the classical understanding of dao by including Daoist-inspired cosmological notions (as discussed below).
Unlike other early Chinese thinkers, the philosophers who came to be retroactively identified as Daoists stressed the self-ordering simplicity of the natural world as a logical corrective for the problems plaguing human life. This naturalistic connection was commented on at length by both Laozi and Zhuangzi, as well as later philosophers such as Liezi, Ge Hong and Wang Bi.
The concept of Dao is based upon the understanding that the only constant in the universe is change (see I Jing, the "Book of Changes") and that we must understand and attempt to harmonize ourselves with this change. Change is characterized as a constant progression from non-being into being, potential into actual, yin into yang, female into male. This understanding is first suggested in the Yi Jing, which states that "one (phase of) Yin, one (phase of) Yang, is what is called the Dao." Being thus placed at the conjunction of the alternation of yin and yang, the Dao can be understood as the continuity principle that underlies the constant evolution of the world. For this reason, the Dao is often symbolized by the Taijitu (yin-yang), which represents the yin (darkness) and yang (brightness) mutually generating and interpenetrating in an endless cycle.
In this context, the Daoist school began to extrapolate upon the metaphysical nature of this universal force. Though its various exponents addressed discrete elements of the Dao, their common focus is what permitted later systematizers (such as Sima Qian) to group them into a single intellectual lineage.
The view of the Way espoused in the Dao De Jing, which came to influence much later Chinese thought, is eloquently summarized by Livia Kohn:
The Tao, if we then try to grasp it, can be described as the organic order underlying and structuring and pervading all existence. It is organic in that it is not willful, but it is also order because it changes in predictable rhythms and orderly patterns. If one is to approach it, reason and intellect have to be left behind. One can only intuit it when one has become as nameless and as free of conscious choices and evaluations as the Tao itself.
The Tao cannot be described in ordinary language, since language by its very nature is part of teh realm of discrimination and knowledge that the Tao transcends. Language is a product of the world; the Tao is beyond it—however pervasive and omnipresent it may be. The Tao is transcendent yet immanent. It creates, structures, orders the whole universe, yet it is not a mere part of it.
These metaphysical notions of the Dao are echoed in the Zhuangzi, which states:
The Way has its reality and its signs but is without action or form. You can hand it down but you cannot receive it; you can get it but you cannot see it. It is its own source, its own root. Before Heaven and earth existed it was there, firm from ancient times. It gave spirituality to the spirits and to God; it gave birth to Heaven and to earth. It exists beyond the highest point, and yet you cannot call it lofty; it exists beneath the limit of the six directions, and yet you cannot call it deep. It was born before Heaven and earth, and yet you cannot say it has been there for long; it is earlier than the earliest time, and yet you cannot call it old (Zhuangzi ch. 6, BW 77).
Given a cosmological schema centered on the Dao, it is unsurprising that this notion was also central to the Daoist understanding of human ethics. Specifically, this understanding emerged from the conception that the natural operations of the cosmos were perverted by the desires of human beings. Thus, "morality" (understood broadly) consisted of banishing these desires in favor of unimpeded naturalness in thought and action.
This issue is addressed by Laozi, who contrasts the Great Way of the Dao with the way of human beings:
Further, he characterizes the Way of Man as one in which force is applied without the attainment of desired results:
Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Dao, counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe. For this would only cause resistance. Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed. Lean years follow in the wake of war. Just do what needs to be done. Never take advantage of power…Force is followed by loss of strength. This is not the way of Dao. That which goes against the Dao comes to an early end. (verse 30. tr. Gia Fu Feng)
This view was echoed by Zhuangzi, who argued that attempts to assign values and categories are fundamentally contrary to the natural functioning of the world. As such, he suggests that “because right and wrong [i.e. discursive judgment] appeared, the Way was injured” (Zhuangzi ch. 2, BW 37).
As such, the correct mode of action is one which does not rely on these attitudes and discriminations. For this reason, a common theme in Daoist literature is that fulfillment in life cannot be attained by forcing one's own destiny; instead, one must be receptive to the path laid for them by nature and circumstance. This led to the formulation of the doctrine of "non-action" (wu-wei), which describes the harmonization of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Nature. Describing this path, the Dao De Jing states: "The World is ruled by letting things take their natural course. It cannot be ruled by going against nature or arrogance" (48). Likewise, it also suggests that this mode of action yields ubiquitously positive results, as it allows everything to develop to its full, untrammeled potential:
Dao abides in non-action yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act they would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form there is no desire. Without desire there is tranquility. And in this way all things would be at peace. (Dao De Jing (37))
This path of practice is also advocated in the Liezi, a later text in the philosophical corpus:
The highest man at rest is as though dead, in movement is like a machine. He knows neither why he is at rest nor why he is not, why he is in movement nor why he is not. He neither changes his feelings and expression because ordinary people are watching, nor fails to change them because ordinary people are not watching. He comes alone and goes alone, comes out alone and goes in alone; what can obstruct him? (Liezi. ch. 6, Graham 130)
As mentioned above, it should be noted that in Daoism the complementary part of "non-action" (wu-wei) is that nothing necessary is left undone ("wu bu wei"). Thus, Daoism should be viewed as advocating the harmonization of "passivity" and "activity/creativity" instead of just being passive. In other words through stillness and receptivity natural intuition guides us in knowing when to act and when not to act. Remembering the Great Way is a spiritual awareness of one’s deep connection with the entirety of creation. This involves the adoption of a mode of ‘non-action’ that is not inaction but rather a harmonization of one’s personal will – otherwise tending towards egotism – with the natural harmony and justice of Dao.
In addition to the philosophical traditions described above, the ethics and metaphysics of Daoism also inspired religious practice. As Kohn notes, "crucial to the religious experience of Taoism, the Tao is always there yet has always to be attained, realized, perfected. It creates the world and remains in it as the seed of primordial harmony, original purity, selfless tranquility." As such, these notions proved to be instructive for both Chinese monasticism and religious devotion.
The praxis-based application of Daoist metaphysics can be seen in the Qingjing jing ("Scripture of Purity and Tranquility"), a central text of the Quanzhen school of Daoism:
Once the metaphysical notion of the Dao was entrenched in the philosophical mainstream, it was applied throughout Chinese philosophical and religious thought. For instance, the earliest translators of Buddhist sutras into Chinese chose it as a worthy analog of the Sanskrit dharma. Likewise, the Neo-Confucian movement, which syncretically applied Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics to classical Confucian morality, also inherited this cosmological perspective. Specifically, Zhou Dunyi's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate is credited for outlining "the parameters in which the yin-yang theory was to be assimilated metaphysically and systematically into Confucian thought and practice."  
In the modern world, some scientists suggest that there is a creative principle at work in the universe that causes naturally occurring phenomena to organize themselves into complex interdependent systems. This "principle of self-organization" is sometimes termed Dao. 
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