Best known for the Yin Yang symbol and the art of Tai Chi, Taoism is an ancient Chinese religion based upon the 6th Century writings of Lao Tzu, recorded in the Dao De Jing. There are two strands of Taoism – Philosophical Taoism and Religious Taoism. As Naturalistic Pantheists, it is the first strand – philosophy, which we can learn the most from.
The key figures in Philosophical Taoism are Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Lao Tzu wrote the Dao De Jing, a short book of 81 verses which sets out how to live life well and in line with the Tao/ Dao. The literal meaning of it is the book (jing) of the way (dao) of virtue (de). After the Bible, it is the second most translated book in the world. Common themes and symbols in the book include being a ruler or sage, the concept of Wu Wei and living simply and in harmony with the Universe/ Dao.
Taoism is based on close observation of the patterns of change in ourselves and the natural world. These patterns are part of what is meant by the concept of “Dao” and only by studying nature can one learn how to live in harmony with it. In this way, Taoism is pro-science and pro-empiricism.
So what exactly is the Dao? The Dao De Jing opening line says “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” If the Dao could be defined it would not be the Dao. Yes, thats helpful I know. The word Dao, literally means “way” or “path.” It could be defined as “the way things are” or “the way things work” in Nature, however it is much more than this. The Dao is essentially ultimate reality. It is the principle behind the universe. It is an expression for the profound unity of the universe and it is the relationships between all the many pieces of the universe. It is the universe and how it works – Nature and its patterns. It is everywhere and flows through everything. It is everything. It is also the pattern by which we should live our lives. It is all these things and more – it is the ultimate, mystery that can only be experienced not described.
Philosophical Taoism calls for people to live a life of simplicity, inner peace, humility and compassion, revering and learning from Nature. A key concept in Taoism is the idea of “Wu Wei.” The literal translation of this is “non-action” but its true meaning is closer to “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” The idea is not to strive or tamper or seek to control, but to have few desires and to live as much as possible in a state of P’u (original childlike simplicity), following the Dao and unencumbered by social institutions and ideas. We are not to exert our will against the Dao, other people or the situations of life, but to “go with the flow” and let things take their natural course. To live a life in line with the Dao would mean to live a simple and humble life, not chasing after wealth, fame or power, but being content with what we have in the present. It would mean having no fixed goals and no expectations of people or situations. It would mean realising that we don’t control the world and accepting things, relaxing and being adaptable rather than controlling or judgemental. It would mean realising the difference between what our true needs are and what needs we have invented, and paring back our lives to the most important things – the basics.
Another important concept in Taoism is water. Water is a powerful symbol because it is a symbol of Yin. It is weak, soft and humble and yet it has the power to overcome even the hardest thing. It is adaptable, always seeking the lowest place, yet it gives life to all. The wise sage in Taoism must seek to be like water.
A final interesting aspect of Taoism that we can learn from as Pantheists is the Taoist emphasis on longevity and health. Taoists emphasise our current lives rather than looking to any afterlife. They want to enjoy life now, live every moment in a long and healthy life. They have created many practices for this, but perhaps the best known, and one which science is beginning to acknowledge as beneficial is the practice of Tai Chi. An ancient martial art, practicing this regularly can bring many health benefits including confidence, inner calm, fitness, flexibility, balance, strength, mental focus and mindfulness. It also allows a deeper understanding of the philosophy behind Taoism.
Below are two videos – the first explaining Taoism and the second quoting from the Dao De Jing. Enjoy…