Understanding Daoism: The “Dao” and “De”
In English, dao is translated literally to mean “the Way” or “the Path.” Laozi begins the Daodejing by introducing the concept of dao. He opens by describing the limitations of language when describing the dao, since language can never fully capture all of what it hopes to describe. He writes, “A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way. A name that can be named is not a constant name” (Ivanhoe, 1). Using the word “constant,” Laozi establishes one of the major attributes of the Way. The dao is a force of constant change and is perpetually oscillating between yin and yang, creating either harmony or disharmony. It existed before Creation, “Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and Earth” (Ivanhoe, 1). However, the dao is not only the source of Creation, it is also nature itself; “Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures” (Ivanhoe, 1). Laozi here establishes a dichotomy that is present in the dao; the part that can be named and the part that cannot. When the dao is manifested in our physical environment (i.e. life, nature, and the observable cosmic universe) we can name these observable phenomena. However, the dao’s inner wonders are “nameless” since they capture aspects of the dao which are experiential and thus unnamable (i.e. feelings of “oneness,” enlightenment, and the “flow of the universe”). This creates a type of paradox, since one leads to the other, despite being completely different in purpose and form. This is what Laozi is referring to when he speaks of “[The dao’s unity] is known as an enigma” and includes an even “deeper enigma” which is the question of how individuals can understand the dao (Ivanhoe, 1).
Thus, the dao can be characterized as a Way of nature; one that cannot be wholly felt, seen, touched, or named. Laozi makes this clear in chapter fourteen describing the dao as “looked for but not seen… listened for but not heard… grabbed for but not gotten” (Ivanhoe, 14). The dao represents the highest form in the hierarchy of the cosmos:
In the universe are four great things…
People model themselves on the Earth.
The Earth models itself on Heaven.
Heaven models itself on the Way.
The Way models itself on what is natural (Ivanhoe, 25).
The dao is, therefore, the greatest form. It is indiscriminate since it “turns none [of the myriad of creatures] away” (Ivanhoe, 34). It is also selfless because it “never considers itself great, which is why it is able to perfect its greatness” (Ivanhoe, 34). The Way is omnipresent, indescribable, enigmatic, and the purest form of Virtue because “it is natural” and the dao models itself on what is natural (Ivanhoe, 54).
If the dao is the Way that an individual should seek to imitate, than de is the human agency behind how to actually cultivate it. De is the active expression of the dao. Although difficult to translate in English, de can be used in relation to concepts such as “inner energy,” “integrity,” and “pure virtue.” In the introduction to the translation of the Daodejing, Philip J. Ivanhoe attempts to explain de. He writes, “De accrues to an individual who possess natural calm, compassion, and confidence… [it is] capable of attracting, disarming, reassuring, and pacifying other people… De enables the sage to move others… [To] return to the peace, contentment, and prosperity of the dao” (Ivanhoe, XXVI). Some interpretations, such as that of sinologist Arthur Waley, also translate de simply as “power.” Thus, de is characterized by wei wu wei or a Way of “acting without acting,” – in other words, the sage has the power to inspire others to act in the way of the dao just by possessing Virtue. De is the highest embodiment of the dao; together they make a whole, since de is necessary for an individual to actually live according to the Way.
Master Su said, “Do you know the water and moon? The one flows on, and yet never goes anywhere, and the other waxes and wanes, yet never diminishes or grows. If you look at them from the point of Change, then heaven and earth never stay the same for even the blink of an eye. If you look from the point of what is unchanging, then all things, and I, are inexhaustible, so what is there to envy? Between heaven and earth, each thing has its master, and if it were not mine, even if only a hair, I would not take it. Only the clear wind on the river, and the bright moon between the mountains: the ear receives one and creates sound, the eye meets the other and makes color; you can take these without prohibition, and use them without exhausting them. This is the infinite treasure of the Creator, and what you and I can share and rejoice in” .
– Ivanhoe, J. Philip. The Daodejing of Laozi. Seven Bridges Press. New York. 2002.