The Role of the Natural Environment in the Shaping of Daoism
While the majority of Asian religions and philosophies reference nature, none make nature and naturalness their fundamental focus as Daoism does. Daoism is built upon the belief that the Dao, or the Way, is in harmony with the natural environment and that ziran, naturalness, is the ideal behavior for humans. In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, nature and natural elements are woven into the texts to illustrate Daoist virtues, values, and practices. The Taijitu, yin-yang symbol, is an important Daoist image that portrays the continuous transformations and harmonious balance believed to be way of the natural world. Knowledge of nature and natural ingredients are important for the Daoist practice of alchemy and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In addition, Daoist beliefs criticize development and modernization, because such things are not in harmony with wu wei, non-action. Instead, Daoism promotes simple rural life and suggests that a return to primitive natural times is the ultimate utopia Daoists should strive for. Thus, the natural environment plays a fundamental role in the shaping of Daoism.
The fundamental Daoist belief that the Dao is in harmony with nature and naturalness developed in response to the Confucian view that harmony comes from strict ritual and social decorum. The Dao De Jing even states: “Great Dao rejected:/ Benevolence and Righteousness [the principal virtues of Confucianism] appear.”
While the idea of the Dao has been passed down through Chinese history and referenced in different philosophical and religious texts, Daoism used the term and developed into a mysterious universal force which cannot be properly described or conceptualized. It is an essence believed to have created the world, and thus possibly predates the world. Yet, it is of this world, and it permeates all within this world. It is truly the unnamable, and yet humans can live in harmony with the Dao. The Dao is literally believed to be the Way of Natural Environment. With the Dao being the Way of Nature, the idea of ziran, or naturalness of the self, became an important characteristic of the Dao that can be experienced by humans. Ziran is “the quality of [a person or object] just being itself”, or acting spontaneously and naturally. The harmony found in nature and naturalness is a different path on the road towards a better society, compared to Confucianism which sought the betterment of society from “ritualized behavior patterns”.
The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi are considered the two most important and popular texts in Daoism. The popularity of the texts possibly lies in their own unique styles. The Dao De Jing is commonly attributed to Laozi, the mysterious claimed founder of Daoism. It is cryptic, poetic, and full of mystical imagery that gives it a timeless quality. Zhuangzi, named after its own author, views Daoism is a different light. The text in Zhuangzi is more playful, allegorical, and anecdotal, and strives to help the reader realize and experience the Dao with this style, much as Zen Buddhists hope to experience enlightenment.
The Dao De Jing focuses on how to understand and live in accordance with the Dao. Natural elements are used in the poetic verse to help portray the Dao and Daoist virtues. The two major natural elements used symbolically include water as the ultimate force and natural wood as the ideal state. In the Dao De Jing, water is mentioned thusly: “There is nothing softer and weaker than water,/ And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.” Water is considered the ideal force because of how it yields, and is soft and gentle when cupped in the hands, while on the other hand, if water passed over rock, it could carve through it. As a result, the use of water is used to relate to the Daoist practice of wu wei, non-action. The use and meaning of wood in the Dao De Jing is best explained by Religions of Asia: “The wise should be like an uncarved block of wood: pure, unpretentious, and without ego…” And “A tree that has been shaped by wind and climate is natural; one that has been pruned into the shape of a swan is not” (Burford 174). As a result, the use of wood is used to relate to the Daoist practice of ziran, naturalness of the self.
In Zhuangzi, a more philosophical approach is used in parables and anecdotes compared to the poetry used in the Dao De Jing. The text was an attempt to revise Daoism and apply Zhuangzi’s own ideas focusing on the importance of balance, embracing change (especially death), freeing oneself from the conventional and being more spontaneous, and the how language limits human knowledge (and why Daoists should strive for silence). In the text, Zhuangzi can often appear as himself, explaining to disciples and contemporaries the ways of the Dao. Yet, nature is still used to illustrate Daoist virtues in this later text. Here, a quote on naturalness a wood carver uses to find the perfect tree: “I go to the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees” (Burford 175). Another example shows the omnipresence of the Dao: “Dong Guozi asked Zhuangzi, saying, “Where is what you call the Dao to be found?” Zhuangzi replied, “Everywhere.” The other said, “Specify an instance of it…” “It is here in this ant.” And describing the Dao again in the same anecdote, Zhuangzi says, “It produces the root and branches, but is neither root nor branch…” (Van Voorst 204). Thus, the natural environment and naturalness of the self are not only Daoist virtues, but tools Daoist thinkers could use to help illustrate the way of the Dao.
The Taijitu, Daoist Alchemy, and TCM became more popular amongst ordinary citizens when philosophical Daoism sparked the development of Popular Daoism. They are images and practices that can be seen and experienced by those who treat Daoism more religiously.
The Taijitu became a symbol that is be used to help Daoists visualize the balance and flux of the universe. The Taijitu is literally “Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate” in Chinese. Yin is feminine, dark, and cold, while yang is masculine, light, and warm. Though they are opposites, they are complementary to each other, and thus show the balance of nature and the Dao. The Dao De Jing comments: “The ten thousand things carry shade/ And embrace sunlight./ Shade and sunlight, yin and yang,/ Breath [Qi] blending into harmony” (Van Voorst 205). Thus, the universe and its nature are portrayed by the Taijitu.
Because Laozi and Zhuangzi dismissed strict ritual as unnatural and therefore unnecessary, alchemy and TCM became the means where Daoists could practice their beliefs physically. Alchemy was used to create immortality elixirs. These elixirs would supposedly increase the lifespan of anyone who drank it. Alchemists could meditate on their concoctions and ingredients while brewing the elixir or after sipping it. Meditation is also acceptable before, during, and after TCM practices like acupuncture, qigong (breathing exercises), Tai Chi, and massage. Alchemy and TCM uses herbal ingredients found in nature, from plant matter to dangerous metals that were nonetheless popularly consumed in ancient times, such as mercury and sulfurs. Thus, knowledge of nature, and natural ingredients found in nature along with their properties was important for Daoist alchemists and TCM practitioners.
Religions of Asia comments on Laozi’s position on development and society: “…he located ultimacy not in social life [as Confucius did], but in nature itself” (Burford 172). In addition, the same text later goes on to say that “Daoism would also object to other societies, not just Confucian ones: compared to the natural world, almost any human society would seem unnatural.” This is because development is the product of human thought, and “when humans begin to think, they also begin to scheme and calculate selfish ends” (174). As a result, Daoism focuses on a utopia that is a simple rural society, and the importance of wu wei, or non-action to prevent selfish destructive action. The idea of wu wei is that one should not exert oneself into performing actions, as they may be tainted by impure human desire, but rather, to only act naturally, and thusly in accordance with the Dao. In the Dao De Jing, the following verses capture the essence of returning to naturalness, whether applied to the self or society: “Things grow and grow,/ But each goes back to its root./ Going back to the root is stillness. This means retuning to what is./ Returning to what is/ Means going back to the ordinary” (Van Voorst 206-7). It is an incredibly close or complete return (in the case of Daoist hermits who seek isolation) to nature that encompasses what the Dao De Jing proposes as the ultimate harmonious society. In this sense, it is obvious how fundamental the natural environment is in Daoism, since it promotes nature and natural ways as the essence of harmonious existence with the natural world and in the human world.
Daoism, whether philosophical or religious, is profoundly inspired by the natural environment. A return to nature has become the Daoist goal and spontaneous naturalness the ideal behavior. While other religions in Asia may have references nature, Daoism not only emphasizes the natural environment in its beliefs, but makes it a key aspect of the beliefs. Elements of the natural environment are also found throughout Daoist beliefs, texts, and practices. As a result, the natural environment is fundamental in the shaping of Daoism.
Ali, Muhamad. "Taoism: Practices and Ethics." Introduction to Asian Relgions Lecture. University of California, Riverside. CHASS Interdisciplinary Building, Riverside. 2 Mar. 2009.
Ali, Muhamad. "Taoism: The Way of Nature and Immortality." Introduction to Asian Relgions Lecture. University of California, Riverside. CHASS Interdisciplinary Building, Riverside. 4 Mar. 2009.
Burford, Grace G., John Y. Fenton, Norvin Hein, Alan L. Miller, Niels C. Nielson, and Frank E. Reynolds. Religions of Asia. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1993.
Van Voorst, Robert E.. Anthology of Asian Scriptures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2000.
 The Pinyin system of Romanization has been used throughout this essay for consistency.
Written for Prof. Ali's Intro to Asian Religions - March '09.