Heaven and Earth: Cosmology


  • The cosmos is called heaven and earth.
  • Energy came into existence concurrent with heaven and earth.
  • Heaven and earth originated from primal chaos, called the “muddled.”
  • Since heaven and earth set the conditions for human existence, we should observe them to discover their principles.
  • Heaven and earth are eternal. If we similarly want long life, we must be selfless as heaven and earth. That is how we find fulfillment.

The Cosmos

The classical Chinese called the cosmos “heaven and earth,” tiāndì, 天地. The human world was referred to as, tiānxià, 天下, meaning all “under heaven.”

Tiān, 天, means “day; sky; heaven.” The ideogram shows the space, 一, above a person, 大.

, 地, means “earth; ground; field; place; land.” The ideogram shows a sprout growing from the ground, 土; the sign, 也, depicts a snake.

“Heaven” is preferred over “sky” because tiān has a powerful role in the cosmology of the Dàodéjīng. (Lǎozì never describes heaven as a place for gods or as the location of an afterlife.)

Notice that heaven and earth are both needed to form the universe as a whole. Neither can function alone. This is best articulated in the Yìjīng, where the first two hexagrams represent heaven and earth. Heaven is regarded as initiating. Earth is seen as the nurturing power. Sun, moon, air, wind, rain, snow, weather, storms, and so on are seen as part of heaven. Place, land, rivers, plants, mountains and so on are part of earth. Both are necessary. They are the two halves that complete a whole.

Qì: Energy

Lièzǐ, 列子 (c. fifth century BCE), the Dàoist writer, described the beginning of heaven and earth and linked their formation as concurrent with qì, 氣: “breath; energy; lifeforce.”

There was a great transformation. There was a great origin. There was a great beginning. There was a great root. Before the great transformation, there was no energy (氣) yet. Then came the great origin and the start of energy (氣). That great beginning produced great form. That led to the great root—and the start of all matter. ­—Lièzǐ, “Tiānruì,” 2

The Origin of Heaven and Earth

Lǎozì emphasizes how heaven and earth emerged from the “muddled,” hùn, 混. Some alternate meanings to the word are “mixed; mingle; drift; confused; dirty; muddy.”

Everything was completely muddled
before heaven and earth were born.
Silent! Empty!
Independent, without alteration,
circling but not dangerous,
it may be considered the mother of the world.
—Dàodéjīng, chapter 25

Dào was already moving before heaven and appeared. It is everpresent and it sets the conditions for heaven, earth, and people:

People follow the laws of earth.
Earth follows the laws of heaven.
Heaven follows the laws of Dào.
Dào naturally (zìrán) follows its own laws.
—Dàodéjīng, chapter 25

The ideograms that mean “natural,” zìrán, 自然, could also be read as “by itself.” The universe is self-organizing. Dào remains connected to the origin, continues unabated, and is eternal.

Observing Heaven and Earth

If we are to follow the laws of earth, how is that done? The Yìjīng tells us:

Raise your head and look up at the movements of heaven. Look down and examine the patterns of earth. Then you will know all causes whether obscure or bright.” (Yìjīng, “Jìcí I,” 4).

The world and Dào are the ultimate source of all ideas for those of us who follow Dào. We engage in constant observation and experimentation. We build our conclusions one at a time. We open to Dào for knowledge.

Heaven and Earth Last Long and We Can Too

Chapter 7 in the Dàodéjīng gives us both a description of heaven and earth’s eternal character and explains the reason for it in a way that also tells us how to follow heaven, earth, and Dào.

Heaven is forever, earth is lasting.
The reason why heaven and earth
are forever and lasting
is because they don’t live for themselves.
That’s why they live forever.
Therefore, sages put the personal behind,
yet are bodily in front
of everybody who is outside themselves.
How can they not use such selflessness?
That’s how they can fulfill themselves.

“Heaven is forever, earth is lasting.” If you want to live long, it does take qìgōng, related to Lièzǐ’s statement, and it takes selflessly helping other people. That is not a “sacrifice.” Rather, Lǎozì tells us outright that this is how we can fulfill ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Heaven and Earth: Cosmology”

  1. “We engage in constant observation and experimentation…..”
    Q: What is the key to becoming a better observer?
    How can we know that we are not being selfless?

    1. Chapter 10 of the Dàodéjīng gives us this guidance: “Cleanse away darkened vision: can you be flawless?” How do we cleanse our darkened vision? Logically, we remove what’s shading our eyes. Then, we will be able to see perfectly.

      By implication, what usually shades our eyes is our self-interest, our wants, or even our greed. It can also be overt intellectuality. Hence, we must go beyond ideas and commandments, not because they’re wrong, but because they can only carry us part of the way toward a full understanding of life.

      The short answer to “how can we know that we are NOT being selfless” is that as soon as you think in terms of “I, me,” and that you’re more important than someone else, then that’s a dangerous sign. When you think the individual is more important than the collective, that’s a dangerous sign. When you think, “What can I get out of this situation?” That’s a dangerous sign.

      The Golden Rule, ideas of compassion, social service, and wanting to see others do what you cannot do for yourself are excellent starting points.

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