Daoism is one of the three pillars of Chinese philosophy, and its founders Laozi and Zhuangzi implore us to unshackle ourselves from the constraints of the way we think and live a spontaneous, authentic life.

When many of us think of “philosophy”, we conjure images of toga-wearing Greeks debating in the agora in Athens. Or Renaissance thinkers like René Descartes contemplating consciousness in his armchair. Or perhaps Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre smoking Gauloises in the cafés of post-war Paris.

But there is another tradition of philosophy that comes out of China that is just as deep and diverse, with just as long a history. It has considered many of the same questions as Western philosophy, such as the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge and how to live a good life, but has sought to answer these questions in very different ways to many Western thinkers.

There are generally considered to be three pillars to Chinese philosophy: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. All three have mixed and intermingled over centuries to deeply influence Chinese culture and thinking to this day.

Daoist spontaneity and playfulness

In many ways, Daoism was a reaction against Confucianist thinking, which has strict rules on how we are supposed to live our lives, on the social roles and responsibilities we are supposed to take on, and has a strong emphasis on order and ritual. Daoism was a total rejection of these things, and is much more about living spontaneously, intuitively and experiencing a direct connection with nature and existence.

Daoism has two great masters, Laozi, who wrote the Daodejing, and Zhuangzi, who wrote the eponymous Zhuangzi. Both of these thinkers are believed to have lived between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, but while there are many stories about their lives, it’s difficult to separate fact from legend.

Both the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi are very playful texts, quite unlike most Western philosophy. Instead of outlining abstract theories supported by dry logical arguments, both were written in the form of sayings or stories that are often irreverent or absurd. They encourage the reader to reflect on life in a creative rather than analytic way.

For example, there’s a passage where Zhuangzi wakes up after dreaming he was a butterfly. But then he can’t be certain that he’s not right now a butterfly dreaming he’s a man. A similar sentiment was expressed by René Descartes, although far less poetically.

The three daos

The term “dao” itself is often translated to mean “way” or “path,” but it’s not an easy concept to pin down, which is by design. In a sense, the dao is like the natural order of the world, and following the dao is to be living in accordance with nature.

There are typically considered to be three daos:

  1. The human dao: the world of words, judgements and society
  2. The natural dao: the natural processes and regularities of the world, like the laws of nature
  3. The grand dao: the sum total of all things in the universe

These have a complex relationship, and Laozi wanted to make sure we don’t make the mistake of thinking the human dao is the only dao there is. For while we automatically use words and concepts to carve the world up into discrete things, nature itself is continuous. And while we can be judgemental, nature itself is free from judgement.

A central tenet of Daoism is embracing these opposite and contradictory states simultaneously. We can see some if this reflected in the yin/yang symbol, taijitu. It is at once a unitary thing, but it’s also composed of two opposites: the yin and the yang. This can be interpreted as representing the divisions that emerge within human thought – the separation of the one natural world into light/dark, hard/soft, active/passive, good/bad – but also shows how these things are complementary and all part of a greater whole.

There are even some Western thinkers who have wholeheartedly embraced this notion of complementarity. Notably, the Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr argued that the seemingly contradictory quantum and classical accounts of reality weren’t in opposition but were complementary. He even chose the taijitu symbol for his coat of arms when he was knighted by the King of Denmark.

Many of the lines in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi challenge us to unshackle ourselves from the human dao and to contemplate the natural and the grand dao, and to realise that they’re all really one and the same.

For example, one translation of the opening line of the Daodejing is “the dao that can be spoken is not the true dao.” (In Chinese, it’s even more obtuse, being: “the dao that you can dao is not the true dao”.) If that’s so, then why speak or write this at all? And yet this realisation could only have come from writing this in the first place. Thus does a core paradox of daoism enter our minds to do its noble work.

Just be

Daoism teaches us to practice emptiness and non-action, which sits in stark contrast to many philosophical traditions that teach us to fill our minds with knowledge and to act with intent. Daoism tells us that things in the world just are, we are also in the world and just are, but we have this irritating habit of forgetting to just be and instead think and reflect on what we are, and then are guided by what we think we are instead of just being what we really are. It’s that simple.

“Therefore the sage dwells in the midst of non-action and practices the wordless teaching” – Laozi

Laozi and Zhuangzi are often cheeky, irreverent, playful and inscrutable. In a way, they are urging us to encounter nature directly, not mediated by words, and definitely not by rituals and rigid social roles.

This is not an easy thing to do, which is why the text encourages – or nags – us to snap us out of our complacent reliance on abstract concepts rather than experience concrete reality.

Dr Tim Dean is a philosopher, writer, honorary associate with the University of Sydney, editor of the Universal Commonsand faculty with The School of Life.