Defining Dào

The ideogram for Dào (Tao), 道, shows a person, 首 (picture of a head), walking, 辶, on a path.

“Dào” is the current pīnyīn spelling. This form of romanization was officially adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1958. Since then, most of the world has converted to this system.

Spelling it “Tao” belongs to the Wade-Giles system, which was developed in the mid-nineteenth century and was completed in 1892.

Regardless of romanization, Dào is pronounced “dow.”

The many definitions of Dào fall into five groups. The examples are intentionally drawn from different sources to show how widespread the use of the word has been.

  • Way; road; path. “Although the road (道) is near, if you don’t walk, you won’t arrive.” (Sūnzǐ, “Xiūshēn,” 8) The Shuōwén jiězì, 說文解字, a lexicon published in 121, defines Dào as “the path walked.”
  • Truth; principle; reason. “Your servant most loves principle (道), which goes beyond technique.” (Zhuāngzǐ, Yǎngshēng zhǔ,” 2)
  • Skill; method. “Gaining the world has a method (道): gain the people and you gain the world. Gaining the people has a method (道): gain their hearts.” (Mèngzǐ, “Lílóu I,” 9)
  • Ethics; morality. “People follow the laws of earth. Earth follows the laws of heaven. Heaven follows the laws of Dào. Dào naturally follows its own laws.” (Dàodéjīng, 25)
  • Say; speak; talk. The Dàodéjīng opens with: “The Dào (道) that can be told (道).” This definition expands further in discussions about names, words, speaking, and to teach without speaking.

The five meanings are congruent: If you want to follow the Way (Dào, 道); you begin with teachings as they are said (Dào, 道); practice ethics and morality (Dào, 道); and develop the skills and methods (Dào, 道); all united by a single principle (Dào, 道).

Dao is the total movement of the universe, with no other and no outside. It is sacred because it birthed life and nurtures everything. It is impersonal, not a realm, not exclusively one thing. Its movement includes nothingness. Since it encompasses all, it is the Way each person should follow.

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