Taoism (actually pronounced Dow-ism) is a philosophical religion (and I use religion here loosely) that began to develop in China around 500 BC. This time marked a period in China’s history known as The Hundred Schools of Thought. Tao literally means “way,” and Taoism is just that: a way or path. But, as we will find out, defining the Tao at all is to miss the target completely. Bruce Lee followed in the footsteps of Tao. He didn’t just model his life after it; he created an entire new form of martial arts based upon it. In light of this, it is essential to keep in mind that while my attempt at this article is to explain the Tao, I’ll never really come close to the Tao at all. So, let’s get started!
Lao Tzu and The Tao Te Ching.
First and foremost, we must pay homage to Lao Tzu. Though it is not exactly known when Lao Tzu was born and how long he lived (some reports claim he lived to 200 years of age), he certainly lived an interesting life and it is he who we must thank for Taoism as we know it today. Lao Tzu worked at an imperial library during the Zhou Dynasty and even outwitted Confucius in an argument about Confucian Ethics. He is also the author of the famed Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching is a book of poems and aphorisms that outline a way of life in accordance with the Tao. The story, as it goes, is that Lao Tzu quit his position with the Zhou Dynasty and traveled west to the great desert on a water buffalo. Upon reaching the western gate he was stopped by a guard who demanded that before he left he must write down all of his knowledge. The result was the Tao Te Ching, and afterwards Lao Tzu vanished into the desert forever.
The Eternal Tao and Wu-Wei
The first line of the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching is, “The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.” This seems like a contradiction because upon translating Tao we are left with, “The path that can be followed is not the eternal path.” The Tao that he speaks of in the Tao Te Ching is not the Tao itself. You cannot gain insight into what the Tao is by reading about it. It is something that you must experience yourself. The Tao is best thought of as an eternal life force in which we are all taking part of. No matter how resistant or persistent toward any experience that comes our way, we are nevertheless caught in the tide of life.
Taoism is ultimately “going with the flow” of things or living in accordance with nature. The principle of Tao known as Wu-Wei translates to action through inaction. It is not so much “doing nothing” as it is an allowance of the natural flow of life without human ignorance and folly. It is best here to use the example of water. When water fills a cup there is no sense that the water is trying to form to the shape of that cup. Neither is it the case that water tries to flow down a stream. Water is in perfect accordance with the Tao because it does not try, assume, attempt, or disregard. It simply does.
The Yin Yang Polarity and Dichotomization
The Yin-Yang symbol is the most popular symbol to ever come out of the Eastern world. In most cultures, Good and Evil, Light and Dark, Ugly and Beautiful are seen as in opposition against each other. The Yin-Yang principle holds that the opposites of the world are necessary constituents of each other. Alan Watts, a philosopher known best for bringing Eastern philosophy to the West, describes such cases of Good and Evil as being like a battery that has a + and – polarity. Even though they are opposite, each is necessary for the battery to work.
In Taoism it is necessary to see through this dichotomy and realize that drawing lines at all is against the concept of the Tao. As stated in Chapter Two of the Tao Te Ching,
All in the world recognize the beautiful as beautiful.
Here in lies ugliness
All recognize good as good
Herein lies evil.
Through identifying one thing as beautiful we have already severed the aesthetic environment in half. One creates a concept of ugly by creating the concept named beautiful. By recognizing “soft” we create “hard,” by recognizing “good” we create “evil.” For if everything were good there would be no evil, and if everything were beautiful there would be no ugly. We define things by what they are not and what that thing is not is necessary for it to be what it is.
Picking up where we left off, realizing this fact of polarity leads to one thing: Being is wholly dependent upon Non-Being. Commonly, the world sees that which does not exist as something meaningless. But, the Tao Te Ching has a remedy for that way of thinking. From Chapter Eleven:
Thirty spokes join together in the hub.
It is because of what is not there that the cart is useful.
Clay is formed into a vessel.
It is because of its emptiness that the vessel is useful.
Cut doors and windows to make a room.
It is because of its emptiness that the room is useful.
Therefore, what is present is used for profit.
But it is in absence that there is usefulness. (Ch. 11, Tao Te Ching)
Instead of what is, it is actually the empty space that contains existent objects that any of those things become useful. A doorway is useful because it allows one to enter and leave rooms or buildings, and it is because a cup is empty that it can be filled with water to quench one’s thirst. Emptiness and its practical uses are everywhere and only after realizing this one can begin to truly appreciate the nature of things.
Perhaps the most significant concept attributed to Taoism is Li. In Tao, The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts speaks at length of the significance of this term. Li is organic order and is most often symbolized through the grain in a piece of wood. The universe is to be thought of as Li because it goes along ordering things without any real attention to what it is doing (just like water). At any point, we can zoom into an object and see chaos occurring. My hands seem uniform to me but on an atomic level, they are simply atoms thrashing about. The Earth Looks peaceful from outer space but if we zoomed into say, New York City, we would see a chaotic mass of people, cars, bikes and so on all randomly scattered around. Even if we looked at our galaxy from afar we would see a beautiful orderly spiral. But within, stars are exploding, planets are crashing into each other and this whole chaotic mass is swarming around a gigantic black hole at millions of miles per hour!
Chaos and Order are also dichotomies created by humans. They are just two ways of looking at the same thing. All that is, is Li, an organic order created by the Tao. Scientists claim that the causal laws of physics are what determine this order. In response to that I’ll leave you with a quote from Alan Watts, “The notion of causality is simply a lame way of connecting the various stages of an event which we have distinguished and separated for purposes of description; so that, beguiled by our own words, we come to think of these stages as different events which must be stuck together by the glue of causality. In fact, the only single event is the universe itself. Li, not causality, is the rationale of the world.”
Well this certainly tops off as my longest article ever! But it is necessary to not skip any of the essential parts of Taoist philosophy. This article itself is proof that concepts in Tao are all in accordance with and interconnected to each other. The concept of Emptiness itself in all of Eastern thought is quite interesting and is sure to be a post in itself some day. For now, we should all take a step back and realize that even though we have discussed some pretty cool stuff about Taoism, we haven’t really learned anything about the Tao at all. The Tao is a path that we each must discover on our own. But you can’t go looking for it, for that Tao would be false. The true Tao will find you, and if it’s just right, you won’t even know it. Until next time, and perhaps for the first and only time, do as Bruce Lee once stated: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water…”and cease thinking my friends!