“What is Dao?”
It’s a question that has preoccupied people for millennia. And it is right that we should address it again at regular intervals.
As we enter a new month, and as autumn takes hold in the northern hemisphere and spring returns to the southern, what better time to consider again the eternal question?
I would like to offer this extended quotation from a particularly poetic passage I recently read in Eva Wong’s book “Being Taoist”, in which she offers modern English translations of ancient Chinese texts. This comes from a passage drawn from the teachings of the Huainanzi, a text compiled by a prince of the early part of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.).
The scope of this description of Dao is truly magnificent, and should provide many hours of inspiration for meditation. From a much more extended passage, I have edited some of my favourite lines here :
“The Dao (Tao) envelopes the sky, covers the earth, and extends beyond the four directions. Its height cannot be measured, and its depth cannot be fathomed. It embraces the universe and gives birth to all things. Like water gushing from a spring, it flows everywhere and penetrates everything. Time does not affect it. Use does not exhaust it. Expand it and it will fill the vastness of space; shrink it and you can hold it in your hand. Depending on the circumstances, it can be small or large, dim or bright, weak or strong, soft or hard, and crooked or straight.
“The Dao embraces the sky and the earth. It harmonises yin and yang and maintains the balance in nature. Time and space exist because of it. The sun. moon, and the starts shine because of it. Because of it, the mountains are high, the seas are deep, animals run, and birds fly. The Dao has no form or shape, but its power is endless. All things are created from it, but in creating the myriad things its energy is not exhausted.
The Dao gives birth to all things but is not consumed by them. It is responsible for their growth but does not direct their destiny. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and insects live because of the natural way of the Dao, but they do not feel indebted to it. They die because of the natural way of the Dao, but do not blame or resent it. Animals appear to have a better understanding of the Dao than we humans do, because we praise the Dao when we succeed and curse it when we fail.
The Dao is simple yet profound. It is elusive and intangible. Look for it and it cannot be found; listen to it and it cannot be heard. It is as ungraspable as space, and as deep as a cavern, but it resonates with every change in the universe. It stretches out when it needs to expand; it contracts when it needs to be small. Because it has no definite shape or form, it can adjust to every possible situation and blend with every conceivable condition in the universe.
It is clear that Dao is in many ways indescribable, but you may wonder what any of this has to do with us as pianists…
So in closing let me remind you of this profound quote from Hans Christian Andersen :
“Where words fail, music speaks.”