The Tao and
The Word Itself:
As D. C. Lau notes, "The English term
'Taoism' is ambiguous. It is used to translate both the Chinese
term tao chia
(the school of the tao) and Tao Chiao (the Taoist
religion)" (Lau 124). It is in some ways a political practice,
in some ways a personal or individual philosophy. In other ways,
it is a mystical school of religion or oriental magic, depending
upon the word's use and the century in which the word appears.
The word Tao is
itself a fairly vague term. (It rhymes with "wow," the
initial t- sounding
more like a d-.) Tao in Mandarin Chinese means "the
way," including all the English variants such as "the
path," or "the road," or "the method."
It is often used especially in the sense of "the path of
life" or "the way of nature" (Schafer 62). The
paradox is that by talking about the Tao, and by attempting
to define the Tao, we ensure that the reader does not actually
grasp the concept. At its heart, the Tao is nonverbal in its essence,
beyond the confines of language. The Tao is an experience
rather than definition. The imagery used to describe this path
is one of emptiness and fullness, fluidity, and constant change.
In some lines in the Tao-te
Ching, the document describes the Tao as
the allness of the universe, as the true reality of existence
beyond the "shadows" of false appearance, as nothingness,
as a synonym for God, as a state of mind or being, as a method
for leaders to rule invisibly by example, as a paradox of opposites,
as wisdom through emptiness. It is at once all these things and
none of them.
First Taoist: The first Taoist philosopher was a semi-mythical
figure named Lao-Tzu. The suffix -tzu means "master"
or "teacher" and the word Lao means "Old
man." Thus, Lao-Tzu simply means, "The Old Teacher," which
makes some scholars suggest that he might not be a historical
figure so much as wisdom personified in folklore. One tradition
states that Lao-Tzu's actual name was Li Erh and he was born
the state of Ch'u before 551 BCE, which would make him a slightly
older contemporary of Confucius.
Lao-Tzu supposedly worked in the court of the Chou dynasty for
most of his life, but eventually grew tired of people who failed
to pay attention to his ideas. In the face of relentless warfare,
human suffering, and an unresponsive government, he decided he
would leave human society and pursue a life of contemplation as
a hermit in the wilderness. The gatekeeper, however, had always
been deeply impressed with Lao-Tzu's teaching. He refused to let
Lao-Tzu exit the court until he had written down his teachings.
The legend has it that Lao-Tzu sat down and wrote the Tao-te
Ching in its entirety at one sitting, entrusted it to
the gatekeeper, and then left the state of Ch'u, never to appear
again in human society.
It is clear that the Tao-te
Ching was originally meant for an audience of Chinese
rulers, much as Confucius intended his philosophy of the five
harmonies for an audience of Chinese rulers as well. The Tao-te
Ching was "a philosophical document as much about good
government as it [was] . . . about moral behavior," as
Stephen Mitchell suggests in the introduction to his translation
of the Tao-te Ching. In the same way that Confucius' political
thoughts eventually evolved into a state religion, Taoism also
became infused with mystical leanings. About the year 150 CE,
a Taoist disciple named Chang Tao-Ling founded Taoism as a religion.
This infusion of mysticism was especially attractive following
the collapse of the late Chou and early Han periods, when Chinese
culture fragmented into three kingdoms and the collapse of political
order left a spiritual vacuum in the land. The old nature religions
in China had been virtually annihilated by zealous Confucianists,
and that void was filled by two competing yet mutually dependent
belief systems, Taoism and Buddhism. Suddenly, Taoism embodied
the philosophical aspects of the Tao in a stylized religious form.
Taoism as a Religion:
While many Western religions emphasize a duality between good
and evil, urging devotees to embrace the good and spurn the evil,
Taoism saw these moral qualities as two extremes of a single spectrum.
Virtue did not lie at one end or the other of this spectrum, but
through carefully maintaining a balance between the two. This
idea is often expressed through the terms Yin (rhymes
with English mean) and Yang (rhymes with
English long). The two words together mean the fundamental
and opposite forces or principles in nature. Yin originally
meant "sunless" or "northern." It was associated
with darkness, femininity, emptiness, coolness, and passivity.
The opposite state was Yang, which originally meant "sunny"
or "southern." Yang was associated with light,
fullness, masculinity, heat, and action. These traits appear
on first inspection. However, that opposition is only a surface
illusion in Taoist belief. In fact, the two states of nature
each other. Just as an art student knows that negative space
around an object is what creates the outline of positive space
in a drawing,
the enlightened Taoist knows that suffering, pain and misery
are necessary for traits like contentment, pleasure, and happiness
to exist. Sickness and health are the same phenomenon; they are
just at far ends of that same phenomenological spectrum. Masculinity
and femininity are also the same thing; they are both the phenomenon
of gender expressed in opposite ways. Love and hatred are also
the same phenomenon, and so on. When the Taoist realizes the
of these divisions, the Taoist realizes that extremes of either
sort are temporary and unnatural. It is the cycle of nature for
the pendulum to swing back and forth from one to the other. By
resisting or refusing to experience these swings, the human throws
himself out of balance with nature, and intensifies the lack
balance and alignment. The great aim of all Taoists was to conform
to the way of nature. They believed that all attempts to behave
in accordance with strict codes of discipline, either personal
or governmental, were artificial and temporary; they tended "to
deform human nature and waste life" as Schafer puts it (62).
Rather than trying to embrace one of the two opposite and reject
the other, the enlightened individual sought balance between
When one realizes the need for balance between yin
and yang, and stops struggling against that which is natural,
one can gain contentment through wu wei, enlightened non-action.
This involves discarding elaborate or needlessly complex plans
to improve oneself and the world. Instead, one must accept the
world (and oneself) as it is. It involves giving up materialistic
desires and living life unplanned, from one fluid moment to another.
This route leads one to Te, a word that in various forms
can mean "moral virtue," "bounty," and "power
or force," or "gratefulness." One learned to live
life spontaneously rather than become trapped in the process
preparing for the unpreparable, avoiding the inevitable, or seeking
the unobtainable. Such a route always leads to a lack of balance.
Taoism as Magical
Practice: By the Han period, Taoism took on
connotations of magic as well. The Taoist religion aimed to enhance
vitality and life by living in accord with nature's shifting balance.
Legends arose that Taoist masters learned to extend their lives
indefinitely, to fly through the clouds, to become invisible.
In the late Han period, a fragmentary anonymous work called, A
Chart of the Magic Art of Being Invisible appears, apparently
a compendium of the techniques of the Taoist adepts (see Birrell
41). Many of these beliefs originated in literal readings of the
Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-Tzu--especially in passages
that were probably meant to be read allegorically. In any case,
hordes of alchemists and magicians streamed into the Han courts
where they attempted to refine crass material substances and make
men immortal. From the imagery in Taoist poetry, they created
a complex symbolism based on red. The holy color red represented
the alchemical furnace and its beautiful, red-robed patron goddess.
Another common symbol was the Manchurian crane, a symbol of longevity
with the red spot of divinity on its crown. Cinnabar, that red
compound of mercury and sulfur, was thought to have magical potency
because it could be turned into a silvery liquid and then back
into a solid. They valued gold--one of the few substances known
to be indestructible (Schafer 62). They experimented with jade,
which traditionally had preservative powers against decay.
Their own bodies became experimental
labs as well. These oriental magicians attempted various athletic
to strengthen their life-force--yogalike gymnastics and stretching
exercises. They prepared and quaffed magical elixirs. They
strict dietary restrictions such as avoiding cereals and grains.
Wang Ch'ung (circa 100 CE) described the Taoist magicians this
way: "They dose themselves with the germ of gold and jade,
eat the finest fruit of the purple polypore fungus. By eating
what is germinal their bodies are lightened, and so they are capable
of spiritual transcendence" (quoted in Schafer 63). A being
who achieved this spiritual transcendence through knowledge of
the Tao was called a hsien, the same word used
to describe an angelic "feathered folk" with winged
or feathered images appearing in Chou art of the period. The
of Chuang-Tzu pictures hsien as white-skinned, delicate
superhuman beings: "These are divine persons dwelling there,
whose flesh and skin resemble ice and snow, soft and delicate
like sequestered girl-children; they do not eat the five cereals;
they suck the wind and drink the dew; they mount on clouds and
vapors and drive the flying dragons--thus they rove beyond the
four seas" (quoted in Schafer 63).
The abstract concepts of Yin and Yang
ultimately became linked with concrete divination. In the I-Ching,
or The Book of Changes, yang was used to describe
the continuous lines and yin the broken lines in a hexagram.
Random drawings in sets of six would then be deciphered using
the I-Ching as a divinatory manual at the courts. Far from
philosophical terms to discuss the process of abstract cycles
in human experience, the magical school of the Tao attempted
to nail the ideas down to practical, concrete results.
The Later Influence of
Taoism: These magical beliefs may seem alien or bizarre
to western readers. Keep in mind, they are the result of what
happens when one reads Taoist literature literally, rather than
attempting to gain the essence of Taoism. If we read the Tao-te
Ching or the Chuang-Tzu writings too literally, we
will almost certainly miss the point, which is usually ethical,
political, or spiritual. What is vital is that the reader
realize how important these ideas are in shaping Chinese poetry,
literature, and philosophy. These Taoist ideas permeate Oriental
thinking to the same degree that Aristotelian binary logic permeates
Occidental thinking. Taoism has influenced art, painting, the
martial arts, the military strategies of Sun-Tzu, certain Mandarin
ideas about reincarnation in adopted Buddhist beliefs, the designs
of Feng-Shui architecture, and the outlook of China generally.
After Lao-Tzu's Tao-te Ching, the second
most famous Taoist text is the Chuang-Tzu. It is
truly a Chinese classic--a text filled with rich allegories emphasizing
the ever-changing-but-always-the-same nature of life. The author,
according the Shih Chi, was named Chuang Chou and
he lived Chou Dynasty as a contemporary of King Hui (369-319
of Wei and King Hsüan of Ch'i. It is commonly asserted by
scholars that his thought was largely derived from Lao-Tzu. Still,
the Chuang-Tzu is a striking and mixed collection. Some
of the earliest chapters probably represent the original author's
thought, but the later chapters probably were added during the
Ch'in and early Han periods. D. C. Lau notes that two interesting
developments that separate Chaung Chou's thought from Lao-Tzu's:
his tendency toward moral relativism and his almost Descartean
struggle with sensory perception (see Lau 118-119, and Schafer
An example of this relativism
appears in the Chuang-Tzu's
discussion of the happy dead. Judgments about right and wrong
by necessity are made from a specific point of view. Thus,
people who observe the same phenomenon arrive at different conclusions
about it. It is also impossible to decide on the relative
of these different perspectives. As a solution, the Chuang-Tzu
suggests a higher point of view which remains impartial in
its attitude toward all the potential viewpoints. They are all
treated as equally valid (or perhaps equally invalid). It follows
that life is desirable and preferable to death is perspective
that comes only from the point of view of the living. How does
one know that the opposite stance is not the case from the perspective
of the happy dead? The result of this conundrum is that there
is no reason to prefer one view to another, according to Chuang-Tzu.
An example of the Chuang-Tzu's struggle with sensory perception
appears in the dream of the butterfly:
Long ago, Chuang Chou dreamed
that he was a butterfly. He was elated as a butterfly--well
with himself, his aims satisfied. he knew nothing of Chou. But
shortly he awoke and found himself to be Chou. He did not
whether as Chou he dreamed he was a butterfly, or whether he
actually was a butterfly who now dreamed he was Chou.
If a sleeper can dream so vividly that he is unable
to ascertain that his experiences are actually unreal, how can
he ever be certain that anything he experiences is real? Unlike
Descarte's attempt to use logic to verify his sensory perception,
the Chuang-Tzu responds with a Taoist acceptance of the
conundrum, and prefers not to value the dream as any less "real" than
the waking state, and vice-versa. It suggests that all natural
life and all experiences are in essence interchangeable. A butterfly's
existence is just as valuable and meaningful as a human one,
a dream is just as valuable and meaningful as an experience one
has while awake.
is in many ways much more flexible than Confucianism. Taoist
to avoid being "boxed" by rules, definitions and
empty words. They encourage a sort of intuitive and non-logical
way of seeking balance in the world
by resisting the desire to interfere with normal processes of
nature. Taoism emphasizes wu wei--enlightened non-action
rather than needless bustle and "busy-work" for its
own sake. Legalism emphasizes
wu yu--active attempts to modify human behavior for the
better by restraining the evil impulses of humanity in a rigid
hierarchy of law. Confucianism,
while not completely incompatible with either philosophy, suggests
that thoughtful contemplation is necessary in making decisions
rather than blindly following rules (the Legalist philosophy).
Confucianism also rejects the irrationalism of Taoists. Taoist
philosophy rejects the Confucian idea that traditions are valuable
for their own sake. It also rejects the Legalist idea that human
nature is inherently evil. Rather, human behavior simply is....
It is artificial and pointless to force humans to always behave
in a certain manner. People who behave virtuously out of fear,
according to Taoist thought, aren't really virtuous at all. Rather
than agonizing over virtue and morality, and splitting hairs
fine points of ethics, it is far better to rule with a relaxed
hand and lead by example, as Lao-Tzu describes his "Master" in
the Tao-te Ching. Ultimately, if people stop worrying
about virtue, virtue can become intuitive, instinctive, almost
second-nature, as the Chuang-Tzu suggests in the allegory
of the butcher. In this allegory, the best, speediest butcher
in the village has been chopping meat for so long that he doesn't
need to think about where to cut, or pause and consider where
the best slice should fall. Instead, chop-chop-chop-chop!
he instantly and precisely cuts the meat by force of habit. If
he stops to think about what he does, that perfect efficiency
and thoughtless speed would be lost. In the same way, the Taoists
seek to live their lives just as the butcher chops his meat. That
is the Tao. It is done, rather than described.
Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction.
Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press,
Lau, D. C. "Glossary." Lao-Tzu: The
Tao Te Ching. NY: Penguin, 1963.
Schafer, Edward H. Ancient China. Great Ages of
Man: A History of the World's Cultures. NY: Time Life Books, 1967.