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The Dao (Tao) is the sacred or ultimate concern of Daoists. It is a Daoist cosmological and theological concept. The Dao is impersonal and simultaneously immanent and transcendent. The reality of the Dao is ultimately beyond human language, conceptions, and rational comprehension. As the famous first line of the fourth-century BCE Daode jing 道德經 (Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power) explains, “The dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao; the name that can be named is not the constant Name.” Or, according to chapter four, “I do not know whose descendent it is; it symbolizes that which preceded Di 帝 (Thearch).” Similarly, the anonymous eighth-century CE Qingjing jing 清靜經 explains, “The great Dao is beyond name; it raises and nourishes the myriad beings. Forced to name it, we call it ‘Dao’.” On the primary level, Daoist theological discourse is apophatic and trans-rationalistic. The Dao’s suchness or being-so-of-itself is beyond linguistic expression and beyond knowing.




Nonetheless, from a Daoist perspective, the Dao may be discussed according to four aspects: (1) Source of all that exists; (2) Unnamable mystery; (3) All-pervading numinosity (sacred presence); and (4) Cosmological and transformative process that is the universe. For Daoists, the Dao pervades self, world and cosmos. This includes a manifest reality that consists of multiple sacred realms and divine beings. There is thus no necessary distinction among the Dao as primordial undifferentiation and Source (monism), as Nature (panenhenism), and as sacred beings (polytheism).


From a Daoist perspective, the Dao is never distant from humans, but humans may be distant from the Dao. Daoist practice-realization aims at alignment and attunement with the Dao, which is simultaneously within and beyond individualized being. Misalignment and self-distortion occurs because of egoistic desire.


Further Reading: Yuan Dao/D.C. Lau and Roger Ames; Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought/John Major; as well as reliable translations of classical Daoist texts and Daoist scriptures.  


See also Cosmogony; Cosmology and Theology.