When Lao Tse speaks of The Dao, he is referring literally to “The Way”. There’s no simple way to tell you what “The Way” is. Lao Tse wrote 81 poems to describe how to recognise The Dao at work, or how a master might behave in concert with The Way. These poems are collected in a single book called The Dao de Jing, or The Book of The Way. But even with this masterful explication, The Dao remains a rather elusive quality — or is it quantity? It’s hard to pin down. But if you understand even a little bit about The Dao, then I think you can see it at work most easily in nature, much as Sheryl Crow observes it in this song, Wildflower.
And when a wildflower grows it picks its space
And that’s the way it is when nature plays its lovely hand
We’ll understand everything
Nature can sometimes seem a harsh mistress. There is the matter of the strong overcoming the weak, or the weak simply being unable to keep themselves alive. It’s normal to feel sorry for the young calf that falls prey to the lioness, but the death of the calf feeds the lion cubs. We refer to a forest fire as a natural disaster, but in fact it is a natural and necessary process in the continual proliferation and regeneration of life and myriad ecological systems within the forest.
There is a kind of beautiful perfection to all of nature, an un-selfconscious beauty, an embodiment of the Daoist philosophy of wei wu wei, “doing without doing”. The lioness does not wonder whether it is right or wrong to take the life of a gazelle calf to feed her cubs. She does not gather a committee to debate the most profitable and responsible way to to feed the pride’s cubs. She does not know The Dao, and yet she has mastered it, just as every other creature, every other plant, every particle and expression of energy in the universe is both an aspect of The Dao, and a participant in The Way.
Then we have human beings, clever, witty, human beings. We speak in fancy, wordy ways. We know so much. Yet, it is rare for any of us to master The Dao, despite our best efforts, in the manner and to the degree which comes so naturally to the lioness, or a wildflower.