Taoism I - General

               By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo         


Evolved individuals hold to the Tao,

And regard the world as their Pattern.

They do not display themselves;

Therefore they are illuminated.

They do not define themselves

Therefore they are distinguished.

They do not make claims;

Therefore they are credited.

They do not boast;

Therefore they advance.

 The Tao that can be talked about is not the real Tao.

He who knows does not speak,

He who speaks does not know.

Why cannot we talk of the real Tao? This is because the real Tao is not a concept, and therefore words cannot describe it. It is something that existed before there were words, before there was human speech, before there was even thought. It is something that must be lived and experienced and not just talked about. All Chinese philosophy has tried to unify Heaven, Earth and mankind, the sublime and the mundane, the material and the spiritual. The Chinese have always tried to integrate man and nature, knowing that man and nature are not two things, two separate entities, but are always one. The ancient Chinese had a holistic, ecological view of life, in which our existence on earth only makes sense if it is linked with the sun, the moon and the stars, the wind and the rain, and all the other processes of nature. Alone, we are nothing. They knew that all life depended on all other life for its existence, and that thinking of things as separate is only possible intellectually. In reality nothing can be separated.

Tao is the way or path. It also means the way of looking at the world, a certain attitude of mind, a philosophy. It refers to a nameless, formless, all-pervasive power, which brings all things into being and revert them back into non-being in an eternal cycle. Traditionally one cannot over stress the importance of following the path of the Tao--------that is taking no action that is contrary to nature, and finding one's place in the natural order of things. It is an ancient Chinese philosophy whose wellspring is the unformed, unnameable guiding principle of Tao. Tao takes form as a pair of opposites, known as yin and yang, which in turn weave together and interrelate to create the 'ten thousand things'. Although its basis is mystical, its application is practical. Taoism has inspired politics, philosophy, religion, medicine, art and science. Nowadays people are taught that if they try hard enough they will succeed, but this striving leads to stress and suffering. Taoists believe that you can accomplish more without effort. You become One with Tao when you attune yourself to the rhythms of life so that you can develop your talents fully. Through this ancient philosophy, you discover a new way to calmness and creativity as well as strategies for living. Taoism blends well with other philosophies, such as Zen and Confucianism, providing an always available source of wisdom.

Taoism has had a significant impact on the development of Chinese civilization and its ideas pervade virtually all aspects of the culture. Some of Taoism's most surprising contributions to Chinese and world civilization have been scientific. In the course of deciphering the pattern of the natural world in order to benefit mankind, a number of important discoveries were made. For example, the search for “elixir of immortality” led not only to the invention of gunpowder, but also notable advances in Chinese medicine. In order to align human life with cosmic energy, the magnetic compass was also devised---its first use was in fengshui.

Taoism is extremely difficult to define. This is because of its adoption of the many different and distinctive forms of new ideas, personalities and practices including philosophical discourses, fresh revelations, the activities and techniques of shamans and makers of elixirs and various deities. The schools of Taoism have never been united under a single authority, and the development of systematic teachings has not been an overriding concern, although there is an organic unity in the various expressions of Taoism especially in the quest for longevity.

The Taoist contributions to Chinese religious practice and belief have been overt and subtle. It is highly visible in some of the most important rituals, notably healing rites and funerals, and in techniques to attain immortality. However in most other areas of religious practice its presence is less obvious.

Chinese religion is an amalgam of the “Three Teachings” (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism) and the folk tradition. All three formal teachings provide methods for self-cultivation and transformation, but have different approaches, which reflect concerns specific to each. Confucianism primarily addresses matters of government and social behavior. Buddhism provides an elaborate cosmology, a structured priesthood and detailed theory of the afterlife. Taoism meets other needs, and offers methods of spiritual and physical healing, a means of commerce with the spirit world, and securing blessings and protection. Of the three major teachings, Taoism is the most closely linked to the popular local tradition, varying somewhat from region to region.

Few people identify exclusively to either Taoism or Confucianism: they overlap in their allegiance. The Confucian literati also practice Taoist arts. Taoist concerns and practices are clearly expressed in the quest for longevity and in sensitivity toward the seasonal patterns of change of nature.

Historically, Confucianism and Taoism have always served as foils for each other, and are examples of yin-yang complementarity in Chinese religion. The image of the worldly Confucian is contrasted with the Taoist recluse seeking an escape from human concerns. The Confucian observance of the rules of etiquette is set against the Taoist frequent flouting of social convention. Within individuals a person may exhibit Confucian values in their professional life, but express Taoist qualities when retired or relaxing with friends. The mode of behavior is chosen to suit the appropriateness of the situation.

Although there are about 1473 texts in the Taoist canon, most of them were so abstruse that it was very difficult to decipher. Also, very few copies of the canon were available until the twentieth century. Western scholars were also slow to study the texts because they were appalled by the magical and exorcistic practices, but in the latter half of the 20th century the Taoist elaborate religious tradition was finally unfold, helped by the discoveries in tombs at Mawangdui and Guodian.

Besides China, Taoism also made an impact on Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Indo-Chinese civilizations. Taoism was understated in these countries, because it was integrated subtly into the local religious practices, especially nature cults, geomancy, divination, and shamanism. This influence became increasingly diffuse in later centuries. The Taoist practices of taiji quan, qigong, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine continue to thrive not only in East Asia but beyond the region as well.

The Taoist priesthood is strong in Taiwan, and Taoist communities have reappeared in mainland China. Taoism is also appealing to the West because of its naturalistic mysticism and its concept of a universe in which humans and the natural world are integrated.

Words and names are not required in the Tao

Words and names are superfluous in describing or understanding the Tao. As the Tao has no objective reality of its own, it has to be experienced subjectively. Tao is not a religion: that is Taoism. It is a philosophy, a pursuit of wisdom and a study of natural realities. However words are needed to explain how the Tao came to be written down, so that we know what part it played in history and its relevance today.

Tao is such a wise universal principle that it is best to understand it. Although in describing the Tao, the words have been built into such exquisite poetry, but the ideas and concept are much more cogent than the words. The word Tao is mostly translated as 'the Way'. It is around us all the time since our birth, and yet we do not notice it. It is only when it is pointed to us that we realize our own Tao unexpectedly. It is an integral part of our life and we can do nothing but to walk this 'path of our life'. This path of ours tend to shift like water (another meaning of Tao), and subsequently we are faced with another puzzle or conundrum. The Chinese character of Tao has as many as thirteen meanings.

Tao is a principle, which we learn to feel and understand in order to be in harmony with the world and Nature. The more we are in harmony, the easier it is to prolong life. Tao is ultimately the source of all things and also its many manifestations, which means that when we are more aware, we become more conscious of the duality of everything.

In this way, we meet with paradoxes every day: if it is the void (no-place) it is also the energy within that void; if it is pure energy then no-thing can contain it. Tao exists and yet it also gives rise to everything created. It is miraculous and yet equally beautiful. The prime requirements for following the Tao are a life of simplicity, communion with nature, denial of selfishness and a mystical union with the Ultimate. These would lead to three qualities of compassion, reserve or frugality and humility---the three treasures of the Tao Te Ching. These three treasures help us to understand others, accept what we cannot change and maintain our equilibrium no matter what transpires. These three treasures are really all that are needed to follow the Tao and yet they are very difficult to practice. In order to lessen this difficulty, one must accept the principle that striving is unnecessary and that non-action is the right response, particularly as far as our worst attribute is concerned. The Chinese for this is 'Wu Wei', which does not mean doing nothing. It means deliberately not doing anything against the course of nature, which is allowed to unfold on its own.

Throughout history many adherents are attracted by Taoism and they become associated with it. Physical immortality was the main attraction right from the beginning for most schools. When various sets bring in their philosophical thought, some of the purity is lost. In addition when rituals and practices are introduced to achieve their goals, a religion is born together with their own hierarchical structure. The original Taoist scriptures embraced admirably the universal principle as well as the individual way of being. The chronological order of the early scriptures is:

1)         The I Ching ( Book of Change) predates the Tao Te Ching and therefore may not be classified as an early Taoist scripture. The I Ching is a book of divination, which was considered an integral part of the process of government. However it embraces the healing and alchemical part of Taoism and the outward form of oracles. It also incorporates manuals of correct action and a balanced viewpoint.  Both Confucians and Taoists esteem the I Ching, whose symbolism colors the esoteric language of the Taoist spiritual alchemy.

2)         The Tao Te Ching: Written by Lao Tse with 81 chapters. It is divided into the book of the Tao (chapters 1-37) and the book of Te (chapters 38 ---81). This is the fundamental Taoist text which others are based. The next work is separated from this first exposition by 200 years.

3)         Chuang Tse: Written supposedly by Chuang Tse and others. There are seven inner and twenty-six miscellaneous and outer chapters.

4)         Lieh Tse: Attributed to Lieh Tse containing 111 chapters.

This book emphasizes the certainty of our annihilation, resigning oneself to fate and avoiding too much effort in life.

Lastly, there would have been manuals teaching meditation and visualization. Most of these teach generation, transformation and circulation of chi (internal energy). The two main goals are jing (stillness and calmness) and ding (concentration and focus). When stillness and silence are achieved, a transcendental state of mind will allow intuitive insights to arise. This is achieved by emptying the mind and replacing it with pure awareness. At this stage, the individual could possibly experience his own Tao.

Classification of Taoism

1)         This is a tough job because its history was established over several centuries. Traditionally, a distinction is made between “philosophical” Taoism, identified as one of many strands of thought that arose during the Late Warring States Period (403-221bce), and “religious” Taoism. The latter denotes a variety of religious movements, communities, scriptures, and practices, the first of which appeared at the end of the Han dynasty (206bce—220ce). The tradition has proved difficult to define because it draws on a wide range of apparently divergent ideas and practices. However, there is a continuity between both the religious and philosophical traditions, particular in the quest for longevity, the use of quiescence as a mode of being and cultivation, and identification of the Tao (Way) as the source of all things.

2)         More recently, Livia Kohn suggested that, “within the Taoist tradition.... one can distinguish three types of organization and practice: literati, communal, and self-cultivation.”

Literati Taoists are members of the educated elite who focus on Taoist ideas as expressed by the ancient thinkers. They use these concepts to create meaning in their world and hope to exert some influence on the political and social situation of their time, contributing to greater universal harmony, known as the state of Great Peace (taiping). Communal Taoists are found in many different positions and come from all levels of society. They are members of organized Taoist groups who have priestly hierarchies, formal initiations, regular rituals, and prayers to the gods... The third group of Taoists focuses on self-cultivation.... They too come from all walks of life, but rather than communal rites, their main concern is the attainment of personal health, longevity, peace of the mind, and spiritual immortality.

The Tao

The Tao is Formless and Vague!

It is Hidden, Mysterious and Dark!

It is the source of all things.

Yes. The Tao is also silent. It is formless and it is also a Mysterious Female. The Tao is also nameless:

Named, it is the Mother of all beings.

Tao is the source of heaven and earth.

The Tao does not talk. The Tao and the Sage: they never argue.

The Tao is everywhere.

The Tao does not command: it is not bossy. We never say let Tao's will be done as in Christianity's 'Thy will be done'. Our advice is “be in harmony” with the Tao.

The great Tao flows everywhere,

to the left and to the right

All things depend upon it to exist,

and it does not abandon them.

To its accomplishment it lays no claim.

It loves and nourishes all things,

but does not lord over them.

                                                Lao Tse

The Tao is not arrogant.

When the superior man hears of the Tao,

         he practices it.

When the ordinary man hears of the Tao,

         he ignores it.

When the inferior man hears of the Tao,

         he laughs at it.

If it were not laughed at,

        it would not be the true Tao.

The Tao is ever spontaneous

The Tao has no purpose,

And for this reason fulfills

all its purpose admirably.

Has the stream flowing down the hill a purpose? Has the tree that grows big and strong a purpose? Then should a human being have a purpose in everything he does? Most of the time there is no purpose: we think there is a purpose when a man works for a living. He can have any sort of work to earn a living. He can even not work and still live: he can beg, he can scrounge or even steal. One should not have an attitude that one should always have a purpose. Sometimes a purposeless action may serve a grand purpose.

The Tao is Good But not Moral

Now What Really is the TAO?

The Tao is unknowable, vast, and eternal. As undifferentiated void, pure spirit, it is the mother of the cosmos. As non-void, it is the container, the sustainer and, in a sense, the being of the myriad objects, permeating everything. As the goal of existence, it is the Way of Heaven, of Earth, of Man. No being, it is the source of Being. It is not conscious of activity, has no purpose, seeks no rewards or praise, yet performs all things to perfection. Like water, it wins its way by softness. Like a deep ravine, it is shadowy rather than brilliant. As Lao Tse taught, it is best to leave things to the Tao, letting it take its natural course without interference; ‘for, the weakest thing in heaven and earth, it overcomes the strongest; proceeding from no place, it enters where there is no crack. Thus do I know the value of non-activity. Few are they who recognize the worth of the teaching without words and non-activity.'

The Tao is Nameless. Nothing can be said about it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Words limit, but the Tao is limitless. It is the Great Void free from characteristics, self-existent, undifferentiated, vast beyond conception, yet present in full in a tiny seed. It is also T’ai Chi (the Ultimate Cause, the Mainspring of Cosmos). It is also T’ai I (the Great Changer), for its changes and convolutions never cease. It is also T’ien (Heaven), the source of governance and orderliness. It is the Mother of Heaven and Earth, without whose nourishment nothing could exist.

This conception of the Tao makes it much greater than God, since theists hold that God and the creatures of his creation are forever separate. The Christian aspires to live in God’s presence, but does not dream that creatures can be one with God! Therefore God is less than infinite, excluding what is not God. To a Taoist, nothing is separate from the Tao. As the Tao Te Ching says ‘The universe had a prior cause, which may be called the Mother. Know the Mother that you may know the child; know the Child that you may grasp the Mother.’ In other words, the world of form is not to be understood unless the void is grasped, nor the void to be penetrated without understanding the world of form. These two are aspects of One.

Again, ‘I do not know its name, so I call it Tao. If you insist on a description, I may call it vast, active, moving in great cycles…… “Nothingness” is the name for it prior to the universe’s birth. “Being” is the name for it as the Mother of the Myriad Objects. Therefore when you seek to behold its content, you see that it is being.’

Such then is the concept of the Ultimate inherited by Taoists from the ancients.

The Tao is that from which one cannot deviate; that from which one can deviate is not the Tao. This sentence suggests that there is no analogy between Tao and the Western ideas of God and of divine law, which can be obeyed or disobeyed. But not the Tao, which does not entertain forced actions, according to Lao Tse and Chuang Tse. People try to force issues only when not realizing that it cannot be done---------that there is no way of deviating from the Tao. Whether one likes it or not, there is no other way other than the Way. As Lao Tse put it: “The Tao principle is what happens of itself (tzu-jan). This also is the opening of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao which can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.”

The ideogram for tao means moving step by step and the full ideogram the Tao gives the basic meaning of “to go ahead.” Numerous translators also have called it the Way, Reason, Providence, the Logos and even God. The Tao is not God in the sense of the ruler, monarch, architect and maker of the universe. The image of the military and political overlord, or a creator external to nature, has no place in the idea of Tao.

Yet the Tao is most certainly the ultimate reality and energy of the universe, the Ground of being and non-being.

The Tao has reality and evidence, but no action and no form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be attained but cannot be seen.

It exists by and through itself. It existed before heaven and earth, and indeed for all eternity. It causes the God to be divine and the world to be produced. It is above the zenith, but it is not high. It is beneath the nadir, but is not low. Though prior to heaven and earth, it is not ancient.

Though older than the most ancient, it is not old.

The Taoist term, tzu-jan is translated as nature, which also means spontaneous. Nature may also be taken to mean that everything grows and operates independently on its own:

       (As I) sit quietly, doing nothing,

        Spring comes and grass grows of itself.

In the Taoist view, everything or event is what it is only in relation to all others. The earth, and every tiniest thing upon it, inevitably ‘goes with’ the sun, moon and stars. It needs them as much as it needs its own elements. Conversely, the sun would not be light without eyes, nor would the universe ‘exist’ without consciousness----and vice versa. This is the principle of “mutual arising” (hsiang sheng).

Individuality is inseparable from community. In other words, the order of nature is not a forced order; it is not the result of laws and commandments which beings are compelled to obey by external violence, for in the Taoist view there really is no obdurately external world. My inside arises mutually with my outside, and though the two may differ they cannot be separated.  Because of the mutual interdependence of all beings, they will harmonize if left alone and not forced into conformity with some arbitrary, artificial, and abstract notion of order, and this harmony will emerge naturally (tzu-jan) of itself, without external compulsion. No political and commercial organizations is organic: these are based on the following of linear rules and laws imposed from above. They are strung-out as serial, one-thing-at-a-time sequences of words and signs, which can never grasp the complexity of nature, although nature is only ‘complex’ in relation to the impossibility of translating it into linear signs. Our fear is that the Tao is actually chaos. Although Lao Tse did use the term hun, which means obscure, chaotic or turgid, but chaos here does not signify mess or disorder. It is probably in the sense of hsuan, which is deep, dark and mysterious prior to any classification and naming of the features of the world.

The un-named is heaven and earth's origin;

Naming is the mother of ten thousand things.

Whenever there is no desire (or intention),

one beholds the mystery;

Whenever there is desire, one beholds the manifestations.

The two have the same point of departure,

but differ (because of ) the naming.

The identity is hsuan-----

hsuan  beyond hsuan, all mystery's gate.

The “chaos” of hsuan is the nature of the world before any distinctions have been marked out and named. But as soon as even one distinction has been made, as between yin and yang or 0 and 1, all that we call the laws or principles of mathematics, physics, and biology follow of necessity. But this necessity does not appear to be a compulsion or force outside the system itself. The order of the Tao is not an obedience to anything else. As Chuang Tse says, “It exists by and through itself”; it is sui generis (self-generating), tsu-jan (of itself so).

Huai Nan Tzu says:

The Tao of Heaven operates mysteriously and secretly; it has no fixed shape; it follows no definite rules (wu-tse); it is so great that you can  never come to the end of it; it is so deep that you never fathom it.

But though the Tao is wu-tse (non-law), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly but not defined by the book because it has too many dimensions and too many variables. This kind of order is the principle of li, which has the sense of such patterns as the markings in jade or the grain in wood. Li may therefore be understood as organic order, as distinct from mechanical or legal order. Li is the asymmetrical, non-repetitive, and un-regimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water or clouds or frost crystals on the window. It was through the appreciation of li that landscape painting arose in China long before Europeans got the point of it. But who can straighten out water? Water is the essence of life and is Lao Tse favorite image of the Tao.

            The highest good is like water,

            for the good of water is that it nourishes everything without striving.

            It occupies the place which all men think bad (the lowest level).

            It is thus that Tao in the world is like a

             river going down the valley to the ocean.

            The most gentle thing in the world overrides the most hard.

            How do coves and oceans become kings of a hundred rivers?

            Because they are good at keeping low---

            That is how they are kings of the hundred rivers.

            Nothing in the world is weaker than water,

            But it has no better in overcoming the hard.

To sum up, Tao is the flowing course of nature and the universe; li is its principle of order which, can be translated as “organic pattern”; and water is its eloquent metaphor. But we cannot explain li by laying it out flat, as in a geometrical diagram, or define it is the linear order of words. Another reason why the Tao and its pattern escape us is that they are ourselves, and we are

Like a sword that cuts but cannot cut itself;

Like an eye that sees but cannot see itself.

Thus, we have to trust and go with the Tao as the source and ground of our own being which “may be attained but not seen.” Distinguishing organic pattern from mechanical and linear is quite obvious. The former is evolving in a live organism while the latter is an assemblage of mechanical and electrical parts i.e. assembling from the outside. The former is an internal growth from the inside.

The Tao is also not considered the boss and creator of our organic universe. It may reign but does not rule. It is the pattern of things but not the enforced law. Thus we read in the Fan Fei Tzu book (early---3rd century):

Tao is that whereby all things are so, and with which all principles agree.

Principles (li) are the markings (wen) of completed things. Tao is whereby all things become complete. Therefore it is said that Tao is what gives principles. When things have their principles, the one (thing) cannot be the other. All things have each their own different principle, whereas Tao brings the principles of all things into single agreement. Therefore it can be both one thing and another, and is not in one thing only.

The Taoists say that seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other. However, when it is looked at section by section we find conflict. The biological world is a mutual eating society in which every species is the prey of another. But if there were any species not preyed upon by another, it would increase and multiply to its own self-strangulation. In this fashion human beings can destroy themselves if they totally destroy all bacteria. So anyone who governs the world puts everything and himself in danger.

Those who would take over the world and manage it,

I see that they cannot grasp it;

for the world is a spiritual (shen) vessel and cannot be forced.

Whoever forces it spoils it.

Whoever grasps it loses it.         Lao Tse

Just as every point on the surface of a sphere may be seen as the center of the surface, so every organ of the body and every being in the cosmos may be seen as its center and ruler. As in the Hindu-Buddhist karma---that everything which happens to you is your own action and doing. In some mystical states, the world of duality breaks into non-duality (as in a satori) so that there is no difference between what happens to you and what you do. The line between voluntary and involuntary disappears. Is everything voluntary? Or is everything involuntary: there is no “I” and no will. In Taoism, these two are merely two views of seeing the same truth: there is no ruler and nothing ruled. What goes on simply happens of itself (tzu -jan), without push or pull, since every push is also a pull. This is, again, the principle of “mutual arising”. As the universe produces our consciousness, our consciousness evokes the universe. The principle of causality is a lame way of connecting the various stages of an event, but the sequence of events is just one event. The single event is the universe itself, li, is the rationale of the world.

Tao is an unconscious formative energy, like a magnetic field. Although the Taoists speak of the universe as the “ten thousand things” (wan wu), it does not imply that it is the sum of  separate objects. Things are not so much as entities as differentiations or forms in the unified field of Taoism.

The universe came into being with us together; with us, all things are one.

The Tao is simply inconceivable, and therefore it is useless saying another word about it. Intuitively, we know there is a dimension of ourselves and of nature which eludes us because it is too close, too general, and too all-embracing to be singled out as a particular object. This dimension is the ground of all the astonishing forms and experiences of which we are aware. Because we are aware, it cannot be unconscious, although we are not conscious of it--as an external thing. We can give it a name but cannot make any definitive statement about it. The only way of apprehending it is by watching the process and patterns of nature, and by the meditative discipline of allowing our minds to become quiet, so as to have vivid awareness of “what is” without verbal comment.

Yin and Yang

At the roots of all Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity. This should not be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In all other cultures, the opposites tend to get rid of one another: life with death, good against evil and positive with the negative. To the Chinese thinking, it is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles. This is because polarity is the principle that + and -, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and the disappearance of one of them would be the eradication of the system.

In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), and their conventional signs are respectively ─── and ─ ─. The ideograms indicate the sunny and shady side of a hill, and are associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth. The art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other. The yang and yin are principles, not men and women, so that there can be no true relationship between the tough male and the affectedly flimsy female. The key to this relationship is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability. As Lao-tzu puts it:

When everyone knows beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness;

When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil.

“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;

Difficulty and easy are mutually realized;

Long and short are mutually contrasted;

High and low are mutually posited......

Before and after are in mutual sequence.

They are thus like the different, but inseparable, sides of a coin or the poles of a magnet. There is never the ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting. Being and non-being are mutually generative and supportive. The great terror of the Westerner is that nothingness will be the permanent end of the universe. We do not understand the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from non-being as sound from silence and light from space.

Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and spaces, as well as the wakings and sleepings and the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually necessary. How, one might ask, would you know that you are alive unless you had once been dead? This principle also has a parallel to the Buddhist view of form: “That which is form is just that which is emptiness, and that which is emptiness is just that which is form.” The yin-yang principle is not what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.

One yin and one yang is called the Tao. The passionate union of yin and yang and the copulation of husband and wife is the eternal pattern of the universe. If heaven and earth did not mingle, whence would everything receive life?

Both Lao Tse and Chuang Tse mention the yin-yang polarity, but there is no reference to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, in which the permutations and combinations of the two forces are worked out in detail, in terms of the sixty-four hexagrams of yin and yang. Yet the I Ching is supposed to have been the most ancient of all the Chinese classics, dating from as far back as the -2nd or even -3rd millennium. Since both these masters neither mention it or quote it, what is the authenticity of this book? It looks as if the I Ching, as a specific text, does not appear to influence Taoism until after the days of Lao Tse and Chuang Tse. However, both the I Ching and early Taoism recognize that opposites are polar or interdependent, and that there is something in us called “the Unconscious”, which may be called upon for a higher wisdom than can be figured out by logic.

The yin-yang view of the world is serenely cyclic. Fortunes and misfortune, life and death, whether on small scale or vast, come and go everlastingly without beginning or end, and the whole system is protected from monotony by the fact that, in just the same way, remembering alternates with forgetting. If there is anything basic to Chinese culture, it is attitude of respectful trust towards nature and human nature--- despite wars, revolutions, mass executions, starvation, floods droughts and all manner of horrors. There is nothing in their philosophy like the notion of original sin or the Theravada Buddhist feeling that existence itself is a disaster. The Chinese basic philosophy is if you cannot trust nature and other people, you cannot trust yourself. So that without this underlying trust in the whole system of nature you are simply paralyzed. So Lao-tzu said as a ruler:

I take no action and people are reformed.

I enjoy peace and people become honest.

I use no force and people become rich.

I have no ambitions and people return to the good and simple life.

Ultimately, of course, it is not really a matter of oneself, on the one hand, trusting nature, on the other. It is a matter of realizing that oneself and nature are one and the same process, which is the Tao.

The Five Elements (wu hsing)

These were symbolized as (1) wood, which as fuel gives rise to (2) fire, which creates ash and gives rise to (3) earth, which in its mines contains (4) metal, which (as on the surface of a metal mirror) attracts dew and so gives rise to (5) water, and this in turn nourishes (1) wood. This is called the hsiang sheng or “mutual arising” order of the forces, and it has the special interest of describing a cycle in which cause and effect are not sequential but simultaneous. The forces are so interdependent that no one can exist without all the others, just as there can be no yang without yin. The order of “mutual conquest” in which (1) wood, in the form of the plow, overcomes (2) earth which, by damming and constraint, conquers (3) water which, by quenching , overcomes (4) fire which, by melting, liquefies (5) metal which, in turns cuts (1) wood. Conscious attention scans the cycle sequentially, but existentially the whole clock is present while the hand moves. Lao Tse puts it as “before and after are in mutual sequence.” there cannot be any “before” unless there is an “after,” and vice versa, and six o'clock has no meaning without the whole series of hours from one to twelve.

“(From) Tao arises One; from One arises Two; from Two arises Three; and from Three arise the ten thousand things.”

In other words, no number has any significance except in relation to those which precede and those which follow. Thus if we were to omit 13 from the series of integers, 1,000 would have to be 999, since that would be the actual value of the figure. That means we cannot omit one figure without upsetting the entire system. Thus the view of the universe is organic and relational--- not a mechanism, artifact, or creation, analogous to a military hierarchy in which there is a Supreme Commander.

In the yin-yang and wu hsing theories this organic view of the world is implicit, but it becomes explicit in Lao Tse, Chuang Tse and Lieh Tse. The greatest exponent of this organic view was the Buddhist Fa-tsang (+643 to +712) of the Mahayanist Hua-yen School, whose image of the universe was a multidimensional network of jewels, each one containing the reflections of all the others ad infinitum. Each jewel was a thing-event, and his principle of shih shih wu ai (between one thing-event and another there is no obstruction) expounded the mutual interpenetration and interdependence of everything happening in the universe.  Pick up a blade of grass and all the worlds come with it. In other words, the whole cosmos is implicit in every member of it, and every point in it may be regarded as its center. This is the bare and basic principle of the organic view.


“The Tao does nothing and yet nothing is left undone.” These words of Lao Tse cannot be taken literally as the principle of wu-wei (non-action) is not to be taken as inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity. The true meaning of wu-wei is “not forcing” or not going against the grain of li. Therefore it literally means going with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming with the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood. It is best exemplified in the Japanese arts of judo and aikido where an opponent is defeated by the force of its own attack. Wu-wei is a combination of wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all one's actions. It is not the mere avoidance of effort. In judo, one still uses muscles only at the right moment, when the opponent is off balance. Wu-wei takes the principle that gravity is energy as water follows gravity: so gravity is a constant stream which may be used in the same way as wind or a current. Falling with gravity constitutes immense energy of the earth spinning in its orbit around the sun.

At the same time Lao Tse pointed out that people would be much better off if they would curb ambition, slow tempo of life, and not despise working with their hands. The Taoist nostalgia for the “true men of ancient times” prompted Chuang Tse to pen these words:

“The men of perfect virtue in repose has no thoughts, in action no anxiety. He recognizes no right, nor wrong, nor good, nor bad. Within the Four Seas, when all profit--- that is his repose. Men cling to him as children who have lost their mothers; they rally around him as wayfarers who have missed their road. He has wealth to spare, but he knows not whence it comes. He has food and drink more than sufficient, but knows not who provides it.

In an age of perfect virtue, good men are not appreciated; ability is not conspicuous. Rulers are mere beacons, while the people are as free as the wild deer. They are upright without being conscious of duty to their neighbors. They love one another without being conscious of charity. They are true without being conscious of loyalty. They are honest without being conscious of good faith. They act freely in all things without recognizing obligation to anyone. Thus their deeds leave no trace; their affairs are not handed down to posterity.”

The message here is that trouble is made by those who strive to improve themselves and the world by forceful means.

Does the Tao and Wu-wei need to be cultivated intentionally by some spiritual practice or psychological discipline like yoga or meditation. Only the Hsien Taoists were influenced by Buddhist and Indian disciplines towards breath control, sexual yoga, alchemy, and medicine for the purpose of attaining immortality, and established a Taoist church with ordained priests and monasteries. But Lao Tse and Chuang Tse were never that interested in immortality and formal meditation.

The True men of old know nothing of the love of life or the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them the want of any mind to resist the Tao, and all attempts by means of the Human to resist the Heavenly.

                                                                                                Chuang Tse

Chuang Tse exulted in just going along with the process:

You have had the nerve to be born human, and you are delighted. But this  body undergoes myriads of changes that never come to an end, and does it not thus afford occasion for joys incalculable? Therefore the sage enjoys himself in that from which there is no possibility of separation, and by which all things are preserved. He considers early death or old age, his beginning and his ending, all to be good, and in this other men imitate him. How much more will they do so in regard to that (Tao) on which all things depend, and from which every transformation arises!

So what is felt as the wayward, unpredictable, dangerous, and even hostile world---including one's capricious emotions and inner feelings---is actually one's own being and doing. The very sense that this is not so is, in turn, part of its being so. Therefore early Contemplative Taoism can never cultivate wu-wei with any form of spiritual practice. As Lao Tse said: “ Superior wu-wei does not aim at wu-wei and so it is truly wu-wei. Understanding it is a matter of getting the point intuitively, not a result of some discipline. Contemplative Taoists will happily sit with yogis and Zennists for as long as is reasonable and comfortable, but when nature tells us that we are “pushing the river” we will get up and do something else, or even go to sleep. More than this is certainly spiritual pride. Taoists do not look upon meditation as “practice”. They have no design to subjugate or alter the universe by force or will power, for their art is entirely to go along with the flow of things in an intelligent way. Meditation or contemplation (kuan) develops this intelligence as a by-product, not as a direct objective. The objective or good of contemplation is only that during a long night,

“The sound of the water says what I think.”

His mind is free from all thoughts. His demeanor is still and silent. His forehead beams with simplicity. He is cold as autumn, and warm as spring, for his joy and anger occur as naturally as the four seasons. (Chuang Tse)

Wu-wei is not intentional caprice. However contemplative Taoists do sit in meditation, but not with the egoistic purpose of improving themselves; it is rather that, having understood intuitively that there is no way to go except the way of the Tao “they make excursion into that which things cannot escape” and meditate for the joy of meditation. This is the yin aspect of the Taoist life, and does not exclude the yang aspect of delighting in vigor, so that the t'ai chi chuan discipline of bodily movement, flowing and swinging, is as much appreciated as sitting in meditation. Chuang Tse came nearly to outline a method of attaining the Tao. He did it by using a sage named Nu Chu, a woman:

There was Pu Liang I, who had the genius of a sage, but not the Tao. I have the Tao, but not the genius. I wished to teach him, so that he might really become a sage. To teach the Tao of a sage to a man who has the genius, seems to be an easy matter. But no, I kept on telling him; after three days, he began to be able to disregard all worldly matters (i.e. anxieties about status or gain and loss). After his having disregarded all worldly matters, I kept on telling him; after seven days he began to be able to disregard all external things (as being separate entities). After his having disregarded all external things, I kept on telling him; after nine days, he began to be able to disregard his own existence (as an ego). Having disregarded his own existence, he was enlightened. Having become enlightened, he was able to gain the vision of the One. Having the vision of the One, he was then able to transcend the distinction of past and present. Having transcended the distinction of past and present, he was then able to enter the realm where life and death are no more. Then, to him, the destruction of life did not mean death nor the prolongation of life an addition to the duration of his existence. He would follow anything; he would receive anything. To him, everything was in destruction, everything was in construction. This is called tranquillity in disturbance. Tranquillity in disturbance means perfection.

Lieh Tse learned to ride on the wind after seven years of practice:

“I was fully unconscious of what my body was resting on, or what was under my feet. I was borne this way and that on the wind, like dry chaff or leaves falling from a tree. In fact, I knew not whether the wind was on me or I on the wind.”

These passages suggest that wu-wei in a sage is almost a dreamlike state of consciousness (floating) so that the physical world lacks the hard reality normally present to the common sense. It is like when Chuang Tse woke up from a dream that he was a butterfly; he was not sure whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tse or Chuang Tse dreaming that he was a butterfly. Wu-wei is to roll with experiences and feelings as they come and go, like a ball in a mountain stream, though actually there is no ball apart from the convolutions and wiggles of the stream itself. This is called “flowing with the moment,” though it can happen only when it is clear that there is nothing else to do, since there is no experience, which is not now. This now-streaming is the Tao itself, and when this is clear innumerable problems vanish. For so long as there is the notion of ourselves as something different from the Tao, all kinds of tensions build up as between “me” on the one hand, and “experiences” on the other. No action, no force (wei) will get rid of this tension arising from the duality of the knower and the known, just as one cannot blow away the night. Light or intuitive understanding, alone will dissipate the darkness. As with the ball in the stream, there is no resistance to the ball going up or going down.

Chuang Tse also said:

Mark what I say! In the case of the body, it is best to let it go along with things. In the case of the emotions, it is best to let them follow where they will. By going along with things, you avoid becoming separated from them. By letting the emotions follow as they will, you avoid fatigue.

But “you” cannot go along with things unless there is the understanding that there is, in truth, no alternative since you and the things are the same process---the now-streaming Tao. The feeling that there is a difference is also that process. There is nothing to do about it. There is only the stream and its myriad convolutions----waves, bubbles, spray, whirlpools, and eddies--- and you are that. So if you have this understanding, the power or te arises spontaneously, or as Christians say, by divine grace as distinct from will-power. In realizing that you are the Tao, you automatically manifest its magic,----but magic, as a grace, is something to which no one should lay claim. As Lao Tse says of the Tao itself, “When good things are accomplished, it does not claim (or, name) them.”

The last feature in this general article on Taoism that is being described is Stillness.


The recluse's heart is a placid lake unruffled by the winds of circumstance.”

This is a famous saying inscribed in many Taoist hermitages. To return to your original state of being one must be a master of stillness. Activity for health's sake, never carried to the point of strain, must alternate with perfect stillness. Sitting motionless as a rock, turn next to stillness of mind. Close the gates of the senses. Fix your mind upon one object or even better, enter a state of objectless awareness. Turn the mind in upon itself and contemplate the inner radiance. In order to help out in this practice, learn to live frugally, unstirred by longings of wealth and fame. When passion or desire arises, see it as your enemy, the disturber of your serenity, and quietly abandon it. Take things as they come. Be a stranger to care to anxiety about what you think is going to happen and, above all, to regret for anything that has already happened. Grief and disappointment come from outside yourself. Lock your door on them. Be rid of them. Having done this, you will find that stillness comes easily and of itself. No effort is needed to fix the mind that has turned away from all sources of disturbance. Do not think that your life will be empty then. Quite on the contrary, you will find that the greatest joy of all is just to be!

In all things Taoists are moderate. Their method is never to repress passion but quietly to transcend it. The ugliness and wreckage wrought by greed and passion will be enough to make a wise man turn away from them. This turning away leads to stillness and, in the meanwhile, daily cultivation of stillness helps in the process of turning away. One turns away from passion to achieve the goal of stillness and makes oneself still in order to be able to turn away. Excess is the real enemy of stillness; to be puritanical, no less than being licentious, is to stray from the Tao. Nothing really worth while can be done in a hurry.  As cultivation of the Way proceeds, passions and longings diminish of themselves without the least need for repression; imperceptibly, the young recluse's happiness comes to depend less and less on upon external objects, more and more upon the joy that comes from within.  Stillness brings an ever-increasing joy in stillness.

References and Bibliography

1. Ball, Pamela, The essence of Tao, 2004, Arcturus Publishing Ltd 26/27 Bickels Yard. 151-153 Bermondsey Street. London SE1 3HA.

2. Blofeld, John, Taoism: The Road to Immortality. 1978  Shambala Publications, Inc.300 Massachusetts Avenue. Boston, Massachusetts 02115.

3. Kirkland Russell, Taoism, The enduring tradition. 2004. Routledge, 270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016.

4. Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer, 2005. Eastern Religions: Taoism. Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd. Castle House, 75-76 Wells Street, London WIT 3QH.

5. Simpkins, C Alexander and Annellen, 1999. Simple Taoism.Tuttle Publishing. 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, Vermont 05759.

6. Smullyan, M. Raymond,1977, The Tao is Silent. Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.

7. Watts, Alan. 1975. Tao: The Watercourse Way. Pantheon Books, Random House, Inc., New York.