It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is!
How spiritual it is!
It stands alone and it does not change.
It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.
All life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and
Yet it claims no honour, it does not demand to
I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao,
And I rejoice in its power. (Tao Te Ching)
What is Tao?
According to Huston Smith, author of the excellent book, ‘The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions,’ Tao has three meanings.
Tao is the way of ultimate reality. According to Huston Smith, ‘This Tao cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom.’ (Smith, 1998).
“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” (Tao Te Ching). The author/s of the Tao Te Ching recur to this theme: the ineffable, the transcendent, the primary mystery, “the mystery of all mysteries (Smith, 1998).
Tao is also immanent: it is the way of the universe, the “norm, the rhythm, the driving owner in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it assumes flesh and informs all things.” (Smith, 1998). It is also benign; infinitely generous, open and flowing.
According to Huston Smith, “Charles Darwin’s colleague, George Romanes, could have been speaking of it [Tao] when he referred to the ‘integrating principle of the whole – the Spirit, as it were, of the universe – instinct without contrivance, which flows with purpose.’”
“Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe…” (Smith, 1998).
Three Forms of Taoism
In China, three forms of Taoism have arisen:
- Philosophical Taoism
- Religious Taoism (Popular Taoism)
- Active Taoism (Smith calls these the “Vitalising Taoisms”)
Philosophical Taoism is not organised as a religion, but essentially is “an attitude towards life” (Smith, 1998). The core principle is that humans should live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not wasting it through friction and conflict. The concept of wu wei, literally “inaction,” in Taoism means “pure effectiveness” or “creative quietude” (Smith, 1998). Friction is minimalised. The aim is that we align our daily lives with the Tao, “to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow.”
Creative quietude unites supreme activity with supreme relaxation. The ego yields to the Tao. According to Smith, this is the opposite of Confucianism. “Confucius turned every effort to building a pattern of ideal responses that might be consciously imitated. Taoism’s approach is the opposite – to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behaviour flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action will follow new being, wiser, stronger being.”
Taoists reject competition and self-assertiveness, instead promoting humility and disinterest in worldly ambitions. Taoists extend this to nature; humans should not be aggressive towards each other or nature, seeking attunement with nature rather than dominance.
Taoists also adopted the Chinese yin/yang symbol which describes relativity and balance, in which supposed opposites are just phases in an endless cycle in which each eternally turns into its opposite and vice versa. Life does not follow a linear vector, but “bends back upon itself to come full circle to the realisation that all is one and all is well.” (Smith, 1998). Taoists even see good and evil as relative: “He who feels punctured must once have been a bubble.” (Tao Te Ching).
Life and death as complementary cycles in the Tao.
There is the globe,
The foundation of my bodily existence.
It wears me out with work and duties,
It gives me rest in old age,
It gives me peace in death.
For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life
Will also give me what I need in death. (Tao Te Ching)
Active Taoists aim to increase the amount of Tao that they can access. They talk about ch’i, which literally means breath but refers to the power of the Tao that practitioners experience flowing through them or being blocked. Practitioners aim to further the flow of ch’i.
Active Taoists work with matter, movement and mind. Practices have arisen such as acupuncture, meditation, Chinese medicinal herbs, and t’ai chi chuan. This last united yin yang philosophy, martial art and meditation to draw ch’i from the cosmos and remove internal blocks to the flow of ch’i.
Taoists meditators attempt to empty the mind so that the Tao can enter the self. Physical postures and mental techniques are not dissimilar to those of the Hindu raja yoga. In China, Taoists wanted to focus the ch’i they gathered through meditation and yoga, and transmit it psychically to the community.Meditators aim to cleanse and purify their minds and bodies of emotional disturbances and desires in order to reach the mind’s original purity and stillness. They aim in this way to realise the Tao, the ultimate truth. This would be experienced as a sense of joy: everything falling into place.
Religious Taoists built on China’s folk religious practices and Buddhist influences. The Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist Teachings,” emerged in the second century AD, with Lao Tzu as one of the three originating deities from whom sprung sacred texts which outline rituals for channeling the life force in ways which could be called “magical.”
My Reflections on the Tao
The Tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name. (Tao Te Ching)
When I first read these words, they came home to me, they resonated with me.
‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.’ I really like how the Tao Te Ching, right up front, acknowledges the unnameability of spirit. The writer gets to the heart of what it means to be talking about something that is beyond and within, that escapes language because it came before language.
It reminds me of the Huston Smith chapter about the indigenous spiritualities of the First Peoples. Smith talks about how significant it is that in, for example, Aboriginal Australian culture, spirituality was experienced in a non-written way. This intrigued me – how would we see the world if we did not write the words down? Then I reflected upon how different this is to the Christian new testament: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and Christ is the Word made flesh.’
There was something formless and perfect
Before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao. (Tao Te Ching)
But back to the Tao Te Ching, which strips things right back to their inner nature. When you do this with the universe itself, what do you have left? Nothing. Literally, no thing. So how do you talk about it? ‘For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.’
I love this line. It is so direct, and I really like how it has been written in the first person voice, which is really different to say, the Christian bible or the Quran, which are written from a third person narrative voice which gives it an aura of authority, you know, the objective voice of history. In this passage from the Tao Te Ching, the use of first person really brings it home that this is just a regular human being writing these words, doing her best to communicate something which it is impossible to communicate. The basic humour of that is something which I think really colours Taoism, with its crazy riddles and joking monks. There is something earthy about it which really resonates with me, and also something which reminds me of my Chinese ancestry – there is a matter of fact-ness, a down to earthiness, a laughing pragmatism about the Taoist way of relating to the world which I just love.
I think I also see in this use of first person the importance of developing my own personal voice and narrative when it comes to interfaith ministry. It is a profoundly uncomfortable act for me as a female, and an Australian with our deeply culturally ingrained British reserve, to talk about myself. But I am coming around to seeing how useful it will be to find a way to speak in the first person, as the author of the Tao Te Ching did.
The Tao gives birth to all beings,
Nourishes them, maintains them,
Cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
Takes them back to itself,
Creating without possessing,
Acting without expecting,
Guiding without interfering.
That is why love of the Tao
Is in the very nature of things.
I love this passage because when I read it, to me it sounded like an excellent set of directions for how to parent – to be like the Tao – and quite possibly, I imagine, how to minister. ‘Create without possessing, act without expecting, guide without interfering.’ That is the best way to parent a child, and I can see myself coming back to this as a guide to how to be an interfaith minister.
Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. (1998).