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The Art of Theft 盗之道 dao zhi dao

The term dao “to steal” is associated with the Daoist theme of using what nature offers according to the ideal of non-action wu-wei: “to take as if you wouldn’t take”. The erroneous understanding of this term has brought upon the Daoists the blame of immorality. In fact the term is but another way of expressing the principle of unity and interdependency of all things, thus shedding new light on the terms of belonging and possession. The turn of events produced by a shift in the gestures of man towards his environment as well as to himself, as a result of this revelation, leads to the transformation of aggressive and delimitative possession into unifying receptivity. Man no longer struggles in order “to obtain” and “possess”, instead he opens himself up to receive 受 shou celestial gifts. Thus regarding the Universe and all beings that populate it as a celestial gift, man can rejoice at their favorable nature, trusting in the existence of a good project of the world. The sole condition for all things to rejoice in “reciprocal gain” 兼利 jian li is for the “theft” to be in accordance with the principle of harmony. Thus the “subtle art of stealing” 盗机 dao ji which manifests Dao, is that which considers the proper positioning of things within the world, ensuring the harmonious circulation of the vital breath.

This concept does not appear with this meaning in the books of Lao zi or Zhuang zi. Thus in the book of Lie zi the term盜dao appears as a new concept. At the mean time it is a key concept of religious Daoism due to its significance in internal alchemy (内丹 nei dan) and is fully exploited by one of the most important writings of the Daoist canon – The Scripture of Subtle Harmony, Yin fu jing[1] 《陰符經》. The object of this ontological “theft” is the vital breath qi, of which the Universe and all things that it contains are composed of. Thus the theme of “the art of theft” is constructed on the basis of the vital breath which, by its free circulation, sustains the dynamic processes of life. Dao is the principle which regulates this transfer of energy among things. In order to explain the principle of “theft”, the celestial master Liu Yiming 刘一明 (1734-1821)[2], of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) in his work Notes on the revelation of Dao, Wu dao lu 《悟道錄》, refers to the image of the moon: just as the moon obtains its brilliance by stealing light from the sun, man steals from the Universe “the primordial void, latent, pure and unitary breath” 先天虛無真一之氣xian tian xu wu zhei yi zhi qi (Liu Yiming, internet).

Although the term develops this way only starting with texts such as Lie zi and Yin fu jing, it is already prefigured in Lao zi (19, 57) and Zhuang zi (10), which draw attention to the perils that external morals can bring about, which brings about an artificial delimitation of property. Thus the chapter 57 of the Lao zi states: “The more you publicize rules and laws, the more robbers and thieves you will have.” (LaFargue, 1992: a68), 法令滋彰,盜賊多有fa ling yi zhang, dao zei duo you (Wang Bi, 1981: 150). Zhuang Zi in turn, believes that whenever too many births of wise men occur (聖人sheng ren) this is counterbalanced by the occurrence of “great thieves” 大盜da dao, as a consequence of the destruction of balance of forces in the state of natural harmony due to the establishment of rigid moral criteria. The metaphor of theft is used here to demonstrate how excess, even that of a good thing such as morality or wisdom, can have contrary consequences. The “art of theft” 盜之道dao zhi Dao which Zhuang Zi speaks of, acquires though a pejorative meaning in this context. For each thing, good or bad there exists a method. The hollow morality of false sages, in spite of its good purpose, is brought at odds with the bad method of thieves. The ideas of force balance and reinterpretation of the sense of possession are already present but not yet exploited clearly and positively and also make no reference to the practices of the soul as in religious Daoism.

In the book of Lie zi this concept is positively used and valued despite the fact that its significance is relatively small. Its functionality is widely explained in a passage of chapter I, Tian rui, The Charity of Heaven 《天瑞》, but still remains an isolated figure which appears nowhere else in the text. The metaphor of theft is meant to show here that life is to be understood in terms of celestial generosity and not of human possession, emphasizing the sense of movement of the vital breath from Heaven, as a gesture of giving bing fu 禀赋, towards man as a gesture of receiving (reception) bing shou 禀受. In this passage the art of theft is illustrated as a secret of wealth and prosperity. After hearing of this principle from a wealthy man from the kingdom of Qi, a poor man from the kingdom of Song confuses “the subtle art of theft” with any common theft, oriented towards the gain of the thief, with no regard for the integrity and harmony of things:

1.14. 向氏大喜,喻其為盗言,而不喻其為盗之道。Xiang shi da xi, yu qi wei dao yan, er bu yu qi wei dao zhi dao.(Yan, Yan, 1995:16)

Hsiang was delighted; he understood from what Kuo said that he was a thief, but misunderstood his Way of being a thief. (Graham, 1990: 30)

After breaking the balance of things he attracts ill fortune and in feeling cheated he accuses the wealthy man who explains the sense of theft as a principle of superior opportunism, in which man, adapted to the situation takes advantage of nature’s generosity which falls upon him from Heaven in the shape of favorable weather and on Earth manifested through fertility:

1.14. 吾聞天有時,地有利。吾盗天地之時利,雲雨之滂潤,山澤之產育,以生物禾,殖吾稼,築吾垣,建吾舍。

Wu wen tian you shi, di you li. Wu dao tian di zhi shi li, yun yu zhi pang run, shan ze zhi chan yu, yi sheng wu he, zhi wu jia, zhu wu yuan, jian wu she. (Yan, Yan, 1995: 16)

I rob heaven and earth of their seasonal benefits, the clouds and rain of their irrigating floods, the mountains and marshes of their products, in order to grow my crops, plamt my seed, rais my walls, build my house. (Graham, 1990: 30)

To conclude, the rich man Guo explains to the pauper Xiang that the true meaning of theft could not be understood unless associated with the sense of possession. Possession is in turn reduced to its essence, towards the root, the most intimate possession of man, inalienable as long as he lives: the person made from body and soul身shen. This is nothing but a celestial gift, the yin breath and the yang breath, received from the Heaven, which becomes shaped and inspires life to human beings:


Dong Guo sheng yue: „Ruo yi shen yong fei dao hu” Dao yin yang zhi he yi cheng ruo sheng, zai ruo xing; kuang wai wu er fei dao zai? (…)” (Yan, Yan, 1995: 16)

‚Is not your very body stolen? When you must steal the Yin and Yang energies in harmonious proportions even to achieve your life and sustain your body, how can you take the things outside yu without stealing them?(…)’ (Graham, 1990: 31)

Displeased with the wealthy man’s explanation, the pauper requests the advice of the hermit Dong Guo. The hermit takes a step further in defining the essence of possession and of theft. While the first explanation of the rich man Guo, indicated the existence of a superior type of theft, which appears to have very little in common with theft in the usual sense, defining a new concept of theft, the second explanation appears misleading at first sight. It explains how, in the eyes of the common man, a theft born of egoistic sentiments is viewed as sin, while a theft which takes in account “the good common sense”,  “the unwritten law of all things” appears as a honorable deed:


guo shi zhi dao, gong dao ye, gu wang yang; ruo zhi dao, si xin ye, gu de zui. (Yan, Yan, 1995: 16)

Kuo’s way of stealing is common to all, and so he escapes retribution; your way of stealing is private, and so you were found guilty. (Graham, 1990: 31)

The hermit shows that, from a superior point of view, this distinction can not be made. Theft, either born of egoism or taking into account the common welfare is still theft. Thus we could easily conclude that if theft is a positive concept, any type of theft is praiseworthy. In fact what the hermit wants to point out is that in essence the border line between public (公 gong) and private (私si) is abolished, that egoistic interests and public wealth are intertwined. Although the accent falls upon the validation of the individual, it can not function apart from the public sphere. When the state of harmonious integration is achieved nothing will violate the principle of celestial generosity which grants all that is needed in just proportion in the form of vital breath in motion.

While in the book of Lie zi “the art of theft” is used primarily for emphasizing the gesture of bestowment where the Heaven endows man with body and soul, in the Scripture of Subtle Harmony, it is elevated to the rank of principle that governs the relationship between Heaven and man[3]. When correctly situated in this relationship of “mutual theft” 相盗xiang dao man comes to govern the principle of Heaven天道tian dao, which he uses actively in order to achieve an absolute creativity and an absolute power of manipulation. “The art of theft” refers to the spiritual means through which man gains the capacity to take advantage of all opportunities (機会ji hui) guaranteed by the way in which all elements of the Universe combine (Li Shen, 1992: 23). Although in the book of Lie zi this art is more concretely exhibited, with reference to the cultivation of life while taking advantage of “good weather” and “the earth’s fertility”, it foreshadows a more abstract and general meaning found in the Scripture of Subtle Harmony. The proper positioning of man in time (位 wei, 宜 yi), as the time of Heaven, and space, as the space of the Earth, grants him the supreme capacity to manipulate the configuration of the universe.

With regard to the “art of theft”, which it refers to as盗機dao ji, the Scripture of Subtle Harmony discusses another intimate term tied to the concept of Dao: that of “chance” 機 ji, “opportunity”, “crucial point”, “turning point”. The term ji is used to indicate the passing from one state to another, from one situation to another in an unexpected way; the points in which the movement of the world is diverted from its usual course, from the constant laws to which it is subject常chang. As a turning point which determines the course of change 變bian, 機ji, it is found in a complementary relationship with the eternal Dao, the constant law which determines the cyclical movement of the world. In fact ji is but another aspect of Dao, whose paradoxical existence is manifested as both eternal law of the constant cyclical movement and a tendency toward the modification of individual movement, apparently unregulated and chaotic, because in the shape of “uni-totality” Dao is situated both above and within the phenomenal world. “The art of theft” dao ji is the subtle art which enables man to recognize the subtle essence of Dao within these unexpected changes, within irregularities, turning points, setting out from the natural motion of things. Man comes to master this art by restraining心xin the heart, because on a human level, the mind-heart represents the axis of change and the organ which ensures the bond between man and Heaven. The versatility (ji) through which man can synchronize the internal movement of the heart with the external movement of the world is a function of the heart:

天性,人也。人心,機也。Tian xing, ren ye. Ren xin, ji ye.  (Ren Farong, 1992: 19)

The nature of Heaven is manifested within man. Man’s heart manifests within opportunities.)

Elevated to the rank of fundamental principle in the Scripture of Subtle Harmony, the principle of theft applies to all levels. Thus by virtue of this principle, Heaven and Earth, the myriad things and man are summed up as “the three thieves” 三盗san dao. Where man is concerned, this principle manifests in the way that the five senses function, here named “the five thieves” 五賊wu zei. Reciprocity is based here on the circulation of the vital breath between man, the universe and the elements of the universe, as well as the alternation of life and death, creation and destruction (as expression of the motion of concentration-dispersion of the breath):

天生天殺,道之理也。天地,萬物之盜也;萬物,人之盜也;人,萬物之盜也。三盜既,三才既安。故曰:食其時,百骸理,動其機,萬化安。 Tian sheng tian sha, dao zhi li ye. Tian di, wan wu zhi dao ye; wan wu, ren zhi dao ye; ren, wan wu zhi dao ye. San dao ji yi, san cai ji an. Gu yue: shi qi shi, bai hai li; dong qi ji, wan hua an. (Ren Farong, 1992: 22-24)

Heaven creates, Heaven shall destroy, thus is the sense of Dao. Heaven and Earth are the thieves of the ten thousand things, the ten thousand things are the thieves of man, man [in turn] is the thief of the ten thousand things. Should the three thieves adopt the adequate posture, the three forces would achieve a state of peace and harmony.

In light of what the above “the art of theft” presents itself as a way to follow Dao, a way which permits man to be integrated in the flux of Dao by synchronizing the internal movements of the heart with the external movements of the Universe. This intertwining of worldly hidden tendencies with hidden tendencies of the heart is realized by way of the senses. Dao itself is a thief, its work being perfected, as in the case of theft, in great secrecy (as such, dao is sometimes translated as “mystery”, “secret” in phrases like “the secret of immortality”) and stealthily. The extreme efficiency of its subtle movements is manifested within the obscurity of mystery, where no gaze could reach.


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[1] A work traditionally attributed to the Yellow Emperor.

[2] Representative of the Daoist school of the Path of Absolute Perfection, one of the greatest Daoist schools created during the Song dynasty (960-1279).

[3] 天人关系的一般原则weian ren guan xi de yi ban yuan ze (Li Shen, 1992: 21)

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  • hirsh iulie 23, 2011, 22:44

    Thank you for a great entry. I just want to add the 5 thieves in 黄帝阴符经 huang di yinn fu jing:
    „Heaven has 5 thieves, to understand that is to prosper. 5 thieves are in the heart.”

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