Dao and Ji
Philosophers of all schools have generally shied away from defining Dao directly, as is put bluntly in Dao De Jing’s opening chapter: “the Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.” It is considered too ineffable to be expressed in language.
Literally meaning “the way”, Dao is no certain specific “thing”, but a collective name given to the underlying essence, pattern, or order behind the natural world. However, the concept of Dao differs from Western ontology, e.g. Hegel’s “der absolute Geist”; it is an active and holistic conception of Nature, rather than a static, atomistic one.
Yet, Dao can be known or experienced, and its principles can be discerned by observing nature or otherwise, and followed and practiced by men. Though Dao is not to be approached through direct definition, seeking to grasp “Dao’ and adhering to its principles represent the shared concern of all schools of Chinese philosophy. Confucius says, “I would have no regrets to die at dusk, having learned “the Dao” in the morning.” As in Chinese classic, or modern popular, literature, a revered Buddhist monk is often glorified as a "De Dao Gao Seng (得道高僧)", meaning a monk that has attained “the Dao”. And for the religious Taoists, "Cheng Xian De Dao (成仙得道)", meaning attaining “the Dao” and becoming an immortal fairy, would be the highest achievement.
For the Chinese, Ji seems easier to grasp than Dao. It refers to practical “skills”, “techniques”, for example, of making pottery, bronze wares, etc. Artistic skills are also included, like painting and dancing. While Dao represents the metaphysical, underlying side of the natural world, Ji is the more physical, superficial aspect.
"Pao Ding Jie Niu (庖丁解牛)" is a well-known allusion in Chinese culture, in which a cook is so experienced in dismembering the carcass of the ox, that the edge of his cleavers remains as though newly sharpened despite having been used for nineteen years. As the cook explains, he loves the Dao of butchery more than skill of it; he works with his mind, letting his cleavers moving freely through the intervals between flesh, sinews and bones according to their natural structure.
In this story, butchery is a Ji, but the cook has managed to attain the Dao of butchery out of decades of practicing the Ji, for now in his eyes, the ox is no longer a whole entity, but a complex natural structure, and he has in his mind the way in which the naturual structure is.
The Chinese preference of Dao does not mean the undermining of the practice of Ji. As illustrated by Pao Ding’s story, Ji can be an effective access to Dao. Likewise, in Chinese arts such as painting and dancing, training is necessary to master the basic artistic skills and techniques in the first place; and only on such basis could the artist proceed with the pursuit of Dao. It is often in the practicing of Ji that Dao may be discerned.
Mural painting discovered in a Han Dynasty tomb illustrating the story of "Pao Ding Jie Niu".
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