Deng Mng-Dao, The living

What kind of religious tradition could admit both warriors and monks and could have supernatural tales, weird alchemists, and visionaries babbling incomprehensible words reputedly straight from the gods—all while insisting that all existence was void upon void? Not only that, the Zen writings insisted that they came from Taoism too. I made up my mind to find out more about this strange tradition that could thumb its nose at all of Buddhism and Confucianism—and still have the most serious of Chinese texts respect it as high spirituality.

The Tao also appeared frequently in my study of art. One of the first books I found when trying to research the Chinese tradition of art was The Way of Chinese Painting: Its Ideas and Technique, by Mai-Mai Sze. Every other book, especially books about Western art, concentrated solely on materials and technique. A book on watercolors, for example, would logically begin with some encouraging words and a shopping list of paints, brushes, and paper, followed by step-by-step instructions, with photographs, for making pretty pictures of a vase of flowers or a moody seascape. By contrast, The Way of Painting began with philosophy, grounding the art not in materials and technique,

but in the very roots of Chinese culture, and placing the artist as a spiritual seeker. The very first words of the book invoked the Tao: “In the vast literature of Chinese painting, there is continual reference to a tao (tao) or ‘way.’ It is not a personal way, nor the mannerisms of a school. It is the traditional Chinese tao.... This tao is distinctive for ... the manner in which they have been represented by the Chinese brush and ink.” The book went on for pages after that, with discussion of the Chinese classics Zhuangzi and the Yijing (I Ching). What was this Tao? How could the Chinese approach to art be so vastly different from the Western one of my other books and of my schooling? What was it about this approach that identified philosophy and spirituality as the very basis of art? I was already committed to learning more about art, but now I wanted to explore how this recurring reference to the Tao fit in with my chosen life path.

I didn’t even connect this to my own name at first. My best friend in Chinese school had the name Dejing, meaning "scripture of virtue." But the other boys seized on the word De, which was pronounced something like "duc," and mercilessly dubbed him “Duckie.” Read more