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Taoism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1994

Taoism is an ancient faith with roots deeply planted in China’s evolution as a culture. It could be surmised that Tao is the manifest power of nature that most tribal cultures have at the center of their faith. But as China became more socially complex, with the rise of larger clans and eventually kingdoms, the power of nature evolved to the concept of Tao. The ideas that were to form the basis of Taoism began developing approximately from 8,000 BCE to 600 B.C.E., when they may have first been consolidated in a more structured way.

To define Tao is impossible; and if it was defined the greatest Taoist master made it clear that what was defined was most assuredly not Tao. But, of course, definitions abound. There are synonyms that attempt to give a glimpse of the meaning. Tao is many times referred to as the Way, or the Subtle Origin, or spiritual energy. Tao has been called “All-pervading, self existent, eternal cosmic unity, the source from which all created things emanate and to which they all return (Mair I, 132).”

Another definition is given in clear terms by Lin Yutang:

The Tao of the Taoist is the divine intelligence of the  universe, the source of things, the life giving  principle; it informs and transforms all things; it is  impersonal, impartial, and has little regard for  individuals. It is immanent, formless, invisible, and  eternal. Best of all the Taoist does not presume to  tell us about God; he insists to the point of  repetitiousness that the Tao cannot be named and the  Tao that is named is not the Tao.  Above all, the one  important message of Taoism is the oneness and  spirituality of the material universe. (15)

This may be somewhat startling to a Western reader. A religion without a god? A faith that is “impersonal, impartial, and has little regard for individuals?” This is not familiar ground for those brought up in a Judeo-Christian background, and as such, there is occasionally a Western scholar that refuses to even acknowledge Taoism as a religion. But a religion it most certainly is.       The study of Taoism usually starts with the first of the great masters, Lao Tzu. He is generally considered by scholars to be partially or totally mythical. Lao Tzu was possibly based on a historical figure, but he has come down in history and literature a composite of many earlier sources. Lao Tzu can be translated as Old Master, or Old Boy, and he is sometimes referred to as Old Big Ears, or Long Ears.  While this seems strangely disrespectful to refer to the founder of a faith in such terms, it is actually quite in keeping with the general irreverent attitude of much Taoism that makes it so endearing to many people. The date of Lao Tzu’s birth is given as around 571 B.C.E. Some legends depict the sage as an archivist for a royal library. Stories tell of his disillusionment with the kingdom and decision to leave, but he was stopped by a border guard who convinced him to write down his teachings before leaving; thus, the origin of the Tao Te Ching, The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way. It is a collection of eighty-one short poems, called chapters that were probably part of the oral tradition of the preceding three centuries.  They were put into the current collection around the second half of the third century B.C.E.  (Mair I, 119-120).  In 1973 the earliest known copy of the book was discovered in a tomb in Hunan province in China, dating back to around the end of the third century B.C.E. This early version has been beautifully translated by Victor Mair and is the source for the Tao Te Ching quotes in this essay. The Tao Te Ching has become the standard text of Taoism and is revered world-wide for its wisdom, wit, and brevity.  One of the continuing themes of the book is that of non-action — which the Way of nature will take its course and all will be harmonious if we simply let it be. The following are some passages to illustrate that point:

The softest thing under heaven gallops triumphantly over

The hardest thing under heaven.

Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.

Hence, I know the advantages of nonaction.

The doctrine without words,

The advantage of nonaction —

few under heaven can realize this! (11)


Without going out-of-doors,

one may know all under heaven;

Without peering through windows,

one may know the Way of heaven.

The farther one goes,

The less one knows.

For this reason,

The sage knows without journeying,

understands without looking,

accomplishes without acting. (15)

This aspect of inaction as the goal is again a foreign concept to most in the West, but the surprises go further when Lao Tzu explains why Tao does not work in human societies:

The more taboos under heaven,

the poorer the people;

The more clever devices people have,

the more confused the state and ruling house;

The more knowledge people have,

the more strange things spring up;

The more legal affairs are given prominence,

the more numerous bandits and thieves. (26)

The more rules, the more things, the more knowledge, the more laws people have, the further they will be from the Way, Tao. The solution is to minimize these aspects of life:

Let there be a small state with few people,

where military devices find no use;

Let the people look solemnly upon death,

and banish the thought of moving elsewhere.

They may have carts and boats,

but there is no reason to ride them;

They may have armor and weapons,

but they have no reason to display them.

Let the people go back to tying knots

to keep records.

Let their food be savory,

their clothes beautiful,

their customs pleasurable,

their dwelling secure.

Though they may gaze across at a neighboring state,

and hear the sounds of its dogs and chickens,

The people will never travel back and forth,

till they die of old age. (39)

In another area of the book Lao Tzu goes so far as to recommend that people be kept ignorant, well-fed, happy, and living in accord with the Way — shocking social philosophy from a modern perspective.

While the theme of the Way, its loss, and what can be done to regain it, is a dominant theme of the Tao Te Ching, many other themes are laced throughout the eighty-one poems. One of the major subjects is that of integrity/virtue:

Treat well those who are good,

Also treat well those who are not good;

thus is goodness attained.

Be sincere to those who are sincere,

Also be sincere to those who are insincere; thus is sincerity attained. (17)


Who is puffed up cannot stand,

Who is self-absorbed has no distinction,

Who is self-revealing does not shine,

Who is self-assertive has no merit,

Who is self-praising does not last long. (86)


Understanding others is knowledge,

Understanding oneself is enlightenment;

Conquering others is power,

Conquering oneself is strength;

Contentment is wealth,

Forceful conduct is willfulness;

Not losing one’s rightful place is to endure,

To die but not be forgotten is longevity. (100)

The wisdom of Lao Tzu has made this small volume popular for the centuries, and at its core is revolutionary thinking that encourages the overturn of the sacred institution of civilization and the return of humankind to the source of its being.

The second great sage of Taoism is Chuang Tzu. He is only slightly more historical than Lao Tzu. Said to have been born around 369 B.C.E. and died about 286 B.C.E., Chuang Tzu was one of the many contending philosophers during the Warring States period that attempted to persuade rulers of contending kingdoms to follow their philosophies. However, Chuang Tzu did more criticizing of the others, mainly Confucians, rather than outright courting of rulers. While Lao Tzu’s humor was subtle and charming, Chuang Tzu’s humor was often stinging and sometimes outrageous. In a marvelous new translation, again by Victor Mair, Chuang Tzu’s writings, also called Chuang Tzu, is brought to life with all its royal and raunchy cast of philosophers, noblemen, robbers, and animals. Most of the following quotes come from Mair’s translation. Many of the themes of Lao Tzu are pursued and given new interpretation and elaborations.  In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu makes the point that the uselessness of a gnarled tree is its salvation from the carpenters axe; Chuang Tzu takes the same story and adds his own twists:

Master Hui said to Master Chuang, “I have a big tree people call Stinky Quassia. Its great trunk is so gnarled and knotted that it cannot be measured with an inked line. Its small branches are so twisted and turned that neither compass nor L-square can be applied to them. It stands next to the road, but carpenters pay no attention to it. Now, sir, your words are just like my tree — big, useless, and heeded by no one.”

“Sir,” said Master Chuang, “are you the only one who hasn’t observed a wild cat or a weasel?  Crouching down, it lies in wait for its prey.  It leaps about east and west, avoiding neither high or low, until it gets caught in a snare or dies in a net.  Then there is the yak, big as the clouds suspended in the sky.  It’s big, all right, but it can’t catch mice.  Now you, sir, have a big tree and are bothered by this uselessness.  Why don’t you plant in Neverland with its wide open spaces?  There you can roam in nonaction by its side and sleep carefreely beneath it. Your Stinky Quassia’s life will not be cut short by axes, nor will anything else harm it. Being useless, how could it ever come to grief?” (8-9)

This irreverent and somewhat sarcastic attitude typifies the stinging barbs Chuang Tzu’s aims at the other characters he places in his stories. He also follows the theme of the lost Way and the ideal past where people lived in harmony with Tao.  The following passage tells of those times:

In the time of the clansman Hohsu, when people stayed at home, they did not know what they were doing, and when they went outside, they did not know where they were going. They filled their mouths with food and were happy, strolling about with their bellies stuffed tight as a drum. The abilities of the people were this and no more. Then along came the sages to rectify the form of all under heaven with their bowing and scraping to the rites and music. They unveiled their humaneness and righteousness from on high to soothe the hearts of all under heaven, but the people began to be plodding in their fondness for knowledge. They ended up contending for profit and they could not be stopped. This, too, is the error of the sages. (82-83)

Again, the blame for the loss of the Way is laid upon knowledge, and this time in particular the teachings of the sages with a very calculated criticism of the Confucians, as they were the ones promoting “rites, music, humaneness, and righteousness.”

While most Taoist philosophers advocated a minimal government, Chuang Tzu advocated no government; he wanted nature to take its course with no interference. While his advocating of anarchy is most certainly radical, it is a non-violent anarchy he promoted. He believed that if we could just let things be, each person could find happiness for themselves. His philosophy was directed at the individual rather than the government (Mair II, xli).

According to legend Chuang Tzu’s fame spread far and wide and he was offered a high government post.  The story is told in Chuang Tzu as follows:

Master Chuang was fishing in the P’u River. The king of Ch’u dispatched two high-ranking officials to go before him with this message: “I wish to encumber you with the administration of my realm.”

Without turning around, Master Chuang just kept holding on to his fishing rod and said, “I have heard that in Ch’u there is a sacred tortoise that has already been dead for three thousand years. The king stores it in his ancestral temple inside a hamper wrapped with cloth. Do you think this tortoise would rather be dead and have its bones preserved as objects of veneration, or be alive and dragging its tail through the mud?”

“It would rather be alive and dragging its tail through the mud,” said the two officials.

“Begone!” said Master Chuang.  “I’d rather be dragging my tail in the mud.” (164)

To further elaborate his disdain and contempt for government position, Chuang Tzu adds the following tale:

When Master Hui was serving as the prime minister of Liang, Master Chuang set off to visit him. Somebody said to Master Hui, “Master Chuang is coming and he wants to replace you as prime minister.” Whereupon Master Hui became afraid and had the kingdom searched for three days and three nights.

After Master Chuang arrived, he went to see master Hui and said, “In the south there is a bird.  Its name is Yellow Phoenix.  Have you ever heard of it?  It takes off from the Southern Sea and flies to the Northern Sea.  It won’t stop on any other tree but the kolanut; won’t eat anything but bamboo seeds; won’t drink anything but sweet spring water.  There was once an owl that, having got hold of a putrid rat, looked up at the Yellow Phoenix as it was passing by and shouted ‘shoo!’ Now, sir, do you wish to shoo me away from your kingdom of Liang?” (164-165)

One of the other concepts many times illuminated in Chuang Tzu is that of relativity. The individual who follows the Way has to know that the large and small, long and short, good and bad are not absolutes, that there is no true distinction between them as there is no distinction between the self and the other. If true understanding of this can be reached the searcher of Tao has come to some understanding of the unity of the Way (Mair II, xlii). This idea is wonderfully shown in the most famous of all Chuang Tzu’s stories:

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly,    fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a  butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly,  unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably  myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming  I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am  a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a  distinction. The transition is called the transformation of  material things. (Yutang 238)

Another recurring and weighty theme of Chuang Tzu is that of life and death. A famous story concerns visitors coming to Chuang Tzu’s home after the death of his wife to offer him condolences. Upon arrival they find him squatting on the floor banging a pan and singing songs.  They are horrified to see such lack of respect for his wife, but he explains that at first he wept but then he realized that she was just part of the “mass of the formless,” going through transitions just as the seasons go through their changes. So for him to weep and beat his chest would only show that he did not understand the Way of nature.

In this next very poetic passage from Chuang Tzu the concept of relativity and life and death are fused to cyclic continuum:

For life is the disciple of death and death is the beginning of life. Who knows their regulator? Human life is the coalescence of vital breath. When it coalesces there is life; when it dissipates there is death. Since life and death are disciples of each other, how should I be troubled by them? Thus the myriad things are a unity. What makes the one beautiful is its spirit and wonder; what makes the other loathsome is its stench and putrefaction. But stench and putrefaction evolve into spirit and wonder, and spirit and wonder evolve once again into stench and putrefaction. Therefore it is said, ‘A unitary vital breath pervades all under heaven.’ Hence the sage values unity. (212)

And a final Chuang Tzu story about death that brings us back his lovable irreverence; who but Chuang Tzu would use a skull as a pillow!

When Master Chuang went to Ch’u, he saw an empty skull.    Though brittle, it still retained its shape. Master Chuang tapped  the skull with his riding crop and asked, “Did you end up like  this because of greed for life and loss of reason? Or was it  because you were involved in some treasonous affair and had your  head chopped off with an ax? Or was it because you were involved  in some unsavory conduct, shamefully disgracing your parents, wife  or children? Or was it because you starved or froze? Or was it  simply because your time was up?”

When he had finished with his questions, Master Chuang picked up the skull and used it as a pillow when he went to sleep. A midnight, the skull appeared to him in a dream and said, “Your manner of talking makes you sound like a sophist. I perceive that  what you mentioned are all burdens of the living. When you are  dead, there’s none of that. Would you like to hear me tell you  about death, sir?”

“Yes,” said Master Chuang.

“When you’re dead,” said the skull, “there’s no ruler above you and no subjects below you.  There are no affairs of the four seasons; instead, time passes leisurely as it does for heaven and  earth. Not even the joys of being a south-facing king can surpass  those of death.”

Not believing the skull, Master Chuang said, “If I were to  have the Arbiter of Destiny restore life to your physical form, to  give you back your flesh, bones, and skin, to return your parents,  wife, children and village acquaintances, would you like that?”

Frowning in deep consternation, the skull said, “How could I abandon ‘the joys of a south-facing king’ and return to the toils  of mankind?” (170)

Following Chuang Tzu many other masters maintained the tradition of the “Old Masters,”  but it was a difficult discipline to follow, requiring its devotees to renounce the world and attempt to find the original Way. In 142 C.E. it is said that Lao Tzu, as a god, appeared to Zhang Dao Ling and authorized him to establish a religion with an elaborate set of beliefs, rituals, magical spells, alchemy, immortality, and a huge pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hartz 39-42). As divorced as this seems from the actual teachings of Taoism, it was the beginning of the evolution of the many forms of popular Taoism. A bureaucracy of Taoist priests evolved to perform the elaborate rituals that were part of all village life, marking the important times of the year and transitions in people’s lives. Taoism blended with the popular culture of China and became an integral part of the common people’s existence. Taoism was and is basic to Chinese culture on so many levels as to be inextricable from the very nature and being of the Chinese people.

One of the basic principles of Taoism is the concept of Yin and Yang.  This concept is probably even older than Taoism itself and is central to any understanding of the faith. The concept is well explained by the oldest master himself, Lao Tzu:

It (the origin of the universe) is a problem that defies the mind and language of man. I will try to tell you what it is like approximately. The great yin is majestically silent; the great yang is impressively active. Majestic silence comes from heaven, and impressive activity comes from the earth.  When the two meet and merge, all things are formed. Some can see the connection but cannot see their form. Growth alternates with decay, fullness with exhaustion, darkness with light.  Every day things change, and every month they are transformed. You see what is going on every day and observe that the change is imperceptible.  Life comes from a source and death is but a return to it. Thus beginning follows the end in a continual endless cycle.  Without Tao, what can be the generative principle binding on all? (Yutang 12-13)

The Yin and the Yang are the all-pervasive forces in the universe, which are in a constant state of balance or imbalance. Tao is the union of the forces. The all-encompassing nature of Ying and Yang are well expressed by Hua-Ching Ni:

There is no facet of life to which the activities of yin and    yang do not apply. Yin and yang express the polar aspects and  inter-relationships of everything that exists in the universe. Yin  and yang have no fixed, explicit definition, which makes the terms  virtually untranslatable. Rather, they represent two broad  categories of complements, which include the correspondences of  the negative and positive, destructive and creative, inert and  active, gross and subtle, actual and potential. (5)

Another basic Taoist principle is that of breath or Chi. Without breath there is no life. Breath sustains us; it brings oxygen, regulates the heart, feeds the brain, creates the red of the blood. The entire energy field of the body is dependent on the breath.  The body, the mind, and the spirit are all linked with the breath or Chi (Ming-Dao 351). And beyond that Chi or breath is the regulating element of the universe at large.  This spiritual sense of breath is likened to the water in the environment of a fish. It surrounds us; we are unmindful of it, but Chi is our energy environment that we exist in and that supports and shapes us (Ni 1).

Taoists have developed many systems to try to create a harmony of the Chi with the body, and harmony of the breath of the body with the Chi of the universe. The most renowned of these practices is T’ai Chi, which takes the laws of nature and interprets them into a physical experience. T’ai Chi is a series of physical movements, of gentle exercises that unite the body and the mind.  Breath is regulated to a sense of harmony with the body and eventually with the universe itself. Its attributes are acclaimed for wide-ranging physical and mental benefits. Balance and harmony are at the heart of T’ai Chi and also at the center of most other Taoist practices to bring the individual into balance with the Way.  Herbal medicine, acupuncture and acupressure are also Taoist methods of creating a harmony of the Yin and Yang and healing the Chi of the individual.

Meditation is yet another Taoist method of returning to the Way. Grounded in the Tao Te Ching’s call for nonaction, Taoist meditation calls for quiet sitting. The individual attempts to empty all thoughts, worries, cares — all knowledge is emptied and the individual becomes one with Tao. It has been likened to water pouring into water, a perfect union. The concept and value of emptiness is another recurring theme through Taoism and is closely allied with nonaction. Lao Tzu described its value as follows:

Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,

But it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies.

Clay is molded to make a pot,

but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.

Cut out the doors and windows to make a room, but it is the spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.


Benefit may be derived from something,

but it is in nothing that we find usefulness. (Mair  I, 70)

And as Chuang Tzu put it in his usual boldness:

Do not be a corpse for fame,

Do not be a storehouse of schemes;

Do not be responsible for affairs,

Do not be a proprietor of knowledge.

Thoroughly embody unendingness and wander in nonbeginning. Thoroughly experience what you receive from heaven but do not  reveal what you attain. Just be empty, that’s all. The mind of the ultimate man functions like a mirror. It neither sends off nor  welcomes; it responds but does not retain. Therefore, he can  triumph over things without injury. (Mair II, 70-71)

Taoism is still very much alive in the contemporary world. It is an ever-present part of Chinese culture and with the new freedom granted religion in China, temples are being restored and opened throughout mainland China. Beyond China the influence of the writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are making an impact. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the U.S. counterculture embraced Eastern religions. Among these were Taoism and the form of Buddhism heavily influenced by Taoism, Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. Today there are Taoist masters teaching in the United States and writing for the general public. One such master and prolific writer is Hua-Ching Ni.  His writings fuse philosophical Taoism with elements of popular Taoism to create a fascinating and occasionally exotic view of Taoism. The following are some of his practical teachings:

Spiritual cultivation is composed of one’s daily activities, such as the way of speaking, the way of behaving, and all daily life movements. All of these are important elements of spiritual power development.  They are the most elementary spiritual ceremonies. They restore spontaneity and deny any kind of mental manipulation. A natural human being is directed by his spiritual energy and causes appropriate responses not by need, but by pure spontaneity. Without design, one practices the very nature of the universe and connects oneself with universal simplicity. By simplifying one’s activities, emotions, mind, and spirit, one becomes united with the very essence of the universe.  One conducts oneself exactly as a natural being. Then the universe responds not to one’s manipulative mind, but to his or her pure spirit. When a human knows and embodies goodness, he or she receives good and beautiful responses.  Through strict traditional spiritual training, one may become a completely developed human being. (113)

The following are ten rules Hua-Ching Ni gives to enhance the Spirit of Life:

1. Sincerely follow Tao, the path to eternal life. To turn    one’s back to the Subtle Origin is to face darkness and  degeneration of the soul.

2. Experience and cherish the pure happiness within your    own soul.  It is eternal and constant. The treasures of  the world are deceptive and fleeting, causing the  progressive erosion of one’s subtle, spiritual essence.

3. Be plain, simple, honest and practical when dealing    with the world. It is better to be naive than cunning.  Better to be fooled than suspicious.

4. Consider righteousness before profit. To gain profit    and lose virtue is no bargain.

5. Pay attention to the laws of the world. Behave with    conscience and maintain dignity. In this way you  protect the freedom for self-cultivation.

6. Plant yourself firmly in Tao. As the tide ebbs and    flows, so does the great transformation of the ten  thousand things sweep away all but the firmly rooted.

7. Become familiar with the law of cause and effect, and    deeply penetrate the truth of the universal law of  subtle energy response. To sow is to reap.  Energies of  the same frequency attract each other.  Therefore,  blind desires lead to blind alleys and righteousness  leads to eternality.

8. Share happiness with others. By extending ourselves to

others we enlarge our being. Selfless service is our

sacred vow.  Receiving by giving is the universal law

of supply.

9. Unite yourself with Heaven and Earth. Be unconcerned

with life and death. With clarity and self-awareness   developed through self-cultivation transform your  being, and thus end your bondage to the law of the  great transformation.

10. Clearly and completely discern the heart of the  unadorned teachings. Passed down through the  generations, they have come from our ancient Masters.  Our Way is the gathering of the greatest simple  truths. The well-spring of eternal life is the  infinite simplicity of Tao. (131-133)

And finally the following are the rewards to be reaped from following and finding the Way according to Hua-Ching Ni:

The mind is rectified and the body reflects its balance. Old physical maladies gradually and completely disappear. One is no longer tempted by former bad habits, nor does one chase after  worldly pleasures. One stands firmly on one’s own two feet. Deep  calm pervades one’s internal and external atmosphere. One has both  the time and energy to accomplish any task. One purifies oneself  and is at peace with one’s environment. One never becomes violent  and has untiring patience with one’s fellow beings. One is free  from worry and always has a joyful heart.

One is never jealous of another’s predominance, and never greedy for possessions prized by others. One has no ambition to live a vain or luxurious life.  Because one lives simply, one  maintains serenity. One keeps one’s physical desire subdued and  one’s virtues high. One develops true and deep self-knowledge,  dissolves all obstacles, and extends oneself to meet the straight  and eternal Way. Thus, one experiences uncritically that concepts  of life and death are merely the ebb and flow of the eternal  breath of Tao.

One dissolves one’s ego and with it all conflicts between the internal and the external. One does not seek one’s own longevity or personal happiness nor does one struggle to hold on to material  things. One does not hold the speakable as truth to suppress those  who are silent. One has no desire to go beyond one’s means or  ability. In one’s pure mind, one holds no illusions or strange  thinking. One nurtures a firm character through selfless giving  and self-oblivion. One never emphasizes that one’s actions are  right, nor does one claim credit for one’s undertakings. One knows things thoroughly from the beginning to end.  Virtuously, one knows there are certain things one will never do.  One avoids involvement in contests for worldly profits or glory.  One is amiable and useful. One embodies harmonious equilibrium and  creative appropriateness. One enjoys easiness both internally and  externally. One strives only to surpass one’s own virtues. One  obeys the universal spirit in order to evolve higher.  Before  touching the formed, one rests in the unformed. One enlightens  oneself and never tires of awakening the world. (141-142)

The rewards sound like the absolute perfection of the human condition: a truly utopian individual attainment created in an imperfect world. Another contemporary Taoist master who doesn’t write of quite such states of perfection, but more of everyday striving, is Deng Ming-Dao. He writes of ordinary Taoist concerns and updated Taoist classic concepts in his book, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations.  The following is a sampling of his wisdom:

Worry is a problem that seems to be rampant. Perhaps it is due to the nature of our overly advanced civilization; perhaps it is a measure of our own spiritual degeneracy. Whatever the source, it is clear that worry is not useful. It is a cancer of the emotions — concern gone compulsive. It eats away at the body and mind….  When ever you meet a problem, help if it is in your power to do so.  After you have acted, withdraw and be unconcerned about it. Walk on without ever mentioning it to anybody.  Then there is no worry, because there has been action.  (39)

Why not simply stay quiet? Enjoy Tao as you will. Let others think you are dumb. Inside yourself, you will know the joy of Tao’s mysteries. If you meet someone who can profit by your experience, you should share.  But if you are merely a wanderer in a crowd of strangers, it is wisdom to be silent. (56)

Of all the spiritual traditions, following Tao is among the least popular. Its adherents are poor and veiled with humility. In comparison, many traditions offer heaven, forgiveness, comfort, ecstasy, belonging, power, and wealth. Tao offers only three things; sound health, a way through the bewilderment of life, and liberation from the fear of death. (57)

There is no god in the sense of a cosmic father or mother who will provide all things to their children. Nor is there some heavenly bureaucracy to petition.  These models are not descriptions of a divine order, but are projections from archetypal templates. If we believe in the divine as cosmic family, we relegate ourselves to perpetual adolescence. If we regard the divine as supreme government, we are forever victims of unfathomable officialdom…. Faith should not be shaken because bad things happen to us or because our loved ones are killed. Good and bad fortune are not in the hands of gods, so it is useless to blame them.  Neither does faith need to be confirmed by some objective occurrence.  Faith is self- affirming.  If we maintain faith, then we have its reward. If we become better people, then faith has results.  It is we who create faith, and it is through our efforts that faith is validated.  (114)

What we do only has meaning in the here and now. It will not remain in the next instant. Just do what you can for the present, and leave everything else to happen naturally. Work. Wash. Meditate. Eat. Study. Urinate. Sleep. Exercise. Talk. Listen. Touch. Die each night.  Be born again each morning.  (151)

Those who follow Tao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, nonattachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw upon these qualities. Notice that self-sacrifice is not included in this list. You do not need to destroy yourself to help another. Your overall obligation is to complete your own journey along your personal Tao. As long as you can offer solace to others on your same path, you have done the best that you can. (188)

In this competitive world, it is best to be invisible.  Go through life without showing off, attracting attention to yourself, or making flamboyant gestures.  These will only attract the hostility of others. The wise will accomplish all that they want without arousing the envy or scorn of others. They make achievements only for the sake of fulfilling their inner yearnings.  (203)

When will we give up the artificiality of our tiresome lives and cleave instead to what is natural?  All the achievements of man are only monuments to overwhelming pride. There has not been a single man-made item that has been a necessary improvement to the earth….  Did we need mechanization, steam power, electricity, nuclear power, or computer technology? All our achievements have been for the sake of our exclusive comfort and gratification. We have only advanced the mad tangle of supply and demand that we call civilization….  We ignore the natural order of our own bodies and minds and close ourselves to the point that only sex and drugs are stimulating enough.  We lament that we are lost and alienated. (246)

The appreciation of life does not require wealth or plenty. It requires only gratitude for the beauty of the world. (266)

Commitment and discipline — these are two of the most precious words for those who would seek Tao.  (271)

All the philosophy of Tao is intended to lead to self- sufficiency.  Whatever one needs to do in life, one should be able to do it on one’s own. (321)

The only way to achieve actual purity is to realize your own essential oneness with all things. If you are one with everything, then even filth is pure. For this to happen, you must transcend all distinctions in yourself, resolve all contradictions. With this erasure, the mirror-bright soul and the dust are dissolved in a single purity.  (362)

In the modern world one might think that Taoism is too simple, too anarchistic, too minimal, too unstructured, or too empty to serve as a successful religious design to live by. In reality it probably seemed the same way in 600 B.C.E. when it was being formulated. And much of the appeal of the faith was probably also the same then as it is now: the stress on the individual and individual achievement, the moving back to simpler structures and concepts, the appeal and draw of natural order, and the belief in an innate goodness. If these attributes had an appeal to people at the dawn of civilization, if the weakness of large social structures was already so evident when human beings were just beginning to form nations, then one has to ask why this philosophy would not be popular today? This especially so when the ills that Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu so accurately pointed out over two thousand years ago are now at the point of threatening the entire ecosystem of the “Way.”

While it is undoubtedly too late to turn back the hands of time to a civilization of happy, ignorant, full-bellied villagers, it is not too late to heed the words of the sages of Taoism and try to bring our culture into some harmony with Tao, at least enough so as not to commit eventual omnicide. And beyond that, if you can go beyond that, there is great personal, individual wisdom to be gained in Taoism. It has the vision and proven systems to create a sense of harmony in our minds, bodies, and spirits. As the Taoists of the first millennium B.C.E. found — if the world would not listen, the individual can still create a union with Tao. They could then, and one can now.


Hartz, Paula R., Taoism: World Religions, New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Mair, Victor H., (translator) Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way by Lao Tzu, New York: Bantam Books, 1990. (referred to as Mair I)

Mair, Victor H., (translator) Wandering on the Way: Early Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, New York: Bantam Books, 1994. (referred to as Mair II)

Ming-Dao, Deng, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Ni, Hua-Ching, Tao: The Subtle Universal Law and the Integral Way of Life, Santa Monica, CA: Seven Stars Communications, Second Edition, 1979.

Yutang, Lin, The Wisdom of Laotse, New York: Random House, The Modern Library, 1948.

1994 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at

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