“No Government, No Babysitters ... and There’s Also No Consistency”
The Daodejing is a challenging text, and one of its many challenges is that it never concretely defines dao. Dao is usually translated into English as “way” (or “Way,” or even “the Way”), and that’s not a bad translation so long as you keep in mind all the meanings “way” has in English. In The LEGO Movie, Princess Unikitty would be able to show you the way to Cloud Cuckoo Land (a geographical route), the way to remove a bushy mustache (a technique), the way to create an entire realm without rules or consistency (a system of techniques), or the way to be happy all the time (a philosophical approach). Dao can be any of those ways. Notice that those ways aren’t things. They’re closer to activities, and this highlights two important concepts in Daoist thought. First, a way isn’t a permanent, unchanging entity. As any backpacker knows, the way from A to B is really more like an ongoing process, changing season by season and sometimes even day by day. Second, there’s not one way. For any given destination, there’s probably more than one path to get you there, and for any given path there’s more than one way to walk it.
That’s the message of the very first sentence of the Daodejing: “Waymaking (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making.”5 The early Daoists were leery of any attempt to define dao in specific terms. Definition is a kind of limitation, and dao defies all limits. We’d encounter a similar problem if we tried to fully unpack the “awesome” of “everything is awesome.” It’s hard to define “awesome,” but not because you don’t know what you’re talking about and not because you have nothing to say. The problem is quite the opposite. No matter how much you say, you’ll always have left something out. That’s the only way definition can work—this is only this if it’s not that. So if the thing you’re talking about is broad enough, and casts its influence widely enough, any attempt at definition must always fall short.
Throughout the Daodejing we find a willingness to describe, but a deep reluctance to define. For example:
As a thing the way [dao] is Shadowy, indistinct.
Indistinct and shadowy,
Yet within it is an image;
Shadowy and indistinct,
Yet within it is a substance.
Dim and dark,
Yet within it is an essence.
This essence is quite genuine
And within it is something that can be tested.6
The concept of awesomeness works the same way. Can you define it concretely? No, not without leaving something out. But can you test it? Absolutely. If I say “that ski slope is awesome” you can go ski it and see for yourself. The same goes for awesome restaurants, awesome jiujitsu instructors, awesome LEGO sets, you name it: if you’re open to the experience, you can test it for yourself. So it is with dao. There is dao latent in the snowy mountainside, and if you align yourself with it, you can ski it beautifully. There is a dao of cooking, and of jiujitsu, and of designing with LEGO. Those who understand this dao can do things that amaze and delight and make the rest of us marvel.
The artist Nathan Sawaya is a case in point. He began by recreating masterpieces of classical art in LEGO: Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David. Had he reproduced them in their original medium, he’d be little more than a mimic, but Sawaya understands the dao of LEGO. His Hokusai is five layers thick, so his Great Wave has a texture and depth beyond what the original woodblock can deliver. He doesn’t just imitate; he evokes, then delivers something entirely new—and the most stunning part is, you could have done it yourself if only you’d thought of it first. The pieces were always there. The possibility was always there. Sawaya was the sage who put them together.
In Daoism, the sages were masters who had aligned themselves with the dao of their chosen vocation. Here’s how the Daodejing describes the sages of ancient times:
Those of old who were good at forging their way (dao) in the world: Subtle and mysterious, dark and penetrating,
Their profundity was beyond comprehension.
It is because they were beyond comprehension That were I forced to describe them, I would say:
So reluctant, as though crossing a winter stream;
So vigilant, as though in fear of the surrounding neighbors;
So dignified, like an invited guest;
So yielding, like ice about to thaw;
So solid, like the uncarved block;
So murky, like muddy water;
So vast and vacant, like a mountain gorge.7
Notice two images here: first, the uncarved block we’ve seen already; second, the vast and vacant mountain gorge. It turns out both of these are also images of LEGO.
Let’s examine the gorge first. It’s a fitting image for dao because it is inexhaustible. You can use it all day long and never wear it out. Why not? Because the part of the gorge you can see—the cliffs that wall it in—is actually the least important part. What makes a gorge gorgeous is all the empty space. This amazing power of emptiness is perfectly exemplified by the LEGO brick. At its most basic level, your standard two-by-four brick is more nothing than it is something; that is, by volume there’s more empty air than there is plastic. Why is it awesome? Because it marries the something to the nothing. If it didn’t, the bricks couldn’t stick together. But because of this perfect marriage of something and nothing—yin and yang, in Daoist terms—it’s the greatest toy ever.
But the brick isn’t just physically empty; it’s also empty of meaning, just like the uncarved block. Suppose you’re a sculptor and I hand you an ordinary block of wood. You’re now holding limitless possibilities. The block can become anything, right up until the moment you shave off a piece. After that, there are some shapes it can’t take anymore. The more you take off, the more you limit what’s possible: once it starts to look like a person, it’s pretty hard to make it into a spoon or a spaceship.8 We can think of the LEGO brick in the same way. By itself it’s empty of meaning, and that’s exactly why it can be anything you want it to be: because by itself it’s nothing.
If your basic two-by-four brick is the “uncarved block,” LEGO makes “carved” ones too: cockpits, irregular minifig heads, all those cool bits. But the more an element is designed to look like something specific, the less versatile it becomes. Print a design on it or put a sticker on it and you end up with less, not more. As the Daodejing describes it, “Thus a thing is sometimes added to by being diminished, and diminished by being added to.”9