No civilization is monochrome. In China the classical tones of
Confucianism have been balanced not only by the spiritual shades of
Buddhism but also by the romantic hues of Taoism.
The Old Master
According to tradition Taoism (pronounced Dowism) originated with a man
named Lao Tzu, said to have been born about 604 B.C. He is a shadowy
figure. We know nothing for certain about him and scholars wonder if there
ever was such a man. We do not even know his name, for Lao Tzu— which can
be translated “the Old Boy,” “the Old Fellow,” or “the Grand Old Master”—
is obviously a title of endearment and respect. All we really have is a
mosaic of legends. Some of these are fantastic: that he was conceived by a
shooting star, carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years, and born
already a wise old man with white hair.
He retired for three days and returned with a slim volume of five thousand
characters titled Tao Te Ching, or The Way and Its Power. A testament to
humanity’s at-home-ness in the universe, it can be read in half an hour or
a lifetime, and remains to this day the basic text of Taoist thought.
The Three Meanings of Tao
Taoism’s bible, the Tao Te Ching, we sense at once that everything
revolves around the pivotal concept of Tao itself. Literally, this word
means path, or way. There are three senses, however, in which this “way”
can be understood.
First, Tao is the
way of ultimate reality.
The Tao Te Ching announces in its opening line that words are not equal to
it: “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” Nevertheless ,
this ineffable and transcendent Tao is the ground of all that follows. “Of
all great things, surely Tao is the greatest.” But its ineffability cannot
be denied, so we are taunted, time and again, by Taoism’s teasing epigram:
“Those who know
don’t say. Those who say don’t know.”
Though Tao is ultimately transcendent, it is also immanent. In this
secondary sense it is the
way of the universe,
the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering
principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for
when Tao enters this second mode it “assumes flesh” and informs all
In its third sense Tao refers to the
way of human life
when it meshes with the Tao of the universe as just described.
Three Approaches to Power and
the Taoisms That Follow
Tao Te Ching,
the title of Taoism’s basic text, has been translated The Way and
Its Power. We have seen that the first of these substantive terms, the
Way, can be taken in three senses. Now we must add that this is also true
of the second substantive term, power. Corresponding to the three ways te
or power can be approached, there have arisen in China three species of
Taoism so dissimilar that initially they seem to have no more in common
than homonyms, like blew/ blue or sun/ son, that sound alike but have
Two have standard designations,
respectively. The third school is too heterogeneous to have acquired
a single title.
Efficient Power: Philosophical
Taoism , which became a full-fledged church, Philosophical Taoism and the
“vitalizing Taoisms,” as we shall clumsily refer to the second group,
remain relatively unorganized. In decided contrast to Religious Taoists,
those in these first two camps work primarily on themselves. To put the
difference pointedly, Philosophical Taoists try to conserve their te by
expending it efficiently, whereas “vitality” Taoists work to increase its
Because Philosophical Taoism is essentially an attitude toward life, it is
the most “exportable” Taoism of the three, the one that has the most to
say to the world at large.
Knowledge that empowers life we call wisdom; and to live wisely, the
Taoist philosophers argued, is to live in a way that conserves life’s
vitality by not expending it in useless, draining ways, the chief of which
are friction and conflict.
Their recommendations revolve around the concept of
a phrase that translates literally as inaction but in Taoism means pure
effectiveness. Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction—
in interpersonal relationships, in intrapsychic conflict, and in relation
to nature— is reduced to the minimum.
and Yoga Taoist “adepts” were not willing to settle for the philosophers’
goal of managing their allotments of the Tao efficiently. They wanted to
go beyond conserving to increasing the quota of the Tao they had to work
with . The word
cries out to be recognized
as the rightful entry to this second school, for though it literally means
breath, it actually means vital energy. The Taoists used it to refer to
the power of the Tao that they experienced coursing through them— or not
coursing because it was blocked— and their main object was to further its
flow. (Kindle Locations 4199-4202)
To be alive is good; to be more alive is better; to be always alive is
best, hence the Taoist immortality cults.
To accomplish their end of maximizing ch’i, these Taoists worked with
three things: matter, movement, and their minds.
they tried eating things— virtually everything, it would seem— to see if
ch’i could be augmented nutritionally. Sexual experiments were also
performed. In one such experiment men hypothesized that if they retained
their semen during intercourse by pressing the ball of the thumb against
the base of the penis at the moment of ejaculation, thereby diverting the
semen into their own bodies, they would absorb the yin of their
female partners without dissipating their own yang energy.
These efforts to extract ch’i from matter in its solid, liquid, and
gaseous forms were supplemented by programs of
such as t’ai chi chuan, which gathers calisthenics, dance, meditation,
yin/ yang philosophy, and martial art into a synthesis that in this case
was designed to draw ch’i from the cosmos and dislodge blocks to its
internal flow. This last was the object of acupuncture as well.
Finally, turning to the
itself, contemplatives, many of them hermits, developed Taoist meditation.
Whether or not China borrowed from India on this score, the physical
postures and concentration techniques of Taoist meditation are so
reminiscent of raja yoga that sinologists import the Sanskrit term and
call it Taoist yoga. Successive deposits of worry and distraction so
silted the soul that their deposits had to be removed until “the self as
it was meant to be” could surface. Selflessness, cleanliness, and
emotional calm are the preliminaries to arriving at full self-knowledge,
but they must be climaxed by deep meditation. The result will be a
condition of alert waiting known as “sitting with a blank mind.”
We find even Chuang Tzu burlesquing their breathing exercises, reporting
that these people “expel the used air with great energy and inhale the
fresh air. Like bears, they climb trees in order to breathe with greater
ease.” Mencius joined in the fun. He likened those who sought psychic
shortcuts to social harmony to impatient farmers who tug gently on their
crops each night to speed their growth. Despite such satire Taoist yoga
had an appreciable core of practitioners.
Vicarious Power: Religious
Taoism sought to manage life’s normal quotient of the Tao efficiently, and
energizing Taoism sought to boost its base supply, but something was
Influenced by Buddhism, which entered China around the time of Christ, the
Taoist church— in Chinese the Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist
Teachings”— took shape in the second century A.D. It was anchored in a
pantheon whose three originating deities included Lao Tzu.
is the supreme action, the precious suppleness, simplicity, and freedom
that flows from us, or rather through us, when our private egos and
conscious efforts yield to a power not their own. In a way it is virtue
approached from a direction diametrically opposite to that of Confucius.
The Tao Te Ching puts this point without wasting a word. “The way to do,”
it says, “is to be.”
The natural phenomenon that the Taoists saw as bearing the closest
resemblance to Tao was water. They were struck by the way it would support
objects and carry them effortlessly on its tide. Water, then, was the
closest parallel to the Tao in the natural world. But it was also the
prototype of wu wei. They noticed the way water adapts itself to its
surroundings and seeks out the lowest places.
Infinitely supple, yet incomparably strong— these virtues of water are
precisely those of wu wei as well. The person who embodies this condition,
says the Tao Te Ching, “works without working.” Such a one acts without
strain, persuades without argument, is eloquent without flourish, and
achieves results without violence, coercion, or pressure. Though the agent
may be scarcely noticed, his or her influence is in fact decisive.
A final characteristic of water that makes it an appropriate analogue to
wu wei is the clarity it attains through being still. “Muddy water let
stand,” says the Tao Te Ching, “will clear.”
Other Taoist Values
the analogy of water, the Taoists rejected all forms of self-assertiveness
and competition. The world is full of people who are determined to be
somebody or give trouble. They want to get ahead, to stand out. Taoism has
little use for such ambitions. “The ax falls first on the tallest tree.”
Their almost reverential attitude toward humility led the Taoists to honor
hunchbacks and cripples because of the way they typified meekness and
self-effacement. They were fond of pointing out that the value of cups,
windows, and doorways lies in the parts of them that are not there.
“Selfless as melting ice” is one of their descriptive figures. The
Taoists’ refusal to clamber for position sprang from a profound
disinterest in the things the world prizes.
Another feature of Taoism is its notion of the relativity of all values
and, as its correlative, the identity of opposites. Here Taoism tied in
with the traditional Chinese yin/ yang symbol. Those who meditate on this
profound symbol, Taoists maintain, will find that it affords better access
to the world’s secrets than any length of words and discussion.
Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, and during the dream had no
notion that he had ever been anything else. When he awoke, however, he was
astonished to find that he was Chuang Tzu. But this left him with a
question. Was he really Chuang Tzu who had dreamed that he was a
butterfly, or was he a butterfly that was now dreaming that it was Chuang
If this all
sounds very much like Zen, it should;
for Buddhism processed through Taoism became Zen.
It is no surprise
to find an outlook as averse to violence as Taoism verging on pacifism.
There are passages in the Tao Te Ching that read almost like the Sermon on
That in China the scholar ranked at the top of the social scale may have
been Confucius’ doing, but Taoism is fully as responsible for placing the
soldier at the bottom.
each other like yin and yang themselves, Taoism and Confucianism represent
the two indigenous poles of the Chinese character. Confucius represents
the classical, Lao Tzu the romantic. Confucius stresses social
responsibility, Lao Tzu praises spontaneity and naturalness. Confucius’
focus is on the human, Lao Tzu’s on what transcends the human.