The originator of Taoism is thought to be Lao-tzu. Lao-tzu lived around 500BCE and was a contemporary of Confucius.
Alan Watts, with his usual insight wrote, “The essence of Lao-tzu’s philosophy is the difficult art of getting out of one’s own way – of learning how to act without forcing conclusions, of living in skilful harmony with the processes of nature instead of trying to push them around.”
The Tao has been taken traditionally to mean “The Way” – The Way of Nature, The Way of the Universe, the inherent, natural essence of life. (There is some informed opinion that the reference to “the Way” in the Christian gospels, particularly St John’s Gospel reflects the influence of Taoism.)
Lao-tzu, himself never defined Tao, largely because it can’t be defined. We can’t know it, feel it or sense it simply because it is the whole substance of feeling, sensing, of living and existing. We are always ensconced in the Tao. We can’t get outside it to describe it.
The first line of the Tao Te Ching, which is attributed to Lao-tzu famously says, “The Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”
Taoism was a precursor to Buddhism. Two of its principles are spontaneity and detachment which later were absorbed into Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism. There is also a certain passivity, a propensity to accept whatever comes along in Taoism. Behind this there is a mastery that requires no action. Again as it is written in the Tao Te Ching,
“The sage manages affairs without action
And spreads doctrines without words . . .
By acting without action, all things will be in order.”
Some of this thinking is reflected in the little poem the Jesuit Thomas Mereton wrote in The Way of Chuang Tzu. (Chuang Tzu was Lao-tzu’s famous successor.)
The man in whom Tao
Acts without impediment
Does not bother with his own interests
And does not despise
Others who do.
He does not struggle to make money
And does not make a virtue of poverty.
He goes his way without relying on others
And does not pride himself
On walking alone.
While he does not follow the crowd
He won’t complain of those who do.
Rank and reward
Make no appeal to him.
He is not always looking
For right and wrong
Always deciding “Yes” or “No”.
– Thomas Merton
[The most famous parable of Chuang Tzu is one where he related he had a dream and dreamt he was a butterfly. On waking he could not determine whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man!]
But perhaps the concept that had the greatest effect on later philosophies is non-duality.
The closest Lao-tzu came to defining Tao was when he wrote,
“There is a thing, formless yet complete. Before heaven and earth it existed. Without sound, without substance, it stands alone and unchanging. It is all-pervading and unfailing. We do not know its name, but we call it Tao. Being one with nature, the sage is in accord with the Tao.”
Hence there is no thing separate from another – all things are the manifestation of Tao.
Compare this with Einstein’s famous quote:
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe .We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.”
The underlying beauty and truth of many of the concepts of Taoism were explored by Fritjof Capra some thirty years ago in his book The Tao of Physics. Capra, himself a physicist showed uncanny parallels between some of the spiritual concepts in the Eastern traditions of Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism and quantum physics.
Many of the concepts of Taoism found their way into other religions, particularly Christianity, Buddhism and the Sufi version of Islam. One of the poems of Rumi (the great Sufi poet) resonates with the Taoist desire to subjugate the Ego.
That servant for whom the world lovingly wept
The world now rejects; what did he do wrong?
His crime was that he put on borrowed clothes
and pretended that he owned them
At first sight the concepts of Tao may seem to be vague and of little practical use. They are however insightful and a great antidote for the obsessed and driven lives many of us lead.
I am going to leave the final words of this week’s blog to two of my favourite authors. Firstly let me quote again Alan Watts:
“ according to Lao-tzu, the way back, or forward, to harmony with the Tao is, in the profoundest and most radical sense, to do nothing at all. But I said this was so much more easily done than said, because the moment we begin to talk or think about it, it becomes immensely difficult to understand, to clear from innumerable interpretations. In the Chinese language, this special kind of doing nothing is called wu-wei – literally non-doing or non-striving.”
The hard thing for the western mind to comprehend is that wu-wei has no outcome in mind. The Taoist adopts this strategy knowing whatever comes from it, if it is devoid of ego and therefore of desire, helps to reconcile with the Tao. Whatever eventuates will be beneficial.
I am a great fan of the Australian cartoonist, poet and philosopher Michael Leunig. In his beautiful little book, The Curly Pyjama Letters he had his character Mr Curly write to his friend, the globe-trotting Vasco Pyjama. Vasco had asked Mr Curly the question, “What is worth doing and what is worth having?” Mr Curly responded in a very Taoist manner:
“It is worth doing nothing and having a rest.”
If you want to explore some of the concepts from Taoism that found their way into Buddhism – particulary, non-dualism and detachment – you might like to read Chapters1, 3, 17, &24 from Augustus Finds Serenity.