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Understanding the Dào 道

Chinese characters are often full of deep and hidden meaning; the character for Dào 道 is no exception. Let’s break down the 3 main elements of the character to discover what Dào 道 can teach us about Daoism.

People often ask me “what is Daoism?” I usually try to explain it as a guiding philosophy in how to understand the connection between all things in the universe and the principals that help us live a caring, healthy and fulfilling life.

But let us try to explore this concept a little deeper by analyzing the Chinese character for Dào 道. What can we learn from this character about the true meaning of Daoism?

Let’s start with the three strokes seen at the top of the character: a broken line (Yīn Yáo - -) and a solid line (Yáng Yáo _ ). These lines represent the yin yang balance that takes place throughout the universe: light into dark, night into day, life into death. These seemingly opposite yet interdependent concepts cannot exist without the other. There is natural balance between them, they come from each other, and are part of each other. Finding balance in how we live our lives, whether it be the food we eat, exercise vs relaxation, or even how much we give or take from nature, are all fundamental parts of living with the Dao.


Underneath the Yin Yao and Yang Yao is the Chinese symbol Zì 自. This character can have two meanings: the first is the concept of “self”; and the second can be seen in the concept of Zì Rán 自然: the idea of nature or the natural world. In Daoism there is the macro cosmos which is nature, the universe and everything in it, and the micro cosmos, which is the individual. Both are as infinite and knowledgeable as each other. Just like with the previous yin yang pairs, “the self” and “the universe” are completely interconnected. We are made of, depend on, and in a sense are the entirety of nature. It leads to the concept, that to find true peace and tranquility we don’t need to look externally but rather look internally. All of the answers we seek and guidance we need can be found inside our “self”.

Finally, the last strokes are the radical 辶. This is the radical of the character Zǒu 走 which means to walk. 辶 is quite a common radical in Chinese and is often used to indicate the concept of movement. In regards to the character Dào 道 it is no different. Daoism is all about the flow and movement of nature. Life moves and changes: just like a flowing river, it takes turns along the way. The more we can become in tune with this flow, accept it, and go with it, the more in tune we become with the Dao 道. Acceptance is a large part of this. It is much more difficult to swim upstream than with the flow of the current; when faced with new opportunities instead of trying to fight them we should allow ourselves to explore them and go with them.


So, what have we learned from the character Dào 道? At its core it is about finding balance in our lives and in our actions; understanding we are part of nature and we can find infinite knowledge by looking within ourselves; and that nature has a natural movement and flow, if we can become in tune with this movement, life is not an uphill struggle but a gentle journey along a stream.





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