Dao (or Tao) can simply mean “The Natural Way”.
Of course, things aren’t always simple! Attempting to answer the question “What is Dao” on a single webpage, we should remember that it is a question that preoccupied thinkers from all the major philosophical schools in ancient China, not only within “Daoism” itself.
The ancient Chinese “pictograph” image for the word Dao shows a person running along a path. It is an image that reveals motion, change, a journey. Commenting on this, author Deng Ming-Dao writes:
“Those who want to study Dao can gain much from that simple image. It represents the path each of us follows through life. Sometimes intellectual definitions of Dao can be challenging. Returning to the image of Dao centres our contemplations.”
Because Dao is the “natural” way, it can be observed, approached and experienced from many angles: religious, philosophical, scientific, creative, and simply as a lifestyle. It makes sense for us all to live our lives according to “the natural way”, rather than turning away to “swim against the current”.
Daoism (Taoism) is a philosophical, ethical or religious tradition that emphasises living in harmony with the Dao.
Unsurprisingly, the term has come to be used as an umbrella for a wide variety of different beliefs and practices. The common thread in all forms and traditions is that Dao denotes something that is both the source of, and the force behind, everything that exists.
For many centuries Daoism propelled Chinese culture, and lay at the heart of everything from music to politics, from artworks to cuisine, from sexuality to town planning. Daoism underpins many of the martial arts, T’ai Chi, Qigong, Chinese astrology, Feng Shui, the I Ching, Acupuncture, Herbalism and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).
In recent decades, these practices have become popular in the West and we have come to know and respect the many benefits they can bring. Daoism has also informed practices such as Shiatsu, Acupressure and Feldenkrais Method, and given the world concepts such as “Yin/Yang” theory and Food Therapy.
A Daoist (Taoist) is somebody who studies the Dao.
However, for the Chinese, a Daoist is traditionally one who leaves behind their former life to follow the vocation of Daoism full time, living as a hermit or within a Daoist religious order. One should therefore not adopt the label lightly!
Daoism as a religion (as opposed to the philosophies and practices mentioned above) only emerged several centuries after the classic Daoist teachers, and developed in response to the introduction of Buddhism to China. Its theology is based on Daoist philosophy, and is not dependent on the existence of an anthropomorphic godlike figurehead.
So: What is Dao again?
Lao-Tzu, the most revered of all the Daoist sages, wrote in his classic ‘Tao Te Ching’ (literal translation) :
“Dao called Dao is not Dao.
Names can name no lasting name.”
Translated into modern english by the leading scholar Thomas Cleary, this reads:
“A Way can be a guide, but not a fixed path;
names can be given, but not permanent labels.”
For Lao-Tzu, words alone cannot answer our question, or describe Dao.