What Is Tao?
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.
What gives life to all creation and is itself inexhaustible-that is Tao.
It is the unmanifest potentiality from which all manifestations proceed.
Tao is the everlasting rhythm of life, the unity of the polarity of non-being and being.
Ellen M. Chen
Tao is the pointing finger and, at the same time, the direction.
Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.
Tao Te Ching
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." So begins the Tao Te Ching (Dow De Jing) of Lao Tzu, written some 2,500 years ago. "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."
How then, to describe the indescribable? How to fit into words that which is beyond words? The Tao can only be pointed to, or referred to, say the ancient sages. It cannot be held, only experienced. It cannot be touched, only felt. It cannot be seen, only glimpsed with the inner eye.
As we see by the quotes at the beginning of the chapter, there are many ways of talking about Tao, but, like trying to describe the taste of chocolate to someone who has never had it, one can only approximate. Imagine then, trying to describe the be all and end all of existence. Lao Tzu began the Tao Te Ching by saying that the Tao itself cannot even be talked about-though he did manage to come up with a little over five thousand characters after that! What he actually meant was that to try to fit the Tao into a neatly packaged definition for once and for all is impossible, for in reality, Tao is something quite beyond all puny definitions and categories.
The word Tao (Dow), has many translations. It is an elusive word, meaning much more than can be explained. It has been called the Law or the Way or simply All That Is. Some Christian writers have even translated it as God, though it certainly does not mean the personal, judgmental deity we in the West usually think of as God.
Tao is at once the universal pageant of the constellations and the budding of each new leaf in the spring. It is the constant round of life and death and all that falls between. It resides in us as we reside in it. It is the source as well as the end of our being. It neither judges nor condemns but continually blesses, in all moments, an unending cycle of change and renewal.
Tao is what has always been and always will be, regardless of whether we humans blow ourselves into the astral. It actually has no need of us yet continually and forever sustains us. Alan Watts once wrote:
The order to Tao is not an obedience to anything else. As Chuang-tzu says, 'It exists by and through itself,' it is sui generes (self generating), tzu-jan (of itself so), and has the property of that forgotten attribute of God called aseity-that which is (by) se (itself).
Tao, then, is the Way, as in direction, as in manner, source, destination, purpose, and process. In discovering and exploring Tao the process and the destination are one and the same. John Blofeld says that in Chinese thought "the notion of a Supreme Being, so essential to Western religions, is replaced by that of a Supreme State of Being, an impersonal perfection from which all beings, including man, are separated only by delusion."
In other words, this Supreme State of Being is not some unattainable something "out there," far removed from the mundane affairs of humankind, but rather something that we too are integrally a part of. After all, it is much harder to identify with a wrathful, personified deity or even a perfect, shining glory of a deity than something so simple, so natural, so all encompassing as Tao. As Alan Watts said, "It may reign but it does not rule. It is the pattern of things but not the enforced."
The Tao itself does not judge, it does not condemn, it does not punish. Rather we ourselves, in our refusal to go along with its majestic flow, punish ourselves and cause ourselves all sorts of worries and problems. I like to think of it as a giant celestial merry-go-round. Around and around it goes, in its great and heavenly way. It is up to us to either jump on and ride in the direction it is already turning, or to attempt to jump on the other way. Of course, if we do that, we sooner or later get thrown off and land on our faces in the mud! As Lao Tzu says, whatever goes against the Tao comes to an early end. This is not a punishment or a judgment. It simply is the way things are. Spit into the wind and you receive it back into your face. Simple, natural.
But just think of the vast amount of whirling energy that is contained in that effortlessly revolving merry-go-round. And just imagine tapping into that energy, that force, by simply finding our own place on that wheel and going for the ride. When we are going along with the flow or direction of the Tao, or the natural flow, we derive great impetus and direction. It is like having the wind against our backs, filling our sails. We feel we can doing anything and everything our hearts desire. But try to go against it and once again we land on our faces in the mud.
It is in finding just the right way to jump aboard, the right timing, the right position, that is the tricky part. And that's just what this book is about.
What, Then, Is Taoism?
...a unique and extremely interesting combination of philosophy and religion, incorporating also 'proto' science and magic.
Taoism represents everything which is spontaneous, imaginative, private, unconventional...
A Taoist laughs at social conventions, and eludes or adapts himself to them.
Taoism is not an "ism." It is also not an ideology, or a New Age movement. It is a living philosophy. It is a way of thinking, a way of looking at life, a way of being-being with change rather than against it. Life is made up of cycles, say the Taoists, cycle upon cycle. The only constant is change. Change is inescapable. We have no control over it. The only thing we have control over is our own responses to the changes life has to offer. For really, what else can we do?
Actually, there's plenty we can do. Rant and rave, complain, whine, procrastinate, fight back, resist. But to what avail? To resist only weakens us. To the Taoist, resistance is a joke. It is utterly futile and without honor. To resist only makes that which we are resisting stronger. Lao Tzu speaks over and over again of the principle of the soft overcoming the hard, the weak overcoming the strong.
Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain.
Later on he says:
The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
In yielding we can find strength and succor and in softness we can find a way to overcome even the worst tribulations. What we are talking about here is not a mushy, weak kind of softness, but a resilient, decisive softness, the springy softness of the bamboo which bends and springs back in contrast to the hard and stiff oak which is blown down in a hard wind.
Lao Tzu describes a Taoist as the one who sees simplicity in the complicated and achieves greatness in little things. He or she is dedicated to discovering the dance of the cosmos in the passing of each season as well as the passing of each precious moment in our lives. Lao Tzu calls him the sage; Chuang Tzu calls him the True Man (or woman). He says:
Those who seek for and follow (the Tao) are strong of body, clear of mind, and sharp of sight and hearing. They do not load their mind with anxieties, and are flexible in their adjustment to external conditions.
Taoism was already long established when Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. It originated in the ancient shamanic roots of Chinese civilization. Many of the practices and attitudes toward life were already established before Lao Tzu's time. He did, however, bring a much more philosophical bent to traditional Taoist teachings. As a matter of fact, this path was not even called "Taoism." Indeed, it was not called anything. It was only much later when Buddhism came to China and found royal favor that Taoism came to be called by that name. This was also when Taoism diverged from being a strictly philosophical path to a religious one, complete with liturgy, priests and even a Taoist pope!
Taoism has a long long history, stretching back to the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) who is said to have reigned during the middle of the third millennium BCE. It continues down through the sages such as Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Ko Hong, Lu Dong-bin and countless other "invisible" sages, both men and women who have carried on the ancient traditions and created new practices even up to today.
The original form of Taoism, and the form that this book is most concerned with, is sometimes called philosophical Taoism or classical Taoism. For many centuries Taoism was an informal way of life, a way followed by peasant, farmer and gentleman philosopher and artist. It was a way of deep reflection and of learning from Nature, considered the highest teacher. Followers of the Way studied the stars in the heavens and the energy that lies deep within the earth. They meditated upon the energy flow within their own bodies and mapped out the roads and paths it traveled upon. They felt no need for official temples and liturgy. Each man and woman was their own priest. The connection with the divine or Tao was the sacred trust of each individual.
Then, as Eva Wong tells us:
The history of Taoism took an interesting turn between the first and seventh centuries CE: a form of Taoism that combined magic and devotion emerged. Under the influence of a charismatic spiritual leader, Chang Tao-ling, Taoism became a religion.
Today one can visit Taoist temples in China, such as the famous White Clouds temple in Beijing and see crowds of devotees lighting clouds of incense and bowing down to statues of fierce looking gods in order to have "a good life" or for blessings in a new business enterprise. The Taoist canon consists of thousands of volumes and monks and nuns perform services complete with chanting, singing, exorcisms and talisman making.
Many of these monks and nuns are true students of the Way. They practice self cultivation very seriously and perform rites and rituals for pilgrims and tourists while understanding that the true Tao is not contained in any religious box.
Most Chinese people today view Taoism as just another old fashioned religion. The Taoism that I believe will take root in the West is not that religious form. It is instead a non-religious, deeply personal form of Taoism that speaks to the Westerner as deeply and richly as the Chinese.
As we shall see, Chinese medicine, qigong, tai ji, internal alchemy, energy meditation, all of these have their roots in the Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the ancient achieved ones. It is a form of Taoism that can be approached by anyone.
It is a belief in life, a belief in the glorious procession of each unfolding moment. It is a deeply spiritual but decidedly non-religious way of life. It involves introspection, balance, emotional and spiritual independence and responsibility and a deep awareness and connection to the Earth and all other life forms. It requires an understanding of how energy works in the body and how to treat illness in a safe, non-invasive way while teaching practical ways of maintaining health and avoiding disease and discomfort. Taoist meditation techniques help the practitioner enter deeper or more expansive levels of wakefulness and inner strength. But most of all it is a simple, natural, practical way of being in our bodies and our psyches and sharing that being with all other life forms we come into contact with.
Taoists believe in the divinity, specialness and deep down holiness of each individual, including themselves. As Hua-Ching Ni, a contemporary Taoist master, tells us, "An undistorted human life is the real model of all universal truth." The Taoist seeks to dig deep under all the layers of cultural and psychological silt that has accumulated in us humans over the millennia and bring forth the shining pearl that lies beneath. As Hua-Ching Ni says:
Ordinary religions can turn you into a pole; the naked electric pole on the side of the busy street, stark and barren, whereas Tao makes you sprout, blossom, and yield fruit as you sway and dance in the breeze of life.
So What Does This Have
To Do With Me?
The simplest actions and the simplest language are needed to develop ourselves spiritually and present the whole truth.
When people say they're looking for the meaning of life, what they're really looking for is a deep experience of it.
He who understands the Way is certain to have command of basic principles. He who has command of basic principles is certain to know how to deal with circumstances. And he who knows how to deal with circumstances will not allow things to do him harm. When a man has perfect virtue (te), fire cannot burn him, water cannot drown him, cold and heat cannot affect him, birds and beasts cannot injure him.
The modern world bombards us on every side with sensory, emotional, and psychological impressions. We often feel alone and cut off from our foundations, both spiritually and emotionally. For most of us, "reality" consists of spoon-size treatments of other people's lives fed to us in a steady diet by newspapers, radio and especially television. Everyone's life problems are solved in one half hour to one hour segments, including commercials. We feel disappointed and inferior if we are not able to do the same with our life problems and challenges.
Most modern religions emphasize the basic separation between creator and creation. God is somewhere "out there" and is to be supplicated, placated and feared. This intensifies our feelings of alienation, making them more unbearable. To use an economic term, we are heading into a state of spiritual bankruptcy. This is reflected in the ever deeper and wider range of psychological disturbances we see all around us. The "village idiot" has multiplied many times and is now living on the streets with nowhere to go. Carl Jung, writing in 1933, said, "Much of the evil in the world is due to the fact that man in general is hopelessly unconscious."
He realized that many psychological disturbances of modern humankind are actually a spiritual problem. We in the West have been cut off from our spiritual roots. And in the process, says Jung, "science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror." "Modern man is solitary," he says, and "is so of necessity and at all times, for every step toward a fuller consciousness of the present removes him further from his original participation with the mass of men-submersion in a common unconsciousness."
Why has this happened? Why are modern men and women increasingly alienated from themselves and each other and seemingly from the rest of humanity? The Book of Genesis describes how Adam and Eve, the primordial man and woman, ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and were consequently forced out of the Garden of Eden, doomed to live a life cursed and filled with pain and travail. Just what is this tree that caused such grave consequences for poor Adam and Eve? It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or yin and yang, as the Taoist would say). It is the knowledge of opposite and complementary conditions and forces. The serpent, as the temptor, says to Eve that "God doth know that in the day ye eateth thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5)
Of course once they are found out they are cast out of paradise. Eve is told she shall henceforth deliver her children in sorrow and shall be ruled over by her husband, setting the scene for male domination for the next four thousand years. Adam is told he shall eat sorrow for all the days of his life. Not only that but the very ground under them will be cursed! All in all, things look pretty grim for humankind from this time forth. And while most of us today know that many stories of the Bible are myth and allegory, there are still plenty of people who believe these stories are literally true and are bound and determined to live out their days in sorrow and suffering, just as God commanded Adam to do.
To Taoists, however, this is absurd. The knowledge of good and evil or self knowledge is the right and legacy of every individual. Hua-Ching Ni says:
Don't let anyone tell you that you cannot know the truth for yourself or that you cannot achieve yourself spiritually without being tied to a temple or church. You were not born a spiritual slave. You are the authority who distinguishes what is true and untrue, spiritual and unspiritual.
It is so easy to just let spiritual or temporal authority figures tell us what to believe and how to live our lives. It is much easier than consciously choosing the journey of self discovery and self knowledge, a journey which can be very rocky indeed. In the immortal Brothers Karamazov, Doestoevsky relates the story of how Christ, when he returns to earth in the Middle Ages, is snatched immediately by the Grand Inquisitor and thrown into a dungeon. There he is told that his presence is not needed, that the Grand Inquisitor has everything under control. People like being told what to believe and how to live their lives. They don't need some upstart to stir things up. Christ's gift of spiritual freedom is not welcome here, the Inquisitor tells him. Not only do the people have no use for it, they would not know what to do with it if they had it. It would only be a problem and a burden to them. He then has Christ killed again.
What Doestoevsky was talking about then is still true today. Most people would rather be told what to believe in and how to live their lives in that belief. They don't want the dubious and highly dangerous gift of spiritual freedom any more than did the people of the Middle Ages. Wilhem Reich wrote about the killing of Christ, in which he posited that Christ has been crucified continuously for two thousand years. He is crucified every time we submerge and deny the Christ within us, that part of us that represents the love of life, of discovery, of ever evolving creativity, or our own undeniable divinity.
Again, to Taoists this is all quite absurd. Taoists, like many primal people, believe that everything is sacred, not just musty old "holy" books or special buildings or even special people whose job it is to act as intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. To the followers of the Way there is no difference between the sacred and the profane. There is no escaping Tao or sacredness. It is contained within everything as everything is contained within it.
We are still in the garden of Eden! Or as Christ put it, "Heaven is at hand." Just look around at the amazing variety of life that is going on around us all the time, in all its splendiferous color and shape and form. Webs of energy connect us all; trees sway rhythmically in the breeze high over our heads; water runs merrily or sedately over stones and sand, forming ripples and eddies and making delicious music; grasses and flowers grow boisterously, seductively, whether we even care or not. The rich panoply of life goes on all around us, always, endlessly.
You too are a unique and wonderful creation all your own. Feel the blood rushing through your veins as your heart pumps continuously and obligingly. Your lungs breathe effortlessly in and out, drawing rich oxygen and qi energy. Your eyes scan the page, deciphering the little blobs of black on white, while your marvelous brain interprets them to your consciousness. Your every cell hums with life, with energy, with consciousness. And who knows what further adventures await us when we tire of these bodies and leave them behind, setting our spirits adrift into the arms of the great and loving Tao?
Wake up and smell the miraculous fragrance of your own life and of all the life forms around you! The very richness of existence is contained in all that you know and are and all that you wish to know and be. Accept it into your consciousness, your own expression of the Tao.
As Taoists, we are artists of life. We are creators of our own masterpieces, directors of our own movies, writers of our own stories. We are not afraid to ask for help, but in doing so, we do it with pride, with humbleness, with sincerity, not as "worms" or "wretches" but as upright free individuals, invested in truth and learning, ever growing, ever renewed. We take responsibility for our own emotions, for our own relationships, for our own habits, for our own destiny. We are all made of the same "stuff," a combination of the divine and the organic. We are all atomically equal! We all want to be loved and to love. We all want to be happy and to be able to give happiness to others. We all want to be safe, to be whole, to be healthy. And that is our right, our divine inalienable right. We let no man or woman take that away from us through fear or guilt or intimidation.
We take responsibility for our own health. We take care of and treat our bodies in a healthy and balanced manner. We take responsibility for our own sexuality. We do not treat it as a weapon or a means of subjugation. We take responsibility for our own spirituality, for our own self cultivation. We nurture and weed our own spiritual gardens and reap the bountiful harvest. We take responsibility for our own emotional independence, not clinging to others or allowing others to cling to us in an unhealthy manner. We take responsibility for our own psyches. We do not trash them or twist them into unnatural shapes for the benefit of others or for our own immature needs.
And lastly, we take responsibility for our own consciousness, our own part of the dance, our own piece of the great cosmic puzzle. We respect ourselves and do not allow ourselves to be used in an unhealthy way by the ones we love, and in turn we do not use them in the same manner. We respect our origin and we honor our true selves, free of petty distractions and fears. We respect and honor the true self of everyone around us, and in that respect and honoring we shine forth as the true sacred and strong beings that we are.
Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China
Hua-Ching Ni, The Gentle Path of Spiritual Progress
Ellen M. Chen, Tao Te Ching
Gia Fu Feng & Jane English, Tao Te Ching
Eva Wong, The Shambhala Guide toTaoism
Alan Watts, The Watercourse Way
John Blofeld, Taoism, The Road to Immortality
A.C. Graham, The Book of Lieh-Tzu
Clae Waltham, Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd
Hua-Ching Ni, Tao: The Subtle Universal Law and the
Integral Way of Life
Hua-Ching Ni, The Way of Integral Life
Carl Jung, Modern Man In Search of a Soul
Reprinted from Embarking on the Way: A Guide to Western Taoism by Solala Towler © 1997 by The Abode of the Eternal Tao
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