Question: What is the relation between the Tao and process thought?
Publication Month: March 2013
The questioner no doubt recognizes remarkable congeniality between Taoist thought and the contemporary tradition of process thought in the West. Taoism, like Buddhism, is an ancient process tradition like. But whereas Buddhism was a conscious rejection of a dominant substantialist mode of thought, the Tao seems more to articulate established sensibility. Probably process thinking has been native to East Asia for a very long time.
Whitehead explicitly commented that his thought resembled Chinese thinking more than that of the West. In making that comment he did not distinguish between the Taoist and Confucian traditions. The Chinese typically feel little need to juxtapose them. But Confucianism focuses on human beings and human societies. Taoism sets human life in the context of nature. This makes it particularly attractive to those of us who recognize how destructive dualism and anthropocentrism have been. And Whiteheadians are delighted to find such deep kinship.
At a technical level what is most impressive is the similarity between the account of Tao and Whitehead’s understanding of “creativity.” Whitehead suggests that in every metaphysics we find an ultimate that is actual only in its instantiations. It does not exist, but it gives existence to all that is. It has no form or characteristics itself; so nothing that is said of any actual thing can be said of it. In most Western philosophy this is called “Being” or “Being-Itself.”
Whitehead thinks this language has static connotations that are misleading. He names this ultimate “Creativity.” The Chinese account of the Tao could easily be taken as an account of Whitehead’s “creativity.”
Meijun Fan and Hank Keaton have been working extensively on understanding the Tao. I have asked them to write about it. The remainder of this FAQ is their work.
Note: The following has been edited for clarity. Anyone wanting the original copy, which includes Chinese characters alongside its English translations, should email a request to the office here.
Connections between the DaoDeJing and “Process Thought” span more than two millennia and two different cultures. Those connections are Endlessly-Becoming, and promise to yield fruitful possibilities for development.
The DaoDeJing is a collection of ancient Chinese wisdom sayings (possibly songs: see Ames & Hall. 2003) evolving over many centuries, culminating in written forms about 500 BCE, and loosely attributed to a legendary figure named Lao Tsu.
Many variations of these early writings exist today, and numerous translations into multiple languages are available. Work on a new translation into English, from a “process’ (Whiteheadian) perspective is currently underway by Meijun Fan, Ph.D. and Hank Keeton, Ph.D.
Process thought in general, and Whitehead’s thought in particular, utilizes themes that are very congruent with themes in the DaoDeJing. One of those themes is “creativity.” In fact, the Fan-Keeton collaboration begins with a translation of the Chinese character, Dào (道), as “Endless-Creating.” This idea is immediately congruent with Whitehead’s “Category of the Ultimate,” Creativity.
The basic flow of ancient Chinese thought functions through the active interconnection of seemingly opposite categories like “possibility” Wú (無) and “actuality” Yǒu (有). Where these categories are seen largely as separate-but-related in classical Western thought, Whitehead makes bold suggestions that both categories are fully encountered only together, and not separately. This parallels ancient Chinese thought, and suggests profound possibilities for exploration.
Whitehead’s philosophy attempted to re-configure the bifurcation (bi-valent logic) of categories in classical Western thought into a harmony or balance between opposites like (“possibility-actuality”), united in a flow of becoming (or emerging). This is the basis of “process” thinking, and can be found in the fundamental movement in classical Chinese thought expressed in Wú-Wei / Yǒu-Wei (無爲 / 有爲), (no-action / real-action) or “emerging-acting.”
1. Dao as Endless Creating: Becoming
In Daode jing and Zhuangzi, Laozi and Zhuangzi pointed out that Dao is nameless. Any name could be a limitation for Dao which is infinite and the wholeness. In Chapter 1, Laozi said, “Dao that can be defined is not the Eternal Dao. Names that can be named are not the Eternal Name.”
In inner chapter 2 on the uniformity of all things of Zhuangzi: “The Dao goes beyond description… The Dao that is manifest is not Dao.”
Hence, it’s very difficult to describe Dao. Dao has no name and no form, only an uncertain look. However, Dao is not absolutely nothing. Dao is real, even an indefinable one. There is true image, information and spirit in Dao.
In chapter 21 of Daode jing: “Dao as real is vague and indefinite. There are images in vague and indefinite; there is reality in indefinite and vague; there is spirit in distant and dark, the spirit is a genuine existence, it can be tested as true.”
Further, Laozi said that Dao is before heaven and earth; it’s the beginning of heaven and earth.
In chapter 4: “I do not know whose child it is, it seems to have appeared before the existence of God.”
In chapter 25: “There is an integrated reality became, and born earlier than heaven and earth. Silent and empty, it relies on nothing, moving around for ever. We may regard it as the mother of all things. I do not know its name, so I barely named it as Dao, and further named it as the Great. The Great is moving forward without stopping, extending to the remotest distance, and then returning to where it was.”
Therefore, Dao is the endless movement. This is the movement of the process of creating. Laozi took a cup as an example in chapter 4. As endless creating, Dao looks like it is empty inside, but cannot ever be filled it up no matter how much it has been used. Using it more, and more will come out.
Here, Laozi kept describing what Dao looks like. Dao is like a whole and is the beginning of heaven and earth. Its sound and form cannot be heard or seen. It is in a process of movement which is endless and always returns back to its origin. It can be a mother for every thing. Its capacity of creation is never used up. Therefore, Dr. Hank Keeton and I would like to translate Dao as “Endless Creating” in English.
2. Dao as Wu and You: possibility and actuality.
Dao has two aspects: Wu/nothingness and You/being. People usually ignore Wu/nothingness and don’t think it is crucial for an occasion, whereas Laozi had put a great deal of attention on Wu/nothingness.
In chapter 1 of Daode Jing, he pointed out that Wu is the beginning of heaven and earth and people can experience how deep, how subtle and how wonderful Dao is from the aspect of Wu/nothingness. Wu/nothingness means nameless, formless, useless, non-competing and natural action, etc.
Dao also has You/being aspect. You is the mother of the ten thousand occasions. The appearance of Dao can be perceived from You’s aspect.
Furthermore, Laozi thought that Wu and You emerge from the same source but with different names. Both of them can be called mysterious, the mysterious of mysterious is the door to subtlety. Therefore, Dao is the unity of Wu and You. One cannot be understood fully without the other. Without You, Wu will be absolute nothingness; without Wu, You/Being cannot have its proper function. In chapter 11, Laozi gave examples to explain how Wu and You work together. Without one of them, the other will be useless.
“Thirty spokes share one hub. It is just the space (the nothingness) between them. That makes a cart function as a cart. Knead clay to make a vessel and you find within it the space that makes a vessel as a vessel. Build a house with doors and windows and you find within them the space that makes a house function as a house. Hence the Being (substance) can provide a condition under which usefulness is found, but the Nothingness (space) is the usefulness itself.” (Gu Zhenkun)
Hence, Laozi said in chapter 40 that “The ten thousand occasions are born from the You/being, and the You/Being from the Wu/nothingness.”
Because of You/Being, Wu/nothingness is not absolute nothingness. It is nameless and formless which means it is possible to become any name, any form, and any occasion. Therefore, Dr. Hank and I translated Wu/nothingness as “possibility.”
You is the result of actualizing Wu/possibility, therefore, we translate You/being as “actuality.” Dao as the endless creating is always in a process of becoming: Wu becomes You and You becomes Wu; possibility becomes actuality and an actuality becomes an possibility. One becomes many and many become one.
Here, I would like to point out that Laozi, contrary to the usual view, put a great deal of stress on the aspect of Wu because it had been ignored in the past. Wu as not being or nothingness is uncertain and unknown. People feel secure in certainty and are afraid of uncertain things. Nevertheless, Laozi indicated that Dao, through its aspect of Wu, is far beyond human beings’ capacity and imagination. Hence, people should be aware that there are a lot of things they don’t know in the universe and should accept it humbly. Also, humans should open themselves to Wu because it is not absolute nothingness. It means something is emerging and becoming; therefore, it represents potentiality and novelty. Further, Laozi developed secondary concepts from Wu such as Wuwei, which I will discuss later.
3. Dao as the mother to all actual occasions.
According to Daode jing, Dao’s major purpose is to create, to give birth, to produce all actual occasions. Hence, Dao is the mother of all of them.
In chapter 42 of Daode jing, Laozi said that “Dao begets the one; the one consists of two, the two begets the three; the three begets all actual occasions. All actual occasions connote the Yin and Yang. The Yin and Yang keep acting upon each other and thus things keep changing and unifying themselves.”
Here, I think it’s proper to translate the ten thousand things as the ten thousand occasions. Generally speaking, human beings are not things; they are distinct from things. They seem more valuable than things. Nevertheless, from Dao’s perspective, Human beings and things are as equal as the straw dogs (chapter 5, Daode jing). Therefore, I feel a need to have a new notion in addition to the ten thousand things or human beings to express such thought from Daode jing. So I borrow a notion of the actual occasion from Whitehead’s philosophy because Whitehead had treated everything, no matter a human being or a thing, in the universe as an occasion.
In Daode jing, Laozi often described Dao as mother of the ten thousand occasions.
Furthermore, I would like to point out that Dao as endless creating is nothing more, nothing less. In chapters 10 and 51, Laozi said as a mother, Dao:
Lets all things arise, but claims no authority.
Creates the myriad, but claims no possession.
Accomplishes her task, but claims no credit.
Dao has given life to all occasions without claiming to be their owner, benefited them without claiming to be their benefactor, and been their head without ruling them. Dao merely gives birth to the thousand occasions; it doesn’t interfere with their growing and development, and lets them be themselves. There is no possession, no showing off, no ruling, no mastery, merely endless creating. That’s all about Dao.
Therefore, Dao is obviously different from God, because Dao has no will, no plan and no purpose for the universe. Dao is much like what Whitehead called “creativity.”
 The trans. By Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book of Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963.
 Chapter 2, Daode jing.