During 6th century BCE in the Ancient capital of Luoyang, an imperial archives keeper saw sordid behaviour corroding the society’s morals and grew wary. Instead of retaining his profitable position he elected to leave the city and head West towards the boarder of the Chinese Empire. Upon reaching a mountain pass the man’s erudite reputation proceeded him and he was recognized by a gatekeeper, insisting that the traveller scribe the essence of his teachings. He did what was asked and left the gatekeeper with what became known as the Tao Te Ching.
With Lao Tsu’s wisdom as a cornerstone, Taoism is a naturalistic philosophy focusing on establishing connection with the Tao – a ubiquitous, perennial force facilitating the course of existence. Through awareness of mind and behaviour Taoism seeks to harmoniously unite individuals with the universe, to not fight against but learn how to flow with it. By following the Tao one puts faith in the operations of the cosmos, and when you trust the cosmos the Tao helps you out.
The initial teaching of the Tao Te Ching speaks of the eternal nature of the Tao – it was born before heaven and earth and it has no concept of life, death or time, it is and has always been. Lao Tzu writes the Tao is the mother of 10,00 things, or, in other words, everything. As inscribed the Tao begot one, and then one begot two and two three, the path of generation continuing until now. While the Tao may sire existence it is not what it produces, it exists on a supreme paradigm all on its own.
Water is a salient concept in Taoism as a recurrent illustration of the Tao’s path – like a winding stream, energy drifts down the river until it returns to source. Throughout this sequence the water faces obstacles like boulders, trees, the bank, and must manoeuvre to reach its destination. Force cannot do this, what can is flowing with the current and passively combatting whatever is comforted.
Passive combat may sound like an odd notion but it’s vital to the ancient tradition. Wu Wei is an essential concept of Taoism and translates to “Effortless Action”, dismantling adversity not via impulsive strength but placidity, patience and plasticity. A great example is the erosion of a cliff by the ocean – while the power of a single wave cannot decimate the precipice, the consistent repetition of energy can crumple what appears indomitable.
The Cosmos is impartial and sees the ten thousand things how they truly are. The Tao encourages correlation with the cosmos by discrediting individuals who attempt to conquer and improve the universe. The cosmos cannot be controlled, yet we can arrange action to flow with it. When one follows the path of the Tao they attain awareness of the enduring interrelatedness of everything. When one doesn’t hubris hones attention to the self.
The Tao gives truth to life as it follows the process of nature, and when going against it we actively revolt against veracity. The Tao Te Ching explains that acquisition of harmony comes from virtuous action, enlightenment unseen in self-interest but conspicuous in the pursuit of moral decency.
The script highlights the delusion of those opposing the way of the Tao. When knowledge is neglected honesty becomes corrupt and ignorance reins supreme, and when ignorance reins supreme disorder is never too distant. Acts of violence are disdained by the Tao and Lao Tzu teaches those who are violent will have violent deaths. Conversely, the Tao bring tranquillity to those flowing with it and living a benevolent life increases the chances of having a congruent ending.
In seeking for more than what’s required people skew their understanding of the world and their relation to it, they begin to expect rather than appreciate. “He who knows enough is enough will always have enough.” Lao Tzu exhibits the perils of overindulgence – if one cannot be satisfied with a little, when given a lot their bound to the same perception. Without gratitude of what one has they’ll always be scrounging for more, a neurosis blocking the trail to the plateau of contentment.
When thought is incessantly concentrated on personal issues and community gossip we forget the enormous system we are living in. By not being engaged with nature one is sensationalized by modern society and connection to our humble origins deteriorate. In observing nature’s system one can salute the perennial structure we are imbedded within; without exposure, how can they gain familiarity?
“Because the wise always confront difficulties, they never experience them.” Without discomfort there can be no improvement. When we do not face up to adversity we don’t develop from it, anchoring us to it.
To flow with the Tao one must “accept misfortune as the human condition”, realizing that calamity only befalls the flesh. To “accept disgrace willingly” means acknowledging insignificance in the enormity of the cosmos, to not obsess over gains and losses but brew cognizance of the necessity of misfortune to learn and develop.
The Tao encourages peaceful living by avoiding extremes, excess and complacency. Achievement should be reached without immorality, including the glorifying of one’s actions. “Force is followed by loss of strength, this is not the Tao’s way”, no one of any worth needs to praise their own accomplishments, others will see and do this for them. To flow with the Tao is to honour the quest and not the result, for a quest done correctly always leads to right destination.
Lao Tzu understands humility as a source of strength. Truly good people are naïve to their goodness because for them doing the right thing is always the right thing to do. They don’t need admiration from others when they know they’ve acted according to their virtue. The urge to contest with others is depleted in these individuals as they know they are only in control of their actions, competition coming from the challenge to enhance the former self.
To find and feel our place in the Cosmos the Tao Te Ching encourages the observation and inculcation of the Tao’s flow. Mediation is a core element to the life of a practicing Taoist and the exercise takes on many forms. “Attain utmost emptiness, maintain utter stillness”, in temporarily dropping contemplation and turning inward one senses they are more than their mind and body and can appreciate just being.
Spending solitary time in nature is also central to the tradition. Nature allows us to observe in our world examples of the Cosmos’ interrelatedness and the flow of the Tao. Isolated in nature awareness of our position as Gaia’s temporary manifestation is regained.
Lao Tzu culminates his work by drawing attention to an auspicious avenue towards contentment, altruism. Comparative philosopher Julian Baggini wrote, “If you recognize yourself in another, treating the other as yourself becomes not an abstract duty but second nature.” In following the Tao one grasps the interwoven connectivity of the cosmos and how helping others is really helping oneself.
Following the Tao places one in synchronicity with the cosmos, the interconnected ever-expanding system of the universe. Taoism teaches people to be deeply observant of behaviour in both thought and action, to align themselves with what is conducive to flow of nature. The Tao Te Ching demonstrates the best way to gain control is not to force against a current but learning to flow with it, adapting oneself with effortless action to overcome whatever’s confronted.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny”. While the legitimacy of Lao Tzu as an individual is dubious, the work engendered in his name is as useful now as any time in human history.
Image Source: Cath Simard