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Daoism

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天下皆知美之为美,斯恶已;皆知善之为善,斯不善已。故有无相生,难易相成,长短相较,高下相倾,音声相和,前后相随。是以圣人处无为之事,行不言之教,万物作焉而不辞,生而不有,为而不恃,功成而弗居。夫唯弗居,是以不去。

When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good, other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess, acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

This chapter introduces the concept of duality and how it shapes our perception of the world. The ideas of beauty and ugliness, good and bad, are not absolute but are created in relation to one another. The existence of one concept implies the existence of its opposite, and they are interdependent.

Laozi emphasises the interdependent nature of opposites by stating that having and not having, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low, voice and sound, and front and back all rely on each other for their meaning. Each concept finds its definition and significance through its relation to its opposite.

The chapter continues by introducing the concept of Wu Wei, or non-action. Laozi describes the sage as one who practices non-action and no-talking. This does not imply complete inactivity, but rather acting in accordance with the natural flow of things without force or unnecessary effort. The sage does not seek personal recognition or take credit for their actions. They work effortlessly, allowing their deeds to speak for themselves.

Laozi concludes the chapter by highlighting the everlasting nature of the sage’s actions. They work without attachment or ego, and their impact endures beyond their physical presence. By aligning with the principles of non-action and recognising the interconnectedness of opposites, the sage embodies the essence of the eternal Dao.

As I contemplate the wisdom of Chapter 2, I am struck by its relevance in the midst of our fast-paced, hyperconnected world. We are often consumed by the need to control and manipulate our surroundings, striving relentlessly to achieve our desires. Yet, this chapter offers a different perspective—a reminder that true power lies in surrendering, in letting go of our attachments and expectations, and embracing the natural rhythms of life.

This chapter also reminds me of the importance of inner cultivation and self-awareness. To truly align with the Dao, I must first understand and embrace the duality within myself. By accepting my flaws and embracing my strengths, I can achieve a sense of wholeness and harmony. It is through this process of self-discovery that I can tap into my authentic self and live in alignment with the natural order of the universe.

In embracing the principles of Chapter 2, I find solace in the idea that I am not separate from the world around me. I am interconnected with all beings, and my actions have a ripple effect in the grand tapestry of existence. By cultivating a deep awareness of this interconnectedness, I am inspired to act with compassion and empathy, recognising that what I do to others, I ultimately do to myself.

道可道,非常道;名可名,非常名。无名天地之始,有名万物之母。故常无欲,以观其妙;常有欲,以观其徼。此两者同出而异名,同谓之玄,玄之又玄,众妙之门。

The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

This chapter sets the tone for the entire Dao De Jing, emphasising the limitations of language and the ineffable nature of the Dao 道. The Tao is the underlying principle of the universe, beyond human understanding or description. It is nameless, formless, and infinite, the source of all that exists.

The chapter then introduces the idea that desire and attachment are obstacles to understanding the Dao. When we are free from desire, we can see the mystery of the universe and connect with the Dao. When we are consumed by desire, we only see the surface-level manifestations of reality and remain ignorant of the deeper truths. This chapter reminds us of the futility of excessive striving and the endless pursuit of material possessions and status. The accumulation of wealth and power ultimately lead to discontentment and spiritual emptiness. Thus, the scripture invites us to simplify our lives, embrace humility, and cultivate inner virtues such as compassion, moderation, and simplicity. It is through the cultivation of these qualities that we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of the Dao and achieve true harmony with the world around us.

The chapter then concludes with the idea that the mystery of the Dao lies in darkness, not light. This darkness is not a negative concept but rather a state of unknowing that is essential to accessing the true nature of the universe. It beckons us to go beyond the limitations of language and rationality, inviting us to embrace the mystery and spontaneity of the Dao. By aligning ourselves with its principles, we can discover a profound sense of harmony, peace, and fulfilment. It is a call to simplify our lives, let go of excessive striving, and cultivate inner virtues.

The Dao De Jing 道德经, also known as the Tao Te Ching, is a profound and ancient text that serves as the cornerstone of Daoism, one of the major philosophical and spiritual traditions originating from ancient China. Believed to have been written by the legendary sage Laozi 老子 around the 6th century BCE, this influential work encapsulates the essence of Daoist wisdom and offers insights into the nature of the universe, the human condition, and the path to living a harmonious and balanced life.

Composed of 81 short chapters, the Dao De Jing delves into the concept of the Dao, which can be translated as the “Way” or the “Path.” The Dao is considered the underlying principle that governs all of existence, transcending duality and embracing the interplay of opposites. It is often described as formless and mysterious, yet it encompasses the inherent harmony and balance that permeate the universe.

One of the central themes of the Dao De Jing is the idea of wu wei 無為, which can be translated as “non-action” or “effortless action.” It emphasises the importance of aligning oneself with the natural flow of the Dao rather than striving against it. This concept does not advocate for passivity or laziness but rather encourages individuals to act in accordance with the natural order of things, following the path of least resistance and allowing events to unfold naturally. By embracing wu wei, individuals can find greater peace, contentment, and effectiveness in their actions.

The Dao De Jing also explores the concept of De 德, which can be translated as “virtue” or “power.” De 德 is the expression of one’s innate moral character and integrity. It is not acquired through external means but arises from cultivating a deep understanding of the Dao and aligning one’s actions with its principles. The text emphasises the importance of humility, simplicity, and compassion as key virtues that lead to a life of harmony and fulfilment.

Throughout the Dao De Jing, Laozi employs poetic and paradoxical language to convey profound truths about the nature of reality. Its verses often appear enigmatic and open to interpretation, inviting readers to engage in contemplation and reflection. Rather than providing prescriptive guidelines, the text encourages individuals to explore their own understanding of the Dao and to seek a direct connection with it through personal experience and inner cultivation.

Despite its ancient origins, the teachings of the Dao De Jing continue to resonate with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Its timeless wisdom offers guidance for navigating the complexities of modern life, promoting a holistic perspective that encourages individuals to find balance in a fast-paced and often chaotic world.

The influence of the Dao De Jing extends far beyond the realms of philosophy and spirituality. Its concepts have inspired various fields, including martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, and even leadership and management practices. The principles of wu wei, harmony, and virtue can be found in the teachings of renowned philosophers, such as Zhuangzi zhuang 莊子 and Confucius 孔子, as well as in contemporary self-help literature.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing my own interpretations of the Dao De Jing and I will also be sharing all 81 chapters of the Dao De Jing. I hope that by delving into its verses and contemplating its teachings, all of us can embark on a transformative journey of self-discovery and harmonious living, guided by the timeless wisdom of Laozi and the Dao De Jing.

‘Daoism’ is a Chinese philosophy and religion based on the concept of Dao i.e. 道. It is a philosophy that incorporates concepts of non-action i.e. 無為 and the natural order or spontaneity of things. It asserts that mankind must put its will into harmony with the natural world.

The Dao is the primordial principle that underlies the creation of the universe. The Dao is believed to be unlimited/infinite, transcendent, and unnameable. Dao is also believed to be the cause of everything in the universe. One of the most important classical texts in Daoism is the Dao De Jing i.e. 道德经, and it was written around 400 BC by Lao Tzu 老子.

The concept of yin and yang is a key element of Daoism. Yin i.e. 阴 and yang i.e. 阳 are two opposing types of energy. The yin is considered passive, dark and feminine, while the yang is active, bright and masculine. These opposing energies may also be a reflection of the operation of the Dao during its cycles of creation.

Daoism also incorporates concepts of qi i.e. 氣, and taiji i.e. 太极. Qi is believed to be a vital force or energy, and the cultivation of qi can be done through martial arts and the food we consume. The Taiji symbol that depicts yin and yang energy was first introduced during the Song dynasty.

From the Dao De Jing, it was held that “The Tao produced One i.e. 无极; One i.e. 无极 produced Two i.e. 太极; Two produced Three; Three produced All things.” It is believed that the Interaction between Yin and Yang, with the presence of Qi, is how Two produced Three.

In religious Daoism, the Dao i.e. produces One i.e. 无极, and it represents the Great Dao, embodied by Yuanshi Tianzun i.e. 元始天尊 at a time of pre-Creation when the Universe was still null, and the cosmos was in disorder. Manifesting into the first of the Taoist Trinity, Yuanshi Tianzun oversees the earliest phase of Creation of the Universe and is known as Daobao i.e. 道寶. Where One i.e. 无极 produces Two i.e. 太极, comes the Yin Yang i.e. 阴阳; and Yuanshi Tianzun i.e. 元始天尊 manifests into Lingbao Tianzun i.e. 灵宝天尊 who separated the Yang i.e. 阳from the Yin i.e. 阴, the clear from the murky, and classified the elements into their rightful groups. Lingbao Tianzun i.e. 灵宝天尊 is also known as the Jingbao i.e. 經寶. While Jing i.e. 經 in popular understanding means “scriptures”, in this context, it also means “passing through” i.e. 經过 [the phase of Creation] and the Laws of Nature of how things are meant to be. In the final phase of Creation, Daode Tianzun i.e. 道德天尊 is manifested from Lingbao Tianzun i.e. 灵宝天尊 to bring civilization and preach the Law to all living beings. Daode Tianzun i.e. 道德天尊 is also known as Shibao i.e. 師寶 .

Each of the Three Pure Ones represents both a deity and a heaven.

Yuanshi Tianzun i.e. 元始天尊 rules the first heaven, Yu Qing i.e. 玉清, which is found in the Jade Mountain. The entrance to this heaven is named the Golden Door. “He is the source of all truth, as the sun is the source of all light”. Lingbao Tianzun i.e. 灵宝天尊 rules over the heaven of Shan Qing i.e. 上清. Daode Tianzun i.e. 道德天尊 rules over the heaven of Tai Qing i.e. 太清.

The Three Pure Ones are often depicted as throned elders. As the Three Pure Ones are manifestations of Primordial Celestial Energy, they are formless. However, to illustrate their role in Creation, they are often portrayed as elderly deities robed in the three basic colours from which all colours originated i.e. Red, Blue and Yellow (or Green), depending on personal interpretation of colour origins by additive or subtractive means. Each of them holds onto a divine object associated with their task. Yuanshi Tianzun i.e. 元始天尊 is usually depicted holding the Pearl of Creation, signifying his role in creating the Universe from void and chaos. The Ruyi 如意 held by Lingbao Tianzun i.e. 灵宝天尊 represents authority, the second phase of Creation where the Yang was separated from the Yin and the Law of Things was ordered in place. Lingbao Tianzun i.e. 灵宝天尊 then took his seat on the left of Yuanshi Tianzun i.e. 元始天尊. Later, when all was complete, Daode Tianzun i.e. 道德天尊 took his place on the right of Yuanshi Tianzun i.e. 元始天尊, and He held the fan symbolizing the completion of Creation, and the act of fanning representing the spreading of Dao i.e. 道 to all Mankind.

Schools of Taoist thought developed around each of these deities. Taoist Alchemy was a large part of these schools, as each of the Three Pure Ones represented one of the three essential fields of the body, jing i.e. 精, qi i.e. 氣 and shen i.e. 神. The congregation of all three Pure Ones resulted in the return to Dao.

The first Pure One is universal or heavenly qi. The second Pure One is human plane qi, and the third Pure One is earth qi. Heavenly qi includes the qi or energy of all the planets, stars and constellations, as well as the energy of God (the force of creation and universal love). Human plane qi is the energy that exists on the surface of our planet and sustains human life, and the earth force qi includes all of the forces inside the planet as well as the five elemental forces.

I hope to share more about jing i.e. 精, qi i.e. 氣 and shen i.e. 神 in future and simplify the concepts with some examples so that it makes it easier for everyone to understand.

Singapore’s oldest and first Chinese temple, Soon Thian Keing (顺天宫), is located at 19 Lorong 29 Geylang, Singapore 388070. A literal translation of the temple’s Chinese name is, “Obedience to Heaven”.

The temple was first built in 1812 at Malabar Street and this was even way before Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819. Fun fact, Malabar Street has now become an indoor air-conditioned street (now part of Bugis Junction).

In 1993, the temple relocated to its present location in Geylang and here are some photos of the temple’s architecture and intricate decor which I found rather fascinating and even inspiring.

Part of the 1902 stele that is still preserved in the temple today. It shows the main temple sponsors and major contributors to the temple’s building fund.
One of the four pillars of the temple with Chinese characters inscribed on it
Eight Immortals

The main deity of the temple is 福德正神 (also known as Tua Pek Gong/土地公) and there are many other deities such as 慈航真人 (also known as Goddess of Mercy/观音大士), 齐天大圣 (also known as the Monkey God), 赵公明 (God of Wealth), and 註生娘娘 (Goddess of Childbirth) that are housed in the temple as well.

The temple is open to members of the public and if you have not been there before, feel free to arrange a visit!

As a young child growing up, I was exposed to many different faiths, and it was not until my 31st birthday that I truly found comfort and solace in Daoism. To begin with, Daoism is not a new faith to me because when I was young, my parents would bring my siblings and I to the temple to pray. However, back then, I did not know why we had to go to the temple, why we prayed to certain deities in the temple, and why we had to offer incense joss sticks. All I knew back then was that I had to obey and follow my parents’ instructions.

I also recalled that at certain times of the year, there were significant occasions when we would visit the temple to pray. These occasions include Lunar New Year, Vesak Day, and the Hungry Ghost Festival. There were also occasions when my mum would prepare special dishes like glutinous rice dumplings during the dumpling festival, mooncakes during the mid-autumn festival, and glutinous rice balls in peanut soup during the winter solstice. All these did not make much sense to me until the later part of my life.

When I entered my teenage years, I attended church and stopped going to the temple. Although the company of people was great, I did not feel liberated and the experience that I had felt transactional, superficial, and distant. When scandalous news of the church leadership broke, it drifted me away and led to many questions and self-doubts. I was in a state of limbo for more than 5 years.

In 2019, I was fortunate to participate in a trip to the Wudang Mountain in China. The experience that I had was life-transforming and invigorating. Since then, my affinity for Daoism grew, and I wanted to learn even more. Though COVID stalled my progress, I am thankful that I could still learn about Daoism from many different Daoist masters. When the Quan Zhen Cultural Society (Singapore), 新加坡全真教化協會 restarted its ritual classes early this year, I did not hesitate to sign up. Since then, I have been learning something new about Daoism every day, and therefore, I desire to document what I have learnt through this site and share my knowledge with others.