A Brief Glossary of Terms in the Dao De Jing


Please understand that I do not speak (or read) a word of Chinese and yet each of the following entries is about a term found in the ancient Chinese text known as the Dao De Jing (or The Lao Zi after its author). In other words, what you read below is simply my understanding of these terms in the context of this "Classic."

This sense of "understanding" has been gleaned from reading (sometimes pretty carefully, sometimes not) about fifty (as of this writing) English-language translations, many of which put forth sharply disparate views of the terms.

Hey, like I said somewhere else, it's your mouse.

[A note on romanization of Chinese words.]

The Big Three:

dao (or tao)

Literally, "way" or "path."

As I understand it, "way" is probably the better choice because it contains in English the concept of "method" as well as that of "path" and both of them are also carried within the Chinese word. But Lao Zi's talking about more than just paths or ways; he is talking, mostly, about the Way.

Line 1 of the Daodejing (in Chinese)

The way that can be trod/followed/taken/shown*
is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named/given/spoken*
is not the eternal Name. [1]

[ * choose one or substitute your own]

These are the first two lines of the Dao De Jing. A little later:

How vast it is!
As if the ten thousand things* poured forth from its depths.

Its work is in blunting the pointed
Simplifying the tangled,
Dimming the bright,
And unifying everything.

How deep it is!
Doubt it at your peril.

I do not know whose child it is.
It has been as it is since before the emergence of God. [4]

[ * "the ten thousand things" = everything in the universe]

And later still:

Something there was, formed out of chaos,
Born before the heavens and the Earth.
Quiet and still.
Pure and deep.
Standing alone and forever constant.
Pervading every place and every thing.
Mothering all beneath heaven.
I call it the Way.
And were I to give it a name it would be Magnificence! [25]

So. What can I say the Dao is?

I don't have a clue.

I just know that it is the Source of all, that it nourishes and sustains everything, that it is eternal, and that, for me, knowledge of the Dao has been an enormous comfort.

de (or teh, or te)

Literally "virtue" or "power."

But there are serious drawbacks to both of these English words.

As I understand it, de is the power of something (anything) to be what(ever) it is and to do what(ever) it does. For example, the de of a bowl lets it hold your soup without scalding yourself and staining your clothes. It arises from the bowl's emptiness.

Or, alternately, de can be seen as the virtue of something which makes it uniquely what(ever) it is and by virtue of which it does what(ever) it does. Thus, the de of an uncarved block of wood is its inherent ability to be shaped or formed into anything (such as, perhaps, into that soup bowl).

When Lao Zi speaks of de I often hear Darwin.

The Way gives them life, de nurtures them:
Shaping them according to their make up,
Perfecting them according to their surroundings.
So, the ten thousand things revere the Way and honor de.

No edict requires reverence of the Way.
Nothing mandates honoring de.
It simply has always been so.
But whether or not the Way is revered
And whether or not de is honored,
The Way will give them life
And de will nurture them,
Make them grow, foster them,
Protect them and provide for them. [51]

And in this, as with so much else, Lao Zi has some surprises for us. Listen as he reminds us of the power (and virtue) of "nothing:"

Thirty spokes unite at the single hub;
It is the empty space which makes the wheel useful.
Mold clay to form a bowl;
It is the empty space which makes the bowl useful.
Cut out windows and doors;
It is the empty space which makes the room useful.

What is can be shaped to your advantage;
What is not is what is useful. [11]

And I said "reminds us" because this wisdom is not just the legacy of some ancient Chinese guy. After all, why do you think a room is called a room?

All of which rather conveniently brings us to...

wu wei
Laozi riding his ox

Literally (it is my understanding), "no action."

Functionally this concept, which Lao Zi stresses over and again, holds that whatever one does must be so authentically a part of the person as to feel, to seem, and, indeed, to really be, effortless. It must come from deep within and, no matter how many calories are actually consumed in the process, be of second nature and not the result of decision or effort or anything remotely like effort.

For example, when I decide (as I have any number of times) to make running a part of my life because it is a healthful endeavor and because I want to look better in bathing trunks, I am on the wrong track. From the outset. I will count every stride and curse every pebble I slip on and the shortest jog will not only take an eternity but it will be torturous. On the other hand, when I find that I have run, full gallop, two miles to get to Camden Yards (that's how far away the train station is) in time to get Chris Hoiles' autograph for my daughter's birthday - Jill's a huge Hoiles fan and I'm a huge Jill fan - well, that's more like wu wei. (And, by the way, Jill runs ten miles every morning, dark, light, rain, snow, hail or shine, before work. She doesn't decide to run. It just is done. That's also wu wei.)

[Hint: The word "because" is always a tip-off.]

If you have seen the book The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, it's Pooh's constant sense of just being, his wu wei, that Hoff is talking about.

Similarly, in the Tom Hanks movie Forrest Gump, there's a hint of wu wei about the title character which I believe resonated powerfully with audiences. And the Old Boy knew full well that following the Dao can easily be mistaken for idiocy. As he says in one of the few passages written in the first person:

The hundred families* are so merry, as though enjoying a great festival;
As if climbing great park towers in a carefree Spring afternoon.
Only I remain still, tentative,
As an infant who has yet to learn to smile.
Aimless, I am. As one without a home.
The hundred families* have an abundance, and I have been forgotten.
I have the heart of a fool: confused, be-muddled.
Others are alert, while I am drowsy.
Others are bright, while I am dull and subdued.
Adrift like the ocean waves or the restless winds, I am aimless.
The hundred families* seem directed, with goals, and yet I am as a beggar.
I alone am different from the hundred families:
I am nurtured by the mother. [20]

[ * "the hundred families" = the people]

If this is all too ethereal for your tastes Lao Zi offers us a model: plain, old, tangible water; which, he says, is the substance which can be seen to be most like the Way.

It sustains all life. It erodes the hardest substances known. And water does this all by patiently, effortlessly being itself. [8, 78]

See? This is just as Lao Zi says about the Dao. It alone does absolutely nothing and, precisely because of this, everything is done! It is the de of the Dao that, by wu wei, all is accomplished.

Our way, then, is clear. Do nothing except be authentically yourself and you will nurture everyone and overcome all obstacles!

I'll leave you with a final quote:

My words are straightforward and easy to understand.
My teachings are direct and easy to practice.
Still, no one, it seems, understands my words
For no one I have found practices my teachings.

My words have an ancient heritage
And my teachings have strong precedent
But these have been forgotten
So that now I am ignored.

Still, just by being ignored I become very valuable
For the wise wear crude clothing
To hide precious jewels. [70]

A few others:

sheng ren (or sheng jen)

Literally "holy person/people" but nobody ever translates it that way when the context is the Dao De Jing simply because, in it's Latin form, "saint" ("holy [person]"), it is already 'taken' by Christianity. Sure, a translator could use it anyway, but it would lend their efforts a (probably unwanted) Christian flavor.

So the term most often defaulted to is "sage" or, less commonly, "wise one(s)." And those tend to work well enough 'though I find them cold. R. L. Wing uses the term "evolved individuals" which strikes me as horrid.

Personally I'd prefer something on the order of "one/those who truly love(s) the Dao" (but I have no expectation that anyone is going to follow my suggestion).

Throughout the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi ascribes any number of attitudes and behaviors to "the holy person" [or whatever] and it is understood that therefore these attitudes or behaviors are those which will best serve the reader. To me the Old Boy seems to be saying: This is how, after a lifetime of study of and devotion to the Way, the wise behave in this situation; do otherwise to your certain disadvantage.

wan wu

Literally "ten thousand things" but this is just idiomatic ancient Chinese for "everything" or "all things." (I love the poetry of the literal phrase and get really pissed when people translate it "all things" but that's just Maury being Maury.)

Daoism in Brief: Lao Zi and the Dao De Jing

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Created: Mon Apr 28 09:44:33 EDT 1997
Last modified: Tue Jul 17 15:14:20 EDT 2007
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