The founding document of Daoism [1] is the Daodejing, written by Lao Zi some time in antiquity. Tradition says that as he was passing through the western border of China, the commander in charge of the gate recognized him and asked him to write down his philosophy before he left China never to return, which Lao Zi did. This is about all we know. Part of the problem is that new philosophy was not respected in imperial China, so authors would attach the name of an older sage to the work. Around 100 BC, Sima Qian attempted a history of Lao Zi and came to the conclusion that no information was available; since we are two millennia removed, likely we will never know.

Like its author, the text of the Daodejing is also very uncertain. Classical Chinese omitted words if possible, so the text is very dense and ambiguous. One sentence could mean very different, even contradictory things, and there is no way to know which was intended. Lao Zi seems to take advantage of this and be intentionally vague both as a teaching device to force the student to think through the problem and because Lao Zi believed that it was impossible to precisely describe the Way—“the Way [Dao] that can be described is not the Way” is the first line of the text. Furthermore, we can assume that we do not have the original text because of clerical errors, and as a clerical error that changes a few strokes of a character radically changes its meaning, the original text may have said something completely different in places. What we do have is a vague, uncertain but still coherent text. What we do not have, and never will have, is a clear understanding of what the author was trying to say.

It is unclear how Welch settles on his understanding, but his approach seems to be to look at the historical context to understand the problem that Lao Zi was trying to address, and between Chinese commentaries, English commentaries, and competing philosophies, create an interpretation that fits the text and makes the contradictions make sense. Then he explores whether Lao Zi was also communicating experience from transcendental experiences by examining characteristics of the stages of trance by Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian writers who attempt to describe their experiences.

Lao Zi lived during the Warring States period of Chinese history, with chaos and plundering, and he seems to be trying to create a solution to prevent this state of affairs. One solution was Confucianism, which said that obedience within the hierarchy and properly performing social rituals would create a harmonious society; this Lao Zi rejects. The Legalists advocated authoritarian use of absolute power, which did end the Warring States period and create the first Imperial state, but it also did not end well for the those who practiced it.

Lao Zi advocates the use of inaction. This is not exactly doing nothing. Instead, wu wei (“not acting”) recognizes that people are resistant to change, so attempts to change will inevitably cause a force countering it, in proportional strength to the attempt. This tends to rebound on the doer in unpleasant ways. Have compassion on people; understand that no one lies, rather what they are truthfully communicating may not be what they are saying. For instance, the 40 year old woman who says she is 35 is not lying, but rather truthfully communicating that she fears becoming old. Act with love towards everyone, seeking their good. Then they will know that you care about them and will want to do what you request, and you can bring about the situation you desire without acting. This ability to bring the results you want is power. But to do this, to gain this power, requires you to become others-centered, so it is not possible to use inaction to bring about your selfish desires. Thus you become like water, which is formless and seeks the low, despised places but nonetheless alters the landscape; you embrace the Female, which conquers the Male through attraction, not through action.

Lao Zi also advocates returning to our original condition, what Welch calls the “Uncarved Block”. When we were newly born we did not have ambitions and goals; we just desired to have a full belly. Likewise Nature, from whom we come, does not have ambition. Nature regards people as unimportant; the floods and earthquakes, the sunshine and the gentle rains, all happen whether we are here or not, and Nature continues whether or not we do. Nature is unkind—-not malicious, simply uncaring—and so the Sage does likewise. We must recognize that we are nothing; why then strive for money and power, which then causes a counter-force which rebounds on us and destroys us? Rather, return to our original condition, where we knew nothing and had only simple wants. Abandon our striving after money, knowledge, technology, all of which produces the rat race and war and problems; become the Uncarved Block, the raw silk, the unprocessed wood. So the Sage will seek the good of others out of compassion, but regards all people, including himself, as nothing.

Having looked at Lao Zi from a practical perspective, Welch now examines Lao Zi to see if he is also communication some transcendental and mystical wisdom. First, he examines what Lao Zi means by the Dao. There appear to be two aspects to the Dao, but which are one. Nameless Dao is outside the universe, and in creating the universe, Nameless Dao became Nameable Dao. So the Dao is the physical laws that run the world, but the Dao is also indescribable in the same way that colors are indescribable to one born blind. Nameless Dao is also referred to as first, the mysterious Female, the Valley Spirit, the Self-So, and Non-Being. Nameable Dao is also referred to as Mother, the One, and Being. The One is not only all physical things, but the continuum that reconciles contraries like good and evil, up and down.

Lao Zi may have philosophized these things, but he may be communicating what he learned / experienced in a mystical experience. So Welch examines the characteristics of mystical experiences from both Eastern and Western writers. One characteristic they share with Lao Zi is a pattern of contradictions in their communication as they struggle to communicate colors to blind people.

Synthesizing from many mystical traditions, Welch identifies four stages of trance: visions and voices, non-perceptual awareness of God, merging with God, cessation. The first stage, visions and voices, is frequently associated with light and brilliance: the Apostle Paul experienced a blinding light, Plotinus said everything shines, Pascal describes it as fire. The second stage experiences God as One, an experience of knowing that God permeates the universe; God is not localized, either spatially or conceptually, he is all locations and none (likely he is all colors and none, all shapes and none, etc.). The third stage is union with God, and descriptions frequently have sexual overtones, describing a “a love transaction resembl[ing] the ‘delicious death’ of sexual climax”. This stage is often viewed as the highest mystical experience. Lao Zi offers no descriptions of brilliance or anything similar to visions; he has a bare minimum of description of experiencing the Dao, and no ecstasies, either of a love transaction or of any other sort.

Lao Zi speaks of returning. Those who are exalted are later humbled; all creatures return from being to non-being; the Daoist returns to the Unformed Block. Welch argues that Lao Zi also speaks of returning as a practice of achieving the fourth state of trance, cessation. Based on what people have written, it seems that in this state is contradictions disappear, desires disappears, even unity disappears. Lao Zi advocates techniques to return to Non-Being in this fourth trance state. One of these techniques is the quiet meditation and the practice of continually removing and unlearning until you become the Unformed Block, and of turning off the senses and returning to Non-Being in trance. The most important technique in Asia is not meditation but a form of yoga, which Welch argues Lao Zi recommends in the form of internal controls, such as breath control and staring.

Early interpretations of Lao Zi claims that he says that using the Dao enables the practitioner to become immune to wild animals and to be immortal. However, it is fairly clear that Lao Zi is making comparisons. Using the Dao does not provide magical immortality, rather that you like the an old age because you flow with the world and do not try to resist it and get broken.

The remaining half of the book traces the development of the different streams of “Daoism”. Daoism was not a religion founded by Lao Zi, rather different people misinterpreted his ideas, frequently doing the opposite of what he espoused, in different ways.

One early branch was the alchemists, of which took Lao Zi literally, and took immortality as their goal. Some sought immortality through external methods through compounds of mercury (which is toxic and did not lead to immortality for the first Emperor) or by finding the a mythical land where the Immortals lived. A longer-lasting branch sought immortality within, through eating only what is “pure” (with varying and frequently very limited definitions of “pure”) and through breath exercises, staring, and sometimes control of sexual emissions. The idea of qi comes from some of these schools of thought.

Another branch was the Daoist church. It started with rebellion, and splintered. One major sect was the Five Pecks of Rice sect, where members gave five pecks of rice to the Daoist priest every year to be in good standing (with receipts placed on the body after death so that the gods would know not to send the deceased to hell). Another sect was the Jade Mountain sect, with a hereditary Celestial Master, which continues to this day, although the Celestial Master moved to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution.

The other major branch is the philosophical Daoists, which are somewhat more faithful to Lao Zi’s ideas, but hard to quantify because their influence is so broad that it underlies everything. For instance, the goal of art (poetry, painting, etc.) was to capture the qi, the spirit of the thing being portrayed, even at the expense of distortion, because to capture the qi is to capture a piece of the Dao. Similarly, paintings lead the viewer on a path from the village into the mountains for meditation, and from there into the nothingness of the clouds (portrayed as literally nothing, by using no ink and simply blank white paper for the cloud).

Welch gives a fascinating framework for understanding Lao Zi’s ideas (although as he admits in the introduction, Lao Zi rejected frameworks, and thus Welch demonstrates that he has not understood Lao Zi), and a thorough summary of Daoism in China. His understanding of Lao Zi draws from many interpretations and experiences, and while we have no way of knowing whether Welch captured the qi of the Dao, he presents a view that is certainly well-examined and incorporates a wide variety of sources.

Welch is amazingly concise; he presents what is clearly years of research into a few pages. Yet those few pages clearly express very difficult ideas, and ideas that are not encountered in mainstream America. Some of the ideas require experience to understand, so readers who have not reached that point may not fully understand, but Welch’s explanation is so clear that they certainly will understand to the extent it is possible. This succinctness makes this review quiet difficult, because the book is already about as short as is possible. So while I have attempted to summarize, in this case, the book is itself the summary and anything shorter omits crucial details. A reading (or re-reading) of this book is well worth the time; it is the highest level of scholarship.

[1] This review is written using Pinyin. The older Wade-Giles romanization confuses voiced and unvoiced sounds. So 道 (“way, road”) is written and pronounced as dao in Pinyin, but written as tao in Wade-Giles. Likewise, 北京 is written and pronounced as Beijing in Pinyin, but written as Peking in Wade-Giles. As the pronunciation suggested to a normal English speaker through Wade-Giles is frequently far from the Chinese pronunciation, I refuse to use it.

Review: 10
This book is amazingly concise and expressive. If there is a better way to understand Lao Zi, it is beyond my current ability to imagine. I am very impressed that Welch uses the experiences of mystics to determine what Lao Zi’s experience was and to determine his prescription for reaching Non-Being through trance; it feels like literary and philosophical archaeology. This book is scholarship of the highest level, and is equaled in my experience only by The Discarded Image (C.S. Lewis’ treatise on medieval thought) and Kerninghan and Ritchie’s book The C Programming language (which was so clear that I could understand it in sixth grade).