Introduction to the Dao
By Miriam Caravella
Publisher: Beas, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2020. ISBN: 9978-93-89810-35-6
This book offers an inviting and accessible introduction to a subject many find hard to fathom: the Dao (often spelled Tao). Its author approaches the subject as an open-minded outsider seeking, with sincere curiosity and careful inquiry, to comprehend some of the profound spiritual teachings of Daoism.
During her course of study the author travelled to China where she interviewed three practicing Daoists: Master Meng Zhiling, a Daoist true master of the Longmen (Dragon Gate) Quanzhen lineage; Heven Qiu, a disciple in the same lineage; and Yin Zhihua, a professor at the Daoist college at Bayun Guan (White Cloud Temple) in Beijing. She devotes the first chapter of the book to relating these interviews in which she asked questions on a wide range of topics such as free will, karma and reincarnation, meditation, discipleship, the role of love and devotion. She comments that when she met Master Meng she found him “very welcoming, with a gentle, respectful demeanour,” and it was “his smile and logical, yet modest way of speaking that charmed and relaxed me enough to bring up the deep subjects I had been mulling over.”
In subsequent chapters, the author explores the key concepts around which all Daoist teachings revolve: the Dao, dé, ziran, wu-wei, and the nature of the “true man” or “real person.” When facing difficulties discerning the meaning of one of these terms, she consulted the American scholar of Daoism Professor Russell Kirkland, who advised her:
I think that your problem is that you seem to be seeking precision and singular meanings of terms for which Daoists do not offer (or generally even seek) precision or singular meanings.… Daoists do not generally try to “find” an exact “meaning” of terms – even of “Dao” itself. Once you “have gotten the sense” of a term in a way that speaks to you, that is its “meaning” for a Daoist.
The idea that one’s grasp of meanings gradually evolves through practice and experience was confirmed when Heven Qiu answered the author’s question about the practice of reading and chanting the scriptures. He said, “The master only teaches me how to read or chant, but he does not explain the meanings of the scripture. It is up to the individuals to understand the scriptures.” Thus, disciples generally chant the beautiful, evocative, but often mysterious words of The Scripture of Clarity and Stillness every day, morning and evening, singing with tones and music. Then, as the disciples individually pursue the disciplined practice known as “cultivating the Dao,” the meaning of the Scripture gradually becomes clear to them.
The author emphasizes that one can never know the Dao through words and intellect. She quotes the opening lines of the Daodéjing, a fundamental text of Daoism:
The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the beginning of Creation.
The named is the mother of myriad beings.
Daoist texts circle around the meaning of Dao with various metaphors. For example, one text relates an extended dialogue between two ancient sages Ziyu and Ziqi, which concludes:
Ziyu replied: I understand:
The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.
The music of man is made on flutes
What makes the music of heaven?
Master Ziqi said:
Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this
and makes the sounds die down.
What is this power?
It is perhaps typical of Daoism that the dialogue ends with a question that can only be answered through experience, not through intellectual analysis.
A basic tenet of Daoism is that one must seek and find as one’s teacher a “real man,” meaning someone who embodies the Dao. The author quotes The Scripture on the Three Pure Subtle Natures:
It is necessary to seek far and wide for the guidance of truly elevated people. If you do not meet real people (zhenren) who can point out the profound subtleties, you will not understand the great Dao.… Authentic teachings are received individually from a master (shi). His guidance in the dark reveals flashes of enlightenment.
Master Meng himself faced arduous challenges in finding his master, spending many years in the mountains in solitude facing extreme physical hardships. For him, as for many practising Daoists, such a period of trial and hardship is necessary to prepare one for the ultimate inner transformation. He said:
The process of finding the master is very difficult. There are many people seeking Dao. Some never found a master in their whole life…. I once wrote a little poem, “I will seek Dao until (the bones in) my knees are exposed.” … You must truly humble yourself, clear your mind, until nothing bothers the mind. When the student is ready by making himself a true, great vehicle of Dao, any one of the masters appears and can guide and teach the student…. So it’s not a disciple looking for the master, but the master is looking for the disciple.
Once seekers find a master, they turn to the disciplined work of “cultivating the Dao.” Master Meng told the author that once he met his master, “The first thing I did is to stop reading books. So in twenty-four hours, except for a short time for sleep, all I did was to focus the mind.” He explained:
Sitting in meditation is to separate our spiritual consciousness from our physical body, because the spiritual nature is independent of the body. Our ancestral master says that the practice is 70 percent work on xing (human nature or character), and 30 percent on ming (inner life; the inner world) so meditation is 30 percent of the work. The other is on the temperament of the mind, which cannot be refined through meditation.
This work on character, on cultivating the right temperament, is a central focus of Daoist practice. The classic texts of Daoism stress humility, simplicity, and living in harmony with nature. Other aspects of right temperament are balance and a steadiness grounded in inner stillness, a state conveyed by comparing the Dao to a “pivot.” The author explains:
The pivot is the central axis of the wheel around which all revolves. The rim of the wheel revolves, but the pivot or axis stays in one place, totally still.… Therefore, the person who keeps hold of the pivot, keeping his mind merged in the Dao, can go through life with balance and not be buffeted by changing circumstance. He is steady because his centre is still.
The purpose of Daoist practice is simply to get back to our original nature. This truth, repeated so often in the texts, is also reflected in Master Meng’s words:
Our original nature is connected to immortality, to the formless. It is like a glowing pearl, but through our day to day lives, with all our thoughts and desires, we accumulate dust which covers its original condition. But if we remove this dust, then the pearl will be able to shine again.… So once we’ve removed all the dust from our heart then our true nature is revealed. And our true nature is Dao.
When the author asked Master Meng what advice he could give beginners who wished to follow Daoism, he replied: “This might seem basic, but the most important thing is to keep your heart simple and clear.”