The Dao of Nature: Daoist Principles for a Sustainable Future

Gregory Ripley
8 min readMar 11, 2024

Daoism is an ancient philosophical and religious tradition which developed in China over 2000 years ago. While mainly known in the West through its most foundational text, the Daode Jing, Daoism is a living tradition which has always valued a harmonious relationship with the natural world. The core of its teachings has remained through its many historical developments and Daoists have always sought to maintain this relationship. This continues into the present day. As we seek to adapt to the realities of climate change and mitigate, if not reverse the worst effects of human driven global warming and habitat destruction, Daoist principles and ethical values have much wisdom to offer towards building a sustainable future.

Daoists in China have been among the leaders in serving as role models for sustainable solutions in modern times, formulating a statement on ecology as well and developing a network of “Daoist Ecological Temples” some of which double in function as ecological education centers. The Daoist Faith Statement on Ecology lists four guiding principles beneficial to the relationship between humanity and nature.

  1. Follow the Earth: Human beings should help everything grow according to its own way. We should cultivate the way of non-action and let nature be itself.
  2. Harmonize with Nature: Someone who understands this point does not exploit nature but will treat it well and learn from it. It is obvious that in the long run, the excessive use of nature will bring about disaster, even the extinction of humanity.
  3. Avoid Too Much Success: If the pursuit of development runs counter to the harmony and balance of nature, even if it is of great immediate interest and profit, people should restrain themselves from it. Insatiable human desire will lead to the over-exploitation of natural resources.
  4. Find Affluence in Biodiversity: Daoism has a unique sense of value in that it judges affluence by the number of different species. If all things in the universe grow well, then a society is a community of affluence. If not, this country is on the decline. This view encourages both government and people to take good care of nature. This thought is a special contribution by Daoism to the conservation of nature.

While a modern formulation, these four principles harken back to the roots of Daoism and the first Daoist values explicitly expressed as such, often referred to as “Laozi’s Three Treasures” from Chapter 67 of the Daode Jing. “I have three treasures which I cherish and hold dear; compassion, simplicity, and humility.”

Compassion for other beings — humans as well as other life formsand humility would go a long way toward solving our environmental challenges. If we don’t feel a sense of love and compassion for life, we won’t be motivated to care for it. As the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Simplicity in the above quote can also be translated as frugality or economy. Nature is frugal in the sense that it does not waste anything. Everything is recycled. Because it is frugal it can also be generous. Think of the way a maple or cottonwood tree throws out thousands of seeds. This “generosity” ensures the next generation of trees, but it also provides food for animals, insects, and so on, as the nutrients go back into the rest of the system. When we lead simpler, more frugal lives, we free up more resources for others.

Being humble as a species we can regain a place in the greater system of nature which does not throw off the equilibrium of the biosphere. An example of this humility could be looking to nature for inspiration when trying to find solutions to our environmental or technological challenges as with biomimicry (and the second principle above). Modern people in the Industrial Age took an immensely arrogant stance in the world. We thought we could do a better job designing things than nature, often with unintended consequences which proved detrimental to the health of the biosphere. In fact, the phrase translated above as “humility” is more literally “not daring to be first in the world” or “not putting oneself above the world”. The well-known meme of ego vs eco might come to mind here.

We can also think about humility in terms of possessions. We tend to become very attached to things that we “own.” We tend to think if we own something we can do whatever we want with it, even extending this to the earth itself through owning a parcel of land. A more realistic and sustainable attitude might be that we are simply caretakers while we own something. If we are fortunate enough to own a piece of land, we bear some responsibility for the health and welfare of that land and the many beings that dwell there.

Daoism has traditionally included rules and guidelines among its ethical teachings which show a concern for the more-than-human world. For example, The 180 Precepts of Lord Lao from the fifth or sixth century contains many precepts that promote an attitude of conservation and preservation of the natural world.

  • Do not burn fields, wild lands, mountains, or forests.
  • Do not carelessly cut down trees.
  • Do not carelessly pick herbs or flowers.
  • Do not throw poison into wells, ponds, rivers, or the ocean.
  • Do not wantonly dig holes in the earth and thereby destroy mountains and rivers.
  • Do not drain waterways and marshes.
  • Do not fish or hunt and thereby harm and kill living beings.
  • Do not dig up insects hibernating in the earth in winter.
  • Do not carelessly climb trees to plunder nests and disturb birds’ eggs.
  • Do not catch birds or animals in cages or nets.
  • Do not startle birds or animals.

Sometimes it’s thought that these precepts only reflect a concern for the environment insomuch as harm to the environment could harm the community itself. We might compare this to the founder of Deep Ecology, Arne Naess’ idea of “shallow ecology” which is primarily geared towards the health and affluence of people in the developed world. However, Daoism views humans as embedded in the world, not as separate from it as environmental thought in the West historically has. These precepts go beyond a sense of separation, reflecting a concern for animals and for the earth itself for their own sake, not because of what they provide us. While Daoism does see humans as holding a unique place in nature because of our powerful ability to impact the world for better or worse, perhaps it is more a difference in magnitude rather than a difference in kind. This view would be closer to the ecological egalitarianism of Deep Ecology as Naess saw it, in which all life on earth had a right to exist and thrive. In Daoist thinking we refer to this as an attitude of “nurturing life” (yangsheng 养生).

Ecologist Stephan Harding also pointed out this similarity in an interview with Tom Levitt. “Deep Ecology is a kind of western Daoism. It focuses on the notion of simple in means, but rich in ends. You live a very materially simple life, but you have really rich experiences living very simply. This requires a deep connection with nature.”1 The ancient Daoists developed a deep connection with nature and a keen knowledge of the natural world through close observation (guan 觀) in which they sought to understand the underlying patterns and laws of nature (li 理). This has influenced Daoist practice ever since, as guan still refers to a type of meditation where the powers of observation are also turned within. It also became a name for monasteries or places of meditation. Daoists have often lived their lives in proximity to and even among Indigenous communities in China who lived in much closer relationship with the earth, just as Indigenous peoples the world over have done since time immemorial. Allusions to the natural world abound in Daoist teachings. We find references to valleys, mountains, plants, trees, caves, numerous animals, and the like.

Perhaps the most well-known allusion to nature in Daoism is water and the many ways it is used in the tradition. In the Daode Jing, chapter 8 says, “The highest good is like water. It excels in benefiting all beings without contending with them. It dwells in low places that people disdain, hence it is near to the Dao.” Water is used as an example to be emulated for its flexibility, adaptability, and humility, yet we also see in this quote that its highest good is in its ability to benefit all beings. If we are to take water as an example to follow then we should also seek to benefit all beings, in other words, seek the highest good for ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. Non-contention (buzheng 不爭) is another traditional Daoist value also mentioned in this passage. If we follow this principle, we will refrain from fighting wars over resources and scraps of land, instead seeking to find solutions which aim for the best outcome for all parties involved.

​The modern practice of Shinrinyoku or forest bathing, while not directly inspired by Daoist practice, shares many similarities. So much so that one of the Daoist priests responsible for developing the “Daoist Ecological Temples” in China, Ren Xing Zhi, Abott of the ancient Daoist Temple of Louguantai, created the Heavenly Harmony Garden Forest Bathing Area (天谐园森林浴场) at Tiejieshu Temple on Mt. Taibai near Xian in 2005. Forest bathing in Japan was originally envisioned as a way to tackle the physical and psychological health problems plaguing Japanese office workers in the 1980s. Again, we might compare this early motivation to Naess’ “shallow ecology”.

The practice has grown to concern itself with finding a deeper sense of connection with nature and a deeper relationship with the more-than-human world and the many other beings which call our planet home. It has evolved to have an outlook more in line with the Daoist and Deep Ecology view of nurturing life for its own sake. There are many parallels and similarities between Daoism and Forest bathing practice such as carefree wandering (xiaoyao you 逍遥游), observation (guan 觀) in a sit spot, listening to the wordless teachings of nature (buyan zhi jiao 不言之教), and perhaps above all, returning to a natural state of simplicity (fanpu 返樸). I’ve discussed these and other similarities in greater depth elsewhere.2

While Daoism is typically seen as a path to inner peace for individuals, it has much to offer the modern world in terms of outer peace as well — peace and harmony between individuals, nations, and above all with the more-than-human world.

Some of this material was adapted from my books Tao of Sustainability (Three Pines Press, 2016) and The Hundred Remedies of the Tao (Inner Traditions, 2023)

This article originally appeared in Pathways Magazine



2. Ripley, Gregory. “Daoist Forest Bathing: Finding Community with the More-than-Human World.” Journal of Daoist Studies 17 (2024): 186–198



Gregory Ripley

I’m the author of The Hundred Remedies of the Tao and The Tao of Sustainability. I’m an ordained Daoist Priest and Nature & Forest Therapy Guide.