“Laozi, with his name called Er and written Dan, was born to the family of Li in Quren Alley, the Village of Li, the County of Ku (currently Bozhou, Anhui Province), the Nation of Chu (currently Hunan Province and Hubei Province plus parts of adjacent provinces). He used to serve as a secretary of the imperial library in the Capital of Zhou (currently Luoyang, Henan Province). Laozi had in-depth knowledge of dao and de. He treasured contemplation in the world beyond knowledge when he was engaged in work. He had spent quite a long time in the Capital and witnessed how the dynasty was withering. Then he retired. By the time he was passing the City Gate, Gate Commandant Guan Yinzi requested, ‘You are leaving us for good now. Please try hard to write me a book.’ Then Laozi wrote the book in Part 1 and Part 2 there using more than 5000 words to elaborate the meaning of dao and de, and departed. No one knew his whereabouts ever since then.” – Records of the Grand Historian (91BC)
“The existing way of living is a way for people to follow, but that does not mean that it is the way which is going to last forever. The existing knowledge is the scope of knowledge that we know, but that does not mean that it is the knowledge which is going to last forever.” (Ch.1)
Chapter 1 was simply to ask the people of the time, especially Confucius and his followers, to open up their minds to look at the imperial system closely and to find a new way that would benefit the people most. In fact, after 25 centuries, we can still find the principles of Daodejing universally true and correct.
The existing way of living means the socio-political system of the time. In particular, it means the feudal system in China from 1046BC to 221BC. Laozi and his contemporaries called it the ‘possession administration’ or you wei (有為) in Chinese. Confucius called it the ‘imperial dao’ (王道). It is well known that there has been conflict between Taoism and Confucianism for almost 25 centuries. Now, it is clear that Laozi did have entered a fight with Confucius for the difference in political preferences.
The word dao (道) in general means way. According to Chapter 25, Laozi noticed that the world had already existed long before human beings walked on earth. He expected there ought to be a certain way to keep the world long lasting. He was not certain what it was and hardly gave a definition for it. He managed to use the word dao to signify it. Yet, based on his observation of the Great Nature, Laozi noticed that harmony ought to be the way for the world to be long lasting and acknowledged it as the way of Nature. By the way of Nature, all things under the sky are free and equal. All things have equal opportunities to make a living, as do people. In order for the human species to be long lasting, Laozi pointed out that harmony, applied in the domain of human beings, is the way of Nature.
The Non-Possession Administration (Wu Wei)
When human life became complicated and there might exist disadvantaged people. Early history has shown that a complicated society needed someone to be a leader in the position of power to take care of them. It is only a matter of use of power and abuse of power, especially for those who sit in the position of power in the political aspect.
Laozi as a historian knew about the history before the first monarchy appeared and knew about the transition of power in history. Those who are in the position of power will have the privilege and absolute power to give order and to have the wealth of society in their total control. However, such transition of power finally triggered the emergence of monarchic system which was called “possession administration” in the early time.
Laozi also pointed out that the political form of ‘possession administration’ is unnatural. It allowed some individual to possess and take control of the living environment which should be open for everybody. That was how inequality among people occurred.
Chapter 29 says, “This super device of the world cannot be run in an unnatural manner and cannot be seized by anyone.” This super device here meant the entire living environment for people, including land, food, water, air and light or energy to be specific. Also, this super device does not belong to anyone. This is the basic concept of “non-possession administration.”
Chapter 11 says, “The point of possessing power is to benefit the country. The point of not possessing the country is to actuate the use of power.” Laozi reminded those who were in the position of power that they only had their social responsibility to exercise their power for the benefit of society.
The term wu wei (無為) has long been misinterpreted. There were several meanings of the word wei (為). In some cases it means doing. However, in this case it means running a government. The word you (有) means to possess and the word wu (無) means not to possess. Thus, wu wei (無為) means running the government without possessing the country and it can be defined as the ‘non-possession administration’ in today’s terminology. It is close to a republic system. The meaning of ‘non-doing’ or ‘doing nothing’ for wu wei is surely inappropriate.
Non-possession here does not mean that people are not entitled to possess any property. It only means that the leader of a country is not entitled to possess the country as if it is his own property. The country belongs to all people. Or more correctly, the country does not belong to anyone. All people are entitled to their rights to live, to work, to possess the fruits of their labor and to enjoy freedom.
Laozi concluded that the ‘non-possession administration’ by the way of Nature was the fairest political system for people. That was close to a republic system but far more democratic than any system of today since the concept of head of state and the concept of ruling did not exist in such system. Under such system, people were truly free and equal. Each and every individual was entitled to his rights to live and to make a living. Therefore, Dao (道) can be defined in today’s terminology as ‘fundamental human rights’.
The opening line of the book Daodejing exactly means the demand of fundamental change has to be taking place when the socio-political system is not correct. We are facing a similar situation while we are living in the Capitalistic world today. Laozi suggested to find a solution in the world beyond knowledge. We have to jump out of the box to reach something beyond.
This is what morality is all about. When social morals are highly observed, all people will be satisfied and the future of people will be assured. However, since human beings are complicated, any individual who exercises his freedom without respect for others will finally go to extremes in hurting others.
Therefore, it needs an authority on top of society to be responsible to counteract such development of extremism. Society ought to exist as a whole. Society ought to be united to ensure wholeness. Ensuring wholeness means harmony. That is the theory of harmony widely adopted in ancient China.
Society is unable to achieve harmony by any single effort individually. It needs an authority to be responsible to observe harmony to ensure a fair society. However, this authority ought to be empowered by the people only in exercising its ‘authority social responsibility’, but not to rule. When any problematic situation develops, this authority will need to take a creative attitude to tackle such social problem.
The current ideal of morality still remains at the level of canonical morality which, in general, is only to constrain people not to hurt others. Daodejing introduces a different concept other than canonical morality in order to achieve social harmony. Social harmony should be achieved by mutual respect but not by constraint. By the way of Nature, people should be free of any bondage.
Daodejing introduces ‘daodelity’ which highlights dao (道) and de (德) to benefit people instead of to constrain people. ‘Daodelity’ is an invented term which means to take the leader to hold fast to his ‘authority social responsibility’ to safeguard people’s ‘fundamental human rights’. It is noted here that the written form of ‘daodelity’ in Chinese is same as morality. When ‘daodelity’ is observed, morality will be restored in society without a doubt. It requires the authority to overlook society to counteract any extremism instead of overlooking any individual to restrain. When most people are benefited, tensions in society will be released. By then, society will endure happily as long as it can, and so will the world.
The World Beyond Knowledge (Wu Ming)
The demand of fundamental shift needs us to jump out of the box to establish something new. That means we have to jump out of our existing knowledge to establish some new knowledge. Laozi in 2500 years ago introduced the theory of the world beyond knowledge and “pre-logical thinking” to experience new dimensions.
“By the very first moment when the early people began to have sensibility and be aware of this world, it was a world totally beyond their knowledge. Thus, the world beyond knowledge at that moment could be regarded as the beginning of the later world that people would know of. After the early people began to be aware of this world, people then gave definitions to all things that they came across and established the world of knowledge.” (Ch.1)
“Therefore, we should always expel our obstinateness and expose ourselves to anything beyond our scope of knowledge. And once we are aware of something new beyond, we should always establish an objective to explore and extend the edge of our scope of knowledge.” (Ch.1)
“The world beyond knowledge and the world of knowledge both mean the same world that we are living in. They just bear different definitions. That these two worlds mean the same world is beyond our imagination. Anything beyond our imagination is further beyond our imagination. Exploration of new knowledge is the gate to all marvels.” (Ch.1)
Laozi derived a reference point in time about when people began to be conscious about this world through backward deduction of human knowledge that increased every day. Laozi did not mark a point in time for the beginning of this world or even the beginning of the universe.
There are several meanings for the word ming (名) including 1) name, 2) fame, 3) status and 4) definition. Right here, the word ming means definition.
The term wu ming (無名) literally means without definition. Anything undefined falls beyond the scope of knowledge. So the term wu ming can be regarded as the world beyond knowledge. The term you ming (有名) literally means with definition. Anything well defined falls within the scope of knowledge. So the terms you ming can be regarded as the world of knowledge. The world beyond knowledge is boundless and the world of knowledge is bounded.
When something is beyond people’s limit of imagination, it seems these things are too dark for us to realize what they are. The capability to imagine is bound by the scope of knowledge we have.
Matter ‘exists’ only when we people are aware of its existence. Once we are aware of such existence of matter, we will give a definition to it. That is how we establish our knowledge. Matterless means something that we are still unable to be aware of its existence and it falls in the world beyond knowledge.
Dao of Contentment
“Feeling content is reckoned to be truly rich.” (Ch.33)
“Indulging in possessing things must make you spend more. Excessive storage must make you waste more. Feeling content will keep you out of disgrace. Knowing where to stop will keep you out of danger. That will make you long lasting.” (Ch.44)
“Feeling content and satisfied is the kind of sufficiency showing that you are constantly sufficient.” (Ch.46)
Laozi repeatedly emphasized contentment in Daodejing. It was mainly an advice for those who were in the position of power not to take the wealth of society in their possession.
Dao of Contentment in General
If I can make ten dollars a day every day and ten dollars is good enough for me to live a reasonable life provided I have the ability to make this ten dollars or even more a day and the opportunity to make this amount is guaranteed, then I don’t need to make this ten dollars of tomorrow today. If I make more than ten dollars a day, in extreme cases, that will threaten other people with less capability to make what they need for a living. That is how poverty came into being.
Usually, wealth is a means of reflecting someone’s capability. When one’s capability is recognized, it will not be necessary for him to accumulate his wealth all in one day. His ability will surely guarantee his opportunity to generate wealth in the future. This guarantee of future wealth thus enables him to feel he has constantly sufficient wealth.
It is not a matter of enough. It is about ability. Most rich people or leaders of large enterprises are people of great ability. They have the ability to create enormous wealth out of their own specialty. Power comes out of anyone’s ability and their wealth. Large enterprises are like powerful lords running their ‘possession administration’ in the business domain. So very able and rich people can also exercise their ‘authority social responsibility’ in society to benefit people. Indeed, many rich people have already awakened and are willing to return what they have earned to society in the way of charity. In this regard, their success in business is not intended to crave for money in order to hurt people. It is only a way to demonstrate their ability and influence to benefit people.
However, they do not realize that in this extreme development of a capitalistic world, while they are making maximum profit in the course of business, they have already jeopardized the opportunities for many other people to make a living. That is harmful. Their generous donations cannot compensate for what they have done to society. So, it is important to let these rich people know how they can exercise their ‘authority social responsibility’ in a way that would benefit society most.