Quaker Universalist Conversations

An Exposition of Laozi’s “Essence of Dao”

Laozi’s Essence of Dao – Chapter 1 of the excavated text of
Daodejing: Mawangdui Text A1


Source: https://ctext.org/mawangdui/lao-zi-jia-dao-jing (accessed on 20 May 2020)

The word that can be spoken is not the eternal word; the name that can be categorized is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of all things, and the named gives birth to all things. Therefore, if you have no desire to understand eternity with your intellect then down to the smallest detail will be observable; if you have desire to understand eternity with your intellect then you will observe a lot of loud noises. The “have” and “have not” are different but from the same source. Eternity is mystery upon mystery; from “have” to “have not” is the door to understanding for everyone.

Textual character changes

The excavated text of Laozi’s Daodejing had deviations from the commonly circulated versions, and it is believed that it was tampered with during the reign of Emperor 劉 Liu2 恆 Heng2 (180-157 BC), and that all the words with the character 恆 heng2 were changed to 常 chang2. This distorted the internal consistency of the original intention of Laozi.

恆 heng2 means “eternal” and 常 chang2 means “normal.” Maybe this is why later commentators made some more changes to the text to make senses out of it. It is reasonable to believe that the purpose of tempering the text is to avoid the use of the character 恆 heng2, which was the name of the Emperor 劉 liu2 恆 heng2. It does not sound proper to say that Dao is not Heng’s Dao during his reign.

There are three additional deviations which should result from later alterations to make contextual senses of this chapter. They are 眇miao3, 噭 jiao4, and 胃 wei4. 眇 miao3 means “down to the smallest detail,” and which was altered with 妙miao4, which has the same sound in 4th tone and means “wonderful or marvellous.” 噭 jiao4 means “loud noise.” It was altered with 徼 jiao4, which has the same sound and tone but means “boundary” or “border.” 胃 wei4 means “stomach.” It was altered with 謂 wei4, with the same sound and tone but the meaning “say” or “tell something.”

Laozi’s “Essence of Dao”

畫老子騎牛 (Painting Laozi riding a cow) “Essence of Dao” (體 ti3 道 dao4) was the title given to this chapter by 河 He2 上 Shang4 公 Gong1, the earliest commentator of Laozi, in the first century AD. The alchemist’s interpretation of the tampered version of Laozi presented a lot of problems, especially since alchemists believe in the elixir of life.

Laozi had nothing to do with alchemy or the Taoist religion, which was formal established in the second century AD. Laozi was a librarian during the late Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 467 BC) when he wrote the Daodejing. The alchemists adopted the Daodejing as part of their teaching for the pursuing of elixir of life and called themselves Taoists (道 dao4 士 shi4), rather than the traditional name of 方 fang1 士 shi4.

With the arrival of Buddhism to China in the first century AD, Buddhists also adopted the teaching of Laozi to suit their pursuing of enlightenment and reincarnation. Before the arrival of Buddhism, China was geographically isolated form the Babylonian culture of idolatry.

Ancient Chinese monotheism

The ancient Chinese religion is monotheist. It featured the belief in the “Lord-on-High” (上 shang4 帝 di4) during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC); in the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC), the Lord-on-High was supplanted by “heaven” (天 tian1), which became increasingly impersonal and naturalistic as reflected in the writings of Laozi and Confucius.

The ritual of prayer to heaven by the emperor was preserved in the Temple of Heaven built from 1406 to 1420 AD, visited by emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing dynasty (1644-1912 AD) for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven for good harvest. There are lots of symbols in the structure, but there is no image for worship. The Lord-on-High is unknown, unspeakable, uncategorisable, mystery upon mystery, but it is known to be eternal by the conscience of humankind.

In the history of China, there is no revelation from the Lord-on-High, and the ancient Chinese ethical system is one that derived from good conscience. Conscience is a universal concept, in Chinese it is 良 liang2 心 Xin (Mengzi-Gaozi 1), which is same as the “integrity of your heart” as translated from Genesis 20:6.


The Universalist assumption of this paper is that if the law of conscience and the written laws of Moses and the law of the Spirit are from the same source, then there should be no contradiction in them. The case of the ancient Chinese is similar to the case of the Athenians in Acts 17:16-34, where Paul saw the inscription of the “unknown god.”

But Laozi suggested there is a way to understand the eternity through selflessness, a kind of objective approach to understand the revelation of God through nature: that all things interact harmoniously together, the saints of the past, and the innate understanding of humankind.

Implicit illustrations of Yin and Yang

In the excavated texts of Mawangdui and Guodan, the characters 陰 yin1 and 陽 yang2 were not found, and in the commonly circulated versions, Yin and Yang were found only in chapter 42, entitled the “Transformation of Dao” (道 dao4 化 hua1) by 河 he2 上 shang4 公 gong1. The assumption of this paper is that Yin and Yang were not mentioned explicitly in Daodejing, but that the concept is spoken about. The Yin and Yang concept is illustrated in this chapter in terms of unspoken and spoken, uncategorised and categorised, and have not and have.

The paper’s postulation about Laozi’s concept of Yin and Yang is that it is a continuum with various positions from one extreme to another extreme. This makes the interpretation of Daodejing much easier contextually: the spoken word can be zero, 1, 2, 3, many, up to uncountable. The timeline from the origin prior to the beginning of creation up to the unforeseeable future explained the relationship of nameless to many names. From “have” to “have not” was explained by Laozi in this chapter as “the two things came out together from the same source” by using the simile, “the things came out of the same stomach.”

The concept of selflessness is used thought out the Daodejing of not interfering with nature and people for the sake of one’s own desire or ambition. In this chapter, selflessness is the beginning of understanding the mystery of the origin and nature. Humbleness is the beginning of wisdom and is available to everyone.

Further character changes

The character 胃 wei4 (“stomach”) is not found in the common circulated versions. The character 謂 wei4 (“say or tell something”) is found in Mawangdui Text A, but it was胃Wei4 (“stomach”) in Mawangdui Text B in Chapter 51 of Daodejing. The suspicion is that Laozi might be using the two characters without distinction. From the context of this chapter, “two different things from the same source” is clearer that “two different things with the same saying.”

The character 眇miao3 (“down to the smallest detail”) did not appear in the common circulated version. The character 妙 miao4 (“wonderful or marvelous”) was not found in the Mawangdui Texts. It appears once in chapter 15 of the Guodian Text, which was excavated in 1993 and is dated back to 300 BC, but has been only partially recovered. The character 噭 jiao4 (“loud noise”) only appeared in Mawangdui Text A and B, and nowhere else. Evidence suggests that the common circulated version was tampered with in a number of areas, and that subsequent changes were made in trying to make sense of the text. There are also errors in copying the original text.


Our current understanding of the Essence of Dao is that we have the ability to speak, to categorize, and to accumulate subjective knowledge, but that this is not sufficient to understand eternity. The origin prior to the creation is the “eternity of mystery upon mystery,” which we know but which is beyond words, cannot be categorized, and cannot be understood with preconceived subjective knowledge. The only way to understanding is to study objectively with careful observation and reasoning.

From a monotheistic culture without direct revelation, Laozi was trying to make sense of what was going on in his time in China, when the country was divided and fighting one another. Is it the will of heaven, or it is just the corruption of humankind? His ideas are very interesting when compared with those of a monotheistic culture which does describe direct revelations: law given by the God without a name; spiritual communities developed by the law of the Spirit; and a new commandment to love one another according to the love of Christ.

Image Source & Notes

Image: 畫老子騎牛 – Painting Laozi riding a cow, photo by getaiwan on flickr [Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic ].

1 The Mawangdui Silk Texts “are texts of Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk and found at Mawangdui in China in 1973. They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the I Ching, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one similar copy of Zhan Guo Ce, and a similar school of works of Gan De and Shi Shen, as well as previously unknown medical texts like Wushi’er Bingfang (“Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments”).” Source: World Heritage Encyclopedia.

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