What is Taoism?
Some of you might ask: What is Taoism? Briefly, Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy that predates Christianity and whose principal sage is Lao-tzu (Laotzi). I hesitate to call Taoism a religion, because that implies organization and therefore hierarchy and power. Taoism, with its focus on an infinite universality, does not seek to control anyone or to separate people into contesting groups. As a philosophy, Taoism appeals to me because it states that humanity is one with nature.
Great mystery surrounds the existence of the man known as Lao-tzu, although the best know work of Taoist philosophy, the Tao Te Ching, is attributed to him. Indeed, Lao-tzu means “Old Master,” and is not a specific given name. The Tao Te Ching is translated as the Great Book (Ching), of the Way/Path (Tao), of Virtue (Te).
So what is this path of virtue? For the follower of the path, or Tao, there is no distinction between us and them, between the physical world and oneself, between things and thoughts. It is all an expression of the universal, or the infinity of the universe, which has no origin. This infinite universality, or Tao, is the origin of the earth, which is consequently the origin of all creatures on the earth, including humans.
While the Tao recognizes duality, as expressed in the material/rational and the metaphysical/spiritual, it contends that the two are always interlinked and interdependent. In Taoism this is expressed as yin (emotion/intuition) and yang (action/reason). Unlike the major religions that focus on separation, Taoism is ultimately a holistic philosophy, or one that focuses on unity.
Why does this matter? Religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam separate man from nature, and place him in a position of superiority. While Christianity seeks to include all by exhorting them to love one another, it also states that man has dominion over all things. Nothing could be farther from the truth, a fact that nature teaches us everyday. Indeed, it is just such a belief system that has led to an environmental crisis in the world today.
Christianity also proposes a morality. While living a virtuous life is a worthy goal, when done in order to receive a reward, in this case the utopia of heaven, it loses its virtue and reinforces the idea that man is by nature bad, and the Christian church therefore needs to regulate his behavior. Even Buddhism with is focus on dukkha, or suffering, ignores its positive opposites and proposes a mitigating morality.
Judaism and Islam for their part mix morality with a legal code of conduct, which makes these religions de facto political organizations whose principal aim is power. While this is also the aim of Christianity, it has proven more adaptable to the secular world because it professes policies not laws. And while there are more secular interpretations of Judaism and Islam, these still retain rituals, if not laws, that are intended to control the behavior of their adherents.
Finally, Hinduism is fraught with religiously-sanctioned social hierarchies and the iconolatry of a pantheon of gods that represent different characteristics of the natural world and human emotions and behavior.
Suffice to say, all of these religions distance human beings from the natural world and each other. Taoism, on the other hand, is revolutionary in its simplicity: the Tao is the source of all things. While yin and yang appear as two, they are really one. The synthesis of yin and yang is the path (Tao) of virtue (Te) to the universal.
Life is therefore not suffering. Nor it is happiness. Humans are not good, nor are they bad. They simply are. Existence is and you need to let it be, and everything will proceed as it does. Lao-tzu calls this concept wu wei, or non-action, or non-doing.
One can argue that this sounds like a pretty defeatist philosophy that would leave one completely defenseless in the competitive, acquisitive reality of modern “civilized” life. But that would be to misunderstand Lao-tzu’s point. Unlike other spiritual leaders and texts, Lao-tzu had a sense of humor. He teaches through paradox.
Non-action doesn’t mean simply sitting around and waiting for life to happen. On the contrary, wu wei means doing what is natural at the appropriate time, and not forcing it. In modern times this lesson has been expressed as being in the flow. But this implies that at all other times one is not in the flow, and that to be in the flow one has to be doing something. Lao-tzu would beg to differ, saying that one is in the flow at all times by doing or not doing depending on the circumstance. Or more directly, that everything is the flow, whether it is literally flowing (acting) or not. Taoism is therefore the philosophy of be-ing.
Indeed, one would be right to say that Taoism is a philosophy that is hard to apply to the world today. But that is precisely why it should be applied. Because the world today is fragmented, as Lao-tzu says, into the “ten thousand things.” These things, whether they be the possessions and status people seek, the different exclusive identities they develop and cling to, the myriad ideologies they use to justify their greed and inhumanity, and the dualities of wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, hope and despair that result, it is clear that the world as it is isn’t working. Taoism doesn’t claim to be able to solve these problems, but it does propose and promote a universal consciousness that can put us back on the path that we left several thousands years ago when we chose to separate ourselves from nature.
Taoism is a philosophy that shows us the path back to the simplicity, sincerity, and integral unity of our origin. The mere contemplation of this, in wu wei, is already a step in the right direction.
For those of you who haven’t read the Tao Te Ching, I encourage you to do so. At the very least, it will give you comfort. And the more you study it, the more you will come to understand the nature of be-ing, and be-ing in nature.
This is a new series on Taoism. Check back for more posts.