Part I. Little is known about Taoism. No date of its creation has ever been made a complete fact. It is believed to have arrived in China around the sixth century BCE. It was founded by Lao-tzu who is said to have written Taoism’s most important sacred writing, Tao Te Ching or The Way and Its Power. This book is “second only to the Bible in number of Western translations.” (Mary Pat Fisher, pg. 186) Taoism is essentially one of the most passive traditions around the world. With the important symbols of life its teachers have taught the importance of peace. Taoism is a rich Chinese culture full of history and highly important to the world’s most populated country. The story goes that as Lao-tzu was leaving for the mountains he passed a guard, who “recognized Lao-tzu as a sage and begged him to leave behind record of his wisdom.” (Mary Pat Fisher, pg. 186) And so he did before leaving for the mountains and was never seen again. Essentially the book contains his view and philosophy of life and politics. Tradition states that the Yellow Emperor who “supposedly ruled from 2697 to 2597 BCE… was said to have studied with an ancient sage and to have developed meditation, health, and military practices based on what he learned. After ruling for one hundred years, he ascended to heaven on a dragon’s back and became one of the immortals.” (Mary Pat Fisher, Pg. 187)
A concept deeply rooted in te is wu wei, which is literally translated as “not a course of action.” It is figuratively interpreted as “non-ado” or “actionless action.” Wu wei stresses action that is not entirely “actionless”, but one of rather “less-action”. The ideas of wu wei are omnipresent and omnifluent in the natural world – water flowing effortlessly down a hill, grass stretching to bend in the wind, the song of birds echoing throughout a valley. They are actions that require the least possible effort but yield a large [perhaps greatest] effect. When one acts with wu wei it is the result of years of mastery in a specific art – “action that is so harmonious or balanced that it appears to not be an action at all.” (Tao Te Ching, 38) Think of the violinist effortlessly playing her part in the symphony – this could be a modern application of wu wei. A point to note is that there are three types of wu wei. The first is natural, like the crying of a baby or someone just breathing: something virtually rooted at its source, spontaneous and without difficulty. The second is developed over time, much like the violinist who
needs years of practice to play her instrument perfectly – it is where most of the wu wei is concentrated. The third type of “non-ado” is the mystical type, in part a combination of the first two kinds with a large element of the extraordinary added.
“Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place” (Tao Te Ching, 3). Wei wu wei is the practice of doing and not-doing. This concept comes from the theory of the Yin and Yang. The Yang, along with wei, is the practice of doing. The Yin, along with wu wei, is the practice of not-doing. One compliments the other, and each cannot exist alone. The Tao tells people to practice not-doing because it will bring happiness in their life. By not-doing, the Tao means not performing actions, which are unnecessary and uncalled for. People should just take things as they come in life and they will live a life full of happiness and pleasure. If you don’t interfere with the Tao and let things take their natural course, everything will work out in your life (Tao Te Ching, 10). “If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao…all people would be at peace…” (Tao Te Ching, 32). If you work against your Tao, you will never find happiness.
The way to attain unity with the Tao involves no effort, ambition, discipline, or education. Therefore, each person has an equal opportunity to attain balance. It involves a surrender to nature: since every person is by definition part of the Tao, there is no need or reason to seek it elsewhere. Furthermore, everyone has direct access to the Tao because the Tao is connected to reality, and everyone is a part of reality. There is no need to seek answers outside of oneself. Through non-action the answer is revealed through ones own existence.
The reason the Tao is so difficult to grasp is because you cannot know that you are practicing it. The Tao is beyond all words. If you give it words, it does not exist. It is unnamable. If you concentrate on the Tao, you will never understand it. You cannot think about it, you must just do it. This is very difficult because people always think about what they do, but this does not work with the Tao (Tao Te Ching, 1). You cannot look for the Tao; you cannot listen for the Tao. You must just accept the idea that it is always there, omnipresent, and you can’t see it. This is all very important because if one cannot understand these first simple steps in Taoism, they will be lost the rest of the way.
Part II. The World is said to have come into existence by natural means. Everything is said to be interconnected, “united in one big system, with nothing outside it.” What connects human’s to the divine, meaning ancestors and the gods is most often “ritual offerings” of food. “The God is expected to grant a favor in return,”(Overmyer, Daniel, Pg. 59, 69-70) so that everyone benefits in these spiritual relationships. A human’s role is to follow Tao and accept what they are given. The being who masters wu wei is known as the Sage, “a person who embodies the perfect human virtue of wisdom, and who therefore embraces the mystery and beauty of life to its fullest.” The Sage has truly taken the basic concept of wu wei and elevated it to its highest form – such that even his or her movement that is an “action that mirrors the perfect emptiness of its source.” (Tao Te Ching, 37) The Sage also fangzhu xuewen, or “banishes learning” – which is not to actually remove learning from its place in life, but instead to become masters of everything done; thus, one eventually phases out learning and replaces it with doing. The wu wei of the Sage also applies to his or her general life as well as his or her specific talents.
He or she experiences life naturally, in tandem with tao and all of its elements, and it is this living that enables the Sage to espouse the subtleties of life. Perhaps the most important symbols in all of China and the Taoism culture is the Yin Yang. It symbolizes the idea that there is a great emphasis on balance between the positive and negative aspects of life. Everything is said to have a relationship with an opposing factor. For example, men and women, or day and night. Yang is said to represent the power that starts things and Yin is said to be the power that completes them. (Overmyer, Daniel, Pg. 123) Water represents one of the most fundamental ideas that everything should flow. Water withers away the hardest of stones without any harm. Wu-wei, meaning “doing nothing” is just like the idea of water, where friction is small. Water adapts to its surroundings. Part III. Taoism offers a freedom of spirit and a way to view the world from a wondrous holistic perspective. Even though I have attempted to “rise above” my cultural indoctrination to present an unbiased account of Taoism, I have no doubt failed to some extent due to my humanness and my Catholic “mindset.” The task of accepting Taoism is difficult, but an attempt should be made. Even partial success is surely worthwhile. We should keep in mind one tried and tested truth: Things are never the way they seem.
Living Religions, Fisher, Mary Pat, Prentice-Hall (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2007) Religions of China, Overmyer, Daniel L., Harper & Row Publishers (New York, 1986) Tao Te Ching, Mitchell, S. translation, Harper Collins (New York, NY, 1988)