Taoism is comprised of several texts, including the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Book of Lieh-Tzu, the Canon of Reason and Virtue and additional Taoist texts. The most central and well known book of Taoism is the Tao Te Ching. Each of these texts and teachings comprises the written record of Taoism, an Eastern religion embracing nature, harmony, simplicity, human states of being, biography of Lao Tzu and life teachings. The primary books of Taoism are 1) The Tao Te Ching, Chuang-Tzu and the Book of Lieh-Tzu, however some answers not found, or not clearly understood in these texts are elaborated upon in the additional texts. This article will primarily discuss the Tao Te Ching due to its primary relevance to Taoism.
Throughout its eighty-one sayings and teachings, the Tao Te Ching captures a theme of pronounced simplicity. Within each of these chapters is a new example and contribution of this virtue as deemed to analogies of human and at times, universal circumstance. This accompanied by its common tones and favorite metaphor creates a volume with direct intent in so far as it is able to do so. Thus, analogous explanation of the ‘Way’ becomes its soul reason of necessity. The Tao Te Ching is presented as above but in two parts, within which elements of other holy books are unconsidered. Instead it focuses its essential virtue and analogies on convincing principles which verify the doctrine as legitimate.
Written approximately two and half thousand years ago (the time of Lao Tzu), the Book of the Way is concise and to the point in terms of its unique purpose. It is primarily, the holy book of Taoism yet in comparison to the bible seems similar to an informative magazine. This is so for it contains no myth, narrative or dialogue. Furthermore, it provides no concrete law or foundation which would be of any use to a complex society. Hence, it becomes a simple description of individual being and existence through practice of the ‘Way’. This is of importance however, because within the meaning of the book it is evident that there is actually no need for these other things. The reason being that through practice of the ‘Way’, all else falls in to place making any other explanation besides that of the ‘Way’ redundant. Henceforth, redundancy would be a contradiction to the belief of Lao Tzu, further confirming the books underlying genius.
“When the great Way declines, there is “humanity and justice”. When cleverness and knowledge appear, there is “great artificiality”. (Chap. 18)
……..”(Lest) these three be considered as (mere) words which are inadequate, let there be something to hold on to.” (Chap.19).
The Tao Te Ching like the bible has become varied-in terms of its vocabulary-through translation. This however, is relatively unimportant for our and most readers purposes because we are not concerned with the exact detail of each phrase but the overall intentions and meaning of the book.
The prevailing characteristic of the ‘Way’ as offered in the Tao Te Ching appears as a truly wonderful thing for it revolves around a state of being which in its nature is very natural. Although it becomes clear in the book that the ‘Way’ can only be directed and pointed out through literary means, it is still possible to grasp the overall theme of being ‘laid back’ and contemplate it.
“Branching out in shoots innumerable that cannot be defined, it returns again to nothingness. This may be called giving shape to the shapeless, forming an image out of nothingness: This may be called a vague likeness” (Chap. 14)
…”But the words which are uttered about the ‘Way’,-how insipid and without flavor are they!” (Chap.35)
The metaphor of water in the book is one of the most useful in describing the nature of the ‘way’ in that it explains what it is like to be influenced by the way and how the ‘Way’ behaves in nature thus making the element not only a physical example, but a goal to be reached.
“The highest goodness is like water. The goodness of water consists in benefiting the ten thousand things without ever striving. It stays in the lowest place where all men loathe. Therefore it comes near to the ‘way’ Indeed, just because there is not striving, one may remain without blame.” (Chap.8)
As well as the metaphor of water are several other virtues which appear more frequently throughout the book. For the sake of comprehension, these can be categorized into ten main sub-topics, which in the Tao Te Ching assimilate together reinforcing the main theme. They are crucial examples which must be acknowledged in order to gain any understanding of the Way.
Of these virtues, the most pronounced include the following: Unity in change, strength in simplicity, non-action, creation as ‘mother’, leadership through the way, understanding, the Saint, the way of heaven, life and death, the mystic equality and mystic virtue. Moreover, these topics become the subject which is representational of the ‘Way’, thus attributing to them considerable literary importance in terms of both understanding and style.
Firstly, the Tao Te Ching opens by stating its main appeal, change. It states that nothing is constant but always ever changing, Hence the ‘Way’ to is not unchanged. “The Way that may truly be regarded as the Way is other than a permanent way.” (Chap.1)
It appears however, that since the ‘Way’ is ‘not a permanent way’, that it must be approached in a certain way; This becomes evident in its next virtue of simplicity which is represented quite well in our example of water, for waters being is effortless yet beneficial, thus it becomes symbolic of the ‘Ways’ strength and usefulness It also becomes conceivable that simplicity has no material desire -as it is applied-but only practical aspiration. Simple needs become the only use of objects, whether they are beautiful or not is of no concern.
“The highest goodness is like water. The goodness of water consists in benefiting the ten thousand things without ever striving….Therefore it comes near to the Way.(Chap.8)
“The Way has the simplicity of the nameless. As soon as it is carved, there are names.”(Chap. 32)
“Though clay may be molded into a vase, the utility of the vase lies in what is not there”(Chap.11)
The book also focuses on the practice of non-action; This is a virtue which as it reads means do as little as possible. It does not however appear to state this in a lazy sense but in doing what comes naturally. By doing so all will fall into place. Again here, the metaphor of water is used.
“The movement of the Way is: to reverse. The method of the Way is: to be weak. (Chap.40)
“There is in all the world nothing that is softer or weaker than water, but in attacking what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it….From this I know that non-action profits.
“It is the Way of heaven not to strive and yet be able to conquer; ….to be slow and yet be able to plan well.” (Chap. 73)
Fourthly, nature is regarded as of supreme importance by Lao Tzu for it is the source of the ‘Way’ and characteristic of it. It is referred to as the ‘Mother’ and also represents creation.
“I alone am different from others because I prize feeding on “the Mother”.(Chap.20)
“There is something in a state of fusion before heaven and earth were formed….It may be regarded as the mother of All-under-heaven. Its proper name I know not, but I call it by the by-name “Way”….heaven patterns itself on the Way, and the Way patterns itself on the Natural.(Chap.25)
Little is mentioned in great detail about the state and its leadership in the Tao Te Ching, yet implications do appear. Such indications are of course rooted in the ‘Way’ and need no other organization or administration as it appears.
“A State may be ruled by rectification and a war may be fought by stratagems, but the Empire is gained by non-action.” (Chap.57)
“For governing men and serving heaven nothing is equal to moderation. Just because there is moderation, this means applying oneself early to the Way. (Chap.59)
Hence, governing is achieved by non-action which is a virtue of the ‘Way’.
To understand this concept of leadership we must also comprehend the basis for such an ideal. Otherwise would be purely speculative thus making Lao Tzus statement difficult to take seriously.
It is however, clear that the versus are consistent in their intent; It is this intent that must be understood and given attention -at least in part- in order to make sense of the above leadership concept. The following phrase presents the underlying belief of such a political ideal.
“The Way is great, heaven is great, earth is great and the king is great. There are in the world four great ones and the king is one thereof. The king patterns himself on earth, earth patterns itself on the Way, and the Way patterns itself on the Natural.”(Chap.25)
Also helpful in this understanding is the use of the Saint. It is used as a role model and a personification of the Way throughout the verses.
“Therefore the Saint never does anything great and so is able to achieve the great.”(Chap.63)
“The Way of the Saint is to act but not to strive. He has no desire to display his ability.” (Chap.77)
“A Saint has said: If I practice non-action , the people will of themselves become rich.” (Chap.57)
“Just as the spirits will not harm men, the Saint will not harm the people. If indeed these two do not harm one another, their virtue will converge towards a common end.” (Chap.60)
So the Saint too practices non-action, follows the way of nature, and is able to lead a nation in so doing. He becomes an important tool for realization of the Way in the human element.
The ‘Way of Heaven’ too becomes a symbolic representation and simile of the Way. It is simply the practice of the virtues of the Way and becomes itself a virtue.
“It is the Way of heaven not to strive and yet be able to conquer; not to speak and yet be able to respond; not to call and yet let things come of themselves; to be slow and yet be able to plan well.” (Chap. 73)
“The Way of heaven brings profit but not harm” (Chap.77)
“The Way of heaven has no favoritism; it always gives (the opportunity of) standing well with people.” (Chap.79)
Somewhat separated from the main theme of the book is Lao Tzus standpoint on life and death. This becomes an attitude which is typical of the ‘Ways’ practice. Here, ones opinion on death is influenced by that on life. If one practices the ‘Way of Heaven’, he will view life as unimportant thus in turn making death also seem unimportant. This is evident in the following phrase.
“If the people think lightly of death, it is because of the excessive manner in which they seek to obtain life. That is why they thing lightly of death. Truly, not acting for life’s sake is wiser than valuing life.” (Chap.75)
“For, what is hard and rigid is a follower of death; what is soft and weak is a follower of life.” (Chap.76)
‘A follower of life’ in this case does not appear to take life seriously for if he did would be a follower of death. Hence, it can be interpreted that the Taoist view on life is one of lightheartedness. There is however, a greater approach to life than this which is named the ‘Mystic Virtue’.
The ‘Mystic Virtue’, and the ‘Mystic Equality’ are a couple of the very few defined virtues of the ‘Way’. They offer meaning in a literary sense to the ‘Way’ and its ways. The ‘Mystic Virtue’ appears -as inferred from the following quote- to be the main virtue of understanding; The most important Virtue which in its explanation, attempts to capture the essence and purpose of all the virtues; The all encompassing virtue of the ‘Way’ which leads to complete understanding or ‘Grand Conformity’.
“Honoring the Way and valuing Virtue is not at somebody’s behest but is always spontaneous.” (Chap. 51)
“Always to know how to scrutinize the Measure is called Mystic Virtue. Mystic Virtue is profound, is far-reaching, and operates contrariwise to things, till in the end it attains the Grand Conformity. (Chap. 65)
Secondly is the Mystic Equality; This is similar to the Buddhist concept of moderation in that balance is key in the establishing of proper being. This balance in the Tao Te Ching appears to take on the characteristics of zero. Since zero is what it is, it cannot be anything else, or be any better for less would be negative and more would be positive. It would be useful to compare it also to the Yin and Yang. Provided that Yin is dark and Yang is light (Symbolically), zero would become the balance of the two. Lao Tzu describes it as follows.
“For in getting him one cannot come close nor remain distant, one cannot profit by him nor be harmed by him, one cannot gain honor by him nor suffer disgrace by him. Therefore his is the most prized in All-under-heaven” “He blunts sharpness, he unravels tangles, he dims brightness, he levels tracks. This is called the Mystic equality.” (Chap. 56)
Thus, we have the ‘Way’ in a nut-shell as interpreted from the Tao Te Ching. Any difficult in understanding the ‘Way’ appears not to derive from the contents of the book -for what is written is of no complication-but from its underlying meaning. This meaning is what inspired the book to be written in the first place and is apparently of profound magnitude.
It is not possible to assimilate all this meaning through a reading of the text but must be strived for as stated earlier. Great attention is given by Lao Tze on the ways of nature or the ‘Way of Heaven’. Excluded from this however, is the notion of human aspiration. It is written that this is a human quality which must be worked against through non-action.
“Display natural simplicity and cling to artlessness: decrease selfishness and diminish desires.”(Chap.19) “Abolish study and you will be free from care.”(Chap.20)
What seems contradictory though, is that this human desire is a result of this same great nature and source which presents the ‘Way’ itself. Moreover, it is in our genetic makeup to question and permeate change to our needs. How then can the ‘Way’ disregard such a strong force in our lives and expect us to do what is natural. Smelling roses all day is a fantastic notion but how realistic is it to expect that everyone is willing to do so. Hence it appears that the ‘Way’ itself is a force which cannot act alone in shaping our lives.
It can be stated that it is a force but one of which aids in balancing another force, that of human nature. It is this that all religions constantly strive to do by prohibiting earthly desire from excess. Orthodoxy however, does not appear to be the answer, for then it becomes ascetic and this is a ridiculous notion, for to abstain from all earthly pleasures is an virtually inconceivable notion for the mass as a whole. Pure Taoism then can also be described as ascetic for it denies the human will of aspiration. Again here the Yin and the Yang play a part for it could be said that the religion, in this case Taoism is the Yin and human nature the Yang. Together if properly strove for, the two can balance each other resulting in a harmony of sort.
It is this harmony which becomes remarkable for whether or not the Yin and the Yang are in such a state of balance, change always accompanies it all the way through time. This change it appears has a tendency of becoming increasingly complex. Thus the ‘Mother’ of creation seems to gain complexity in its existence. For example, biologically all life on Earth were a simple form, to be precise one celled organisms. We all -plants, animals and humans- originated in the sea. Ever since then all life has evolved becoming increasingly complex. Accompanied by this diversity of existence is the notion of survival which is common to every living thing.
Hence, the great ‘Mother’ facilitates our complexity of which human aspiration is an evolutionary element. To return to the ‘Mother’ through the Way during our life would be as odd as a pink elephant. It does not appear to be the intention of nature for us to become nature but exist with nature. Like two friends, each is different but are able to be compatible. Thus the ‘Way’ can be viewed as a reminder that we must respect our creator and share our life with it.
Duyvendak, J.J.L. Tao Te Ching: The Book of the Way and Its Virute. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1992.
Allee, John G. Webster’s Dictionary. Baltimore. Harbor House Publishers Inc. 1981.