Taoism is, together with Buddhism and Confucianism, one of the three great philosophical traditions of China. It is entirely indigenous and has had great influence in popular culture through Star Wars. Taoism inspired the once-fictional religion of Jediism, which is now evolving into a new religious movement.
The most revered text is the Tao De Ching, which consists of 81 short chapters, each with only a few paragraphs. These are short and to the point, but they’re not entirely clear and easy to grasp.
Doctrinally, Taoism can be seen as either a religion or a philosophy. As a religion, it has strong roots in indigenous Chinese ancestor reverence and shamanism, and recognizes a pantheon of folk deities. As a philosophy, it’s a naturalism. It recognizes Three Treasures: compassion, conservation (sometimes translated as moderation), and not daring to be ahead in the world (sometimes translated as humility).
The Yielding and the Asserting
The central symbol of Taoism may be familiar to most readers: it’s known as the yin-yang and represents the union of opposites: the feminine and masculine, the yielding and the asserting in an eternal dance everywhere in nature.
Similar primal dualities exist in many other primal wisdom traditions. The priests of the Yoruba oracle of Ifá recognize two of their Odu (sixteen sacred oracular letters), known as Ogbé and Oyekún, as the most ancient mysteries in creation. They represent light and dark, day and night, the living and the dead, expansion and contraction. All the other Odu, or elements of nature, emerged from these two. In Norse mythology, the two primal principles that existed at the beginning of creation are fire and ice, which also exhibit the qualities of expansion and contraction.
Taoism teaches that nature, in its most fundamental expression, takes on two roles: that of passive yielding and that of asserting, of aggression.
I wish to go back to the very fundamentals of Epicurean doctrine to explain the intuitive brilliance of Taoism, and why it has been such an important project for me to study the Tao. The theory of the atom was originally proposed by Leucippus and his pupil Democritus some 2,400 years ago, at about the same time or shortly after the time that Lao-Tse was teaching his doctrine. The founders of atomism were rebelling against early philosophers who had been speculating (using reason) without relying on the senses (empirical evidence). Specifically, they rebelled against Parmenides’ idea of the All, where he taught there was no diversity and no movement, which is obviously false and against Zeno’s paradoxes like the one that imagined that things could be split into smaller particles ad infinitum. The atomists didn’t think there was a need for this, and posited that ultimately particles came to a point where they could no longer be divided, and named these indivisible elements atoms, from the Greek word for indivisible.
Now we can move our hands and bodies, we see movement everywhere, and we know that planets and heavenly bodies are also moving. In order for an object to move into a place, there has to be emptiness. If a space is filled, nothing can move into it. Therefore, the early atomists recognized atoms and the void as the ultimate reality underneath all things. This is the binary language of nature and of reality: being and non-being, atoms and the void, which then exhibit the qualities of assertion and yielding: atoms move into a place, the void allows them.
Many assert that the void is not a thing, that it is non-being, and that therefore it does not exist in a conventional sense. They argue that, clearly, it has no qualities, and therefore the void is not a thing in nature. While we recognize that the void is non-being, we also recognize this as dangerous word-play. We approach reality through our faculties and through evidence, and evidence points to atoms and void.
Also, it may not be entirely true that the void has no qualities: it has no conventional qualities, but does exhibit relational qualities. Upon interaction with atoms, with things, it yields.
Taoism teaches that all of nature and all of reality is a perpetual flow and dance between the yielding and the asserting.
The Pleasure of Yielding and the Pleasure of Assertion
Ease and pleasure are elaborated in both Taoist and Epicurean wisdom traditions. Taoism teaches that things naturally take their course, and if we learn to enjoy the movement and learn to profit from it, we maximize how life is pleasant and easy. Yielding also makes us more virtuous and efficient. This will be elaborated further in the discussion of wu-wei, or inaction.
Perhaps the emphasis on the teachings about yielding has to do with how society and conventional education and wisdom teaches that we must succeed via sacrifice or effort or action. Taoist teachings counteract conventional wisdom by showing how there are different ways to be effective and active in the world, and how things are oftentimes not what they seem. I will be exploring this in future blogs on the Tao.
If you would have a thing shrink,
You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened,
You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside,
You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing,
You must first give to it.
This is called subtle discernment:
The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 36
A couple of generations after Democritus, Epicurus taught that nature guides living beings through the pleasure-aversion faculties, and that there are two kinds of pleasure: katastematic or abiding pleasure is passive and happens when there are no desires being satisfied, both before and after active desires; kinetic or dynamic pleasure happens when desires are actively satisfied. These teachings he derived from the study of nature, and he asserted that although it appears that abiding pleasure is not actually pleasure, that the natural state of living organisms is wellbeing and health and that this state is one of ease and pleasant abiding.
This trust of nature is also seen in Taoism. It teaches that a sage learns to be at ease in all situations, to be in flow and to allow nature to follow its course; that people should act according to their own inherent nature, that it is pointless to repress or inhibit it.
Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching: