The Dao De Jing and the natural world

One of China’s earliest philosophical texts contains many lessons on living in harmony with nature. Martin Palmer, Victoria Finlay and He Xiaoxin explain how Daoists can help protect the land from the pollution and rapid development of China today.

The Dao De Jing, which I have had the honour of translating into English, paints a fascinating and challenging picture of how Daoists see the world. For example, chapter four tells us that the Dao is the source of all life: generous, free flowing, timeless, indeed coming from a time before time itself. Yet today we see that human activity is bringing to an end many forms of life: it is poisoning the waters; polluting the air; changing the climate, destroying forests and killing thousands of species. The Dao is under attack as never before and it is we, human beings, who are attacking it.

And what does the Dao De Jing say about this?

Chapter 29 tells us that if a ruler behaves as if he invented the world, he will do no good at all. It goes on to say the earth is a sacred vessel and it cannot be owned or improved. Yet we behave as if we do own the world, as if nature was there just for us. Chapter 46 tells us that with greed running wild, and without the guidance of the Dao, the world is in danger.

And with this great threat of climate change, the world is in danger today.

Daoism holds the key to finding the way out of these crises because it understands where humanity should be within the Great Order of the Dao. Chapter 42 tells us exactly where we come in this Great Order – as part of the “three” that hold the world together – and it emphasises how we humans are absolutely essential in maintaining the balance of qi in the world. 


Daoists’ special role in protecting nature

The role of Daoists was recognised by the Declaration on the Environment created by the China Daoist Association in 1995.

“Daoism has a unique sense of value in that it judges affluence by the number of different species,” the report stated. “If all things in the universe grow well, then a society is a community of affluence. If not, this kingdom is on the decline.”

Daoists are inspired by the Dao De Jing 2,500 years ago, by the Daoist Declaration on the Environment 12 years ago and by the many centuries in between, during which Daoist believers have quietly cared for nature. But what can Daoists actually do?

The True Way

First, Daoists have a very strong teaching about how the way of Power is not the True Way. And today we might also echo chapter one by adding that the way of exploiting this fragile world and thinking that this will costs us nothing, is not the True Way. The way of Material Prosperity as the only worthwhile goal is not the True Way. And the way of human communities existing without regard to the communities of animals, plants, rocks, rivers and mountains that live beside them is not the True Way. By recognising that these are illusions, and living out your belief about the True Way, Daoists can restore a holistic vision of our world and our responsibilities.

Protecting species

Secondly, Daoists can set an example in protecting species. Traditional Chinese Medicine is so important in looking after sick people in China, and it has also become popular around the world. However, some unscrupulous people use the body parts of endangered species such as tigers and rhinoceroses to make their so-called medicine. Or they use the gall of bears kept in terrible conditions in tiny cages. This creates a problem, because a medicine designed to harmonise the vital forces in the body, but which itself destroys the harmonious balance of nature, cannot by definition be good medicine. It is not flowing with the Dao. It is destroying the flow of the Dao. As chapter 39 points out, the Dao has to be in unity with all for the power of the Dao to keep the world, the universe whole.

In 2000, the China Daoist Association set a wonderful example by officially publishing a document which outlawed any use of Traditional Chinese Medicine which used endangered species. This now needs to become more than just good words. It needs to become action. Let’s find ways of curbing this by introducing other prescriptions which do not use endangered animals, and do not destroy virgin forest areas or habitats either.

Caring for resources

Thirdly, you can look at your own resources. Many monasteries and temples own land. But is this managed ecologically and organically? If not, maybe it can be changed.

Many monasteries and temples are on sacred mountains. But do they help protect these mountains – for example by creating tree nurseries or by clearing rubbish from the hillsides? If not, then perhaps this can be changed.

As temples and monasteries are given back to the Daoists, do you restore them in sustainable ways? If not, perhaps this can be changed.

All monasteries and temples use paper, energy, transport and food: but is the paper eco-friendly? Is the energy renewable? Is the transport kept to a minimum and are the foodstuffs free of chemical sprays? And is the monastery itself a model of ecology so that local people can learn from it? Is it built from renewable resources? Is it ecological in its use of gardens and water, and does it have an eco-friendly car park? If not, then perhaps these things can be changed as well.


Finally, Daoists are teachers. Could your monasteries and temples become training centres for traditional and sustainable methods of building, painting, carving and landscaping? We believe you could and we will help you to do this. Can we together, for example, make leaflets for pilgrims to take home from all the great Daoist pilgrimage sites, to teach them how to look after nature? The new Taibaishan ecology temple is doing just this. Let’s make this happen right across China.

Can we together train young people, the poorest of the poor, those who will otherwise have no skills, to become the builders of a new and beautiful China?

Or can we together run special day courses for local farmers or business-people, on how to live as good Daoists for the environment? Using the Taibaishan centre, let’s bring as many workshops there as possible to help train monks and nuns and lay people in how to live a Daoist life which respects and restores our relationship with nature.

Last year a new body called the Temple Alliance on Ecology Education, was set up at the first ecology workshop at Taibaishan. A declaration was made called the Qinling Declaration in which all the participants promised to:

– bring ecological education into temples;
– reduce pollution caused by incense burners etc;
– use farmed land sustainably;
– protect species and forests;
– save energy;
– protect water resources.

The Alliance of Religions and Conservation is willing to help on all these levels. We have been working as partners with China’s Daoists since 1995. We have helped Louguantai create the first ever Daoist ecology temple. We are helping produce Daoist educational materials for use in temples. But we are small and you are great, and we know that you can do so much more.

So let us bring the world back to an understanding of true Dao. As Zhuang Zi says in chapter 12, “Heaven and Earth”:

The Dao, how deep and quiet it lies;
How pure is its clarity!
Without it neither gold not stone would resonate.
The gold and stones have sounds within them
But if they are not struck, then no sound comes forth…

But now I would like to remind you of the last line of this verse…

“All the creatures in this world have dimensions that cannot be calculated.”

Martin Palmer is secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.