Themes of Daodejing (Tao Te Ching)

Updated: Aug 31

My partner, David, and I are about to finish up our three+ year study of the Daodejing. While prior to my study with David, I had read the Daodejing many times, never had I worked through it in the Chinese language, at such a deep level and with ample time devoted to engage in dialogue with someone else who took the study seriously. I'm thankful today for having had the opportunity to participate in such a committed, deliberate study of ancient wisdom that resonates with my own sensibilities.


A valley cut through the mountains
A theme in Daoism is the leveling of all things

We are about to impart on a new chapter of our own spiritual development and study of Daoism as we depart from the chapter-by-chapter study of Daodejing and begin taking on themes and applying it directly to our lives in a lived way--in other words, a study of how to embody the mindset of Dao. Before parsing all of those themes out, I want to reflect from my own experience without having the text or any notes in hand with the hope that I discover what impacted me the most by studying Laozi's words.


The Feminine

The feminine qualities of softness and yielding are dominant in Daoism. Daoism is an explicitly feminist spiritual tradition. Every time a water metaphor is used in Daodejing, we see the appearance of feminine, soft power. Laozi says explicitly to stay with the "female" as a quality of being in the world.


The Three Treasures

The three treasures of kindness, not putting oneself first, and moderation is a popular theme from Daoism even though it is only one chapter. As a theme, however, Laozi mentions these virtues often throughout the book.

The character for kindness or compassion appears many times throughout the text.


Dialectics

Daoism emphasizes that there is a holism. Long and short are different manifestations of the same thing. There is light within darkness and darkness within light. Nothing is purely one thing or another. It is always in relation to something else that meaning is found.


Simplicity

Laozi repeatedly encouraged being as simple as possible. This shows up in metaphors about being like "uncarved wood" and "flowery words not being true." It also shows up in the concept of wu wei, which is an exhortation to never be contrived and only take necessary actions.


Small, non-intrusive governing

Laozi saw that governments typically oppressed the people through conscription and taxes. Laozi believed that the government should be very limited and basically be hidden from the people. This is a stark contrast to the government in the United States today that is involved in every aspect of the people's lives and continues to try to insert itself even more. He blames corruption of the government for most of societies problems.


Acceptance

Laozi encouraged acceptance and a non-judgmental approach to humanity. He uses the metaphor of "an ocean lets all rivers flow into it" to explain how we should embrace the diversity of humanity. Rather than use force and exert ones selfish desires, Laozi encourages being in harmony which requires acceptance.


Equanimity

Laozi tells us that our minds should be clear and settled. If we stay in a state of poise, we can tend to what is important and notice the subtleties of life. If we are worked up, our minds are muddied and we are unable to act skillfully.


Sage leadership

To teach goodness, we must be good not just to the good but also to the bad. While Laozi doesn't articulate a legal system, he does say that problems of society start with how those at the top treat the people. If those at the top treated everyone with care and respect, he says that many of society's problems would go away. Sages lead by following, which means understanding the needs of the people rather that prescribing a way of life.


Nonmaterialistic

Daodejing cautions against putting wealth on display. It only attracts robbers. Laozi says that society shouldn't esteem material goods and wealth since that creates crime and envy. Daodejing emphasizes that value comes from being aligned with Dao and not from possessions and wealth.


Patience

It's important to have patience with the natural flow of things and not insist on things happening on our time. A 9-story temple arises from placing one brick at a time. A thousand-mile journey begins with one step and completes one step at a time. It's us who must harmonize with the natural flow of time, not the other way around. Most people who give up do so because they cannot tolerate humbling themselves and waiting for long-term results.


The leveling of all things

Nature takes away from abundance and gives to that with less. Mountain tops are worn away into the valleys. Fruit falls from the trees to the ground. Water flows to the lowest places. When a bow is extended, the high end is lowered and the low end is raised up. There is a reversion to the mean.


There are many other themes in Daodejing that will be explored. However, these are important, memorable themes that rise to the top. If you feel I've left out an important theme, please comment and let me know.





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