I'm asking it here because I'd like to know the philosophical point of view on this question.

I've read that branches that exist are Dao Jia (philosophical Taoism) and Dao Jiao (religious Taoism) and I have more interest in the Dao Jia.

I'm studying a little bit of chinese culture (very very litle bit, a simple book and mostly wikipedia), and I'm encountering multiple "definitions" of Tao. The one which I enjoyed most is:

Primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe

(wikipedia) (damn, beautiful ! ! !)


Is it a God? Or is it a God only in the Dao Jiao?

To moderators: please feel free to move this question to the appropriate place, if here at Philosophy is not the proper place.

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    The first thing you would have to do is decide is what counts as a god. – Lucas Mar 30 '14 at 21:10
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    But your quote makes me think of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinozism – Lucas Mar 30 '14 at 22:02
  • To me, what count as God is a omnipotent omniscient being. Something like that. Excuse my ignorance, please. – feelthhis Mar 30 '14 at 23:53
  • are elementary particles god? – Memming Mar 31 '14 at 0:39
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    @Lucas I'm glad I asked that question because I'm learning a lot simply from reading the comments of the question/answers. I've never heard about monism nor spinozism. Thanks. – feelthhis Mar 31 '14 at 21:01

Generally speaking, no (in either school), especially when the God is question is some kind of being. As a Westerner its very difficult to not see the Tao through a Western lens especially when translators translate it as God in an attempt to make it more accessible. Generally speaking, it is translated as "way" not because the translators are being overly literal, but because "way" is a really good word for what it describes.

I think it's probably easiest if we go with the English word "way" as a guide to the meaning of Tao. Not because it is exactly correct, but because it's close enough for our purposes.

Is God a "way" in any reasonable sense. Not really. The Christian religion might be called this (in fact it is: the way of Christ). But the Christian God Himself is not usually thought of in this manner (Let's assume John 14:6 means something more like "I can show you the way").

SEP says no also, I've highlighted the most important bit - the quote is from a long article which is probably worth reading if you are interested in the topic:

Dao [...] was the center of Chinese philosophical discussion. It occupies the position at the center of thought that in Western philosophy is filled by terms like ‘being’ or ‘truth’. The centrality tempts interpreters to identify dao with the central concepts of the Western philosophical agenda, but that is to lose the important difference between the two traditions. Metaphysics and epistemology dominated early Western philosophy while ethics, politics and philosophy of education/psychology dominated Chinese thought. Although it's insightful to say humans live in dao as fish do in water, the insight is lost if we simply treat dao as being or some pantheistic spiritual realm. Dao remains essentially a concept of guidance, a prescriptive or normative term. In the late Classical period, dao paired with devirtuosity to form the Chinese term for ‘ethics’ “dao-de.” Dao is the pivot of Chinese philosophy—but it still translates as ‘way’, not ‘being’.

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  • While it sounds nice to go with "way" as a translation of 道, this is going to prove fundamentally inadequate. The word means much more than that both in its ancient and more recent usages. For instance, in at least one place in The Analects it means "to say." – virmaior Mar 31 '14 at 1:36
  • Yeah, that is one of the many inadequacies with what I've written. I'm sure someone else can do a better job at explaining it, but I thought I'd have a go. The "speak" translation is discussed in the SEP article I linked to though. – Lucas Mar 31 '14 at 1:41
  • Well, I'll draft an answer when I have a minute. – virmaior Mar 31 '14 at 2:06
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    @feelthhis Translation's always a problem, but much (some say all) of philosophy is about figuring out word words mean - so I'd not worry too much about it. Just be aware that different translations exist and read a little about how it is translated. Translations of philosophy books usually have a translators note at the start that explains how they did the translation, what they were trying to achieve and what compromises they were forced to make. Then there are secondary resources that give summaries of of the common translations specialist terms (like the SEP article I linked). – Lucas Mar 31 '14 at 4:05
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    @feelthhis I think largely 道 is best left untranslated in most contexts. I don't think you need to know every word of Chinese to benefit from having key concepts left relatively untranslated. We already experience this in areas like Plato's philosophy -- it just happens to be the case that Forms and Ideas are words we've inherited (thus making the concepts more accessible) whereas Dao is not. – virmaior Mar 31 '14 at 4:40

Assigning a meaning to the term 道 (dao or tao [both spellings are acceptable due to an oddity in the differences between the T and D used by English speakers and the appropriate consonant in contemporary 普通話 (pǔtōnghuà) = Mandarin) is extremely difficult. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is that the meaning of 道 (dao) is part of the contested matter in early Chinese thought. In other words, the main schools are arguing about what [道] (dao) is. Why? At the simplest level, the character refers to a road or a path or a way. It also has other meanings such as to speak or to be the doctrine of a school of thought.

The question of whether the 道(dao) is a deity or something like that will vary depending on both the school of thought, the thinker, and the meaning of deity. I will start with the last question and work through the others depending on our definition. If we define a deity as a sentient being with particular personal thoughts, then I don't think any classical Chinese school of thought would have viewed the 道 as a deity.

If we define deity as the source of all power and the guiding force of reality, then I think that both Confucians and Taoists would believe this of the 道(dao) and it could be considered a deity. If we add to this definition a belief that this guiding force is guiding towards a particular goal, then we will still have the Confucians but not the Taoists as believing in a deity. This is because for Confucians the 道(dao) is guiding towards a well-ordered society in which the relationships are in harmony under the true sage king who has the mandate (命[ming]) of 天(tian). (More about 天[tian] later).

The Daoists are lost, because they don't see the world as having a productive trajectory. While the overlap is not perfect, there's definitely some anti-government thought going on in Taoism and the belief the harmony of the 道(dao) is already there and we just need to tap into it. Thus, one of the more famous parts of the 莊子(Zhuangzi) is a consideration of a butcher who is in contact with the 道(dao) and thus does not loose the sharpness of his knives because he cuts everything perfectly without thinking (無為 [wuwei]). So then, this could also be seen as a type of deity or at least a "spiritual energy" that a self can be in contact with.

Perhaps to qualify things a bit, the Daoists are not necessarily "lost", but the 道 gets you in touch with nature 然, but it's not at all clear nature has a direction or goal. If anything, many passages suggest either an endless cycle of recurring or some sort of joyous vibrant energetic chaos.

To simplify with a chart

Op: Omnipotent
Pe: Personified
GP: Guiding Principle
PS: Possessing Spirit
On: Omniscient
Bn: Benevolent

                    | Op | Pe | GP | PS | On | Bn
      Christian God | ○  | ○  | ○  | ○  | ○  | ○     (omni?)
         Greek gods | ×  | ○  | ×  | △  | ×  | ×
      Dao in Daoism | △  | ×  | ○  | ○  | ×  | △    [not consciously]
Dao in Confucianism | △  | ×  | ○  | ×  | ×  | △    [not consciously]
        Hegel's God | ×  |△ 1 | ○ 2| ○  | △3 | △4

1: God=us, 2: as Nessesity, 3: Eventually?, 4: if we are

The term also refers to schools that are built around trying to understand the "way" of something. Thus, 武士道 (bushido) = the way of the samurai [yes, its Japanese but the origin is the same].

So then in short the 道(dao) is a god to some but not to others. Definitely as Taoists mean it, it is no the Christian God, but they might want to have mystical encounters with it in the religious forms.

As promised, I will mention 天(tian). Part of why 道(dao) is not referring to a personal god is that 天(tian) might in fact be doing so. The history is long and complicated, but it looks like one very early Chinese dynasty believed in 天(tian) as their personal god. This people then got conquered by another dynasty who chose to usurp the authority of the first group. Thus, instead of just wiping out their gods, they actually chose to promote this deity and make it the "heavens" or a kind of fate like entity. Whether any scrap of belief in its personality remains is a matter of contest, but the majority of scholars think that by the time of Confucius, it was no longer conceived of as a personal deity (the minority view seems to be held primarily by religious thinkers like Kelly James Clark -- who is a Western trained philosopher rather than expert in sinology).

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  • That was quick ;) – Lucas Mar 31 '14 at 2:43
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    @Lucas well, it enabled me to procrastinate from writing a syllabus on "Academic Writing." Ergo, it was the top of my list. – virmaior Mar 31 '14 at 2:46
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    Wow. That table is ... beautiful! I will take my time to carefully and calmly ready your answer. Thank you. – feelthhis Mar 31 '14 at 3:31
  • About the meaning: as far as I know, 道 cannot be used as a verb. It can mean "teachings", "morals", "journey" (which technically all carry the idea of a "way" too), but I don't see it possibly being used as a verb in an actual sentence. – Cristol.GdM Mar 31 '14 at 19:00
  • 道 has been used as a verb in the past. I wouldn't try it contemporary spoken Chinese. "morals" would an extremely odd translation/meaning choice in any era. You may be thinking of 道徳 as a combination. – virmaior Mar 31 '14 at 23:57

I ask myself: what is the difference between "Primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe" and "nature" itself? None that I can think of. So I'm translating Dao as Nature. The gods usually represent the different forces/effects of Nature, so they are pieces of Nature. Dao De Jing 4 says that Dao "looks older than the gods".

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  • G K Chesterton has an interesting angle on this in 'Orthodoxy', e.g. Ch 5 & 7: "Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved." – Chris Degnen Mar 31 '14 at 7:55
  • To call Nature "sister", and worse, "a younger sister", is a lack of respect, in my opinion. Only a patriarchal monotheist could think of it. – Rodrigo Mar 31 '14 at 12:01
  • Lol. Well I trust I didn't offend your sensibilities. I still like Chesterton's forthrightness. This is a quote from chapter 5: "Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof." – Chris Degnen Mar 31 '14 at 12:28
  • On the topic of Nature, you might find interesting this essay on Aristotle's coinage of the concept. :-) – Chris Degnen Mar 31 '14 at 12:28
  • @Rodrigo In fact, in the comments of the question above I mention that I like the idea of 'God' simply being Nature. Because Nature, Science, Cosmology, Physics, Mathematics and all that jazz are already all very beautiful to me. – feelthhis Mar 31 '14 at 20:54

I've been talking to my daughter about Chinese medicine and came to realize something about Dao.

Dao "the way" is a concept and cannot be translated using one word or a few words. It can be described only. Dao is in a way "God", it is the True Way, the Balanced Way, the "perfect", "0". God is "0", the Way is "0". Not leaning towards negative or positive, it is balanced or "0" in the center. It is perfect, as in God is perfect.

We as humans, cannot be perfect and can only follow the Dao or get as close to it as possible. You can have the best definition of the "Dao" using man-made words/language but it is not complete; there still something else missing within "you" to completely define "Dao" or "God". It has to be discussed or understood within the context of a system, as in natural/spiritual system.

There is more to this than what I've presented here. It is beautiful.

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