Poetic Metaphysics of the Dao De Jing

Another in a series of posts by guest blogger Joel Dietz, discussing the metaphysical doctrine of the Dao De Jing. Please address comments to him.

There is a natural relationship between metaphysics and “esoteric” subjects, insofar as metaphysics generally claims to discuss reality in a way that is not perceived by every human being, including often elusive topics such as “God/godhead” or various types of “essence.” It also has a natural relationship with aesthetics, insofar as metaphysical claims are frequently made as a part of artistic creation and evaluation. These frequently introduce a qualitative difference between different artistic works, as exhibited by the famous quip of Mahler, “There was only Beethoven and Richard [Wagner] – and after them, nobody.”

Certain philosophers, notably Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, have also been comfortable making related qualitative claims. The rest of our discourse will be couched in parameters framed by these two geniuses, because we accept their proposed ability to make such qualitative distinctions as a feature shared by the Dao De Jing itself.  It is worth noting the more recent contributions of the so-called traditionalist school (i.e. Guenon, Evola, Coomaraswamy), along these lines, although we do not have time to explore their thought in any detail.

What is the metaphysical doctrine of the Dao De Jing? As with many features of this text, there are certain things we can say, and many we cannot.

To start, we can talk about the practices advocated for.  Here, we have already discussed the centrality of the belly in the DDJ (實其腹) a process which is keyed to the clearing of the heart-mind (虛其心) and strengthening of bones (強其骨). Numerous, frequently more explicit references to what are presumably esoteric techniques come in chapter 6 (玄牝之門), chapter 10 (載營魄抱一, 專氣致柔, 天門開闔), chapter 52 (閉其門 ), chapter 55 (知牝牡之合, 骨弱筋柔), and chapter 56 (挫其銳,解其紛). Regardless of the specifics of these techniques, which we may be able to partially reconstruct given later evidence and the relationship to the body,  we are able to venture that some of these techniques include the production of altered states of consciousness.

Thus we can say that the metaphysics of the Dao De Jing is derived in some part from experiences had through programmatically induced techniques which alter the normal state of consciousness. If we compare the Bhagavad Gita, beyond a similar emphasis on stillness, we also find references to not fully explained techniques for the control of prāṇa (4.29, 5.27), fixing the gaze between the two eyebrows (5.27, 8.10), and closing off one’s senses and placing the prāṇa in the head (8.12).

The explicit statements regarding metaphysics are also few, of which the most explicit are chapters 1 and 21. Chapter 21 refers to the Dao possessing images 象, substance 物, and jing 精 within itself (其中有象, 其中有物, 其中有精). Although references are sparse, our most explicit reference to what the image signifies is probably in chapter 14:

Again returning to the substanceless.

This is called the form without form.

The image without substance


Here, it would seem that images and substance occupy opposite poles of the spectrum of the Dao described in chapter 1 (where the substantial things 萬物 are paired with manifestations 徼, as opposed to the mysterious things 妙). If images象  serve as forms which exist in the unmanifest aspect of the Dao (to which we might fruitfully compare Platonic and Aristotelian essences), what then is jing 精 ?

I am tempted to say that jing 精 represents the mode by which the images象 are realized within the substantial world物, and that it serves as an “energy” which can be realized真 in the individual, which can, through the use of certain practices (presumably sexual practices) reach its apex精之至  (on this note, I would greatly appreciate the comments of my colleagues on these eight characters in the 21st chapter, which I have struggled to know what to make of: 其精甚真。其中有信).

The fundamental doctrine of the DDJ is clear enough. The cycle of the Dao exists on both ends of the spectrum of existence, and though various esoteric practices we can realize certain aspects which would otherwise be hidden to us.

That this doctrine and the mode of its presentation would inspire poet and artists should not surprise anyone. It is easy to derive qualitative differences between different art objects via the presumed difference in 精 jing, and just as well that we are supposed to appreciate things artistically (i.e. by direct apprehension of the “energies” of the art object ourselves), rather than simply by critical evaluation on the basis of a received formula. Aesthetics then is personal but not arbitrary. The metaphysical doctrine of the DDJ states the real existence of the normally unperceivable. The artist seeks to reveal them through the stroke of a brush or well-formed pattern of syllables.

Consequently, in China it is as though we find a Parmenides without a Plato.  The proper world of comparison is not with later metaphysical doctrines, but early poetic exposition that demands that we be both thoughtful and aesthetically involved, to engage our minds and abandon it along with the cycles of the Dao.  That it successfully engages us in this way is why we should read the Dao De Jing with an eye to both the manifest and mystery. Here our engagement with the “mysteries” of the classical occidental tradition will help us better understand the “mysteries” of the Dao.

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