Institute of Religious Studies, Sichuan University


When mankind entered the 21st century, a series of problems related to population, resources, environment and development appeared or intensified worldwide. How to tackle such problems has been a great challenge facing numerous countries and the world as a whole. Since its inception over 1800 years ago as China's indigenous religion, and through its history of interaction with Buddhism, Confucianism, and other religious sects, Daoism has evolved a system of concepts and practices uniquely relevant to the relationship between man and nature. Daoism contains, in its creeds, tenets, and practices, many ideas compatible with the concept of environment protection. 




“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.” (Gregory Bateson, 1976). In technocratic-industrial society, nature is treated as mere instrument for other ends, a resource for physical wealth deprived its own value. Today many people are aware of that something is drastically wrong in our attitude toward nature. Chinese Daoism rejects such idea that humans have dominion over the earth and its other inhabitants.(Richard and David, 1988) Nature in Daoism is something of great value in and for itself. In pursuing sustainable development and preserving environment, mankind must abandon the traditional development road that has overemphasized economic profit without considering the supporting capacity of the environment. As we attempt to satisfy the present generation, we should leave space for the development of future generations. In this regard, our forefathers have left us much heritage, of which the Daoist notions of the “Dao follows nature”, " Unity of Heaven and Man " (tianren heyi), "The Heavenly Way is Non-interference" (tiandao wuwei), and "the three realms exploit each other," (sancai xiangdao) may be worthy of our attention.

"Dao" is the transcendent concept of Daoism. It is a complex of natural principles, methods, way, path and an inexhaustible source. It is indefinable yet spontaneously regulating the natural cycle of the universe, ineffable but present in all things. All things originate from "Dao", and "Dao" is the basis of the existence of all beings. In the Daodejing, it is said: "Dao begets one. One begets two. Two begets three. Three begets all things." In the Immortals’ Book of Salvation of the World by the Manifestation of Dao from the Supreme Concourse  (Taishang huadao dushi xianjing), a Daoist scripture, it is stated that Dao is the Mother of Heaven and Earth and of Yin-Yang, and the origin of the Five Agents and of the myriad beings[1]. Man and all other beings are born from the same primordial Breath (Qi)[2], so that all beings emanate from Dao and obtain their essence from Dao. Meng Anpai proposed in his Daojiao yishu that all sentient beings and even fruits, woods and stones partook of the essence of Dao [3]. Similarly, the Book of Western Ascension (Xisheng jing) considers that Dao not only exists in me, it exists in all things[4]. All things in the world are inseparable and interdependent. Thus a Daoist poem sings that "Heaven and Earth have the same roots as me, all things share the same body with me. The human body is the micro-cosmos, Heaven and Earth are the macro-cosmos"[5]. In the Book of the Hidden Talisman of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi yinfu jing ), people are instructed to follow the heavenly Dao, as it is said that "Both birth and death are the ways of Dao. Heaven and Earth are exploited by the myriad beings; the myriad beings are exploited by human beings and human beings are exploited by the myriad beings. If the three forms of exploitation are in harmony, the three types of beings (Heaven and Earth, human beings, and the myriad beings) will be in peace". The notions of Heaven and Earth sharing the same body as human beings" and "Heaven, Earth and Man exploiting each other" represent Daoist concepts of totality. Daoism seeks the lofty realm of nearness to Dao and sharing one body with the cosmos.

As nature and man are a harmonious whole and mankind is an integral part of it, man should take into account the eternity of heaven and earth and pass on his ancestors' traditions to the next generations, while assisting Heaven in the process of Creation and Earth in giving Form to beings. (Wang 1960: 36).  Man can only survive and develop by being in harmony with his environment. So Daoism advocates to be natural and to do no harm to nature. It tells people to follow the laws of nature and not to "go against its Way." Everything had to be in keeping with the cosmic cycle so as “not to interfere” and to insure universal harmony. In the Daodejing, it is said that "Man abides by Earth, Earth by Heaven, Heaven by Dao, Dao by Nature." In the eyes of a Daoist, Man, Earth, Heaven, Dao and Nature are bound together in an organic chain. In this chain Nature plays a very important role, for everything ultimately abides by Nature. "Nature" in Daoism means "to be spontaneous, to be genuine, not to be artificial." It also means the natural environment outside the human body. Daoism advocates "letting things to be their natural way" (renwu ziran), "letting things follow their natural phases" (yinying wuxing),  "the Heavenly Way is Non-interference" (tiandao ziran wuwei), in order to let everything fully develop and maintain a world of bio-diversity. In the Book of Great Peace (Taiping jing ),  "affluence" is defined as follows: "Affluence means that every creature is maintained. When everything is born, heaven regards it as rich. In upper antiquity, at the beginning of recorded history, there were 12,000 species, indicating wealth. In middle antiquity (three thousand years ago), the number of species declined a little, and there were fewer than 12,000 species, indicating relative poverty. In the period of lower antiquity, the number of species declined further, indicating even greater poverty. If you wish to know the effect, just imagine your house without any rare articles or treasures, just like that of a poor family. If there are less than ten thousand creatures, there is extreme poverty, indicating the poverty of Heaven and Earth.… Heaven is our father and Earth is our mother. If the parents are extremely poor, the children will be worried with poverty" (Wang 1960: 30). In modern times thousands of species are disappearing from the world each year. The worries of the Book of Great Peace remain highly relevant today.

According to its tenet of "Let things to be natural," Daoism opposes the destruction of the natural environment. Daoism considers that man and nature are interrelated and bound by ties of reciprocity and retribution. If man is in agreement with nature, and nature is well treated by human beings, the world will be peaceful and harmonious, and all things will be prosperous -- a situation beneficial to man. If nature suffers from human beings, it will retaliate against man, causing calamitous suffering and the extinction of species.





Daoism considers that the orientation of life is to return to simplicity and go back to reality. One should live a simple, quiet and natural life. Daoism believes in a plain and simple lifestyle. It considers that one should not be selfish and have few desires, and one should live a life of plain tea and simple food. Daoism advocates frugality, thinking that contentment with what one has brings happiness, making one's mind peaceful with no troubles. The Xianger Commentary on Laozi (Laozi Xianger Zhu) reads: "do not labor your mind to get more money to nourish your body, do not usurp power to glorify your self, do not indulge in the five flavours to satisfy your cravings. Though your clothes be tattered and your shoes ragged, you should still not strive for fame and gain." The Inner Book of the Master Embracing Simplicity (Baopuzi Neipian) reads: "To learn to be immortal, one needs to live simply, to reduce desire, to look inside and to live with few desires." The Book of Western Ascension also has a negative attitude towards desire, saying: "desire is the root of disasters; absence of desire is the origin of Heaven and Earth. If you don't know the Origin, you will not know the Root. The sacred person discards desire to cultivate himself." The Book of Tranquility (Qingjing jing ) says: "if you keep away from desires, your mind becomes tranquil. The tranquil mind cleans the spirit naturally." Daoism yearns for spiritual freedom and pursues spiritual satisfaction, free of the burden of material desires.

The Daoist idea of "reducing selfishness and restraining desires" is compatible with the lifestyle proposed by. Nowadays, the main difficulty facing environmental protection and sustainable development is the unsustainable pattern of production and consumption. In developed countries and among rich people in the developing countries, excessive consumption, especially the consumption of natural resources, is a common phenomenon. Today, as few as 25 percent of the world's population in the industrialized nations has consumed 80% of the world's commercial energy, and the remaining 75 percent, living in 128 countries, consume only 20 percent of commercial energy. In modern society consumption of physical materials is usually regarded as the symbol of success and social status. Wealth and luxurious consumption are considered to be signs of success. However it is widely recognized that above a certain level, wealth has no direct relation with happiness (Maslow 1954). As a matter of fact, excessive consumption may accelerate the exhaustion of natural resources and exert a great pressure on the environment. In his book Our Country, the Planet, S. Ramphal, president of the World Conservation Union, stated that the question of consumption is central to the issues of the environmental crisis. Human impact on the biosphere is producing environmental stress and endangering the planet's capacity to sustain life. Essentially, that impact is made through the energy and raw materials that people use or waste worldwide. For the interest of our descendants and the survival of contemporary poor people, it would be better to change our consumption pattern and have a new concept of consumption and to choose a simple life style. The Daoist concepts of "reducing selfishness and restraining desires ", "returning to simplicity and going back to perfectness" and "discerning plainness and embracing simplicity" are important inspirations to modern people.




Daoism has unique ideas on life, man, health preservation, healing, ideal human habitat, spirituality, wilderness, etc. in its commandments, practice and culture, which need to be studies by academic community. We acknowledge that there are limitations and weaknesses of Daoism’s contribution to environment movement, such as it didn’t face up to such environment problems and didn’t address some concrete ecological issues directly. But if we interpret its cosmology and teachings under new circumstances, Daoism will show that it may contribute to lofty cultures and rational philosophies while it is interpreted in new ways and gains popular recognition.




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Chinese scriptures cited:


The Book of Dao and its Virtue  (Daodejing; Tao Te Ching): Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, Beijing, 1998 (Bilingual).

The Book of Great Peace (Taipingjing): in Wang Ming 1960: Taipingjing he jiao, Beijing: Chinese Book Press.

The Book of the Hidden Talisman of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi Yinfujing): in Daoist Canon (Dao Zang), Wenwu Press / Shanghai Bookstore Press / Tianjin Ancient Book Press, 1988, vol. 1.

The Book of Tranquility  (Qingjingjing): in Daoist Canon, ibid., vol. 17.

The Book of Western Ascension (Xishengjing): in Daoist Canon, ibid., vol. 11.

The Immortals’ Book of Salvation of the World by the Manifestation of Dao from the Supreme Concourse (Taishang Huadao Dushi Xianjing): in Daoist Canon, ibid., vol. 22.

The Xianger Commentary on Laozi (Laozi Xianger Zhu): in the Daoist Canon, ibid.,vol. 31.

[1] See the Daoist Canon (Dao Zang), vol. 11, p. 403

[2] ibid., vol. 22, p. 382

[3] ibid., vol. 24, p. 832

[4] ibid., vol. 11, p. 510

[5] ibid., vol. 33, p. 129