Staying with Reality – A Look at Dao-De (道德)

Let’s look at the term Dao-De.  This is of course the title of Laozi’s Dao De Jing, the pithy seed-text that inspired one of the most complex & elaborate – and insightful – religious traditions in world history.

Dao-De translates directly as “way-virtue”.  It is commonly translated as “the Way and its Virtue” – but that translation is a bit lofty and remote.  What does it mean?  Let’s look at each character and come up with a fresh translation.

The character Dao (道) consists of 3 parts: grass + itself + walking.  Grass growing by itself.  This image serves as a metaphor for the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures from the primordial origin – the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The Great Thoroughfare.  Dao is not some remote cosmic power but the very process of our own experience unfolding moment-by-moment, of itself.

The character De (德) also consists of 3 parts: upright + heart + stepping.  Stepping with an upright heart.  Upright suggests verticality, which in Chinese means alignment with Heaven.  Stepping on Earth in alignment with Heaven means conducting ourselves moment-to-moment in accordance with the unfolding Dao, with acceptance, humility, and benevolence.

Dao-De then is staying with the natural movement of Dao, letting ourselves dissolve into the Great Thoroughfare.  Keeping our heart aligned with Heaven amidst the changes of Earth.  This means not straying into the past or future, not wanting things to be other than as they are, simply staying with reality.  Not resisting reality is what Laozi calls “wuwei”.

In the context of meditation & qi-cultivation, this view of Dao-De means our practice methods are not geared toward reaching any particular destination but rather are ways to walk on the very ground beneath our feet.

How do we stay with reality?  The Daoist tradition gives us 10,000 methods, but central to them all: watch your step.  “Sitting quietly, doing nothing – spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”