Studying the Dao as a Westerner, I am constantly perplexed by the ineffability of the Dao. It always strikes me as though I should be able to attach properties to a noun, even if that property is merely "ineffable."

Looking at the words people use for the Dao, I find some phrasing treats it as a thing, similar to "the universe" in Western science, or as a "first cause." Other times I find it treated more as an action. It is often phrased as a "flow," with the inherent sense of time passing built into it.

Is the Dao, as described by Daoists, an action or a thing? And, to acknowledge my own biases, "neither" is clearly a valid answer, although some exposition on such a negative answer would be appreciated.

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    Both; see dao: the way. Nov 23, 2021 at 15:36
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    The symbol of the In-Yo purports to show graphically that things are and things change. That there are both entities and processes, and which is which is subjective.
    – J D
    Nov 23, 2021 at 16:10
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    "The Dao that can be told is not the true Dao". "Dao" is clearly intended to point to something outside of language with its grammatical categories and established meanings. The purpose of the text is not to tell and categorize, but to evoke, to prompt one into changing the way they look at everything.
    – Conifold
    Nov 23, 2021 at 18:56
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    @conifold very true. I constantly find myself fighting the duality of it being something that cannot be told, and yet famous treatises are written on it.
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 23, 2021 at 20:45
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    Saw in HNQ and thought this was going to be about the nature of coinbro machinations. Nov 24, 2021 at 14:14

6 Answers 6


You are thinking as though things and actions are different -- the Dao reflects the idea (reality?) that they can't really be separated. This might not be the most illuminating example, but a thunderstorm is both a thing -- you can look across a plain and see the clouds in the sky -- and a process -- once it gets to you, you feel wind and rain and thunder. There are other ways to try to see this. Conventionally, the keypad I'm typing on is an object; however, the only way that I know it is there by its effects on other things -- it reflects the light from my lamp, pushes back against my fingertips as I type, and so on. For me at least, there is that kind of yin-yang thing going on here: as you think about what makes a thing a thing, you start to find interactions, and as you consider interactions sometimes they cohere into things, and so on.

“[T]he world is a system of inseparable relationships and not a mere juxtaposition of things. The verbal, piecemeal and analytic mode of perception has blinded us to the fact that things and events do not exist apart from each other. The world is a whole greater than the sum of its parts because the parts are not merely summed - thrown together - but related. The whole is a pattern which remains, while the parts come and go, just as the human body is a dynamic pattern which persists despite the rapid birth and death of all its individual cells. The pattern does not, of course, exist disembodiedly apart from individual forms, but exists precisely through their coming and going - just as it is through the structured motion and vibration of its electrons that a rock has solidity.” ― Alan W. Watts, Nature, Man and Woman

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    Worth mentioning, I think is that in modern science all "things" can be understood as also being processes: all macroscopic objects are a process made up of molecules interacting with each other. Molecules are atoms interacting with each other, atoms are a process of particles interacting with each other. Even particles are in process: they can decay, they can exchange energy with other particles and they are always in motion relative to some other particles. Nov 26, 2021 at 14:10

The short answer is yes. By asking 'a thing or an action' you are asking a question which immediately implies a dualism. The Dao is non-dual. Any attempt at answering with a dualistic answer will immediately fail. David Loy in his book Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy states in Chapter 3, Nondual Action:

Such nondual action requires that there be no differentiation between agent and act; in other words, no awareness of an agent as distinct from its actions. This chapter explores what that might mean. The first section argues that the Taoist paradox of wei-wu-wei (the action of inaction) is a description of such nondual action. It is highly significant that the same paradox is found in two other nondualistic traditions, clearly enunciated in the Bhagavad-gita and more fully developed in the Buddhist account of the Bodhisattva's path. Comparing these we discover that the difference between dualistic and nondualistic action involves intention. The mental process of intending a result from an action devalues that act into a means and functions as a superimposition that bifurcates the nondual "psychic body" into a mind inhabiting a body, "a ghost in a machine." The second section supports this by demonstrating that the bifurcating role of intentionality is one of the crucial claims of in the first chapter of of the Tao Te Ching; that chapter is explicated in detail.

and further:

Nondual action has just been defined as action in which there is no awareness by an agent, the subject that is usually believed to do the action, of being distinct from an objective action that is done. Chapter 2 gave us a occasion to notice that nondual experience tends to be described in one of two ways; wither the subject incorporates the object, or vice-versa. In the present case the first alternative amounts to denying any action is performed. It can hardly be coincidence that we find precisely this claim in the wei-wu-wei of Taoism. Weo-wu-wei is the central paradox of Taoism and as a concept is second in importance only to the Tao itself, which incorporates it...

and further on in the same chapter:

...for Nietzsche, intention and the will in general are epiphenomena and not the true cause of of an action.

Such a denial of volition (by no means uncommon) is usually understood to imply determinism, but the concept of nondual action suggests an alternative that escapes the usual dilemma of freedom versus determinism. The usual formulations of that problem are dualistic in presupposing a conscious subject whose actions either are completely determined by a causal chain (the strongest causal influence reaps the effect) or are free from the causal chain (or rather free from complete determinination, since totally uncaused, random choice does not seem to provide freedom in any meaningful sense). Both alternatives assume the existence of a conscious self distinct from its actions and existent outside the causal chain, although its actions may be totally determined by external causes. But the nondualist claim that there is no self does not imply unimpeded determinism, for if there is no subject then there are also no "objective" causal factors. The deterministic view implies a self helpless before causal influences that struggle among themselves to see which is strongest, rather like medieval knights competing to see who will win the hapless lady; but if there no hapless consciousness here then the situation must be understood differently. Hobbes said that "liberty or freedom signifies properly the absence of opposition" and that captures our common-sense notion of freedom from. This means that the concept of freedom is dualistic in two senses. Free is dependent upon its opposite, becoming the negation of unfree, and moreover that opposite is dualistic in the sense that one thing constrains another. If there is no "other" to be opposed, as in nondualistic experience, such dualistic concepts do not apply. In later chapters I argue that the nondualistic denial of self (as in Buddhism) is equivalent to asserting that there is only the Self (as in Vedanta). We would normally infer that the former implies complete determinism, the latter absolute freedom. However, if the universe is a whole (Brahman, Tao, Vijnaprmatrata, etc.) and if, as Hua Yen Buddhism develops in its original image of Indra's Net, each particular is not isolated but contains the whole universe that acts--or rather, is the action. And if we accept that the universe is self-caused, then its acts freely whenever anything is done. Thus, from the nondualistic perspective, complete determinism turns out to be equivalent to absolute freedom.

In his book Taoism: The Road to Immortality, John Blofeld writes (page 3):

Lao-tzu tells us that 'Tao' is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not distract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although the void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories. Words limit. The Tao is limitless. It is T'ai Hsu (the Great Void), free from characteristics, self-existent, undifferentiated, vast beyond conception, yet present in full in a tiny seed. It is also T'ai Chi (the Ultimate Cause, the Mainspring of the Cosmos). It is also T'ai I (the Great Changer), for its changes and convolutions never cease. Seen by man with his limited vision, it is also T'ien (heaven), the source of governance and orderliness. It is the Mother of Heaven and Earth, without whose nourishment nothing can exist.

The use of the word 'Void' does not imply what most Westerners think of as the word void usually implies in everyday parlance, rather it should be understood as That which is 'outside' of or 'beyond' the sensual universe.

  • Q: "Is the dao a thing or an action?" A: "The short answer is yes." YES what? Nov 24, 2021 at 11:14
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA “The dao is a thing or an action” is true.
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 24, 2021 at 15:44
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Yes. . . please?
    – Daron
    Nov 24, 2021 at 18:54
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA "Yes, we have no bananas."
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 25, 2021 at 2:15
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA In logic, "or" is not exclusive. "Or" includes the possibility that it is both.
    – Graham
    Nov 26, 2021 at 17:09

Dao is a label that points at the non-dual, but non-duality is a particularly difficult thing for people to grasp; it goes against the nature of language and conceptualization. when we think or talk about the world, we think and talk in dualities:

  • There's this which is defined by not being that, and vice versa
  • There's high which is defined by not being low, and vice versa
  • There's existence which is defined by not being absence, and vice versa
  • There's going which is defined by not being staying, and vice versa

All of this is laid out in the first four or five sections of the daodejing.

However, those conceptual dualities (a) are artificial, and (b) create a conceptual tension that draws them back towards wholeness. If we imagine a small bowl of water with a tiny little Moses who waves his hands and parts the contents, we now have two separate pools of water which we can give names to (let's call them Frank and Charlie), but they are held apart merely by micro-Moses' will. As soon as he lets go, they will flow back together and intermix. Frank and Charlie disappear not because the stuff that constituted them disappeared, but because the artificial division of all that stuff into separate objects disappeared. And that's what we do with every thought and concept: impose a division on the world-as-it-is and hold it in place as an act of will.

Assume we start philosophically ridding ourselves of all of these artificial divisions — discarding this and that, is and isn't, left and right, fast and slow, changing and unchanging, loud and quiet, etc, etc — at the end of the process we have... what? It isn't an object because there is nothing that isn't it (no 'not-that'). It isn't an action because it is neither moving nor still. It has regularities, but its regularities are dynamics, which we interpret as actions because we cannot understand the still-movement of the whole.

It's a mistake to give it a label (like dao) because labels are dualistic, but it's impossible to talk about it otherwise, because minds and language are dualistic.


TL;DR: No.

The Dao is something like "the way the universe works". No one can grasp the entire Dao, but we can understand certain aspects of it. "Conservation of energy" is part of the Dao ... we think.

An action can be in harmony with the Dao, or out of harmony with it. For example, you could try to build a perpetual motion machine, and that would be out of harmony with conservation of energy. So would depending on a machine with friction to not generate any waste heat. Being in harmony tends to lead to success; being out of harmony inevitably leads to some sort of failure.

But the Dao is not itself "an action". It doesn't have a start or end, it doesn't cause a change of state. It's timeless, but time is part of it.

Whether the Dao is "a thing" is harder, because it depends on your definition of "thing". Is it closer to a noun than a verb? Maybe. But a pure process (e.g. "walking") can also be a noun. Technically, if we accept all of Daoism, if you can name it then it's not the true Dao. And yet we name it. "The Dao", like "dark matter" and "dark energy", is just a place holder for something we don't understand and cannot explain.

Language limits us. The Zen master holds up his walking stick. "If you call this a walking stick, you deny its full reality. If you refuse to call it a walking stick, you fail to accept an obvious fact. Now, what do you want to call it?"

  • "One No is worth a thousand Yeses."
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 26, 2021 at 17:39

They are both right to some extent, but only reflects a level of Dao. In fact, Dao is quite a complex and complicated concept with many facets.

Basically, I prefer understanding Dao as a collection of fundamental and universal rules. It seems to be immaterial, but people also regard Dao as a "thing" that generates the universe, and hence is a primary thing more fundamental than the universe. For the same reason, Dao can also be understood as an action, because it is actually behind all actions.

I have a feeling that traditionally, Chinese do not differentiate a thing/action with the rules it follows, which might be different from Western people.

  • I agree: if one sees oneself as part of a collective, that is quite different than seeing oneself as an individual. So one's conceptions would differ also.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 26, 2021 at 17:36

Interesting question! As a student myself, I find that the Dao describes balance. The concept of balance echoes throughout the "Tao Te Ching". In this balance you'll find "The Way" or "Path". The Dao offers many insights into how to walk the path similar to the Dhammapada. It advocates doing by non-doing (Wu wei), which is quite different than doing nothing. The Dao describes itself as being and non-being. It also says the Dao we can speak about is not the true Dao. The problem here is that thinking about it makes it harder, like Koans in Zen. This is because this "balance" is so all-pervading that as soon as you conceptualize it it looses aspects, because you as a human are not all-knowing and you cannot contain this. The Dao itself also makes a clear distinction between wisdom and intellect. Frowning upon the latter, as intellectual endeavors on this would only lead to incomplete, unbalanced and biased outcomes. As to your question, at the core I would call it a "concept of balance". So is a concept a thing? I would also think that action comes from (un)balance, but as a consequence. Know that this is a very western approach. Another would be to say that what we speak about is not the true Dao. So, what are we talking about?

  • One of my favorite quotes is: "Words represent a state of imbalance."
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 26, 2021 at 17:38

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