The Thread of Dào

Recall that the ideogram for Dào, 道, shows the glyph for “head”: 首, and “walking,” 辶. It’s reasonable to abstract head to “beginning; start; origin,” and to generalize “walking” to movement.

If you want a simple understanding, it’s this: Dào is movement.

Take all that is known and unknown about the universe. Take all that is material and nonmaterial. Take all that exists and all that doesn’t exist. Take solidity and space. Take all the energy, which is conserved in this universe.

What do they all have in common?

They all move. From atoms to galaxies, everything is in constant movement.

The totality of all movement is Dào. Constant movement means constant change. Those changes form patterns. Those patterns rise and fall, coalesce and decay. The totality of all the change in the universe at any given moment forms a direction.

Chapter 14 of Dàodéjīng states: “Be able to know the primal beginning: call that the thread of Dào.”

The word translated as “thread” is jì, 紀. It can mean “silk threads; discipline; age; era; record; annals; accounts.” The range of meanings among the classics varies. This translation settles on “thread,” because the word, jì, 紀, incorporates the glyph for “silk,” 糹.

This means that Dào was the movement that was the primal beginning and Dào continues in an unbroken line like an endless thread.

The thread of that movement extended into a time before our universe existed:

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

That phrase, “circling but not dangerous” means that there was already movement, and hence, Dào was already there. Thus, the thread of Dào flows from before the universe until this very moment, and on eternally into the future.

How Should We Act?

Since Dào is all movement, it makes sense to blend with that movement. We are thinking and social creatures, so we must have theories and ideas to guide our actions.

Another Chinese word is relevant here: xíng, 行. It has many meanings, but the relevant ones for the moment are: “behavior; conduct; circulation; walk; go; travel; do; competent; effective.” It’s a picture of a street intersection seen from above.

This means that our movement and conduct should align with Dào. We should be interested in more than efficiency, however. We want to look at the principle of Dào and the effect of its movements.

For the Dàoists, the movement of the world benefits all creatures and things. Therefore, individuals should also prioritize benefit not only to themselves, but to others as well.

Some people want to follow Dào for selfish reasons: can they get an advantage over others? Can they get lives that others cannot achieve? Will they be more brilliant than other people? This is not what the sages would support. Rather, we should take care of ourselves by being healthy and calm at the same time that we benefit others like Dào does.

The Continuity of Dào

Dào moved prior to the beginning of the universe. That movement has never stopped and will continue eternally. It is the totality of all movement and Dào has no outside. The expression, “thread of Dào” indicates that there is a direction to Dào. That’s why meanings such as road, path, and route apply to Dào.

We can have good, effective, and happy lives. How? All we have to do is grasp the thread of Dào.

3 thoughts on “The Thread of Dào”

    1. Yes, movement is change and change is movement. They are the same. I hesitate to say “interchangeable” only because I don’t think that people fully understand this connection. We have to keep reiterating that so that people do truly see that they are related.

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