The Daoist path to harmony
Daoism (Taoism) and Confucianism have together shaped the modern Chinese worldview. Both philosophies have explicit and embedded moral systems which provide ethical principles and rules to guide human action. Whether these systems are complementary or opposed is unclear.
Daoism portrays humankind as being nature rather than being separate to it, rejecting the man versus nature struggle evident in the Western model of economic development. The dao is the path (the way) conforming with the natural forces of heaven and earth, and Daoist ethics, rather than focusing on individually correct actions, aim for harmony with all things.
A central Daoist theme is wuwei, which translates as non coercive action, requiring humankind to yield to rather than resist the forces of nature, as force creates its own resistance. Rather than being worn down by this resistance, the way of the dao requires creative non activity. Daoism opposes authority, oppressive government and coercion, rejecting the structured rule based ethics of Confucian teachings, instead opting for a more spontaneous and responsive ethic.
The founder of Daoism, Lao-zi, recognising the male dominated society in which he lived, emphasised the female aspect of the dao; being receptive, nourishing and sensitive; and to give life rather than possess it. As one of the earliest gender-neutral religions Daoism teaches the theory of yin yang where male and female energy is complementary, inseparable and equal.
Lao-zi recommended a path of simplicity, reducing desire and selfishness; “emptying oneself (of possessions) can be fulfilling, whereas having abundance is troubling”. Daoism rejects human intervention, which is believed to be inevitably destructive. For example Daoists would be sceptical of the benefits of suggested climate change ‘solutions’ such as geo-engineering (using human made technology applied at a global level to cool the climate) or carbon sequestration (capturing carbon as it is emitted and injecting it underground), instead opting for non-coercive action (live simply and stop producing and consuming so much).
Confucianism attempts to control greed through strict rules whereas Daoism (and Buddhism) perceives desire as the root cause of suffering and the ethical path involves the cessation of attachment to desire. A deep recognition of the equality of all things encourages the Daoist to live true to their nature rather than pursue fame and material wealth.
Daoist philosophy is evident in the Chinese medical practice of acupuncture, which restores harmony by dissolving resistance along energy channels within the body. Mahatma Gandhi opposed violent action to bring about political change; instead he advocated widespread labour strikes, civil non-violent disobedience and hunger campaigns. Ultimately Gandhi achieved his political objectives.
The authoritarian influence of Confucianism is evident as we view China from the West, with the media focusing on human rights abuses and government oppression. Both Confucianism and Daoism aim for the same path, the way of harmony with all things, albeit in what appear to be very different ways. If Daoist principles are correct a harmonious path requires that we practise simplicity, equity, virtue and non-violence; and those who walk this path will eventually prevail.
Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.