Since deconverting from Christianity, I’ve felt new freedom to explore other faith traditions. My quest isn’t to find a replacement for Christianity, or to exhaust all of the possible supernatural and theistic views one-by-one to see if any of their truth claims are valid (if that was my goal I would never finish!). Instead, my goal is to enrich myself and to learn more about my global neighbors. I want to broaden my perspective of the world and the people in it while applying my critical eye to the religious and philosophical texts that hold deep meaning and comfort for millions.
This is the attitude with which I have approached Taoism since I began studying this ancient philosophical and religious system in 2013. I wasn’t expecting to find anything life-changing, but if I could glean some practical wisdom then all the better.
Here are some basic ideas that reading the Tao Te Ching (two times through) and Chuang Tzu (just once) have instilled in me. This isn’t a comprehensive list of Taoist beliefs, by any stretch. And, it should be noted that my observations and understandings of ancient Taoist philosophy are colored by my Western upbringing; someone raised in a home that practiced Taoism as a religious discipline would likely have a very different perspective. There are also dozens of important Taoist texts which I haven’t read due to their limited availability and translation in the West.
Gleanings from Taoism:
- Don’t be concerned with fame, fortune and influence over others. Focus on developing yourself and meeting your needs before seeking to benefit others with your “wisdom” and leadership. This theme is prevalent in both the Tao Te Ching (TTC) and Chuang Tzu (ZS from here on out, “Zhuangzi” is closer to the actual pronunciation). From my brief research it seems that aristocrats and rulers were the main audience for these works. This makes them similar to the book of Proverbs and it makes sense that in a bronze-age/iron-age society the those few people who were literate, the ones with wealth and power, would have works written for their benefit. Despite being written to people in power, these works emphasize humility when it comes to the pursuit and exercise of power.
- Wu Wei – This is a very deep concept in Taoist thought. I don’t know if I have a good grasp on it, but it is related to the ideals above. Instead of rulers being bossy, tyrannical or moral busy-bodies, rulers are encouraged to practice “wu wei” or “action through inaction.” In the Western world of thought we might call this policy “laissez-faire” though I don’t think the main concern of Taoist sages was economics . The Taoist sages, especially ZS, wanted people to live according to their “inborn nature” and not be forced into habits which were unnatural to them. Sometimes this means that rulers should ignore bad behavior. This concept can be applied more broadly to one’s personal actions and life. Sometimes exerting tons of effort to reach a goal is very fruitless and one would be better off following this principle. Sometimes it’s more productive to act, than not to act.
- Limiting desire – like some other important ancient philosophies, Taoism advises followers of the Way to limit their desires. Fewer desires means less angst and anxiety when those desires are unmet due to factors outside of one’s control. Fewer desires also means less ambition and a life which is able to be preserved more easily. Some of the justification for this is tied up in ancient medicinal knowledge about the yin and yang in one’s body needing to be balanced. I think the principle of not stressing out too much over acquiring new things and new positions is worthy even if the “science” cited by the Taoist sages is no longer valid. Taoism seems to take this concept very far, into a sort of supreme ideal. The “Perfect Man” in Taoism is one who cares very little for their own desires or even their own comfort and this, paradoxically, allows them to gain incredible power and mastery over other men and nature. [Side note – I say men here, because as far as I can tell, ancient Taoism is concerned with male rulers and sages. There are many dialogues in ZS and I can’t recall any dialogue spoken by a woman, though they are occasionally referenced (as wives or concubines) by other characters. I don’t know how much agency women had in ancient China, but I would wager it was not much.]
- Everything is One – Though they are written in very different styles, one of the unifying features of the TTC and ZS is their focus on what they call The Way (the “Tao” in Taoism). What seems to make the Tao special is that it encompasses all of reality. Is it divine? It seems to be, since out of it springs forth creation and a myriad of gods and spirits. But, it is also present in humble things, even “the piss and shit” as ZS says in a rather startling and (to my ears) poetic passage. In the TTC various allusions and illustrations are given to attempt to define the Tao, but ultimately the sage reminds us over and over again that the true nature of the Tao cannot be grasped. It’s an ineffable reality, something more to be experienced than spoken about in long treatises. You can’t buy it or sell it. What I like about The Way in Taoist thought is that it reminds us to pay attention to the little things…don’t scorn the bugs and the dirt and the poor things of the world. Don’t see some things as “beneath” and others as “above” when we all share the same Universe together as living beings. I don’t accept Taoist cosmology because it is tied up with ancient myth and makes many unsupported assertions. In my view what the Tao actually does is indiscernable. It is functionally supernatural and outside of objective perception, though in the texts I read it is not described as a being, a “who” like Thor, Zeus, Yahweh, Baal and the other ancient tribal gods. The “Tao” is more like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” or even Plato’s perfect realm of forms. It’s an inaccessible, un-circumscribable thing…or quite possibly everything. The Tao is described as both bringing forth and sustaining all things. There is no requirement to worship it or offer it sacrifices, but rather the expectation is to simply be aware of it and to seek to live one’s life in such a way that finding balance within the Tao becomes natural. Finding balance in this way should lead to inner peace. ZS offers few guarantees though. Some of the “heroes” of his story end up dying tragic deaths despite their humility, their wisdom and their separation from vain pursuits. Loss is inevitable and it seems that the role of the Taoist sage is more to prepare for loss, rather than to try to vainly prevent it.
Photo credit: Jasper van der Meij