The root meaning of the Chinese word Dao is "path" or "way." It is more commonly known in English by the older transliteration Tao and is one of the few Chinese words that have been adopted into the English language. This is largely due to the broad appeal of an ancient Chinese text (c. fourth century b.c.e.) known as the Daode jing (or Taote-ching ), which, it is said, is the most widely translated book in the world after the Bible.
During the period in Chinese history known as the Warring States (481–220 b.c.e.) the Zhou dynasty empire had disintegrated into several smaller states governed by rival feudal lords. This chaotic state of affairs led intellectuals to ask "Where is the Dao?" By this they meant: What path should leaders follow to bring harmony and stability to the country? Confucians said that the way lay in restoring ancient moral and ritual codes. Legalists said that the way lay in imposing by force a single language and legal system upon the country. Daoists, whose names are not known, compiled the Daode jing, a collection of terse aphorisms, which states that the way that humans should follow is precisely the same "Way" that governs the operation of nature. This Way is "self-so" or "spontaneous," that is, it is naturally self-generating and cannot be artificially engineered by human intelligence or culture. To give a modern analogy, in nature acorns marvelously grow into oak trees and the various species live in an overall state of organic harmony. Nobody tells acorns or the various species what to do, yet somehow they develop their innate potential (de ) and entirely of their own accord follow a path (dao ) that leads to a state of maximal perfection and harmony. The Dao may thus be understood as the wellspring of natural creativity that brings everything in the world into an organic, harmonious existence. In this respect there are many broad parallels with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947).
In his investigations into science and civilization in China, the British biochemist Joseph Needham (1900–1995) concluded that Daoists had a natural affinity with what is now called "science," since to investigate the Way, Daoists had to pay close attention to the operation of things in nature. The difference is that science holds nature to be in principle explainable, whereas Daoists generally understand the Dao to be fundamentally mysterious and beyond human understanding.
This wondrous aspect of the Dao led to a mystical reverence for nature's marvelous capacity for self-transformation: Who could possibly have imagined that an acorn would grow into an oak tree? Some Daoists, such as Ge Hong (283–343 c.e.), became alchemists and aimed to capture for themselves the extraordinary power for change that is pregnant within nature, and to reverse it to create an elixir of immortality. Other Daoists revered this mystical aspect of the Dao in the form of gods and spirits who have power over human life and death. Still others cultivated this Dao within themselves through meditation and Qi -energy practices. All aimed through their various methods to attain the Way for themselves.
See also Chinese Religions and Science; Chinese Religions, Daoism and Science in China; Chinese Religions, History of Science and Religion in China; Process Thought; Whitehead, Alfred North