Fern leaf, dead and alive

The Teachings of the Dao

The Heart of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is catch-word that is much in use these days, but what does it mean, where does it come from? Understanding this requires some understanding of The Dao.

The Dao is a book that is talked about more than read. The internet is full of quotes from The Dao, many of which—most?—are not accurate. To know the concepts of The Dao it is necessary to go back to what it actually says. K T Fann has translated the book in an attempt to provide an English reading that is as accurate as possible. I will use this translation to dig into The Dao.


Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk, died recently at the age of 95. He was an advocate of engaged Buddhism

… where mindfulness—the capacity to be aware of what is going on, and what is there—forms the basis for offering practical help to address the issues and injustices of the modern world. Through developing a movement to promote it in the West as well as in Asia, he did much to bring the practice of mindfulness into the social mainstream, by emphasising that a contemplative attitude could inform every moment of the day, not just those devoted to explicit meditation.

Vishpapani Blomfield (The Guardian Obituary)

What is mindfulness? According to Wikipedia...

Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one's attention in the present moment without evaluation, a skill one develops through meditation or other training.

To a large extent it is based on Zen practice which is highly influenced by Dao philosophy. Dao's most important ideas come from the short, ancient book, the 'Dao De Jing'.

To help understand mindfulness and Thich Nhat Hanh I will look at three of Daoism's key concepts. There is simplicity in Daoism.


Daoism comes from Ancient China and the writing of the philosopher Laozi. It teaches how to live in harmony with the world, an aspect of engaged buddhism. The Dao means the way—the pattern and substance of everything that exists.In the Dao De Jing, Laozi explains how to act in accordance with the alternating cycles of nature.

Compassion, Simplicity, Service

I have three treasures that I hold fast and cherish:
The first is Compassion,
The second is Frugality,
The third is Not daring to be the world's first.

Being compassionate, one can thus be courageous.
Being frugal, one can be generous.
Not daring to be the world's first, one can be a leader.

Dao De Jing 67 (trans. KT Fann)

Compassion is the foremost quality espoused in the Dao. This section ends with What Heaven intends to save, it shields with Compassion. Thus nature works to shield itself by looking after everything it contains. It is interesting that being courageous can be a result of compassion. It proposes an ability to move forward, not by pushing others out of the way but by caring for and thinking about them.

In this translation frugality is used to suggest simplicity. It is a little used word but it neatly suggests the active nature of simplicity, the desire to preserve what exists without using, or spending it. In doing this there remains plenty in nature for everyone, thus the ability to be generous to others. This is a way of being compassionate.

The most interesting concept is the one I have called Service. In this translation it is called Not daring to be the world's first. This encapsulates the idea of servant leadership where a person leads from the understanding of what is needed rather than the act of telling others what to do. It is leadership that is granted by others not leadership that is taken. This is sometimes described as patience, but it is far more, it suggests a desire not to take the lead, rather than waiting for it to come. The former is where its power lies.

Going with the Flow

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

In pursuing knowledge, one learns more every day.
In practicing Dao, one does less every day.

It's always through non-interference the world is won.

Dao De Jing 48 (trans. KT Fann)

This explains the concept of Wuwei, meaning inexertion, inaction or effortless action. Rather than fighting against the conditions of life, it means allowing things to take their natural course. If in doubt, do nothing.

It suggests that life is enhanced by what you do not do rather than what you do or learn. The concept of Wuwei is how you get on in the world. Letting go of learning or achievement will get you further than any amount of trying.

This is a difficult concept for people in the West to understand. We are so bound to action being the measure of success that we cannot understand how letting go is a substitute. The 'Bhagavad Gita' is all about how dharma is achieved by taking action and doing what you need to do. However Wuwei is deliberate inaction rather than any kind of laziness. It is about allowing nature to take its course rather than interfering and forcing your will on events.

This is quality of letting go is worth exploring.


Dao gives birth to One,
One gives birth to Two,
Two gives birth to Three,
Three gives birth to all things.
All things carry Yin and embrace Yang,
Mixing breath to make harmony.

Dao De Jing 42 (trans. KT Fann)

The Chinese concept of yin and yang describes nature in dualities with two opposite, complementary, and interdependent forces. In other words, two halves balancing together that make a whole. Yin and yang always flow and change with time. One aspect increases as the other decreases, and this balance continues as a pattern in nature. The night becomes the day. The sky meets the earth.

Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, negativity, femininity, shadows/darkness, destructiveness, and night time.

Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot/warm, dry, and active; and is associated with fire, sky/air, the sun, positivity, masculinity, glowing/light, creativeness, and daytime.

Wikipedia (Yin and Yang)

What Does It Mean?

'The Dao' is small but extremely powerful. It suggests a way of living that focuses on harmony and surrender. These appear to be qualities of inaction that many people find difficulty with. They are, however, qualities of deliberate inaction, ones that take a measure of effort to achieve. In taking this effort of inaction you find yourself allowing the flow of nature to take precedence, and idea which has become more urgent in these days of climate collapse.

What does it mean to let go in this way? What does it mean to allow nature to take over? These are difficult questions that will best be answered through meditation and embracing true mindfulness.