Jump to the following topics:
- What is the tao?
- We can study the tao.
- The tao is
not reducible to a formula.
What is the tao? As in other
mystical literature, the Tao Te Ching (the principal text of
Taoism) claims that its ideal is not definable or describable: "The
tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal tao. The name that can
be named is not the eternal name." Nevertheless, for the sake of
discussion, we might say that the tao is "spirit" or "the underlying
principle of life" or "the way of the universe." Although we cannot
define the tao intellectually, we can experience it intuitively.
We can study the tao. This is
not a self-conscious type of practice with techniques and goals;
instead, we learn to relax into the course of events, and we become
more aware of our place in those events (while paradoxically becoming
less aware of ourselves as being separate from the events
themselves). As we discover ourselves within the tao, we find a type
of inner guidance which presents us with an ever-changing role within
the larger drama of life. Until we have an intuitive awareness of the
tao, we can explore clues from the intellectual and metaphorical
- We follow the promptings of our natural self. Taoism honors
simplicity, ordinariness, self-acceptance, humility, and
unsophistication; it rejects the traditionally western values of
logic, effort, ambition, goals, and self-improvement -- all of
which are viewed as futile, self-conscious counterfeits of our
innate qualities and activities: "Virtue comes after loss of the
Way, humanity comes after loss of virtue, duty comes after loss of
humanity, courtesy comes after loss of duty." In other words, when
we lose contact with spirit, we try to prop up ourselves with
concepts of spirituality, and then we manipulate our
behavior to try to conform to those concepts; then, as we identify
ourselves with this fabricated self, we become even farther
removed from our true spiritual nature. Taoism offers relief from
the pressures of society; we can be ourselves, instead of striving
to be more than that. Further, Taoism offers a vision of a
different kind of society in which people are at peace with
themselves, and therefore they exhibit an organic morality because
they do not fight to accumulate the goods and qualities which
might otherwise be judged especially important: "Not exalting
cleverness causes the people not to contend." Rather than being a
passive viewpoint, this is a vibrant responsiveness to
the impulses of life; if we look for passivity, we find it instead
in the sluggish, encrusted intellectualizing which we employ in
our mimicking of life through possessions, social positioning, and
vain creations. Wu-wei, the Taoist doctrine of
"non-doing," does not mean that we do not act, but rather that our
actions are intuitive, wholistic outgrowths of the needs of the
moment such that we have a sense that we are indeed "not
doing" but instead that life is doing itself through us
-- without our self-monitoring, personal exertion or pressure, or
pre-planned scheme or intent.
- We study the example of nature. The Tao Te Ching uses
many metaphors from nature; nature exemplifies a way of being
which is not forced or externally regulated. Primarily, the book
examines water, whose dynamic is analogous to that of the
We examine the harmony of life. When we accept the natural
impulses of life from inside of us and from outside of us, we find
that these impulses rise and fall in harmony, synchronicity,
equilibrium, order, and pattern. This is not the type of harmony
in which we would sacrifice our soulful qualities in order to fit
our perverse, complex-ridden self into an intellectually designed
conglomerate of other perverse, complex-ridden selves, but instead
it is the type of harmony which is orchestrated by life itself,
such that each living thing can express itself fully, because none
of us are making the outrageous demands which would be generated
by loose-cannon goal-making from dysfunctional elements in our
archetypal fields. When we explore the tao, we discover that the
process is that of life -- a benevolent macrocosm which
mirrors our own exuberant self -- so we yield to the inevitable
surge of "what is"; we stop fearing what had seemed to be chaos,
and we begin to trust the process.
- Water moves in a non-linear fashion (in contrast to the
course of the mind's logic, which can be viewed as a straight
line on a predictable course).
- Water assures its forward motion by non-confrontationally
seeking paths of least resistance; it is willing to go around
or over or under its barriers (e.g., rocks and low-hanging
- Water has no objectives which could be crystallized into
words; instead, it simply participates in a process
in-the-moment (i.e., flowing).
- Water exemplifies humility as it allows gravity to draw it
toward the lowest level, but it is not degraded by doing so.
- Water displays surrender as it generally concurs with the
shape of the river and the stones. Having no rigid form of its
own, water adapts itself to the contour of its container
without betraying its nature.
- Despite all of these non-forceful qualities, water
gradually wears down all blockages in its path, and it achieves
The tao is
not reducible to a formula. From those descriptions, we might believe
that we can know the tao through (1) a psychological self-acceptance,
(2) a behavioral imitation of nature, and (3) an amiable cooperation
with the life around us. We might conclude that the tao is
naturalness, and that we ought to discard that which is
unnatural. However, a text titled the Chung Yung
shatters these easy answers by saying, "The Tao is that from which
one cannot deviate; that from which one can deviate is not the Tao."
Alan Watts said, "This sentence ... suggests that there is no analogy
between Tao and the Western ideas of God and of divine or natural
law, which can be obeyed or disobeyed. The saying is a hard one,
because both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu speak of forced actions which are
at variance with the Tao. ... You may imagine that you are outside,
or separate from, the Tao and thus able to follow it or not follow;
but this very imagination is itself within the stream, for there is
no way other than the way. Willy-nilly, we are it and go with it.
From a strictly logical point of view, this means nothing and gives
us no information. Tao is just a name for whatever happens, or, as
Lao-tzu put it, 'The Tao in principle is what happens of itself
[tzu-jan].'" (From Tao: The Watercourse Way.
Copyright 1975 by Mary Jane Yates Watts.) In other words, sometimes
it is natural for us to be unnatural; sometimes it is harmonious for
us to be inharmonious; sometimes it is balanced for us to be
unbalanced; it is all a part of life.