English badly needs a word like “Dao.” We already have many words for “path, trail, track,” and can extend the literal sense of these words to expressions like “life’s path” or “career track” or “course of study” — to convey something that we move along stepwise, whether a progression in learning or in character development. However, “Dao” — while literally also “path” or “way” — differs from “track” or “course” in the same way that a path in a city park differs from a deer path through a forest: the former has been laid out by man for clarity and convenience, and is impossible to get lost on — while the latter winds with the devious logic of nature over inconvenient terrain, and we need to give it our full attention at all times. Many of our nost serious preoccupations can be treated either as “courses” or as “Daos.”
For example, in the study of Greek geometry, we could be fixated on tracing the exact sequence of Euclid’s argumentation, so that at the end of all thirteen books we could reasonably be asked to reproduce Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem. This would be Euclid’s Elements as a course. To consider it a Dao, we have to penetrate the arguments given and “get” the spirit through which his insights are generated. To do this we have to master the steps he given us, but we also have to see past those steps to alternatives hidden in the depths. This is the beginning of learning how to think and imagine as geometers, not just imitate. The same distinction applies to the learning of languages. We could work through the textbook and master every rule and structure given. Since the textbook is a distillation of the conventionally correct use of the language, it is a “course” built upon the past — but can the teaching of structures and patterns lead to a “feel” for the language that is capable of generating new variations on the old? If we wanted to get the Dao of English, let’s say, we would have to immerse ourselves in the great creative masters — Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce — and absorb their ways, having understood what is inimitable about them. Our educational institutions usually limit themselves to what is teachable, but they can thereby close the doors to what is learnable.
In the professions, we often see what has begun as a “course” of study turning into a Dao. For example, an educator is faced day after day with judgments and decisions in the classroom that his own academic preparation could not have foreseen; each week there will be new situations to expand and deepen his understanding of what it means to be an educator, and indeed of what education is. The Dao of teaching manifests only in experience and in unflagging passionate engagement with the work. The beginning teacher can have no conception what lies in store for him 30 years down the road. The same applies to all other professions — most notably those that have to navigate the full complexity of the human being, such as law and medicine. For the shallow practitioner, the careerist, there is only a collection of information and techniques for doing a job effectively and earning a decent living. But for the genuine practitioner, who enters the field with three eyes open and a raging hunger to go deeper, there is a Dao that cannot be explained to the novice. The hungry novice, however, picks it up from the master — as those of us know who have worked alongside one.
Looking for a word that might capture this richer, more interesting level of occupation, we might call it a “discipline” or an “art” — but those two words suggest too much agency in the practitioner. What really happens is that the Dao of learning, or law, or medicine, takes over — and we are drawn in and affected to the same degree as our engagement. The further we go, the more endless the field becomes — and this is both frightening and immensely satisfying. One of Confucius’ students, presumably contemplating the Dao of Confucius’ higher human being, expresses perfectly what it feels like to follow any true Dao:
顏淵喟然歎曰。仰之彌高、鑽之彌堅、瞻之在前、忽焉在後 夫子循循然善誘人：搏我以文、約我以禮。欲罷不能、旣竭吾才、如有所立、卓爾。雖欲從之、末由也已 。
Yan Yuan sighed in admiration saying: “Looking up to it, it gets higher. Boring into it, it gets harder. I see it in front, and suddenly it is behind me. My master skillfully guides his students a step at a time. He has broadened me with literature, disciplined me with propriety. I want to give up, but I can’t. I have exhausted my ability, yet it seems as if there is something rising up in front of me. I want to follow it, but there is no way.” [9.11]
A superficial student never gets this far: for such a student, pitifully, A grades are enough.
Besides the vocational Daos, there are primal human Daos: being a mother or father, a brother or sister, a child, a husband or wife. Each of these “paths” brings up new and unpredictable challenges every day, and we could not have predicted most of them. It takes a lifetime to learn how to be a child to one’s parents, and more than a lifetime to learn how to be a parent to one’s child. Who would have thought it would feel this way to lose a parent? Who would have thought that when our first child is born we would lose interest in most of our prior friendships and activities? Each role is a journey with distinct milestones that could not have been predicted. In giving ourselves over to these journeys, we extend ourselves by letting ourselves be shaped by the path. Of course, it is possible to be the kind of person who shuts down and does everything by dutiful rote; such a person traverses a course, but never understands anything of Dao.
The Chinese philosophers all speak of a big, all-encompassing Dao, without necessarily agreeing on what it is. We may not have the wherewithal to assess their claims, but in each of our lives we can see that there are not only courses of study and action, but a handful of important Daos that lead us through the vast forest. We can know them only by following them, and by being fully awake and intelligent at every turn.