The Meaning of Dao
Firstly, Dao is the eternally existing Origin of the world: it knows no limits in space or time. According to Laozi, it is an undifferentiated whole which precedes the existence of Heaven and Earth. It is empty, silent and formless; it grows independently and is inexhaustible; and eternally revolves without ever stopping. It is the Source of all beings. In the Laozi it is said:
“There was something undifferentiated and all-embracing,
Which existed before Heaven and Earth.
Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing external
And stays inexhaustible.
It operates with a circular motion
And remains inextinguishable.
It may be considered the mother of all things under heaven”.
It is so ancient, and so fundamentally different from all other beings, that it does not have a name, and cannot be described in ordinary language. However, in order to describe it, we cannot but give it a name, so it is called ‘Dao’, or also ‘Great’.
Another Daoist theorist, Zhuang Zhou, also said in the chapter “The Great Patriarch” of the Book of Master Zhuang, that “Dao is a reality that can be trusted even though it has neither behaviour nor form; it can be transmitted from heart to heart, but not by words; it can be obtained but not seen. It is its own root, and existed prior to Heaven and Earth. It created the Spirits and Divinities, and gave birth to Heaven and Earth. It is higher than the Supreme Ultimate yet is not high; it is under than the Six Directions yet is not deep; it precedes all creation yet is not old; it is farther than the remotest antiquity yet is not distant”.
The above makes clear that Dao is the origin of all existence; it is both the first and last of all beings, and knows no limits in time.
Dao is omnipresent:
The above also touches on space: according to Zhuangzi, Dao is also beyond limitations of space. The ancient concept of the Six Directions includes the four cardinal directions as well as above and below – in fact encompassing all space. That Dao is ‘Under the Six Directions’ means that Dao is great beyond all limitations of space. Even earlier, Laozi had said that Dao permeates our surroundings, so that it is impossible to say if it is to our left or to our right. Dao is a continuous and unbroken existence: should you wish to greet it, you would not see its head; should you wish to follow it, you would not find its tail. In a nutshell, Dao is omnipresent, and is not limited to any defined physical space.
The substance of Dao is Non-Being
Dao is Non-Being, an existence which follows no laws. Dao’s transcendent and unlimited nature sets it apart from all beings possessing form, matter and a specific place in space-time. All concrete beings follow specific laws. Dao, on the other hand, is formless, and is not bound by any concrete laws. It is pure Emptiness and Non-Being. The first chapter of the Laozi states that Dao is nameless, and is the Ancestor of Heaven and Earth. This implies that Dao is nameless. The Laozi also states that
“You look at it but cannot see it;
It is called the imageless.
You listen to it but cannot hear it,
It is called the soundless.
You touch it but cannot find it,
It is called the formless.
These three cannot be further inquired into,
For they are the inseparable One.
The One is not bright when it is up,
And not dark when it is down.
Infinite and indistinct, it cannot be named,
Thus reverting to a state of non-thingness.
This is called shape without a shape,
Or image without image.
It is also called the Vague and the Elusive.”
It is thus clear that Dao is formless and imageless, and cannot be attained by human sense organs. According to Laozi, all creatures emerge from ‘Being’, but ‘Being’ emerges from ‘Non-Being’. This Non-Being refers to Dao. Other Daoist scriptures also often use the terms ‘Non-Being’, ‘Emptiness’ and so on to designate Dao. In sum, Dao is nameless, formless, and substanceless; it is Non-Being and Emptiness. This is the substance of Dao.
Avatars of Dao
The avatars of Dao are the Lordly Spirits and Deities: Dao is Emptiness and Non-Being, but it also has a divine nature. In a state of dispersion, it is formless and imageless Vital Breath, but when these are concentrated, they become Deities. In Daoism, Laozi is one such Deity. According to the Tablet of the Venerable Master’s Holy Mother of the Eastern Han dynasty, “Laozi is Dao”. The Mighty Commonwealth of Orthodox Oneness tradition founded by Zhang Daoling also clearly states that Dao is Oneness, which is dispersed as Vital Breath and reunited as the Supreme Venerable Sovereign. The term ‘Supreme Venerable Sovereign’ is a respectful title given to Laozi in Daoism.
There are three higher deities in Daoism: the Sovereign of the Heavenly Treasure, also called the Primeval Lord of Heaven; the Sovereign of the Numinous Treasure, also called the Supreme Sovereign of the Great Dao; and the Sovereign of the Divine Treasure, also called the Supreme Venerable Sovereign. All are avatars of Dao, that is to say, all are emanations of the Vital Breath of Oneness. The Birth of the Deities of the Nine Heavens describes the emergence of these three deities as follows: the Sovereign of the Heavenly Treasure is the Lordly Spirit of the Great Grotto, whose Original Vital Breath is the Elder of the Heavenly Treasure. This Elder is the Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Billion Lofty Vital Breaths of the Supreme Jade Void of the Grotto of Chaos, which collected themselves into the Sovereign of the Heavenly Treasure in the first year of the Dragon Han Kalpa (universal cycle extending from the origination of Heaven and Earth till their destruction). The Sovereign of the Numinous Treasure is the Lordly Spirit of Pervasive Mystery, whose Original Vital Breath is the Elder of the Numinous Treasure. This Elder is the Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Billion Mysterious Vital Breaths of the Supreme Purple Void of the Crimson Chaos, which transmuted themselves into the the Sovereign of the Numinous Treasure at the beginning of the Dragon Han Kalpa. The Sovereign of the Divine Treasure is the Lordly Spirit of Pervasive Spirit, whose Original Vital Breath is the Elder of the Divine Treasure. This Elder is the Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Billion Vital Breaths of the Most High Pristine Void of Quiet Obscurity in Communion with the Origin, which became the Sovereign of the Divine Treasure during the Crimson Light Kalpa.
After attaining Dao, Man can become a deity
Dao can transmute itself into deities, while Man can Cultivate Dao and Attain Dao: hence, man can also become a deity. Deities which originated as people are called Immortals. All people can Cultivate Dao, and can therefore all potentially become Immortals. In this way, the Daoist pantheon is open and limitless.
Author: Liu Zhongyu
Translator: David Palmer
(Courtesy of: Taoism Culture & Information Centre)