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Title: The Way of the Taoist
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(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:47 AM)
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Taoism, or the Way

Article written by Judith A. Berling for the Asia Society's Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. II, No. 1, Asian Religions, pp. 9-11, Fall 1982. Copyright AskAsia, 1996.

Humans model themselves on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the Way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.

-- Laozi (Lao Tzu)
Daodejing (Tao te ching), #251

A noted Chinese anthropologist has written that Chinese religion "mirrors the social landscape of its adherents. There are as many meanings as there are vantage points."2 The same could be said of the diverse tradition we call Taoism. Taoism was understood and practiced in many ways, each reflecting the historical, social, or personal situation of its adherents. While this diversity may confuse and perplex the outside observer, it accounts for the resilience of Taoism in China. Taoism was adaptable, evolving to fill spiritual gaps created by the vagaries of life.

Taoism can also be called "the other way," for during its entire history, it has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire. Taoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few straightlaced Confucians and a few pious Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both -- either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.

Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.?), the anonymous editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism (see article on Confucianism), developed the notion of the Dao (Tao -- way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force -- unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations -- that lies behind the functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Dao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order? The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Dao -- nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei -- lit. no-action), action modeled on nature. Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise -- learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi's sages were often artisans -- butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.

Throughout Chinese history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature. They might retreat to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty. They would compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene, attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature's vitality. They might share their outing with friends or more rarely -- a spouse, drinking a bit of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon.

Chinese utopian writings also often bore a Taoist stamp. Tao Qian's (T'ao Ch'ien, 372?-427? A.D.) famous "Peach Blossom Spring" told the story of a fisherman who discovered by chance an idyllic community of Chinese who centuries earlier had fled a war-torn land, and had since lived in perfect simplicity, harmony, and peace, obliviously unaware of the turmoil of history beyond their grove. Although these utopians urged him to stay, the fisherman left to share his discovery with friends and a local official. He could never find his way back. He did not understand that this ideal world was to be found not by following an external path, but a spiritual path; it was a state of mind, an attitude, that comprised the utopia.3

If Taoist ideas and images inspired in the Chinese a love of nature and an occasional retreat to it from the cares of the world to rest and heal, it also inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life -- health, well-being, vitality, longevity, and even immortality. Laozi and Zhuangzi had reinterpreted the ancient nature worship and esoteric arts, but they crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life. Some Taoists searched for "isles of the immortals," or for herbs or chemical compounds that could ensure immortality. More often, Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthy diets; they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and youthful. Taoists were supporters both of magic and of proto-science; they were the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments with nature. 4

Some Taoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the natural world and the internal world within the human body). Theologically, these myriad spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, which could not be represented as an image or a particular thing. As the Taoist pantheon developed, it came to mirror the imperial bureaucracy in heaven and hell. The head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the jade Emperor, who governed spirits assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of moral justice. The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by the martial forces of the spirit officials.5 The common people, who after all had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to keep troubles at bay and ensure the blessings of health, wealth, and longevity.

The initiated Taoist priest saw the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao. He had been ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important spirits, and to ritually direct them through meditation and visualization. In his meditations, he harmonized and reunited them into their unity with the one Dao. However, only the educated believers knew anything of the complex theological system of the priest. Thus communal rituals had two levels: (a) a priestly level, which was guided by the priest's meditation and observed by major patrons, who were educated laymen; and (b) a public and dramatic ritual, usually performed by lower ranked Taoist assistants, which was theatrical in form. It conveyed the meaning through visible actions such as climbing sword ladders, or lighting and floating lanterns. The same ritual had a subtle metaphysical-mystical structure for the theologians, and a visible dramatic structure for the lay audience.6

Taoism was also an important motif in fiction, theater, and folk tales. Local eccentrics who did not care for wealth and position were often seen as "Taoist" because they spurned Confucian values and rewards. In fiction Taoists were often eccentrics; they also had magical or prophetic powers, which symbolized their spiritual attainment. They healed, restored youth and vitality, predicted the future, or read men's souls. They were also depicted as the stewards of a system of moral retribution; the Taoist gods in heaven and hell exacted strict punishments for wrongdoing, and would let no sinner off the hook. On the one hand, then, they were non-conformists who embodied different values and life styles; on the other, their strict moral retribution reinforced the values of the society. Taoism was "the other way," but it did not threaten the moral consensus. It was, perhaps, a kind of safety valve to escape the pressures of society, or at least a complementary channel for alternative views and values.

Chinese communists see Taoism as fatalistic and passive, a detriment to socialist reconstruction. The People's Republic has kept alive some practical arts, such as the use of traditional herbal medicines, which have longstanding links with Taoism. In a larger sense, since Taoism functioned in imperial China as a retreat and withdrawal from the struggles of the political arena, one might say that in a very general way the current relaxation of political pressure in reaction against the excesses of the Gang of Four represents a Taoistic phase of Chinese Maoism.


  1. Excerpted and adapted from Wm. DeBary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition, New York,: Columbia University Press, 1960, I: 56.
  2. Arthur P. Wolf, "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors," in his (ed.) Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974, p. 131.
  3. Cyril Birch, Anthology of Chinese Literature, Vol. 1, New York: Grove Press, 1965, pp. 167-168. This anthology contains excellent and readable translations of poems, biographies, essays, and stories that are very successful in conveying religious attitudes. A useful resource for classroom selections.
  4. See Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956, pp. 33-164.
  5. Arthur P. Wolf, "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors," pp. 131-182.
  6. Michael Saso, Taoism and the Rite of Cosmic Renewal, Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1972.

For Further Reference
Feng, Gia-fu and Jane English. Lao Tsu, Tao te ching, New York: Knopf, 1972; Chuang Tzu: Inner Chapters, New York: Random House, 1974. Large picture volumes, replete with Chinese calligraphy. Very readable and popular with students; available at many bookstores. The translations are sometimes loose and adapted to modem ideas, but they are not seriously wrong.

Mote, Frederick. Intellectual Foundations of China. New York: Knopf, 1971. Short, and excellent on social and historical context of Zhou period.

Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way, Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. Readable and brief, but very condescending to religious Taoism. Reflects certain attitudes and biases; not "objective reporting."

Teaching Resources
Filmstrip: "Confucianism and Taoism," World's Great Religions Series, Part III (Time-Life, 1964)

Filmstrip: "Tao: The Harmony of the Universe," Asian Man: China, Encyclopedia Britannica Education Corporation.

Filmstrip: "Ch'i: The Arts of China," Asian Man: China, Encyclopedia Britannica Education Corporation.

Instructional Units from Indiana Religion Studies Project: See article on Confucianism.

Note: This article and the one on Confucianism were written during the Indiana Religion Studies Project Institute for Teaching about Religion in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum. The drafts were critiqued by the social studies teachers who attended with an eye to supplementing and correcting the information in textbooks and other materials used by teachers. The two articles should read as a pair; they complement each other in much the same way these two religions complemented each other throughout Chinese history.

*Ed. Note: It is a matter of scholarly debate whether to change the term Taoism (or Taoist) into Daoism/Daoist (see Focus, vol. 1, no. 3 pp. 39) to conform with pinyin's rules. Since Taoism is an coined, anglicized word, our choice is not to put it in the pinyin, in spite of the fact that we have changed "the Tao", the way, to "the Dao". The current literature on China includes both spellings. It remains for the future to determine which will predominate.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:48 AM)

Development of Taoism

The Blessed Union of Yin and Yang.

Blessed Union of Yin and Yang

After the death of Chuang Tzu (in 295 B.C.) Taoism continued to grow in popularity although as a philosophy it changed rather little for the next six hundred years or so. There were a few philosophers, however, who made a contribution to its development.

1.Yang Hsiung

Yang Hsiung (53 B.C. to 18 A.D.) was an exponent of what he called Tai Hsuan (Great Mystery). This philosophy combined classical Taoism with elements of Confucian ethics. He is well known for his doctrine that human nature is a mixture of good and evil. He was also noteworthy in rejecting the notion of immortality. This was significant because at that time a large number of Taoist alchemists and the developing religious cult of Taoism, were deeply immersed in doctrines and practices seeking immortality and an 'elixir of life.'

Yang Hsiung correctly pointed out that this practice was contrary to the Taoist philosophy of indifference to life and death and the acceptance of the natural course of things.

Sounding like Lao Tzu, his classical Taoism emerges in formulations such as:

"The Supremely Profound Principal deeply permeates all species of things but its physical form cannot be seen. It takes nourishment from emptiness and nothingness and derives its life from Nature. It penetrates the past and present and originates the various species. It operates yin and yang and starts the material force in motion. As yin and yang unite, all things are complete on Heaven and on Earth. The sky and sun rotate and the weak and strong interact. They return to their original position and thus the beginning and end are determined. Life and death succeed each other and thus the nature and the destiny are made clear. Looking up, we see the form of the heavens. Looking down, we see the condition of the earth. We examine our nature and understand our destiny. We trace our beginning and see our end. ... Therefore the Profound Principle is the perfection of utility.

"To see and understand is wisdom. To look and love is humanity. To determine and decide is courage. To control things universally and to use them for all is impartiality. To be able to match all things is penetration. To have or not to have the proper circumstance is destiny. The way by which all things emerge from vacuity is the Way. To follow the principles of the world without altering them and to attain one's end is virtue. To attend to life, to be in society, and to love universally is humanity. To follow order and to evaluate what is proper is righteousness. To get hold of the Way, virtue, humanity, and righteousness and put them into application is called the business of life. To make clear the achievement of nature and throw light on all things is called yang. To be hidden, without form, deep and unfathomable, is called yin. Yang knows yang but does not know yin. Yin knows yin but does not know yang. The Profound Principle alone knows both yin and yang, both going and stopping, and both darkness and light."

--Tai Hsuan Ching (Classic of the Supremely Profound Principle) (9)7: 5a-9b

In this we can clearly see the application of Taoist metaphysics to a set of Confucian ethical concerns.

2.Wang Ch'ung

Another important thinker of this era was Wang Ch'ung (27 to 100 A.D.). Like Yang Hsiung he was a Taoist in terms of his metaphysics which he combined with certain Confucian ideas. He was less interested in ethics and more concerned with human institutions, however. His chief contribution was to try and clear the air of atmosphere of superstition which was clouding both Taoism and Confucianism.

He declared that Heaven takes no direct action; that natural events occur spontaneously; that there is no such thing as teleology; that fortune and misfortune come by chance; and that man does not become a ghost at death. In all these beliefs is stood against a prevailing current of superstition and divination.

"When material forces (chi) of Heaven and Earth come together, all things are spontaneously produced, just as when the vital forces (chi) of husband and wife unite, children are naturally born. Among the things thus produced, blood creatures are conscious of hunger and cold. Seeing that the five grains are edible, they obtain and eat them. And seeing that silk and hemp can be worn, they obtain and wear them. Some say that Heaven produces the five grains in order to feed man and produces silk and hemp in order to clothe man. This is to say that Heaven becomes a farmer or a mulberry girl for the sake of man. This is contrary to spontaneity. Therefore their ideas are suspect and should not be followed."

--Lun-heng (Balanced Inquiries) (54)

Talisman of the Sacred Mountain of the North.

Talisman of the Sacred Mountain of the North.

3.Huai-Nan Tzu

Huai-Nan Tzu (died 122 B.C.) [born Liu An] was a prince of Huai-Nan and a fervent Taoist. He was not original in his writings but gave Taoism further prominence. He came to a tragic end as he plotted a rebellion, failed and committed suicide.

"Tao covers heaven and supports Earth. It is the extent of the four quarters of the universe and the dimensions of the eight points of firmament. There is no limit to its height , and its depth is unfathomable. It encloses Heaven and Earth and endows things [with their nature] before they have been formed. ... Compressed, it can expand. Hidden, it can be manifest. Weak, it can be strong. Soft, it can be firm. ...

"With it the mountain becomes high and the abyss becomes deep. Because of it, animals run and birds fly. Sun and moon shine and the planets revolve by it. The unicorn emerges and the phoenix soars. ...

"After having been polished and cut, it returns to simplicity. It acts without action and is in accord with the Tao. It does not speak and is identified with virtue. Perfectly without leisure and without pride, it is at home with harmony. The myriad things are all different but each suits its own nature. Its spirit may be set on the tip of an autumn hair, but its greatness combines the entire universe. Its virtue softens Heaven and Earth and harmonizes yin and yang. It regulates the four seasons and harmonizes the five Elements. ..."

Therefore those who understand the Tao return to tranquillity and those who have investigated things ultimately rest with non-action.

--Huai-nan Tzu (1): 1a-2a, 6b

4. Lieh Tzu & Yang Chu

One final chapter in the development of Taoism is the hedonism of Yang Chu (440 to 360 B.C. and the pessimism of Lieh Tzu (5th century B.C.) [there is some debate by scholars whether the texts attributed to these two philosophers were, in fact, written by them or compiled later by followers]. This so called 'Negative' School of Taoism takes the Taoist idea of inaction (that is undertaking to artificial action) and interprets it as complete abandon. Spontaneity was replaced with resignation, and hedonism took the place of selflessness.

The Empty Tao Develops into the World. The Empty Tao Develops into the World.

Yang Chu

"One hundred years is the limit of a long life. Not one in a thousand ever attains it. Suppose there is one such person. Infancy and feeble old age take almost half of his time. Rest during sleep at night and what is wasted during the waking hours in the daytime take almost half of that. Pain and sickness, sorrow and suffering, death (of relatives) and worry and fear take almost half of the rest. In the ten and some years that is left, I reckon, there is not one moment in which we can be happy, at ease without worry. This being the case, what is life for? What pleasure is there?"
Lieh Tzu

"Those who maintain that heaven and earth are destructible are wrong and those who maintain that they are indestructible are also wrong. Whether they are destructible or indestructible, I do not know. However, it is the same in one case and also the same in the other. The living do not know the dead and the dead do not know the living. What is gone does not know what is to come and what is to come does not know what is gone. Why should I be concerned whether they are destructible or indestructible?"
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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:55 AM)

Religious Taoism

Taoist Practices and Beliefs

Alongside the development of Taoism as a philosophy another more strictly religious interpretation of Taoism was evolving. This 'religious' Taoism had its own temples, priests, rites and symbolic images. Lao Tsu was venerated as a 'saint' and imperial sacrifices were made to him. It drew strongly upon the ideas of yin-yang and of the 'Five Agents' (metal, wood, water, fire & earth).

During this time there began to develop a pantheon of TAOIST DEITIES which were often venerated as gods.

So prominent were astrology, alchemy and divination in this stream of Taoism that it had veered away from philosophy to occultism. This movement was sometimes known as Huang-Lao, after the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti and Lao Tsu.

From this form of Taoism emerged very strong alchemical currents as Taoist practitioners (much like Western mystics a millennium later) at the court of Shih Huang-ti of the Qin (Ch'in) dynasty (221-207 BC) tried to cultivate powers that would transform base metals to gold, and hence would serve as a metonym for the transformation of human qualities to the transcendent. These practitioners were also acclaimed as spirit mediums and experts in levitation.

Porcelain: Ch'ing Dynasty Lovers Practicing Taoist 'Hovering Butterflies' Posture: Porcelain, Ch'ing Dynasty.

Among the important features of Taoist religion were the belief in physical immortality, alchemy, breath control and hygiene (internal alchemy). It supported a pantheon of deities, including Lao Tzu as one of the three 'Supreme Ones'. The Taoist liturgy and theology was much influenced by Buddhism. Its scriptures, the Tao-tsang, consist of over 1,400 separate works totaling more than 5,000 chapters.

Of special significance to these mystics were the colour red (symbolizing the furnaces of the alchemists), the Manchurian Crane with its red spot of divinity in its crown, and the compound cinnabar (composed of mercury and sulphur) which could be transformed into a silvery liquid; and back again into a solid.

There is considerable evidence that this religious Taoism came to take on many 'Tantric' elements, in which the worship of yin-yang takes on a distinctly sexual and erotic form. The interplay of yin and yang elements is represented, and celebrated, as a sexual union. There are some scholars who, in fact, believe that the Tantric schools, which later were absorbed into Buddhism, evolved first as Taoist ones.

Taoist Sects

Among the principal Taoist sects to emerge were:
  • The Heavenly (or Celestial) Masters sect, founded in West China in the second century A.D. It was founded by Chang Tao-ling (AD 34?-156?) who reputedly possessed remarkable healing powers. It advocated faith healing through the confession of sin and at one time recruited members as soldiers and engaged in war against the government.

    In the 11th century, the sect obtained a large tract in Jiangxi province that remained an important Taoist center until 1927. The sect still flourishes in Taiwan and continues to pay homage to Zhang Daoling, who is regarded as immortal.

  • The Supreme Peace sect, also founded in the second century A.D., adopted practices much like those of the Heavenly Master sect and launched a great rebellion that went on for several years before ending in 205 A.D.
  • The Mao-shan (Mount Mao) sect, founded in the 4th century, introduced rituals involving both external and internal alchemies, mediumistic practice, and visionary communication with divinities.
  • The Ling-pao (Marvelous Treasure) sect, also founded in the 4th century, introduced the worship of divinities called T'ien-tsun (Heavenly Lords).
  • The Ch'uan-chen (Completely Real) sect was founded in the 12th century as a Taoist monastic movement.
Eventually the Heavenly Master sect absorbed most of the beliefs and practices of the other sects and, in the 20th century, became the most popular Taoist group.

History of Religious Taoism

The Immortal Soul of the Taoist Adept. The Immortal Soul of the Taoist Adept.

Late in the Han dynasty (beginning of the 3rd century A.D.) a branches of Taoism, such as Yellow Turban Movement and the Celestial Masters Sec, , became a popular revolutionary cults. The former, led by the three Chang brothers, promised immortality to ordinary people. Hundreds of thousands of destitute people flocked to their banner, holding great public gatherings, confessions of sins and even uninhibited orgies. Although the movement fell apart, it was one of the key factors that de-stabilized the Han dynasty and lead to its downfall.

However, even in the time of the Six Kingdoms (220 to 618 A.D.) Taoism continued to attract many refugee intellectuals, fleeing from the barbarians in the North.

Particularly important to the development of Taoism in China was the rein of the Emperor Li Lung-chi (a.k.a. Hsuan Tsung) who ruled for 44 years and was a fervent adherent of Taoism. Deeply absorbed in its study he tried to create a Taoist state in which capital punishment would be abolished and animals would be treated humanely. He established hospitals for the sick and poor and was an accomplished musician, equestrian, calligrapher and astronomer.

A true mystic Li Lung-chi once had a vision of Lao Tsu who told him where to find a true likeness of him. The image was, in fact, discovered and replicas of it were made and installed in temples across the realm. He also told his ministers that once while burning incense in a shrine he had been wafted up to Heaven.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:57 AM)


In the third century and fourth centuries A.D. (the so-called Wei-Chin period) there was a second flowering of Taoism. Historians sometimes ascribe this at least partly to the chaos and corruption of the late Han dynasty and the repeated wars, droughts and floods of the time. These adverse circumstances lead a number of thinkers and philosophers to withdraw both from the corruption of the state and from the dry academic debates which had turned state Confucianism into dry scholasticism. This rejection of the social and philosophical dogmas developed in two directions.

Pure Conversation (Ch'ing-t'an) School

This is a name given to a group of younger thinkers and poets who explored issues of Taoism from a 'light' and poetical aspect very much in the spirit of Chuang-Tzu, seeking to free the spirit and sharpen the imagination. Their writing and poetry displays lofty ideals and a certain wit, whether on matters of sex or of poetry.

The most famous of this group were the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove who included Juan Chi (210-263 A.D.) who advocated becoming one with the universe and transcending all distinctions; and Hsi K'ang (223-262 A.D.). According to Wing-Tsit Chan; "These men often met in bamboo groves to drink, write poems, and talk and behave in utter disregard for social conventions or worldly values."

Metaphysical (Hsuan-hsueh) School

This important school of thought was lead by philosophers such as Wang Pi (A.D. 226 - 249), Ho Yen (died 249 A.D.) and Kuo Hsiang (died 312 A.D.). These philosophers sought to both expand Taoism and to reconcile Taoism and Confucianism.

Wang Pi

Talisman for Protection in the
Mountains. Talisman for Protection in the Mountains.

Wang Pi wrote commentaries on both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching. In relation to the latter he was an early exponent of the idea that an explanation of being could be found in the I Ching hexagrams, in which the mingling of the lines in the trigrams illuminate the principles of being and of how to undertake an analysis of it. These ideas were later to penetrate into Tai Chi Chuan with a similar association of the I Ching and the movements of Tai Chi.

Although he died very young (at age 24) he made a major contribution to Chinese Cosmogony with his theory of 'original non-being (pen-wu). According to his theory original non-being transcends all distinctions and descriptions. it is the pure, original substance (pen-t'i) which is whole and strong and always in accord with principal. This emphasis on 'principal' is prominent in his work in contrast to Lao Tzu's focus on destiny or fate (ming). In this he anticipates the later Neo-Confucians.

"What is the explanation of a hexagram? The substance of a hexagram makes clear the controlling principles out of which it is developed. The many cannot be controlled by the many. They are regulated by the one. Activity cannot be controlled by activity. It is controlled by that which is firmly rooted in the one. The reason why the many can exist is that their ruling principal returns always to the one and all activities can function because they have come from the same source. Things never err -- they follow principal. There is the chief to unite them, and the leader to group them together. Therefore, though complex, they are not chaotic, and though many, they are not confused." -Chou-i lueh-li (Simple Exemplifications of the Principles of the Book of Changes)

Ho Yen

Ho Yen stressed the idea that non-being (wu-wei) is nameless and is beyond forms and words. In his social and political though he (like Wang Pi) was much influenced by Confucianism for in their view it was Confucius who demonstrated the highest truth in human society.

Talisman of the Supreme Heavenly Ruler of the South
Pole. Talisman of the Supreme Heavenly Ruler of the South Pole.

"Being, in coming into being, is produced by non-being. Affairs, as affairs, are brought into completion by non-being. When one talks about it, it has no predicates; when one names it, it has no name; when one looks at it, it has no form; when one listens to it, it has no sound -- that is Tao in completeness. Hence it is able to make sounds and echoes brilliant, to cause material force (chi) and material objects to stand out, to embrace all physical forms and spiritual activity, and to display light and shadow. Because of it darkness becomes black and plainness becomes white. Because of it the carpenter's square draws a square and the compass draws a circle. The compass and square obtain forms but the Tao has no form. Black and white obtain names but Tao has no name." --Tao lun (Treatise on Tao.)

Kuo Hsiang

Taoist Talisman Talisman to establish contact with the Spirits of Earth and Wind.

Kuo Hsiang wrote about the interdependency of self and other and of how these concepts are mirror images, one relying on the other for existence. Each being needs the universe to be just what it is if it is to exist at all. If a single principle was violated nothing could exist.

Much of Kuo Hsiang writing took the form of commentary on Chuang Tzu and just as Wang Pi developed on Lao Tzu, Kuo Hsiang developed the ideas of Chuang Tzu. The major concept for Kuo Hsiang was not the Tao of Chuang Tzu, but rather Nature (tzu-jan). Things exists and transform themselves naturally and spontaneously. There is no external agent that causes this process. 'Heaven' is not something that is lurking in the shadows but is simply the general name of Nature.

Things exists and transform according to principal. Everything is self- sufficient and there is no need for an embracing original reality to govern them (as in Wang Pi's philosophy). In other words while Wang Pi emphasizes non-being, Kuo Hsiang emphasizes being. Where the former emphasizes the one, the latter draws attention to the many. For Wang Pi, principal transcends reality while for Kuo Hsiang it is immanent within them.

Kuo was also a fatalist since he believed that everything has its own principal and hence is determined by it. He therefore believed in attempting to achieve contentment in whatever situation one found oneself. He did not have a place for choice or free will in his philosophy.

Kuo Hsiang considered Confucius as the true sage and employed the principles of Taoism to reinterpret the Analects of Confucius. he felt that the true sage was not someone who withdrew into solitary contemplation in the mountains but rather one who remained in the center of human affairs and accomplished all things by taking no unnatural action. Thus for him Confucius was the true sage and not Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu!

"The music of Nature is not an entity outside of things. The different apertures of pipes and flutes, in combination with all things, together constitute Nature. Since non-being is non-being, it cannot produce being. Before being is produced it cannot produce other beings. Then by whom are things produced? They spontaneously produce themselves, that is all. By this is not meant that there is an 'I' to produce. The 'I' cannot produce things and things cannot produce the 'i'. The 'I' is self-existent. Because it is o by itself we call it natural.

Everything is what it is by nature, not through taking any action. Therefore Chuang Tzu speaks of Nature. The term 'Nature' (literally 'Heaven') is used to explain that things are what they are spontaneously, and not to mean the blue sky. But someone says that the music of Nature makes all things serve or obey it. Now, Nature cannot even posses itself. How can it posses things? Nature is the general name for all things. Nature does not set its mind for or against anything. Who is the master to make things obey? Therefore all things exist by themselves and come from nature. This is the Tao of Heaven." --Commentary on the Chuang Tzu.

Kuo Hsiang also wrote that:
"Not even to have the desire for the state of non-desire is the constant quality of the sage."
Thus the antithesis of Taoism becomes, by a peculiar twist of reasoning, the very acme of Taoism itself! This notion of 'non-desire' shows the clear influence of Buddhism in China by this time. Kuo Hsiang sought to extend the role of Taoism from a sense of removed contemplation, to a more active one in society, but one in which the place of man was seen in a different light.
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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:58 AM)

Tai Chi & Taoism

The cosmographic 'tai-chi'. The cosmographic 'tai-chi'.

There exists a long history of movement and exercise systems which are associated with Taoism. In some sense one can see elements of all of these as contributing to the climate from which Tai Chi emerged.

Lao Tsu, the founder of Taoism, wrote:

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight.

-- Tao Te Ching (22)

He who stands of tiptoe is not steady.
He who strides cannot maintain the pace.

-- Tao Te Ching (24)

Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

-- Tao Te Ching (40)

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.

-- Tao Te Ching (54)

Stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
Gentle and yielding is the principle of life.

Thus an Army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

-- Tao Te Ching (76)

There are some interesting inspirations for the movement philosophy of Tai Chi within the writings of Chuang Tzu, for example:
"The pure man of old slept without dreams and woke without anxiety. He ate without indulging in sweet tastes and breathed deep breaths. The pure man draws breaths from the depths of his heels, the multitude only from their throats."


"[The sage] would not lean forward or backward to accomodate [things]. This is called tranquility on disturbance, (which means) that it is especially in the midst of disturbance that tranquility becomes perfect."

Talisman of the Jade Lady. Talisman of the Jade Lady.

This approach is reflected in the entire movement philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan. There is, moreover, a long tradition of Taoist monks practicing exercises. Some of these were referred to as tai-yin or Taoist Breathing. Exactly what these were and what their origins were is obscure but they are mentioned in Chinese chronicles as early as 122 B.C.

Then in the sixth century A.D. Bodihdharma (called Ta Mo in Chinese) came to the Shao-Lin Monastery and, seeing that the monks were in poor physical condition from too much meditation and too little excersize, introduced his Eighteen Form Lohan Exercise. This approach gave rise to the Wei Chia or 'outer-extrinsic' forms of exercise.

Later in the fifteenth century A.D. the purported founder of Tai Chi Chuan, the monk Chang San-feng, was honoured by the Emperor Ying- tsung with the title of chen-jen, or 'spiritual man who has attained the Tao and is no longer ruled by what he sees, hears or feels.' This indicates that already at this time there was a close association between the philosophy of Taoism and the practice of Tai Chi.

In the Ming dynasty (14th to 17th centuries), Wang Yang-ming a leading philosopher preached a philosophy which was a mixture of Taoism and Ch'an Buddhism which had certain associations with movement systems.

In any event the principles of yielding, softness, centeredness, slowness, balance, suppleness and rootedness are all elements of Taoist philosophy that Tai Chi has drawn upon in its understanding of movement, both in relation to health and also in its martial applications. One can see these influences (of softness and effortlessness) in the names of certain movements in the Tai Chi Form, such as:

  • Cloud Hands
  • Wind Rolls the Lotus Leaves
  • Brush Dust Against the Wind
  • Push the Boat with the Current
  • Winds Sweeps the Plum Blossoms
Moreover the contemplation and appreciation nature, which are central features of Taoist thought seem to have been reflected in the genesis of many Tai Chi movements such as:

  • White Crane Spreads Wings
  • Snake Creeps Down
  • Repulse Monkey
  • Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain
  • White Snake Sticks Out its Tongue
  • Grasp Sparrow's Tail
  • Golden Cock Sands on One Leg
  • Swallow Skims the Water
  • Bird Flies into Forest
  • Lion Shakes it's Head
  • Tiger Hugs its Head
  • Wild Horse Leaps the Ravine
  • White Ape Devotes Fruit
  • Yellow Bee Returns to Nest
The story comes to us that Chang San-feng watched a fight between a bird and a snake and in this event saw how the soft and yielding could overcome the hard and inflexible. Particularly significant here is the reference to the White Crane (The Manchurian Crane, Grus japonensis), with its red crest an important symbol for Taoist alchemists.

Certain features of Taoist alchemy and talismanic symbolism have also penetrated the Tai Chi forms. As part of their contemplation of nature the Taoists observed the heavens and were keen students of astronomy and astrology. Movements of the Tai Chi Form such as :

  • Step Up to Seven Stars
  • Embrace the Moon
  • Biggest Star in the Great Dipper
  • Encase the Moon in Three Rings
  • The Smallest Star in the Big Dipper
  • Meteor Runs After Moon
  • Heavenly Steed Soars Across the Sky

Meditating Under the Protection of the Big Dipper. Meditating Under the Protection of the Big Dipper.

Reflect this Taoist astrological concern.

Symbolism was a potent force in Taoist thinking. Taoist magic diagrams were regarded as potent talismans having great command over spiritual forces. They invoked the harmonizing influence of yin-yang and Eternal Change; the Divine Order of Heaven, Earth and Mankind; and the workings of the Universe through the principal of the Five Elements. These were symbolized by the Five Sacred Mountains (Taishan, Hengshan [Hunan], Songshan, Huashan and Hengshan [Hopei]), central places of Taoist development and pilgrimage.

Thus it is no surprise to find that the symbolism of names has, in important ways, infiltrated the forms of Tai Chi. There was a numerological component to this symbolism as well. The number '5' has a special mystical significance to Taoists (and to Chinese in general). There are the symbolic five mountains, five elements, five colours, five planets, five virtues, five emotions, five directions, etc. all of which have a mystic significance. Hence we see five Repulse Monkeys or Five Cloud Hands in the Tai Chi form. There are many instances where the numbers '1', '3', '5' and '7' figure prominently in the structure of Tai Chi.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:58 AM)

TAOISM (a.k.a. Daoism)

Western traditions

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bullet "Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river." Lao Tse
bullet "Different Chinese philosophers, writing probably in 5-4 centuries B.C., presented some major ideas and a way of life that are nowadays known under the name of Taoism, the way of correspondence between man and the tendency or the course of natural world." Alan Watts, from his book: "Tao: The Watercourse Way."
bullet "We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao, that we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond." Creed of the Western Reform Taoist Congregation 1

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History of Taoism:

Tao (pronounced "Dow") can be roughly translated into English as path, or the way. It is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It "refers to a power which envelops, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites (i.e. there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female.)"

The founder of Taoism is believed by many to be Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), a contemporary of Confucius. (Alternate spellings: Lao Tze, Lao Tsu, Lao Tzu, Laozi, Laotze, etc.). He was searching for a way that would avoid the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society during his lifetime. The result was his book: Tao-te-Ching (a.k.a. Daodejing). Others believe that he is a mythical character. 

Taoism started as a combination of psychology and philosophy but evolved into a religious faith in 440 CE when it was adopted as a state religion. At that time Lao-Tse became popularly venerated as a deity. Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, became one of the three great religions of China. With the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty in 1911, state support for Taoism ended. Much of the Taoist heritage was destroyed during the next period of warlordism. After the Communist victory in 1949, religious freedom was severely restricted. "The new government put monks to manual labor, confiscated temples, and plundered treasures. Several million monks were reduced to fewer than 50,000" by 1960. 3 During the cultural revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, much of the remaining Taoist heritage was destroyed. Some religious tolerance has been restored under Deng Xiao-ping from 1982 to the present time. 

Taoism currently has about 20 million followers, and is primarily centered in Taiwan. About 30,000 Taoists live in North America; 1,720 in Canada (1991 census). Taoism has had a significant impact on North American culture in areas of "acupuncture, herbalism, holistic medicine, meditation and martial arts..." 3

Taoist Beliefs and Practices:

bullet Taoism has provided an alternative to the Confucian tradition in China. The two traditions have coexisted in the country, region and generally within the same individual.
bullet Tao is the first-cause of the universe. It is a force that flows through all life.
bullet "The Tao surrounds everyone and therefore everyone must listen to find enlightenment." 4
bullet Each believer's goal is to become one with the Tao.
bullet The priesthood views the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao, "which could not be represented as an image or a particular thing." The concept of a personified deity is foreign to them, as is the concept of the creation of the universe. Thus, they do not pray as Christians do; there is no God to hear the prayers or to act upon them. They seek answers to life's problems through inner meditation and outer observation.
bullet In contrast with the beliefs and practices of the priesthood, most of the laity have  "believed that spirits pervaded nature...The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by the martial forces of the spirit officials." 3
bullet Time is cyclical, not linear as in Western thinking.
bullet Taoists generally have an interest in promoting health and vitality.
bullet Five main organs and orifices of the body correspond to the five parts of the sky: water, fire, wood, metal and earth.
bullet Each person must nurture the Ch'i (air, breath) that has been given to them.
bullet Development of virtue is one's chief task. The Three Jewels to be sought are compassion, moderation and humility.
bullet Taoists follow the art of "wu wei," which is to let nature take its course. For example, one should allow a river to flow towards the sea unimpeded; do not erect a dam which would interfere with its natural flow.
bullet One should plan in advance and consider carefully each action before making it.
bullet A Taoists is kind to other individuals, largely because such an action tends to be reciprocated.
bullet Taoists believe that "people are compassionate by nature...left to their own devices [they] will show this compassion without expecting a reward." 5

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The Yin Yang symbol:

This is a well known Taoist symbol. "It represents the balance of opposites in the universe. When they are equally present, all is calm. When one is outweighed by the other, there is confusion and disarray." 4 One source explains that it was derived from astronomical observations which recorded the shadow of the sun throughout a full year. 5 The two swirling shapes inside the symbol give the impression of change -- the only constant factor in the universe. One tradition states that Yin (or Ying; the dark side) represents the breath that formed the earth. Yang (the light side) symbolizes the breath that formed the heavens. "The most traditional view is that 'yin' represents aspects of the feminine: being soft, cool, calm, introspective, and healing... and "yang" the masculine: being hard, hot, energetic, moving, and sometimes aggressive. Another view has the 'yin' representing night and 'yang' day.5 However, since nothing in nature is purely black or purely white, the symbol includes a small black spot in the white swirl, and a corresponding white spot in the black swirl.

Ultimately, the 'yin' and 'yang' can symbolize any two opposing forces in nature.  Taosts believe that humans intervene in nature and upset the balance of Yin and Yang.

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Tai Chi:

There is a long history of involvement by Taoists in various exercise and movement techniques. 6 Tai chi in particular works on all parts of the body. It "stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and gently tones muscles without strain. It also enhances digestion, elimination of wastes and the circulation of blood. Moreover, tai chi's rhythmic movements massage the internal organs and improve their functionality." Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that illness is caused by blockages or lack of balance in the body's "chi" (intrinsic energy). Tai Chi is believed to balance this energy flow.

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Taoist Texts:

These include:

bullet Tao-te-Ching ("The Way of Power," or "The Book of the Way") is believed to have been written by Lao-Tse. It describes the nature of life, the way to peace and how a ruler should lead his life.
bullet Chuang-tzu (named after its author) contains additional teachings.

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Taoist web sites:

bullet Taoist course, books and objects:

Lao Tzu and Taoism Revealed: A 40-day course delivered by email. You may learn more about the life and philosophy of Lao Tzu, including the study of Tao Te Ching, and concepts like tao, wu-wei, wu, and more. Register here. More information

bullet "Tao Resource" is a web site that imports authentic Taoist products to help people improve their "personal or sacred space, to build a small Taoist shrine or even to construct a large Taoist temple." This site is well worth perusing. It has sections showing altar tables, bells & chimes, jewelry, statuary, personal altars, etc. See 
bullet Sacred Mountain Press publishes Taoist works. Their "... goal is to make interesting, beautiful, and reliable Taoist information as accessible to the general public as that of any other major religious or spiritual tradition." See:
bullet publishes a number of books from the Taoist canon, including The Primordial Breath, Volumes 1 & 2, and Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams). See:  
bullet Tai Chi:
bullet "Is Tai Chi the Ultimate Exercise?," an essay on Tai Chi at:  
bullet "The International Taoist Tai Chi Society" ® is the largest non-profit Tai Chi group in the world. See:
bullet Taoist message board:
bullet The "real Tao" message board is a "brand new Taoist Forum" at:

Taoist web sites:
bullet This website is dedicated to Purist Taoism in the tradition and wisdom of Lao-Tzu.
bullet Jeff Rasmussen's Tao Te Ching web site features an illustrated Tao Te Ching, an introduction to Taoism, and links. See: 
bullet Bill Mason's Taoism Page is at: This web site emphasizes the practical application of the Tao to everyday life.
bullet Maury Merkin, "Daoism in brief," is at: This website offers a brief introduction to Taoism and a glossary of terms.
bullet "The Taoist Canon: A guide to studies and reference works" at: 
bullet The "Taoism Information Page" is at:
bullet The "Taoism Depot" contains a Taoism discussion forum, live chat and a wide range of resources. See:
bullet Western Reform Taoism has an excellent web site which publishes their creed and beliefs on dozens of important topics. See: 
bullet The Taoist Restoration Society (TRS) is "a U.S. nonprofit corporation dedicated to the rehabilitation and rebirth of China's Taoist tradition." See: 
bullet The Taoism Initiation Page has a great deal of information about Taoism and a Taoism course that leads to initiation. is at:

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Books on Taoism:

bullet James Miller, "Daoism: A short introduction," Oneworld, (2003-June) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
bullet   Livia Kohn, Ed., "Daoist Identity: History, Lineage and Ritual." University of Hawaii  Press, (2002) Read reviews or order this book
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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 06:59 AM)

Taoism really has to do with flowing with the Tao ( Dao ) - a word translated to English as "The Way," and has to do with "the natural flow of things", the "course of nature", and is sometimes called "The Watercourse Way."

Water is used as a representation of Tao because water always seeks the path of least resistance. It does not compete; it simply spiders out, finds the easiest path and follows it, yet there is nothing stronger. Water will carve through rocks, run around steel or anything which resists it. And it does so by simply rising or using gravity.

The Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) is a collection of writings or thoughts said to be written by Lao Tzu  around 600 B.C.  The Tao Te Ching is the second most translated publication in the world next to the Bible.

So what is this Tao? Historically there have been three uses of the word in Taoism. For this discussion of the three meanings of Tao and three approaches to Te (below), I am most indebted to Huston Smith and his book The World's Religions. Here we touch on a few points, but the reader is encouraged to pick up Smith's book and enjoy his excellent chapter on Taoism.


The common, literal sense of the word Tao is a path or a way, but it is used in three ways:

1. Tao is the transcendent Way of ultimate reality - unnamable, ungraspable, ineffable. This is hinted at in the opening words to the Tao Te Ching: The Tao that can be spoken is not the true or eternal Tao. Huston Smith writes of this sense of Tao, "Above all, behind all, beneath all is the Womb from which all life springs and to which it returns." It is clear, quiet, eternally existing, yet beyond our intellectual grasp, so that words never quite reach it: "Those who know do not say; those who say do not know."

2. Tao is not only transcendent, but is the immanent, observable way of the universe, "the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life" (Smith). We see it in the yin and yang polarities underlying everything, in the self-balancing Organism of Nature, the flow of forces making up the universe.

3. Tao is also the way of human life when it flows in harmony with the way of the universe as described above. This life enjoys the supreme effectiveness of operating by Tao's power, or te.

There is a being, wonderful, perfect;
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 honor, it does not demand to be Lord.
I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao,
and I rejoice in its power ("te").

              ~Tao Te Ching 25, quoted in Huston Smith's The World's Religions

The little word "Te" in the title Tao Te Ching is usually translated "virtue" or "power." Virtue is a good translation if it is understood in the old sense of the word, as in the healing "virtue" of certain plants, medicines, practices, etc. There are occasions where te seems to translate well as virtue in the sense of goodness, but do not confuse it with the moralistic sense in which we think of virtue in the West. Te is the Tao at work, so te is goodness inasmuch as person of te is adept at living in harmony with the dynamic flow of Tao in the world. Indeed, goodness in this sense has nothing to do with societal conventions of goodness (Taoists decry conventional "goodness" as too contrived, shallow, or complicated), and has everything to do with living in understanding of and harmony with the Way (Tao). The character's typical translations include: power, virtue, success, effectiveness, integrity, and goodness. So "virtue" or te as goodness here must be seen in light of these other translations; what is good is living by the supreme effectiveness of harmony with the powers of the natural universe and unity with the unnamable, ungraspable reality underlying the universe. The title Tao Te Ching might be translated "The Classic Book (Ching) of the Way (Tao) and It's Power (Te)." In his book "The Way and Its Power," Arthur Waley quotes a description of Te:

It is close at hand, stands indeed at our very side; yet is intangible, a thing that by reaching for cannot be got. Remote it seems as the furthest limit of the Infinite. yet it is not far off; everyday we use its power. For the Way of the Vital Spirit fills our whole frames, yet man cannot keep track of it. It goes, yet has not departed. It comes, yet is not here. It is muted, makes no note that can be heard, yet of a sudden we find that it is there in the mind. It is dim and dark, showing no outward form, yet in a great stream it flowed into us at our birth.

Three Taoisms and Their Approaches to Te

The Taoist's desire to live life by the power (te) of the Tao has developed into three currents within the stream of Taoism. The first, with which is mostly concerned, is commonly called "Philosophical Taoism," which is reflected in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, the writings of Chuang-Tzu, and Lieh-Tzu. Philosophical Taoism is reflective, usually meditative, and involves some vitalizing programs to conserve Tao's power as it flows through human beings. In the philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching, and Chuang-Tzu, the emphasis is on conserving te by using it efficiently.

A second current of Taoism might be called "vitalizing Taoism" because it seeks to increase or augment the supply of the Tao's power which it finds in the life-force, or ch'i, through three means: movement, matter, and mind. In this stream you will find ch'i increasing training programs based on movement (Tai Ch'i Chuan, Kung-Fu exercises, etc.) which also worked as ch'i unblocking practices. Acupuncture was developed for the same reasons. Matter has vital energy as well, so Taoists developed the pharmacopoeia of the use of herbs to increase this vital power bodily, and experimented (sometimes fatally!) to find elixirs of immortality. Air is the most rarified matter and thus we find the famous Taoist breathing techniques to rejuvenate health and energize the body. Thirdly, the mind itself becomes important for the free flow of Tao's power. Here we find the contemplatives and hermits who developed Taoist meditation. Huston Smith summarizes well: "This practice involved shutting out distractions and emptying the mind to the point where the power of the Tao might bypass bodily filters and enter the self directly." Some call the practice Taoist yoga because of its similarity to the raja yoga of India. The Taoist yogis had a peculiar point of departure from their Indian counterparts: they believed that the yogi could accumulate enough ch'i through meditation that it could be "transmitted psychically to a community to enhance its vitality and harmonize its affairs" (Smith).

This brings us near the third stream of Taoism and its approach to the power of the Tao. It can be called "religious Taoism" because it is more organized than the other two and its approach to te is as vicarious power through a Taoist priesthood. Where philosophical Taoism sought to conserve and manage power, and vitalizing Taoism sought to increase the supply of this power, a third approach was still needed. The first two took time which not everybody had and practices which not everyone could perform consistently. There were still villages of work-a-day people who needed help, plagues to be stopped, malevolent ghosts to be dealt with, rains to be induced, etc. And this is where the priests helped. They used their understanding of the flow of ch'i to correct situations (think Feng-shui here), and used their store of power for those who were not adept in the correct manipulation forces. This became what some call "Church Taoism" - the folk religion of China with its shamanistic priests, rituals, and vicariously empowering practices.

There are a few other terms in Chinese that need to be understood in order to better understand the meaning of Tao. These terms are "Li" - which we translate as "organic pattern", "Tzu-jan" which we translate as "that which is so of itself", and "Wu wei" which is translated as "without effort" or perhaps better stated "without forcing."

Before we get started on these terms let us also share that Lao Tzu stated "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." It cannot be put into words, we can generalize but the part can never understand the whole. We can only describe that which we have experienced, and since we cannot experience the entire cosmos, we do not have words or symbols for it. In the ancient scriptures of most all religions of the world, there was no word for what we now so readily call God, Brahman,  Allah, Buddha, Tao, or whatever symbol we choose to use to describe that which we do not know. In fact some scriptures wrote in letters or symbols that made no sense in order to get that exact message across. Sadly somewhere along the line it was decided to put names to this and it is here that many of our troubles began. God versus Tao, Buddha, Allah, Brahman, etc.

With that said, let us go into these three Taoist terms and see what we can learn about Taoism.


Alan Watts described three basic philosophical ideas of nature. The western mechanical view of nature which stems from ancient Greek science as well as from the Bible in which God made a man out of clay and breathed the breath of life into him. Viewpoints that everything in nature was "made", as man was made of clay. So we in the west generally have a mechanical view toward nature, that all things in nature are "made" of something other than itself and that each has a function or reason for being. Our very language is rooted in this viewpoint. What is quite interesting is that western mans' scientific quest to find out exactly what everything is made of has led us to some amazing discoveries, which seem to point towards what many people in various parts of the world have known for thousands of years. (See our unified field of behavior and science pages for more on this.)

The second philosophical viewpoint toward nature is that of the Hindu tradition, where nature is a drama. Brahman
(The Supreme Being) is basically bored, the principle being that if you had full control over everything it would be a lot of fun for a while but you would soon become extremely tired, lonely and bored, you would know absolutely everything that was going to happen... there would be no surprises, no fun. So, for fun, Brahman cycles through periods of time (Kalpas), one of which he falls into a deep sleep and dreams. In these dreams he is playing the parts of all things in nature, including you and I. He does this to live in the myriad of unknowns and surprises, thoroughly convinced that everything is real (not his dream). So this viewpoint takes the stance that everything is Brahman playing out a drama. Brahman is playing out all the parts, wearing all the masks. Nothing is to be taken seriously, because it is all just a play, a drama put on by Brahman. This is a circular cycle that goes on and on and on, never ending.

The third viewpoint of nature, and the one we will discuss at length here, is from the Chinese, who use the word Li, to describe nature as organic pattern, translated as the markings in jade, the grain in wood, and the fiber in muscle. All of it is just infinitely beautiful, flowing in all sorts of complicated patterns. There is an order to it, but you cannot put your finger on it. It simply cannot be measured or put into words or symbols. When you look at a cloud, it is not a cube, nor is it circular. It has no specific order to it that we can describe and yet it is perfect. Look at a tree, a mountain, or the foam on water when it hits the shoreline, even the stars; all amazingly beautiful, in all kinds of wild and crazy patterns. All of it has an order to it that we simply cannot measure or describe. This is Li - organic pattern.

The Tao is not something different from nature, the birds, the bees, the trees, or ourselves. The Tao is the way all that behaves. So the basic Chinese idea of the universe is that it is an organism. You cannot find the controlling center of it, because there isn't any. Everything is a system of interrelated components, all interdependent on the other. Like bees and flowers; you will not find bees where there are no flowers, nor flowers where there are no bees or other insects that do their equivalent. Therefore though they look very different, they are in fact inseparable. They arise mutually. There is no cause and effect as we study with such veracity here in the west. Light and dark, high and low, sound and silence - all are only experienced in terms of their polar opposites.

This complete system of interdependence is Tao.

*See our page on unified field of behavior for more on "interdependence".


This brings us to a Chinese term, tzu-jan, which we also translate as nature. Not a class of things as we in the west classify nature, but rather an entire point of view. It means literally, that which is so of itself. Our word for it might be spontaneity. Like your heart beat, or controlling your body temperature, and replacing the millions of cells in your body each day, it does all of this by itself. Nothing has to be controlled, it simply is.  In western religions we take comfort in a higher being, a controller, a maker, but how many of us have asked the question "well who watches God?", who guards the guards? Oh, you say God doesn't need to be watched, well then why does all of this? This is tzu-jan - "that which is so of itself."

wu wei

The third term we'd like to discuss is wu wei - without effort, without forcing. Huston Smith describes wu wei as "creative quietude" and "pure effectiveness", which he describes as the most efficient and natural way of acting.  The person of wu wei operates in the naturalness, suppleness, and spontaneity of the flow of Tao, not forcing, not self-consciously "achieving" things.  It can also be translated as "not doing" or "do-nothingness", yet is the supreme activity, arising naturally when the deepest levels of the self are in tune with Tao.

Eternal Tao doesn't do anything,
yet it leaves nothing undone.
If you abide by it, everything
in existence will transform itself.
When, in the process of self-transformation,
desires are aroused, calm them with
nameless simplicity.
When desires are dissolved in the primordial presence,
peace and harmony naturally occur,
and the world orders itself.
[Tao Te Ching 37]

The soft overcomes the hard in the world
as a gentle rider controls a galloping horse.
That without substance can penetrate where there is no space.
By these I know the benefit of nonaction [wu wei].
Teaching without words, working without actions--
nothing in the world can compare to them.
  [Tao Te Ching 43]

In the pursuit of learning,
every day something is added.
In the pursuit of Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done until
one arrives at nonaction [wu wei].
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
The world is won by letting things
take their own course.
If you still have ambitions,
it's out of your reach.
[Tao Te Ching 48]

The great Tao flows everywhere,
both to the left and to the right.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them,
and when good things are accomplished,
it lays no claim to them.
The Tao having done everything, always escapes
and is not around to receive any thanks or acknowledgement.
Like water, the Tao always seeks the lowest level, which man abhors.
It does not show greatness and is therefore truly great.
[Tao Te Ching 34]

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:00 AM)

Taoism 101

What Is Tao?

The Tao has reality and evidence, but no action and no form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be attained but cannot be seen. It exists by and through itself. It existed before Heaven and earth, and indeed for all eternity.

Joseph Needham


What gives life to all creation and is itself inexhaustible-that is Tao.

Joseph Needham


It is the unmanifest potentiality from which all manifestations proceed.

Hua-Ching Ni


Tao is the everlasting rhythm of life, the unity of the polarity of non-being and being.

Ellen M. Chen


Tao is the pointing finger and, at the same time, the direction.

Hua-Ching Ni


Something mysteriously formed,

Born before heaven and earth.

In the silence and the void,

Standing alone and unchanging,

Ever present and in motion.

Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.

I do not know its name.

Call it Tao.

Tao Te Ching


"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." So begins the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) of Lao Tzu (Laozi), written some 2,500 years ago. "I do not know its name, so I call it Tao. If you insist on a description, I may call it vast, active, moving in great cycles."

How then, to describe the indescribable? How to fit into words that which is beyond words? The Tao can only be pointed to, or referred to, say the ancient sages. It cannot be held, only experienced. It cannot be touched, only felt. It cannot be seen, only glimpsed with the inner eye.

As we see by the quotes at the beginning of the chapter, there are many ways of talking about Tao, but, like trying to describe the taste of chocolate to someone who has never had it, one can only approximate. Imagine then, trying to describe the be all and end all of existence. Lao Tzu began the Tao Te Ching by saying that the Tao itself cannot even be talked about-though he did manage to come up with a little over five thousand characters after that! What he actually meant was that to try to fit the Tao into a neatly packaged definition for once and for all is impossible, for in reality, Tao is something quite beyond all puny definitions and categories.

The word Tao (Dow), has many translations. It is an elusive word, meaning much more than can be explained. It has been called the Law or the Way or simply All That Is. Some Christian writers have even translated it as God, though it certainly does not mean the personal, judgmental deity we in the West usually think of as God.

Tao is at once the universal pageant of the constellations and the budding of each new leaf in the spring. It is the constant round of life and death and all that falls between. It resides in us as we reside in it. It is the source as well as the end of our being. It neither judges nor condemns but continually blesses, in all moments, an unending cycle of change and renewal.

Tao is what has always been and always will be, regardless of whether we humans blow ourselves into the astral. It actually has no need of us yet continually and forever sustains us. Alan Watts once wrote:

The order to Tao is not an obedience to anything else. As Chuang-tzu says, 'It exists by and through itself,' it is sui generes (self generating), tzu-jan (of itself so), and has the property of that forgotten attribute of God called aseity-that which is (by) se (itself).

Tao, then, is the Way, as in direction, as in manner, source, destination, purpose, and process. In discovering and exploring Tao the process and the destination are one and the same. John Blofeld says that in Chinese thought "the notion of a Supreme Being, so essential to Western religions, is replaced by that of a Supreme State of Being, an impersonal perfection from which all beings, including man, are separated only by delusion."

In other words, this Supreme State of Being is not some unattainable something "out there," far removed from the mundane affairs of humankind, but rather something that we too are integrally a part of. After all, it is much harder to identify with a wrathful, personified deity or even a perfect, shining glory of a deity than something so simple, so natural, so all encompassing as Tao. As Alan Watts said, "It may reign but it does not rule. It is the pattern of things but not the enforced."

The Tao itself does not judge, it does not condemn, it does not punish. Rather we ourselves, in our refusal to go along with its majestic flow, punish ourselves and cause ourselves all sorts of worries and problems. I like to think of it as a giant celestial merry-go-round. Around and around it goes, in its great and heavenly way. It is up to us to either jump on and ride in the direction it is already turning, or to attempt to jump on the other way. Of course, if we do that, we sooner or later get thrown off and land on our faces in the mud! As Lao Tzu says, whatever goes against the Tao comes to an early end. This is not a punishment or a judgment. It simply is the way things are. Spit into the wind and you receive it back into your face. Simple, natural.

But just think of the vast amount of whirling energy that is contained in that effortlessly revolving merry-go-round. And just imagine tapping into that energy, that force, by simply finding our own place on that wheel and going for the ride. When we are going along with the flow or direction of the Tao, or the natural flow, we derive great impetus and direction. It is like having the wind against our backs, filling our sails. We feel we can doing anything and everything our hearts desire. But try to go against it and once again we land on our faces in the mud.

It is in finding just the right way to jump aboard, the right timing, the right position, that is the tricky part.

What, Then, Is Taoism?

...a unique and extremely interesting combination of philosophy and religion, incorporating also 'proto' science and magic.

Joseph Needham


Taoism represents everything which is spontaneous, imaginative, private, unconventional...

A.C. Graham


A Taoist laughs at social conventions, and eludes or adapts himself to them.

Lieh Tzu

Taoism is not an "ism." It is also not an ideology, or a New Age movement. It is a living philosophy. It is a way of thinking, a way of looking at life, a way of being-being with change rather than against it. Life is made up of cycles, say the Taoists, cycle upon cycle. The only constant is change. Change is inescapable. We have no control over it. The only thing we have control over is our own responses to the changes life has to offer. For really, what else can we do?

Actually, there's plenty we can do. Rant and rave, complain, whine, procrastinate, fight back, resist. But to what avail? To resist only weakens us. To the Taoist, resistance is a joke. It is utterly futile and without honor. To resist only makes that which we are resisting stronger. Lao Tzu speaks over and over again of the principle of the soft overcoming the hard, the weak overcoming the strong.


Yield and overcome;

Bend and be straight;

Empty and be full;

Wear out and be new;

Have little and gain.


Later on he says:


The softest thing in the universe

Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.


In yielding we can find strength and succor and in softness we can find a way to overcome even the worst tribulations. What we are talking about here is not a mushy, weak kind of softness, but a resilient, decisive softness, the springy softness of the bamboo which bends and springs back in contrast to the hard and stiff oak which is blown down in a hard wind.

Lao Tzu describes a Taoist as the one who sees simplicity in the complicated and achieves greatness in little things. He or she is dedicated to discovering the dance of the cosmos in the passing of each season as well as the passing of each precious moment in our lives. Lao Tzu calls him the sage; Chuang Tzu calls him the True Man (or woman). He says:


Those who seek for and follow (the Tao) are strong of body, clear of mind, and sharp of sight and hearing. They do not load their mind with anxieties, and are flexible in their adjustment to external conditions.


Taoism was already long established when Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. It originated in the ancient shamanic roots of Chinese civilization. Many of the practices and attitudes toward life were already established before Lao Tzu's time. He did, however, bring a much more philosophical bent to traditional Taoist teachings. As a matter of fact, this path was not even called "Taoism." Indeed, it was not called anything. It was only much later when Buddhism came to China and found royal favor that Taoism came to be called by that name. This was also when Taoism diverged from being a strictly philosophical path to a religious one, complete with liturgy, priests and even a Taoist pope!

Taoism has a long long history, stretching back to the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) who is said to have reigned during the middle of the third millennium BCE. It continues down through the sages such as Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Ko Hong, Lu Dong-bin and countless other "invisible" sages, both men and women who have carried on the ancient traditions and created new practices even up to today.

The original form of Taoism, and the form that this book is most concerned with, is sometimes called philosophical Taoism or classical Taoism. For many centuries Taoism was an informal way of life, a way followed by peasant, farmer and gentleman philosopher and artist. It was a way of deep reflection and of learning from Nature, considered the highest teacher. Followers of the Way studied the stars in the heavens and the energy that lies deep within the earth. They meditated upon the energy flow within their own bodies and mapped out the roads and paths it traveled upon. They felt no need for official temples and liturgy. Each man and woman was their own priest. The connection with the divine or Tao was the sacred trust of each individual.

Then, as Eva Wong tells us:


The history of Taoism took an interesting turn between the first and seventh centuries CE: a form of Taoism that combined magic and devotion emerged. Under the influence of a charismatic spiritual leader, Chang Tao-ling, Taoism became a religion.


Today one can visit Taoist temples in China, such as the famous White Clouds temple in Beijing and see crowds of devotees lighting clouds of incense and bowing down to statues of fierce looking gods in order to have "a good life" or for blessings in a new business enterprise. The Taoist canon consists of thousands of volumes and monks and nuns perform services complete with chanting, singing, exorcisms and talisman making.

Many of these monks and nuns are true students of the Way. They practice self cultivation very seriously and perform rites and rituals for pilgrims and tourists while understanding that the true Tao is not contained in any religious box.

Most Chinese people today view Taoism as just another old fashioned religion. The Taoism that I believe will take root in the West is not that religious form. It is instead a non-religious, deeply personal form of Taoism that speaks to the Westerner as deeply and richly as the Chinese.

As we shall see, Chinese medicine, qigong, tai ji, internal alchemy, energy meditation, all of these have their roots in the Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and the ancient achieved ones. It is a form of Taoism that can be approached by anyone.

It is a belief in life, a belief in the glorious procession of each unfolding moment. It is a deeply spiritual but decidedly non-religious way of life. It involves introspection, balance, emotional and spiritual independence and responsibility and a deep awareness and connection to the Earth and all other life forms. It requires an understanding of how energy works in the body and how to treat illness in a safe, non-invasive way while teaching practical ways of maintaining health and avoiding disease and discomfort. Taoist meditation techniques help the practitioner enter deeper or more expansive levels of wakefulness and inner strength. But most of all it is a simple, natural, practical way of being in our bodies and our psyches and sharing that being with all other life forms we come into contact with.

Taoists believe in the divinity, specialness and deep down holiness of each individual, including themselves. As Hua-Ching Ni, a contemporary Taoist master, tells us, "An undistorted human life is the real model of all universal truth." The Taoist seeks to dig deep under all the layers of cultural and psychological silt that has accumulated in us humans over the millennia and bring forth the shining pearl that lies beneath. As Hua-Ching Ni says:

Ordinary religions can turn you into a pole; the naked electric pole on the side of the busy street, stark and barren, whereas Tao makes you sprout, blossom, and yield fruit as you sway and dance in the breeze of life.

So What Does This Have

To Do With Me?


The simplest actions and the simplest language are needed to develop ourselves spiritually and present the whole truth.

Hua-Ching Ni


When people say they're looking for the meaning of life, what they're really looking for is a deep experience of it.

Joseph Campbell


He who understands the Way is certain to have command of basic principles. He who has command of basic principles is certain to know how to deal with circumstances. And he who knows how to deal with circumstances will not allow things to do him harm. When a man has perfect virtue (te), fire cannot burn him, water cannot drown him, cold and heat cannot affect him, birds and beasts cannot injure him.

Alan Watts

The modern world bombards us on every side with sensory, emotional, and psychological impressions. We often feel alone and cut off from our foundations, both spiritually and emotionally. For most of us, "reality" consists of spoon-size treatments of other people's lives fed to us in a steady diet by newspapers, radio and especially television. Everyone's life problems are solved in one half hour to one hour segments, including commercials. We feel disappointed and inferior if we are not able to do the same with our life problems and challenges.

Most modern religions emphasize the basic separation between creator and creation. God is somewhere "out there" and is to be supplicated, placated and feared. This intensifies our feelings of alienation, making them more unbearable. To use an economic term, we are heading into a state of spiritual bankruptcy. This is reflected in the ever deeper and wider range of psychological disturbances we see all around us. The "village idiot" has multiplied many times and is now living on the streets with nowhere to go. Carl Jung, writing in 1933, said, "Much of the evil in the world is due to the fact that man in general is hopelessly unconscious."

He realized that many psychological disturbances of modern humankind are actually a spiritual problem. We in the West have been cut off from our spiritual roots. And in the process, says Jung, "science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror." "Modern man is solitary," he says, and "is so of necessity and at all times, for every step toward a fuller consciousness of the present removes him further from his original participation with the mass of men-submersion in a common unconsciousness."

Why has this happened? Why are modern men and women increasingly alienated from themselves and each other and seemingly from the rest of humanity? The Book of Genesis describes how Adam and Eve, the primordial man and woman, ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and were consequently forced out of the Garden of Eden, doomed to live a life cursed and filled with pain and travail. Just what is this tree that caused such grave consequences for poor Adam and Eve? It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or yin and yang, as the Taoist would say). It is the knowledge of opposite and complementary conditions and forces. The serpent, as the temptor, says to Eve that "God doth know that in the day ye eateth thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5)

Of course once they are found out they are cast out of paradise. Eve is told she shall henceforth deliver her children in sorrow and shall be ruled over by her husband, setting the scene for male domination for the next four thousand years. Adam is told he shall eat sorrow for all the days of his life. Not only that but the very ground under them will be cursed! All in all, things look pretty grim for humankind from this time forth. And while most of us today know that many stories of the Bible are myth and allegory, there are still plenty of people who believe these stories are literally true and are bound and determined to live out their days in sorrow and suffering, just as God commanded Adam to do.

To Taoists, however, this is absurd. The knowledge of good and evil or self knowledge is the right and legacy of every individual. Hua-Ching Ni says:

Don't let anyone tell you that you cannot know the truth for yourself or that you cannot achieve yourself spiritually without being tied to a temple or church. You were not born a spiritual slave. You are the authority who distinguishes what is true and untrue, spiritual and unspiritual.

It is so easy to just let spiritual or temporal authority figures tell us what to believe and how to live our lives. It is much easier than consciously choosing the journey of self discovery and self knowledge, a journey which can be very rocky indeed. In the immortal Brothers Karamazov, Doestoevsky relates the story of how Christ, when he returns to earth in the Middle Ages, is snatched immediately by the Grand Inquisitor and thrown into a dungeon. There he is told that his presence is not needed, that the Grand Inquisitor has everything under control. People like being told what to believe and how to live their lives. They don't need some upstart to stir things up. Christ's gift of spiritual freedom is not welcome here, the Inquisitor tells him. Not only do the people have no use for it, they would not know what to do with it if they had it. It would only be a problem and a burden to them. He then has Christ killed again.

What Doestoevsky was talking about then is still true today. Most people would rather be told what to believe in and how to live their lives in that belief. They don't want the dubious and highly dangerous gift of spiritual freedom any more than did the people of the Middle Ages. Wilhem Reich wrote about the killing of Christ, in which he posited that Christ has been crucified continuously for two thousand years. He is crucified every time we submerge and deny the Christ within us, that part of us that represents the love of life, of discovery, of ever evolving creativity, or our own undeniable divinity.

Again, to Taoists this is all quite absurd. Taoists, like many primal people, believe that everything is sacred, not just musty old "holy" books or special buildings or even special people whose job it is to act as intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. To the followers of the Way there is no difference between the sacred and the profane. There is no escaping Tao or sacredness. It is contained within everything as everything is contained within it.

We are still in the garden of Eden! Or as Christ put it, "Heaven is at hand." Just look around at the amazing variety of life that is going on around us all the time, in all its splendiferous color and shape and form. Webs of energy connect us all; trees sway rhythmically in the breeze high over our heads; water runs merrily or sedately over stones and sand, forming ripples and eddies and making delicious music; grasses and flowers grow boisterously, seductively, whether we even care or not. The rich panoply of life goes on all around us, always, endlessly.

You too are a unique and wonderful creation all your own. Feel the blood rushing through your veins as your heart pumps continuously and obligingly. Your lungs breathe effortlessly in and out, drawing rich oxygen and qi energy. Your eyes scan the page, deciphering the little blobs of black on white, while your marvelous brain interprets them to your consciousness. Your every cell hums with life, with energy, with consciousness. And who knows what further adventures await us when we tire of these bodies and leave them behind, setting our spirits adrift into the arms of the great and loving Tao?

Wake up and smell the miraculous fragrance of your own life and of all the life forms around you! The very richness of existence is contained in all that you know and are and all that you wish to know and be. Accept it into your consciousness, your own expression of the Tao.

As Taoists, we are artists of life. We are creators of our own masterpieces, directors of our own movies, writers of our own stories. We are not afraid to ask for help, but in doing so, we do it with pride, with humbleness, with sincerity, not as "worms" or "wretches" but as upright free individuals, invested in truth and learning, ever growing, ever renewed. We take responsibility for our own emotions, for our own relationships, for our own habits, for our own destiny. We are all made of the same "stuff," a combination of the divine and the organic. We are all atomically equal! We all want to be loved and to love. We all want to be happy and to be able to give happiness to others. We all want to be safe, to be whole, to be healthy. And that is our right, our divine inalienable right. We let no man or woman take that away from us through fear or guilt or intimidation.

We take responsibility for our own health. We take care of and treat our bodies in a healthy and balanced manner. We take responsibility for our own sexuality. We do not treat it as a weapon or a means of subjugation. We take responsibility for our own spirituality, for our own self cultivation. We nurture and weed our own spiritual gardens and reap the bountiful harvest. We take responsibility for our own emotional independence, not clinging to others or allowing others to cling to us in an unhealthy manner. We take responsibility for our own psyches. We do not trash them or twist them into unnatural shapes for the benefit of others or for our own immature needs.

And lastly, we take responsibility for our own consciousness, our own part of the dance, our own piece of the great cosmic puzzle. We respect ourselves and do not allow ourselves to be used in an unhealthy way by the ones we love, and in turn we do not use them in the same manner. We respect our origin and we honor our true selves, free of petty distractions and fears. We respect and honor the true self of everyone around us, and in that respect and honoring we shine forth as the true sacred and strong beings that we are.

Chapter Sources

Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China

Hua-Ching Ni, The Gentle Path of Spiritual Progress

Ellen M. Chen, Tao Te Ching

Gia Fu Feng & Jane English, Tao Te Ching

Eva Wong, The Shambhala Guide toTaoism

Alan Watts, The Watercourse Way

John Blofeld, Taoism, The Road to Immortality

A.C. Graham, The Book of Lieh-Tzu

Clae Waltham, Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd

Hua-Ching Ni, Tao: The Subtle Universal Law and the

Integral Way of Life

Hua-Ching Ni, The Way of Integral Life

Carl Jung, Modern Man In Search of a Soul

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
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Taoism and A Few Words about Tao

Taoism is a philosophy, a religion and also the basis for Traditional Chinese Medication. It represents the wisdom accumulated over 5,000 years of Chinese history. Together with Confucianism and Buddhism, it has been continuously guiding Chinese in behaviors and governing.

There are some very basic different approaches taken by the West and Chinese philosophies. The West treats individual as an independent and separate entity. Chinese treats individual as an element in the whole universe and is interrelated. West tends to be self-centered and thus any blame will be first on others. On the opposite, Chinese is taught to merge self into the environment as a whole or there is no self at all. Tao and Taoism are different from "God" and "Bible". To understand Taoism, one has to "unlearn" or break out from own paradigm to view it from a completely new angle.

"Tao" means "behavior, understanding and the constant changing from and to". Taoism is a philosophy and a belief of simplicity and the very nature of universe. There is no absolute "stillness". Everything, including the universe, is changing all the time. The relative "stability" can be achieved when a harmony is reached between "Yin" and "Yang", which are said to be the opposite but related natural forces in the universe. There are five elements in everything. The following diagram described their interrelationship.

Taoism teaches Chinese to go alone with the nature, to seek harmony in life and meditate for mental peacefulness and "emptiness". Any act to one extreme will cause the opposite reaction in force until the balance is reached.

Toa De Jin was a book published 260BC and the following are some of the translations.

To behave in a society

The best of man is like water,

Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,

Which flows in places that others disdain,Where it holds fast to Tao. So the sage: In dwelling holds fast to the land, In governing holds fast to order,In talking holds fast to truth, In dealing holds fast to men,In acting holds fast to opportunity,In crafting holds fast to competence, In feeling holds fast to the heart;

He does not contend, and so is without blame.Not praising the worthy prevents cheating. Not esteeming the rare prevents theft. Not flaunting beauty prevents lust

So the sage controls people by: Emptying their hearts, Filling their bellies Weakening their ambitions, And strengthening their bodies. If people lack knowledge and desire. The crafty among them can not act;

If no action is taken

Then all live in peace

Selfish is the first hurdle of one's success

Nature is everlasting because it does not have a Self.In this way the sage:
Serves his Self last and finds it served first;
Sees his body as accidental and finds it endures. Because he does not serve his Self, he is content.

Let nature take its own course and no interfere

When Beauty is recognized in the World Ugliness has been learned; When Good is recognized in the World Evil has been learned.In this way:
Alive and dead are abstracted from growth;
Difficult and easy are abstracted from progress;
Far and near are abstracted from position;
Strong and weak are abstracted from control;
Song and speech are abstracted from harmony; After and before are abstracted from sequence.

The sage controls without authority,
And teaches without words;
He lets all things rise and fall, Nurtures, but does not interfere, Gives without demanding,
And is content.

Control or Nurture the World

The saints said: "Praise and blame cause anxiety; The objects of hope and fear are within your Self."

"Praise and blame cause anxiety" For you must hope and fear to receive or to lose them.

"The objects of hope and fear are within your Self" For, without Self, neither fortune nor disaster can befall. Therefore: He who regards the World as the Self is able to control the World; He who loves the World as the Self is able to nurture the World.

The world can not be changed by one's will

Those who wish to change the World According with their desire Cannot succeed.
The World is shaped by Tao; It cannot be shaped by Self.
If one tries to shape it, one damages it; If one tries to possess it, one loses it.
Therefore: Sometimes things flourish, And sometimes they do not. Sometimes life is hard And sometimes it is easy. Sometimes people are strong..And sometimes they are weak. Sometimes you get where you are going And sometimes you fall by the way.

The sage is not extreme, extravagant, or complacent.

Violence upon others will be returned the same

Powerful men are well advised not to use violence,For violence has a habit of returning;Thorns and weeds grow wherever an army goes, And lean years follow a great war.

A general is well advised. To achieve nothing more than his orders, No matter how strong his army; To carry out his orders.

But not glory, boast or be proud; To do what is dictated by necessity,But not by bloodlust; For even the fiercest force will weaken with time, And then its violence will return, and kill it.

Self and The World

The sage does not distinguish between Self and World;

Therefore the needs of the people of the World are as his own. He is good to those who are good;He is also good to those who are not good; For love is goodness.

He trusts those who are trustworthy; He also trusts those who are not trustworthy; For love is trust. He is in harmony with the World; So he nurtures the Worlds of others As a mother does her children.

Love, Restraint, Acceptance and Harmony

Tao bears love;Love bears restraint;Restraint bears acceptance;Acceptance bears the World;All things begin with love and end with restraint,But it is acceptance that brings harmony. As others teach, I teach, "Those without harmony end with violence"; This is my teacher.

Explanation of Toa by a Western scholar

Capitalism and The Tao

Qigong and Taoism

Taoist Restoration Society

Tao Te Ching

Taoism and Links

Tao tells the basic truth. Birth and death, man and women, good and evil are the very nature of universe. There is no absolute "Right" or "Wrong". Every thing is relative and may change in time. Let us try to apply to some situations and see what it may mean:

Be happy in life

One is true rich and happy if feels having enough in life with nothing unfinished, nothing to fight about and nothing to complain about.

A richer is not rich if feels never enough in life and thus can't be happy indeed.

Environment Protection

To live harmony with the universe and go alone with the nature. This is what Chinese have been told for 5,000 year.

The industrial revolution introduced by the "West" has brought great disasters to the environment. The whole world has to suffer.

Receiving from nature has to be accomplished with giving back to nature. Growing trees first and then trees can be cut.

China and USA Relationship

America today has become the only superpower in the world after the dissolution of USSR. America is proud of their nation and has the strong will to dominate in the world affairs. The aggressiveness will bring America the power and self-fulfillment in the short run. But America in fact is living in fear, despair, lose of directions and great jealous. America "believes" that they are on the right side of the history and on top of the world. Their political system is the universal model for all other countries. Any other country different from "America value" must be wrong and thus America, the hero nation, will use all means to bring them back to the "right side of the history". America is living in the history of wars starting from wars against native Indians, to Independent Civil War, First and Second World War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iran War, Iraq War and recently Kosova War. America leading the West continuously fights for "America Value" against Russian, Cuba, China and any other countries that they think will "endanger" their "position". America is on top of the list that countries participated in wars against other countries (right or wrong, up to the history to judge). America is the only country today with armies stationed in other people's land. All these have shown that America as a nation is lacking of the necessary confidence in the real world and in its own future. America is psychologically unprepared to substantiate any future failure and has no peace of mind. America is richer but unhappy, strong but weakening in their deep inside.

China is not a superpower and Chinese never has the will to become the number one of the world. Recovering from 80 years of suffering from foreign invasion, civil war and internal turbulence, Chinese finally can live in a stable environment and enjoy their life peacefully. China is poor, maybe, but Chinese is mentally rich because they are happy to have enough. Taoism said that "excessive demand in any thing" will cost great dear at the end and the real happiness is reached when one knows having enough.

History is repeating without being noticed. United Kingdom, once the most powerful countries in the world, is now giving up all colonies and being troubled by internal fighting ever since. German and Japan when they became the superpowers, they started the Second World War and failed badly. USSR, once the powerful Communist tried to become Number One, was now dissolved. Will America be able to hold on to its Number One position forever? America will be living with their ego and fear until eventually find out that the only enemy is themselves, not others. No one can succeed in controlling the world. That is the nature law of the universe.

The West and Japanese led by American government have tried to block Communist China and failed. Any external forces pressed on China will make China even stronger. Any external influence, which tried to force China to improve "human right", will worsen their position. Chinese has a long history and is capable to handle own affairs. For the benefit of mankind and the good of America, let the nature take its own course and leave China alone. Once Chinese as a nation feels unsafe, the world will be turned upside down. No matter how strong America today is, the nature force will strike back without mercy.

Chinese is a nation seeking continuous harmony with the nature, the universe and their neighbors. Confrontation is not Chinese culture. Chinese is confident in mastering their own country, charting their own directions and will fearlessly defend their own country whenever necessary. Chinese is a nation with great restraint and yet has the inner strength to react and substantiate proportionally to any brutal force brought upon them.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:02 AM)

Alongside the development of Taoism as a philosophy, another more strictly religious interpretation of Taoism was evolving. This 'religious' Taoism had its own temples, priests, rites and symbolic images. Lao Tzu was venerated as a 'saint' and imperial sacrifices were made to him. It drew strongly upon the ideas of yin-yang and of the Five elements (metal, wood, water, fire & earth).

During this time there began to develop a pantheon of Taoist Deities which were often venerated as gods. These Taoist deities, like the Buddhist or Hindu pantheon, represented different qualities and attributes and various ceremonies, depending on circumstances were conducted to appeal to them. 

Yu-Huang - The Jade Emperor

Yu-Huang is the great High God of the Taoists -- the Jade Emperor. He rules Heaven as the Emperor doe Earth. All other gods must report to him. His chief function is to distribute justice, which he does through the court system of Hell where evil deeds and thoughts are punished. Yu-Huang is the Lord of the living and the dead and of all the Buddhas, all the gods, all the spectres and all the demons.

According to legend he was the son of an emperor Ch'ing-te and his wife Pao Yueh-kuang who from his birth exhibited great compassion. When he had been a few years on the throne he abdicated and retired as a hermit spending his time dispensing medicine and knowledge of the Taoist texts. Some scholars see in this a myth of the sacred union of the sun and the moon, their son being the ruler of all Nature.

Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun - The First Principle

Although Yu-Huang is the High God, there are other abstract deities above him. He rules; they simply exist and instruct. First and foremost is Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun - the First Principal.

He has no beginning and no end. He existed "before the void and the silence, before primordial chaos." He is self-existing, changeless, limitless, invisible, contains all virtues, is present in all places and is the source of all truth.

San-ch'ing - The Three Pure Ones

These are the so-called Three Pure Ones. They are Yu-ch'ing (Jade Pure), Shang-ch'ing (Upper Pure) and T'ai-ch'ing (Great Pure). They are believed to be different manifestations of Lao Tzu. They are not rulers, but rather seek to save mankind by teaching and benevolence.

In a place with Yu-ch'ing lives Yuan-shih T'ien-tsun and the Holy Men (sheng-jen). With Shang-ch'ing lives Ling-pao T'ien-tsun (Spiritual Treasure Honoured by Heaven) and the Heroes. T'ai-ch'ing is the direct manifestation of Lao Tzu. He holds a fan, symbol of his powers, on which are written the yin-yang symbol and the Big Dipper.

San-kuan - The Three Officials

The San-kuan rule over all things in the three regions of the Universe, keep a register of good and evil deeds and award good or bad fortune accordingly. T'ien-kuan, the Ruler of Heaven, grants happiness. Ti-kuan, Ruler of Earth, grants remissions of sins, and Shui-kuan, Ruler of Water, averts all evil. Their compassion for all people is unbounded. The San-kuan originated in a rite from the time of the Yellow-Turban Taoists.

San-yuan - Three Epochs (or principles)

The San-yuan originate from a time in the Eastern Chin Dynasty (317-420 A.D.) when the year was divided into three unequal periods. Shang- yuan ruled the first six moons (winter and spring); Hsia-yuan ruled the 7th and 8th moons (summer); and Chung-yuan ruled the 9th to 11th moons (fall). It was believed that they dwelled in the North Star (Tzu Wei).


T'ien-shih was the title awarded to Chang Tao-ling (157-178 A.D.), the founder of the Yellow Turban Taoists (he is also claimed as founder by the Cheng-I and Five Bushels of Rice sects). It is believed that he received the Ling-pao (spiritual Treasure) Scripture written on golden tablets, from the Gods. He succeeded in finding the elixir of immortality, swallowed it, and ascended to Heaven, leaving his secrets, including his seals and demon-dispelling sword, with his son.

Since then the title T'ien-shih has passed through the family for generations. The current (63rd) Chang T'ien-shih lives in Taiwan and heads the Five Bushels of Rice Taoist sect. He continues to retain the sword and seals of Chang Tao-ling.

There are many others that can be named and the aspiring student of religious Taoism should study them well.

Astrology, alchemy and divination in this stream of Taoism were so prominent that it had veered away from philosophy to occultism. This movement was sometimes known as Huang-Lao, after the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti and Lao Tzu.

From this form of Taoism emerged very strong alchemical currents as Taoist practitioners (much like Western mystics a millennium later) at the court of Shih Huang-ti of the Qin (Ch'in) dynasty (221-207 BC) tried to cultivate powers that would transform base metals to gold, and hence would serve as a metonym for the transformation of human qualities to the transcendent. These practitioners were also acclaimed as spirit mediums and experts in levitation.

Among the important features of Taoist religion were the belief in physical immortality, alchemy, breath control and hygiene (internal alchemy). The Taoist liturgy and theology was much influenced by Buddhism. Its scriptures, the Tao-tsang, consist of over 1,400 separate works totaling more than 5,000 chapters. 

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:03 AM)

What's it All About

While cosmology and theories concerning the nature of existence are fascinating in themselves, how can we benefit from all this while living in the real world of today? When reading through most translations of the Tao Te Ching it becomes obvious that the writing style refers to an age that has altogether been banished to the back shelves of history. When it boils down to it, living the life of a Taoist is living life simply and naturally. Being in tune with the natural cycles of nature and avoiding conflict. It is very much an attitude that many will find difficult to adapt to because it requires that you don't over indulge your ego. This means adhering to the principles of balance, Wu Wei and remembering the advice - 'Yield and be strong'.

There are of course other more disciplined areas that enable you to cultivate yourself physically and mentally, such as Tai Chi Chuan, Taoist diet, Chi Kung and many others, and these are looked at on other pages. For now we will concentrate on attitudes to life. What this means is that you should avoid extremes and try to take the middle path in all things. You will also benefit from practicing Wu Wei, which generally translates to 'non-doing' or 'non-action'. It does not mean doing nothing but instead refers to following the natural course of events, or 'going with the flow'. It refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.

The principle of  Wu Wei contains certain implications. Foremost among these is the need to consciously experience ourselves as part of the unity of life that is the Tao. Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience. All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao functions in a manner to promote harmony and balance, our own actions, performed in the spirit of Wu Wei, produce the same result.

Wu Wei also implies action that is spontaneous, natural, and effortless. As with the Tao, this behavior simply flows through us because it is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and serving the purpose of greater harmony and balance. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically (and provocatively), as "purposeless wandering!" How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is unthinkable and even frightening, certainly anti-social and perhaps pathological in the context of modern day living. And yet it would be difficult to maintain that our current values have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level.

To allow oneself to "wander without purpose" can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs - that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations, and that our role is to conquer our environment - that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, "the Tao nourishes everything," Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action," then nothing remains undone. This means trusting our own bodies, our thoughts and emotions, and also believing that the environment will provide support and guidance. Thus the need to develop watchfulness and quietness of mind.

In cultivating Wu Wei, timing becomes an important aspect of our behavior. We learn to perceive processes in their earliest stages and thus are able to take timely action. "Deal with the small before it becomes large," is a well-known dictum from Lao Tzu.

And finally, in the words of Chuang Tzu, we learn "detachment, forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit." By allowing the Tao to work through us, we render our actions truly spontaneous, natural, and effortless. We thus flow with all experiences and feelings as they come and go. We know intuitively that actions which are not ego-motivated, but in response to the needs of the environment, lead toward harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and "purpose" to our lives. Such actions are attuned to the deepest flow of life itself.

To allow Wu Wei to manifest in our lives may seem like a daunting task. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment without thought of profit or tangible result. "The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever," writes Lao Tzu.

By listening carefully within, as well as to our surroundings, by remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, by remaining still until action is called forth, we can perform valuable, necessary, and long-lasting service in the world while cultivating our ability to be at one with the Tao. Such is the power of Wu Wei, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Tao.

There now follows a number of insightful articles that you may find inspiring: -


Respect for Life - by Derek Lin

Why do we cultivate the Tao? There are so many spiritual paths out there, how does the Tao differ from the rest? If differences exist, are they significant or superficial?

"All forms of spiritualities are the same - they all teach people to be good." I come across this sentiment quite frequently in recent years. Some Tao practitioners say it so much, the expression has all but become a platitude. Whenever I hear it, I can't help but wonder if they truly realize what a special treasure the Tao is.

We say that the greatness of Tao comes from its transcendence beyond ordinary teachings, but do we really understand what that means?

Tao cultivation is a journey of constant discovery. At any time during this quest for wisdom, we may realize that a particular belief, previously unquestioned, is in fact incomplete. Because we recognize that the Tao is the ultimate principle we seek, rather than an absolute truth we already possess, we are free to look beyond for a more complete concept. As Taoists, we have the liberty - indeed the mandate - to rise above the limits of any particular school of thought.

We can see an example of this process at work in a common teaching of many Eastern traditions. This teaching holds that all life is sacred, so one must never kill. Killing takes away the priceless gift of life, and therefore must always be wrong.

It is easy for us to identify with this concept initially. Who can argue against the statement that life is beyond price and killing is immoral? Note, however, that the teaching applies literally to all life. In its most traditional, undiluted form, even the killing of insects is frowned upon.

In fact, one can argue that the killing of weaker, relatively insignificant creatures is a greater wrong. Unlike lions and tigers, small creatures have no ability to defend themselves, so we need to be even more compassionate toward them.

This is one of the themes in the movie "The Next Karate Kid," starring Hilary Swank as Julie-san, Mr. Miyagi's latest student. There's a scene where Julie and Mr. Miyagi sit down for lunch with a group of Japanese monks. Julie is about to dig into her bowl of rice when she notices a cockroach on the table. She grabs a shoe and gets ready to smash it.

Just before her shoe slams down, the monk sitting across from her sweeps the cockroach into his hand with lightning quickness, saving it from a messy death. He lets it go with a loving and gentle expression while Julie stares bewildered. She doesn't get it. She keeps asking, "What? What?" as all the monks get up and walk away.

Mr. Miyagi explains that the monks have an absolute reverence for life. They refrain from taking any life, even the life of a cockroach. He then adds that even though he himself does not live in a temple, he too respects all life.

I find this scene troubling for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's a veiled criticism of the West - Julie represents the "ignorant" Westerner who has a difficult time grasping the sanctity of life. My experience tells me this is an unfair stereotype. The second problem I have with the scene is that the philosophy it dramatizes is in fact outdated and leads to all sorts of ludicrous conclusions.

You may find it surprising that I would question such a familiar doctrine that's been around for as long as anyone can remember. Isn't it precisely because we refrain from taking life that we encourage vegetarianism? If this absolute compassion for all life is flawed, then what's the basis for our position against eating meat?

There is an answer to the above, and we will get to it later. For now, let's think about this: Do you agree with the monks and Mr. Miyagi? If so, how do you react when you find a spider in your house? Do you kill it?

We want to be consistent in our thoughts and actions. We want to practice what we preach, so if we agree with the absolute reverence for life, we must let the spider live. When I posed this question to a Tao practitioner, she said that she would use a piece of paper to catch the spider without harming it, and then take it outside.

She was being consistent in her belief, but her answer did not resolve the underlying quandary. The insect does not have to be a spider, which is relatively easy to capture. It can be a fly, for example, so that a harmless capture is difficult or impossible. How do you react then?

There's more. What if it is not a single insect, but a swarm of insects? For instance, what will you do if your kitchen is crawling with ants? What will you do if your house is infested with termites?

The same thing applies to settings other than one's home. What if you're a farmer facing a plague of locusts? Will you try to kill as many as you can in order to minimize their damage? If so, how can you claim to believe in the absolute sanctity of all life?

One traditional study of Tao poses a similar question this way: If you are holding your baby and you see a mosquito landing on his arm, will you kill it? Suppose the mosquito is the probable carrier of a deadly disease fatal to infants. You have only a split second to act. How can you not kill it?

Throughout the centuries, people have come up with all kinds of added complexities to answer questions like the above. For instance, some advocate saying a prayer before killing an insect, to speed it on its way to reincarnation. This practice has never caught on in a big way, because it creates more questions than it answers. How exactly can prayers dilute the absolute sanctity of life? If prayers make killing insects okay, then how about killing animals? How about humans?

Another thing to consider is that this respect-for-life doctrine was formulated a long time ago, when people didn't know about microorganisms. Now that we know they exist, do we extend the doctrine to cover them? Clearly, that would be absurd. Every time you wash your hands or gargle mouthwash, lots of microscopic deaths occur. Does our reverence for all life mean we should never keep ourselves sanitary?

On the flip side, if it is okay to kill germs and bacteria, then why not insects? They're all little bugs, alive and wriggling, aren't they?

Come to think of it, reverence for all life isn't a great basis for vegetarianism either. When you consume the fruits or leaves of a plant, it continues to live, but when you eat the root of a vegetable (potato, for instance) you have in effect terminated its existence. How can that be reconciled with absolute respect for all life, no matter how insignificant?

Suppose a vegetarian is stranded on an island like Tom Hanks' character in "Cast Away," and there are no edible plants anywhere. Should he temporarily abandon his vegetarian ideals in order to survive? If so, wouldn't he be violating the sanctity of life just to save his own skin?

The bottom line is that if we really think about the doctrine espoused by Mr. Miyagi and monks, we'll find that we can tie it up in knots with no effort at all. This is not a teaching we can use as part of the modern Tao.

Again, since we are Taoists, we have the freedom and the mandate to find a way closer to the truth. So we ask ourselves: What can possibly be beyond the reverence for all life? What might be a principle that applies equally well in all situations and does not bind itself to all sorts of ridiculous scenarios?

Such a principle does exist. There are several elements to it, but at its core it is not at all complex. Simply stated, the principle teaches that what we revere is nature itself, not individual life forms. Our specialized term for this is Lao Mu - the nurturing, creative force of life in the universe.

Have you ever taken a walk through a forest and felt the abundance of life in all its kaleidoscopic variations? Have you ever sensed the interlocking relationships among all the components of that environment, working harmoniously together? Have you ever been taken by the beauty and power of living, breathing nature and felt yourself a part of it, and not apart from it?

If you can answer yes to any of the above, then you have a gut-level feeling for this principle we're trying to describe. You will probably recognize it as the most natural thing imaginable. Nature is something you want to embrace, not exploit.

When your personal connection with nature is such that you can relate to various animals on a personal level, an unavoidable consequence is that your desire to kill them and eat their flesh will diminish naturally. You find yourself not wishing to consume an animal who clearly doesn't want to die.

Our reverence for nature extends to every aspect of it, including its cycles of life and death, the concept of natural balance, and the idea that each living thing has its own habitat and ecological niche.

This means that when nature is out of balance in the local vicinity, it isn't wrong for you to take the appropriate action to restore the balance. This restoration may be difficult, but the point here is that it is not intrinsically evil. The action you take may involve the preservation of life in some instances, and the taking of life in others. Extremes (too much or too little) are bad; moderation (just right) is good.

One manifestation of imbalance is an endangered species. It goes without saying that, if extinction becomes even a remote possibility for a species, we'll want to do everything we can to increase its total population.

The other side of this coin is when you have too much of some living thing to the point of an impending ecological disaster. To head off such a disaster you need to decrease the number of the animal or insect. That will involve killing, either directly or indirectly.

If you're a farmer and there is a plague of locusts, you know something has gone horribly wrong in your region. You certainly should do something about it, if you can. That something may well result in the death of thousands of grasshoppers. This makes you a taker of life in the old school, but a restorer of balance in the modern Taoist perspective. Which viewpoint makes more intuitive sense?

Likewise, if your house is infested with termites, you have a mini-disaster on your hands. I say you should feel no compunction whatsoever about exterminating them. Termites are hardly an endangered species. You are not exactly striking a blow against nature by eradicating the ones living off your dwelling. You are merely removing them from an environment (the timber of your house) where they do not belong.

One important thing to note is that, as Taoists, we do not delight or take pleasure in the killing of these insects. We simply take effective action to do something that must be done, no more and no less. There is no guilt and no celebration. In fact there should be minimal emotional attachment. If we must kill them, we do so dispassionately.

In nature, killing is always done in this manner. A predator that hunts down and kills its prey does so to satiate its hunger, not for sport, self-glorification, hatred, loathing, vengeance, or other unsavory human deviations. Killing in nature is a pure act undertaken with neither elation nor remorse.

When we must perform such an act, we follow nature's lead and proceed with untainted intentions. Just as the everyday occurrence of killing in the animal kingdom can never make animals any less a part of nature, this does not alter our personal connection with nature one iota. Our reverence for nature is uplifted, not lowered. Our compassion for innocent, butchered cattle is strengthened, not weakened.

Little kids who don't know any better often toy with or torture insects. They focus a magnifying glass on an ant, or clip the wings of a flying insect, or cut off a bug's legs. Our respect for nature is such that we cannot condone this type of cruel and immature behavior.

The final element of this modernized principle has to do with human choice. In nature, human beings are unique from all other creatures in having a highly developed brain with which to think. Animals do not have the ability to reason and choose as we do. Having this power of choice means we should exercise it with care.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:03 AM)

Living in modern civilization, we always have a choice in what we eat. Choosing a vegetarian diet means you refrain from contributing to the overall demand that drives the meat industry. There is honor in that choice. It is a stance against massive cruelty and environmental damage, both of which are affronts against nature.

On the other hand, if you find yourself far from civilization, in a situation where your survival is at stake, and the only food available is meat, then I would say you don't really have the choice. Someone who eats meat in order to survive when no other option is available has not done something wrong.

Thus, our individual, personal choice is a key to this overall puzzle. We all have the right to choose for ourselves. Chances are those of us who choose to reduce our meat intake will enjoy the health benefits resulting from that choice. Medical science offers a mountain of evidence all pointing to the improved health and increased energy of the appropriate vegetarian lifestyle. That's a clue to us that it is the right choice and the natural choice.

The flip side of this coin is that we do not have the right to impose our personal choice on other thinking, independent individuals. The choice is meaningless unless it is made willingly, in accordance with one's own volition.

So there you have it: a logical, consistent and modern framework that covers all situations. This framework incorporates the "respect for all life" teaching, resolves its problems, and then takes it a step beyond.

This principle can be simply stated, but its simplicity contains profound ramifications. It is an advocate of vegetarianism without the fanatical zeal. It recognizes the crucial role of free will, and does not engage in useless condemnation of those who are not yet ready to make the natural choice. The reasoning behind this principle is built from sound structures that will never lead you to illogical extremes.

This demonstrates for us that the essence of Tao is the opposite of dogma. To be dogmatic is to hold certain beliefs (for instance, the Earth being the center of the universe) as absolutely true and therefore beyond questioning. The study of Tao, in contrast, is a quest for enlightenment where we continuously deepen our understanding of spiritual truths.

This quest begins with the realization that we are not limited to any one set of teachings. We are not bound by arbitrary rules. We can draw from any resource - intellectual or intuitive, religious or scientific - to increase our wisdom.

Our goal is to approach oneness with the principle underlying all existence. To engage in this process is to recognize that we do not possess the full truth at this time. Nor shall we ever claim monopoly on any proprietary truths in the future. Our attitude will always be one of humility, and readiness to learn.

The Tao stands revealed as the paradigm of ultimate dynamism. It is the paradigm that reinvents itself. This is how the Tao transcends ordinary teachings. This is what makes it unique and precious.

And that, my friends, is why we cultivate the Tao!


Half Empty or Half Full? - by Derek Lin

The study of Tao often leads to what I call eureka moments. "Eureka" is an expression of triumph upon discovering a startling truth. Archimedes, one of the greatest intellects of antiquity, used this expression (literally "I have found it!") when he figured out how to determine the purity of gold objects.

We get closer to this eureka moment when the study of Tao changes us and gives us a new way to examine the world. This transformed perspective lets us take something ordinary and familiar, and suddenly see in it all sorts of interesting new insights.

For example, let's take a glass and fill it with water to the halfway point. We then ask the customary, time-honored question, "Is the glass half empty or half full?"

Haven't we all seen this a zillion times? What new insights can we possibly squeeze out of this tired old platitude?

As we all know, the glass serves as a metaphor for life, and water represents the good things in it. So, seeing the glass as half empty means you're a pessimist, because you dwell on the lack in your life. Seeing it as half full means you're optimistic, because you focus on the good things in life. Most people choose the latter and describe themselves as optimists. In all likelihood, this means you, too.

Notice an interesting social phenomenon here. Most people want to be seen as optimists, even those who are usually morose and glum. Aren't we just a planet full of upbeat, sunny cheerleaders? How interesting! Why do we have such a social pressure to be relentlessly optimistic?

Let's look at it from a completely different angle and turn this paradigm upside down. Is it always a negative thing to see the glass as half empty? Suppose such a perception motivates you to fill the glass - so to speak - whereas seeing it as half full leads to complacency. Focusing on the lack in one's life can then be a driving force for success. Not so negative now, is it?

Look at the overachievers who accomplish great things in any field. They probably started out life with the idea that there wasn't enough water in their glass to suit them, so they worked to fill it up. On the other hand, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the underachievers who dawdle away their lives in torpid passivity. Perhaps they do so because their focus is on what they already possess, rather than the areas of life that can use some improvement.

Another similar idea is to recognize the inherent usefulness of emptiness. In chapter 11 of Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu makes the point that the emptiness of a cup gives it utility and function. The lower part of the glass that is already filled with water cannot accept another drop, and if we remind ourselves that this represents life, we quickly see that the empty portion is where all the action can take place.

The Taoist concept of emptiness is not a vacuous state of nothingness; rather, it is a pregnant void bursting with potentialities. Now we can see how this makes perfect sense. The blank pages in the book of your life are where the continuing tale of your adventures will be written. These empty pages are the place where unlimited possibilities exist. It's where the excitement and the joie de vivre reside.

The emptiness is the part that can hold more water (good things). It is what makes the glass (life) useful and functional. So why wouldn't we want to focus on it? When you think of it this way, doesn't it seem a little odd that most people choose to see the glass as half full instead of half empty?

See what's going on here? Even though most of us have heard about the glass half filled with water many, many times, in all likelihood it has never occurred to us that we can switch the positive and negative perceptions around so easily. Evidently there's more to the glass than meets the eyes.

We also need to examine the unspoken assumptions and see how valid they really are. For instance, we start out with the unwritten, assumed rule that we have two choices, half full or half empty, and we must choose one of them. But must we really? Does it really have to be one or the other? Why can it not be both, or neither?

Indeed, a glass with water at the halfway point can be seen as both half empty and half full. Sometimes it is useful to think of it one way; other times it's better to see it the other way. This is a completely accurate description of reality, and probably a much better way to conceptualize it than to arbitrarily force it into one category or another. By recognizing that the glass can embody both descriptions simultaneously, we begin to deal with it from a holistic mindset, taking into account every aspect of the object.

In this mindset, we can see that asking about the glass being half full or half empty is just like asking about the nature of light. Is light composed of particles or waves? Well, the true answer is that light embodies properties of both particles and waves. Sometimes it is useful to think of it one way; other times it's better to see it the other way. This is a completely accurate description of reality, and probably a much better way to conceptualize it than to arbitrarily force it into one category or another.

Now let's look at the flip side. How can we say that the glass is neither half full nor half empty? First, we note that both descriptions can only be perfectly accurate in theory, and never in reality. When you pour water into the glass, no matter how careful you are and what precision tools you use, you will never hit the exact halfway mark. If you are very lucky, you can get to the point where you're only a few molecules off, over or under. Thus, the glass is never truly half full or half empty. Its state can only be described approximately.

The second factor is the Taoist concept of constant change. Nothing remains static. Nothing. As soon as any water gets into the glass, evaporation begins. At any given moment, the glass is releasing water molecules into the air. In fact, if we wait long enough, the glass won't just be half empty - it will be empty, period!

For some of us, the water goes away even more quickly, because we have imperfect glasses with hairline fractures, where water seeps out at an alarming rate. This means the good things in our lives never seem to last. You manage to get a great job, only to be downsized; you buy a new car, only to discover it's a lemon; and so on.

In the face of this dynamism, where the only question is how quickly water goes away, we need to take action. If we remain inactive, then it's a certainty that the good things in life will soon disappear, never to return. What we want is a constant stream of incoming water to replenish the water lost to evaporation and possible leakage.

Let's explore a little further. What does the glass look like from a Zen perspective?

Zen Buddhism recognizes the illusory nature of reality and the ultimate emptiness of the material world. Thus, when confronted with the choice of half empty or half full, the Zen Buddhist may answer "neither," because the water doesn't really exist, nor does the glass.

This may seem far out, but in at least two respects the Zen practitioner is right. First, both the glass and water are transient. We have already noted that the water will eventually be gone, either when the glass breaks (the end of your life) or before. The glass may last somewhat longer than the water, but we know it will eventually be shattered into pieces and no longer exist as a container. Like the ephemeral flame of a candle, life flickers into existence for a while, and then gets snuffed out without much fanfare. In truth, it can claim no more permanent reality than the candle flame.

The second factor affirming the Zen perspective is our understanding of the most fundamental level of reality, as revealed through quantum physics. At the sub-atomic level, we see that what we think of as solid matter is mostly empty space. The solidity of matter that we perceive is merely the macroscopic manifestation of energy and information patterns. In this perspective, the water is indeed illusory, and so is the glass.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:04 AM)

Now that we have sampled the Zen perspective, we will naturally want to explore the Tao perspective as well. This is an interesting challenge in view of everything we have talked about so far. We seem to have left no stone unturned in discussing all the different ways we can approach the glass. What other insight can the Tao provide us that hasn't already been said? How can a true Tao sage answer the question in a way that transcends all other answers on the subject?

The sage does not answer. Instead, he takes the glass, drinks from it, and relishes the thirst-quenching and refreshing water. He puts the glass back down and remains quiet, perhaps with a smile on his face, as others scramble to revise their estimation from half full to quarter full, or half empty to three-quarters empty.

The sage knows that the essence of life is to be lived, not debated. The glass and water serve one purpose admirably well, and that is to slake thirst. Trying to decide if it is half full or half empty does absolutely nothing to further that purpose. If anything, it gets in the way and delays the ultimate objective of drinking fully and deeply.

The Tao is beyond mere words. Discussing the glass can never replace the experience of drinking from it; describing the various perspectives will never get you closer to the actual act of savoring the water. Thus, the sage wastes no effort on intellectualization; he cuts to the chase.



The Master's Tea Cup - by Derek Lin

The Zen master Ikkyu had always been quick in his thinking. This quickness came in handy for him in a well-known story from his youth:

As a young monk, Ikkyu got himself in trouble one day when he accidentally dropped his master's tea cup, breaking it into many pieces.

This was serious, because the tea cup was the master's favorite. It was a rare treasure, beautifully crafted from precious material. Of all of the master's possessions, it was probably the one thing he cherished the most - and now it was hopelessly smashed!

Ikkyu felt guilty, but before he could formulate a plan to get away, he heard footsteps approaching. He swept the broken pieces together and, blocking them from view with his body, turned to face the door just as the master entered.

When they were within speaking distance, Ikkyu asked: "Master, why must people die?"

The master replied: "It is perfectly natural. Everything in the world experiences both life and death."



"So it is not something we should feel upset about?"

"Definitely not."

At that point, the crafty Ikkyu moved aside to present the broken pieces. "Master... your cup has experienced its inevitable death..."

The first thing we notice about this story is probably its sly humor. It is the same sense of humor that has always been part of Tao spirituality. Chuang Tzu, our favorite vagabond philosopher, was perhaps the ultimate representation of this playful yet profound mindset - a mindset that made its way into the Zen tradition, giving it a flavor that was distinctively different from the original Buddhism.

As we smile at how young Ikkyu deftly extricated himself from trouble, the humor has subtly delivered the real lesson. It sinks in at some level that material objects have a life span too, just like living beings. If we can recognize our own mortality, then surely we can also see the impermanence of our various acquisitions. They can leave us at any time, no matter how much we value them and try to hold on to them.

Most of us are quite attached to our material possessions, and will continue to cling to them even after hearing the above story and comprehending its message. We all get upset when things belonging to us are lost, damaged or stolen. Protecting them from harm and hiding them from theft seem to give us a measure of peace - at least temporarily.

I'm as guilty as anyone. I remember how I used to collect comic books in my teens. Once, by accident, I got a drop of water on the cover of one particular comic. I flew into a rage because the water made a noticeable dot, marring the perfection of the cover. There was no question that I had to buy another copy - even though, like most teenagers, I was pretty much broke.

I never realized my folly as I grew older. My acquisitions changed from comic books to computer hardware and software, but my basic pattern remained the same: I had to have more and I didn't want to let any of it go.

That was the crucial key. I couldn't let go. I was a pack rat. I accumulated boxes full of stuff that I hadn't looked at or used in years. As time elapsed, I found myself unable to recall the contents of some boxes. I had forgotten much of what I owned; those boxes might as well not exist. And yet, I refused to dispose of them.

As the quantity of the items increased, my environment became more and more cluttered. I fought the encroaching chaos, but things never seemed to stay organized very long. This was one consequence of my inability to let go. Slowly but surely I was drowning myself in a flood of clutter.

I knew I had a problem, but I was powerless to change myself. I bought books and tapes on organization, but succeeded only in adding to the clutter with them. This was prior to my study of Tao philosophy, when I still didn't understand that I already had everything I needed within myself. I sought external solutions while sinking ever deeper into the quagmire.

When I read Ikkyu's story, something clicked. I wondered how the master reacted to the young monk's ploy to escape accountability. If he could not let go, then the incident would bring him much misery - anger at Ikkyu's carelessness and sadness about the loss of something so valuable. If he truly practiced what he preached, and saw clearly the similarity between the "life expectancy" of material objects and human life spans, he would be able to let go of the tea cup and accept the loss with perfect serenity.

To me, this connection between material possessions and the weighty issue of life and death was a new angle. It made me realize that, however difficult I found it to be to let things go, if I were to suddenly pass on for any reason, I would have no choice but to let everything go. No choice at all! This was a mighty sobering thought.

Nor was death the only thing that could separate us from our cherished belongings. Any disaster, major or minor, could do the job. If your house caught fire somehow, you would have no choice but to kiss most of your possessions good-bye.

This leads us to the next question: why wait? Why must we wait until we have no choice to learn to let go in a painful way? Why should we wait until the final moments on the deathbed, or perhaps the verge of a disaster, to gain clarity? Why do we not start letting go now?

I started to go through my boxes. I found many computers that were too old to run today's programs. I held on to them all these years for no sensible reason. I moved them from location to location, struggling against their collective weight, without realizing what I was doing. For all the utilities these old systems had for me, I might as well have dragged massive rocks from one place to another.

The clutter began to vanish from my life. I noticed that I had more energy in a clutter-free work environment. When clutter was present, the mind needed to tune them out. This required some mental energy - a relatively small amount, but a constant effort that, over an hour or two, would add up to quite a drain. I never suspected how much pressure this exerted on me until it suddenly went away, leaving me with a sense of tranquility and tremendous relief.

Finally I began to understand chapter 48 of Tao Te Ching:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss

Prior to understanding the Tao, I was in hot pursuit of knowledge. I acquired more and more material things, but none of it led to what I truly wanted. I ended up with clutter, which in turn led to stress and agitation. I put in a lot of extra effort but did not gain any significant benefits. I was the very opposite of Wu Wei.

Now, on the path of the Tao, I let go of more and more every day. The more I discard, the better I can utilize what's left. The more I simplify my life, the easier it is to attain serenity and peace of mind. The wisdom of Ikkyu's story is inextricably linked to the wisdom of Tao Te Ching.

Earlier this morning, I opened another box and found my collection of comic books, which I hadn't looked at in twenty years. I found myself no longer interested in their colorful depictions of fantasy. Instead, I wanted to work on my own reality so I could make it the colorful adventure it ought to be - an adventure of challenges, explorations, discoveries, personal connections and enlightenment.

The comic book with the damaged cover and its replacement were nowhere in sight, forever lost in the passage of time. I let them go. Reflecting back on the fanaticism to acquire in my teenage years, I had to laugh at myself.

Yes, I found amusement in my own foolish struggles over the years, my pointless zealotry of material acquisitions. I began to see why the ancient sages regarded the world with a twinkle in their eyes and a sly smile on their lips. In learning the life lesson of how to let go, humor is not only the best way to convey the teaching... it is also the reward of a lesson well learned!


The Tall Hat - by Derek Lin

In chapter 22 of Tao Te Ching, we find the following four lines about the behavior of a sage:

Without flaunting oneself - and so is seen clearly
Without presuming oneself - and so is distinguished
Without praising oneself - and so has merit
Without boasting about oneself - and so is lasting

In chapter 24, we find the same idea expressed with almost the exact same words:

The person who flaunts oneself is not seen clearly
The person who presumes oneself is not distinguished
The person who praises oneself has no merit
The person who boasts about oneself does not last

Given the overall brevity and terseness of the Tao Te Ching, this repetition is remarkable and interesting. It's a cue to us that this is an important lesson, so we should pay extra attention to it.

Many people may think that this is an easy lesson to master, since they do not see themselves as show-offs. They may be the shy type who do are not normally flaunting, presumptuous or boastful, so they feel they have nothing new to learn here. If we look just a little deeper though, we'll see that reality is not quite that simple, because the ego's need to elevate itself takes many subtle forms.

For instance, it is very easy for Tao practitioners to see themselves as head and shoulders above people who are ignorant of the Tao. Because Tao philosophy is more sophisticated, elegant and consistent than other belief systems, we tend to assume - without any other basis - that it makes us superior somehow. We are presumptuous even if we don't externalize it with words or actions. This is something most of us will recognize in our hearts, if we are brutally honest with ourselves.

Let me share a story with you that further illustrates the subtleties. It is an interesting tale having to do with tall hats - but probably not the kind you have in mind.

Our "tall hat" is a Chinese expression meaning flattery. In ancient China, headgear signified one's position in society. Government officials wore elaborate hats specific to their level of authority. Thus, giving someone the tall hat is to presume in him a high level of power, thereby flattering him.

The story took place back in the days when the emperor's government ran on the Confucian system. In that system, bureaucrats were chosen from the ranks of Confucian students based on their performance in an official exam.

Two students had done well in this exam and won government posts in a city far away. They were visiting with their teacher, to ask for his leave and also to solicit his advice, in accordance with the customs of the period.

The teacher told them: "In our society today, if you are too bluntly honest or too direct, you will surely encounter obstacles. So, when you interact with others, give them the tall hat and things will go much more smoothly."

"You are right, master," one of the students nodded in agreement. "As I look at the world today, I see very few people out there who dislike tall hats as you do."

The teacher was enormously pleased by this remark.

They continued to exchange a few more pleasantries, and then it was time for the students to leave. As soon as they got out of the teacher's house - and earshot - the student who spoke turned to his classmate and asked: "So, what do you think of the first tall hat I handed out?"

This story is rich with irony. The teacher lamented the common people's weakness for flattery without realizing that he himself was just as susceptible. Because he saw himself as being above other people, he became a prime target for the tall hat. His self-elevation above the masses was the very thing that lowered him back down to the same level.

The point of this story is especially important to those of us who are on the path of cultivation. If we feel superior for having learned the lesson of humility, well... we really haven't learned anything at all!

The teacher was the type of person who praised himself. In his mind, he was already convinced of his own virtues. He would never say it out loud, of course - that would be too obviously immodest. What he did not realize was that his internal self-praise was already obvious to the students. He was blind to a tailor-made tall hat, because it matched his own private thoughts exactly, and therefore passed right through his critical faculties.

Tao Te Ching tells us that such a person has no real merit, because his inflated self-image is based on insecurities rather than true capabilities. Someone who has not accomplished much tends to be quite eager for others to know everything about his little achievements. Conversely, someone who is truly accomplished probably doesn't have much interest in elevating himself, because his focus is on his work and not on self-promotion.

It seems to be a permanent part of human nature that we will always be able to see other people much more clearly than we can see ourselves. This is how we can perceive the lack of substance in a braggart, and the real value in someone who does much more than he or she claims. Slick talk and fancy footwork may obscure the truth for a while, but sooner or later we figure it out. This is why show-offs do not last.

Be cautious about your ego's tendency to position yourself too high, especially if you think the teaching from the two chapters is an easy lesson to master. The teacher from our story did not see himself as a show-off or braggart either, and yet he stood revealed as the very opposite of who he thought he was. There's a lot we can learn from his example!

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:05 AM)

A Brief History Of Taoism

Self conscious Taoism seems to have emerged about 300 BC but its roots stretch back much further in time - many thousands of years, in fact. As a growing philosophy Taoism was influenced by a number of strands of thought which were popular in China long before this time such as Ancestor Worship and Shamanism, and later Buddhism and Confucianism.

The common folk of ancient China held a strong belief in spirits and magic, and would have relied on shamans or holy-men to interpret and influence the unseen world; Carvings on bone and metal show that Ancestor Worship was common in China as long ago as the 11th century BC. Later, Buddhism arrived from India bringing with it a host of Gods, and as Confucianism began to emerge complex rituals were added to the mix.

These strands were constantly intermingling as China developed, and even today they are all followed to a greater or lesser extent. And all the while the more enlightened Chinese were training themselves with meditation and physical exercise such as martial arts, all of which looked to, and in turn influenced, the emerging philosophy that we now know as Taoism.

Eventually Taoism became a religion. This was a natural progression from the philosophy that had already developed, especially considering the popularity of the Buddhist Pantheon, and for some time Taoism was the State Religion of China. But this site is interested in the philosophy of Taoism, which stands separately from the religion, and has its basis today in the texts left over from ancient times. For more on Taoist religion, click here

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:05 AM)


The early Taoists combined their study of nature and their scientific approach to the world in the study of herbalism - by painstaking experimentation on themselves a huge body of lore was built up regarding the properties of different herbs. Today, that knowledge is one of the main parts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and herbs are often prescribed for a number of ailments. In the West the active components of herbs and other plants are often synthesised for use as medicine but in Chinese medicine the herbs are used whole, either powdered and taken in capsules or, more often, infused in water and drunk as tea. Herbs in their natural form are often less harmful than synthesised versions as chemicals will be present which can aid the main action of the herb and help the body deal with its effects, thus boosting effectiveness and minimising side effects.

Herbs are also used to supplement the diet to prevent disease and aid health, the most famous being Ginseng which is now widely available in the West. However, the Taoist approach is to make use of what is around us in the natural world, so modern Western Taoists often study the applications of herbalism with herbs that are more readily available to them. Thus, while Chinese herbs are used by trained Chinese practitioners, the body of Western herbalist lore is of great use to those without Chinese training.

Traditionally, in the West as well as in Ancient China, many herbs were used regularly to strengthen and tone the bodily systems. A group of herbs known now as alteratives and previously as 'blood cleansers' are of particular interest. In addition to any specific actions the alterative herbs, such as nettle and cleavers, have a general beneficial effect on all the bodys systems, a rather vague and diffuse assertion can only be understood from a wholistic viewpoint in which all aspects of health are related. Alteratives typically have a diuretic and cleansing action and many work on cleansing the kidneys or liver. They often have high vitamin or mineral content, and tonify the body at a basic level, helping the whole body by working on the vital systems. As digestion, elimination and circulation are strengthened and toxins are disposed of the whole body begins to move to a state of health.

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RE:The Way of the Taoist
(Date Posted:01/08/2009 07:06 AM)

Taoist & Meditation

The dictionary definition of meditation is 'to think about something deeply', and in essence this is what you are doing. Thinking about something in such a way as to block out all other sensory input. There is a lot of crossover between meditation and visualisation, though there are forms of meditation that do not involve the use of visual images, such as Tai Chi Chuan.

Taoist Meditation Methods

Taoist meditation methods have many points in common with Hindu and Buddhist systems, but the Taoist way is less abstract and far more down-to-earth than the contemplative traditions which evolved in India. The primary hallmark of Taoist meditation is the generation, transformation, and circulation of internal energy. Once the meditator has 'achieved energy' (deh-chee), it can be applied to promoting health and longevity, nurturing the 'spiritual embryo' of immortality, martial arts, healing, painting and poetry, sensual self-indulgence, or whatever else the adept wishes to do with it.

The two primary guidelines in Taoist meditation are jing ('quiet, stillness, calm') and ding ('concentration, focus'). The purpose of stillness, both mental and physical, is to turn attention inwards and cut off external sensory input, thereby muzzling the "Five Thieves". Within that silent stillness, one concentrates the mind and focuses attention, usually on the breath, in order to develop what is called 'one-pointed awareness', a totally undistracted, undisturbed, undifferentiated state of mind which permits intuitive insights to arise spontaneously.

Taoist masters suggest that when you first begin to practice meditation, you will find that your mind is very uncooperative. That's your ego, or 'emotional mind', fighting against its own extinction by the higher forces of spiritual awareness. The last thing your ego and emotions want is to be harnessed: they revel in the day-to-day circus of sensory entertainment and emotional turmoil, even though this game depletes your energy, degenerates your body, and exhausts your spirit. When you catch your mind drifting into fantasy or drawing attention away from internal alchemy to external phenomena, here are six ways you can use to 'catch the monkey', clarify the mind, and re-establish the internal focus: -

  • Shift attention back to the inflow and outflow of air streaming through the nostrils, or energy streaming in and out of a vital point, such as between the brows.
  • Focus attention on the rising and falling of the navel, the expansion and contraction of the abdomen, as you breathe.
  • With eyes half-closed, focus vision on a candle flame or a mandala (geometric meditation picture). Focus on the center of the flame or picture, but also take in the edges with peripheral vision. The concentration required to do this usually clears all other distractions from the mind.
  • Practice a few minutes of mantra, the 'sacred syllables' which harmonize energy and focus the mind. Though mantras are usually associated with Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist practices, Taoists have also employed them for many millennia. The three most effective syllables are 'Om', which stabilizes the body, 'ah', which harmonizes energy, and 'hum', which concentrates the spirit. 'Om' vibrates between the brows, 'ah' in the throat, and 'hum' in the heart, and their associated colors are white, red, and blue respectively. Chant the syllables in a deep, low-pitched tone and use long, complete exhalations for each one. Other mantras are equally effective.
  • Beat the 'Heavenly Drum' as a cool-down energy-collection technique. The vibrations tend to clear discursive thoughts and sensory distractions from the mind.
  • Visualize a deity or a sacred symbol of personal significance to you shining above the crown of your head or suspended in space before you. When your mind is once again still, stable, and undistracted, let the vision fade away and refocus your mind on whatever meditative technique you were practicing

Taoist meditation works on all three levels of the 'Three Treasures': essence (body), energy (breath), and spirit (mind).

  1. The first step is to adopt a comfortable posture for the body, balance your weight evenly, straighten the spine, and pay attention to physical sensations such as heat, cold, tingling, trembling, or whatever else arises.
  2. When your body is comfortable and balanced, shift attention to the second level, which is breath and energy. You may focus on the breath itself as it flows in and out of the lungs through the nostrils, or on energy streaming in and out of a particular point in tune with the breath.
  3. The third level is spirit: when the breath is regulated and energy is flowing smoothly through the channels, focus attention on thoughts and feelings forming and dissolving in your mind, awareness expanding and contracting with each breath, insights and inspirations arising spontaneously, visions and images appearing and disappearing. Eventually you may even be rewarded with intuitive flashes of insight regarding the ultimate nature of the mind: open and empty as space; clear and luminous as a cloudless sky at sunrise; infinite and unimpeded.

Just as all the rules of Chi Kung practice can be boiled down to the three Ss - slow, soft, smooth - so the main points of meditation practice may be summed up in the three Cs: calm, cool, clear. As for proper postures for practice, the two positions most frequently used in Taoist meditation are: -

        Sitting cross-legged on the floor in 'half-lotus position, with the
  elevated on  a cushion or pad. The advantages of this method are
       that this position is more stable and encourages
energy to flow
       upwards towards the brain.

Sitting erect on a low stool or chair, feet parallel and shoulder width apart, knees bent at a 90-degree angle, spine erect. The advantages of sitting on a stool are that the legs do not cramp, the soles of the feet are in direct contact with the energy of the earth, and internal energy tends to flow more freely throughout the lower as well as the upper torso.   

Most meditators who follow Taoist Meditation use both methods, depending on conditions. When sitting cross-legged, Western practitioners, whose legs tend to cramp more easily than Asians', are advised to sit on thick firm cushions, perhaps with a phone book or two underneath, in order to elevate the pelvis and take pressure off the legs and knees. This also helps keep the spine straight without straining the lower back.

The way the hands are placed is also important. The most natural and comfortable position is to rest the palms lightly on the thighs, just above the knees. However, some meditators find it more effective to use one of the traditional 'mudras', or hand gestures. Experiment with different combinations of posture and mudra until you find the style that suits you best.

Taoist meditation masters teach three basic ways to control the Fire mind of emotion with the Water mind of intent, so that the adept's goals in meditation may be realized.

        The first method is called 'stop and observe'. This involves paying
       close attention to how thoughts arise and fade in the mind, learning
       to let them pass like a freight train in the night, without clinging to
       any particular one. This develops awareness of the basic emptiness
       of all thought, as well as non-attachment to the rise and fall of
       emotional impulses. Gradually one learns simply to ignore the
       intrusion of discursive thoughts, at which point they cease arising
       for sheer lack of attention.

The second technique is called 'observe and imagine', which refers to visualization. The adept employs intent to visualize an image - such as Buddha, Jesus, a sacred symbol, the moon, a star, or whatever - in order to shift mental focus away from thoughts and emotions and stabilize the mind in one-pointed awareness. You may also visualize a particular energy center in your body, or listen to the real or imagined sound of a bell, gong, or cymbal ringing in your ears. The point of focus is not important: what counts is shifting the focus of your attention away from idle thoughts, conflicting emotions, fantasies, and other distracting antics of the 'monkey mind' and concentrating attention instead on a stable point of focus established by the mind of intent, or 'wisdom mind'.

The third step in cultivating control over your own mind is called 'using the mind of intent to guide energy'. When the emotional mind is calm and the breath is regulated, focus attention on the internal energy. Learn how to guide it through the meridian network in order to energize vital organs, raise energy from the sacrum to the head to nourish the spirit and brain, and exchange stale energy for fresh energy from the external sources of heaven (sky) and earth (ground). Begin by focusing attention on the Lower Elixir Field below the abdomen, then moving energy from there down to the perineum, up through the coccyx, and up along the spinal centers into the head, after which attention shifts to the Upper Elixir Field between the brows. Though this sounds rather vague and esoteric to the uninitiated, a few months of practice, especially in conjunction with Chi Kung and proper dietary habits, usually suffices to unveil the swirling world of energy and awareness hidden within our bodies and minds. All you have to do is sit still and shut up long enough for your mind to become aware of it.

It's always a good idea to warm up your body and open your energy channels with some Chi Kung exercises before you sit down to meditate. This facilitates internal energy circulation and enables you to sit for longer periods without getting stiff or numb. After sitting, you should avoid bathing for at least twenty minutes in order to prevent loss of energy through open pores and energy points. If you live in the northern hemisphere, it's best to sit facing south or east, in the general direction of the sun; in the southern hemisphere, sit facing north or east.

Some Meditation Techniques Useful for the Beginner

Breath and Naval Meditation

Breath and Navel Meditation is the oldest meditation method on record in China as well as India, and it is the method usually taught to beginners. Breath and Navel Meditation works directly with the natural flow of breath in the nostrils and the expansion and contraction of the abdomen. This Taoist meditation is a good way to develop focused attention and one-pointed awareness.


  1. Sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor or upright on a low stool and adjust the body's posture until well balanced and comfortable. Press tongue to palate, close your mouth without clenching the teeth, and lower the eyelids until almost closed.
  2. Breathe naturally through the nose, drawing the inhalation deep down into the abdomen and making the exhalation long and smooth. Focus your attention on two sensations, one above and the other below. Above, focus on the gentle breeze of air flowing in and out of the nostrils like a bellows, and on exhalation try to 'follow' the breath out as far as possible, from 3 to 18 inches. Below, focus on the navel rising and falling and the entire abdomen expanding and contracting like a balloon with each inhalation and exhalation. You may focus attention on the nostrils or the abdomen, or on both, or on one and then the other, whichever suits you best.

From time to time, mentally check your posture and adjust it if necessary. Whenever you catch your mind wandering off or getting cluttered with thoughts, consciously shift your attention back to your breath. Sometimes it helps to count either inhalations or exhalations, until your mind is stably focused. If you manage to achieve stability in this method after ten to twenty minutes of practice, you may wish to switch over to one of the other two methods given below. All three of these methods may be practiced in a single sitting in the order that they are presented here, or in separate sittings.

Time: Twenty to thirty minutes, once or twice a day.

Central Channel Meditation

This is an ancient Taoist method modified and taught by Master Han Yu-mo at his Sung Yang Tao Centers in Taiwan and Canada. It is a simple and effective way for beginners rapidly to develop a tangible awareness of internal energy and a familiarity with the major power points through which energy is circulated and exchanged with the surrounding sources of heaven and earth. It relaxes the body, replenishes energy, and invigorates the spirit.


  1. Adopt a comfortable sitting posture.
  2. First, take a deep breath and bend forward slowly, exhaling audibly through the mouth in order to expel stale breath from the lungs; repeat three times.
  3. Then sit still and breathe naturally, letting the abdomen expand and contract with each breath. However, instead of focusing attention on the flow of air through the nostrils, focus on the beam of energy entering the crown of the head at a point about two inches above the hairline, called the 'Medicine Palace'. Feel the beam of energy flowing in through this point as you begin each inhalation and follow it down through the Central Channel into the Lower Elixir Field below the navel, then follow it back up the Central Channel and out through the Medicine Palace point on exhalation. The sensation at the crown point is most noticeable at the beginning of inhalation and the end of exhalation and feels somewhat like a flap or valve opening and closing as energy flows through it. There may also be feelings of warmth, tingling, or numbness in the scalp, all of which are signs of energy moving under the scrutiny of awareness.

After practicing this method for a few weeks or months and developing a conscious feel for energy as it moves through the Medicine Palace point, you may start to work with other points of exit during exhalation, always drawing energy in through the crown point on inhalation. For example, you may bring energy in through the crown and down to the abdomen on inhalation, then push it back up and out through the 'Celestial Eye' point between the brows. This point usually brings rapid results - a distinct tingling or throbbing sensation between the brows. The Celestial Eye is the point through which adepts with 'psychic vision' perceive aspects of the world that are hidden to ordinary eyesight. The mass of magnetite crystals between the forehead and the pituitary gland is sensitive to subtle fluctuations in surrounding electromagnetic fields. In other words, psychic vision perceives by virtue of its sensitivity to electromagnetic energy rather than the light or sound energy perceived by eyes and ears. So-called 'psychics' are those who have learned how to interpret the electromagnetic signals from the magnetic organ between the eyes in terms of ordinary perception and rational thought.

In addition to the brow point, you may also practice expelling energy on exhalation through the points in the centers of the palms, the centers of the soles, and the perineum point midway between genitals and anus. In each case, look for sensations of warmth or tingling at the point of exit.

After practicing this method for a while, your head may start to rock spontaneously back and forth or from side to side after fifteen or twenty minutes of sitting, or else your entire body may start trembling and shaking. This is a good sign, for it means that your channels are opening and that energy is coursing strongly through them. Try neither to suppress nor encourage these spontaneous tremors; instead just let them run their course naturally.

Time: Twenty to forty minutes, once or twice a day, preferably around dawn and midnight.

Microcosmic Orbit Meditation

This is the classic Taoist meditation method for refining, raising, and circulating internal energy via the 'orbit' formed by the 'Governing Channel' from perineum up to head and the Conception Channel from head back down to perineum. Activating the Microcosmic Orbit is a key step that leads to more advanced practices. Taoists believe that microcosmic orbit meditation fills the reservoirs of the Governing and Conception channels with energy, which is then distributed to all the major organ-energy meridians, thereby energizing the internal organs. It draws abundant energy up from the sacrum into the brain, thereby enhancing cerebral circulation of blood and stimulating secretions of vital neurochemicals. It is also the first stage for cultivating the 'spiritual embryo' or 'golden elixir' of immortality, a process that begins in the lower abdomen and culminates in the mid-brain. This is probably the best of all Taoist methods for cultivating health and longevity while also 'opening the three passes' to higher spiritual awareness.

Taoists often refer things in symbolic languages. (See the section on Human anatomy from the Taoist perspective for a description of the symbolism used in referring to the human anatomy.) 'Opening the Three Passes' is another name for this meditation method and refers to the three critical junctions which pave the way for energy to travel up from the sacrum through the Governing Channel along the spine into the head.


  1. The first step is to still the body, calm the mind, and regulate the breath. With this settled mind, sit alone in a quiet room, senses shut and eyelids lowered. Turn your attention within, and inwardly visualize a pocket of energy in the umbilical region; within it is a point of golden light, clear and bright, immaculately pure. Focus attention on the navel until you feel the 'pocket of energy' glowing in the umbilical region. The breath through your nose will naturally become light and subtle, going out and in evenly and finely, continuously and quietly, gradually becoming slighter and subtler. When the feeling is stable and the energy there is full, use your mind to guide energy down to the perineum and back up through the aperture in the coccyx.

    Steadily visualize this true energy as being like a small snake gradually passing through the nine apertures of the coccyx. When you feel the energy has gone through this pass, visualize this true energy rising up to where the ribs meet the spine, then going through this pass and right on up to the Jade Pillow, the back of the brain.

    Then imagine your true spirit in the Nirvana Chamber in the center of the brain, taking in the energy. When this true energy goes through the Jade Pillow, press the tongue against the palate. The head should move forward and tilt slightly upwards to help it. When you feel this true energy penetrating the Nirvana Chamber, this may feel hot or swollen. This means the pass has been cleared and the energy has reached the Nirvana Center.

  2. Next, focus attention on the Celestial Eye between the eyebrows and draw energy forwards from the midbrain and out through the point between the brows. This may cause a tingling or throbbing sensation there. Then the center of the brows will throb - this means the Celestial Eye is about to open. Then move the spirit into the center of the brows and draw the true energy through the Celestial Eye. If you see the eighteen thousand pores and three hundred and sixty joints of the whole body explode open all at once, each joint parting three-tenths of an inch, this is evidence of the opening of the Celestial Eye.

    This is what is meant when it is said that when one pass opens all the passes open, and when one opening is cleared all the openings are cleared.

    You may wish to stay and work with this point for a few minutes, before letting energy sink down through the palate and tongue into the throat to the heart. This may feel as though there is cool water going down the Multistoried Tower of the windpipe. Do not swallow; let it go down by itself, bathing the bronchial tubes.

    Then the vital energy will bathe the internal organs and then return to the genitals. This is what is called return to the root.

    From the heart, draw it down through the Middle Elixir Field in the solar plexus, past the navel, and down into the Ocean of Energy reservoir in the Lower Elixir Field, where energy gathers, mixes, and is reserved for internal circulation. Then begin another cycle up through the coccyx to the mid-spine behind the heart and up past the Jade Pillow into the brain.

  3. Breathe naturally with your abdomen, and don't worry whether energy moves up or down on inhalation or exhalation; coordinate the flow of breath and energy in whatever manner suits you best. However, if you reach the stage where you can complete a full Microcosmic Orbit in a single breath, it's best to raise energy up from coccyx to head on exhalation and draw it down from Upper to Lower Elixir Field on inhalation.

If you practice this way for a long time, eventually you can complete a whole cycle of ascent and descent in one visualization. If you can quietly practice this inner work continuously, whether walking, standing still, sitting, or lying down, then the vital energy will circulate within, and there will naturally be no problem of leakage. Chronic physical ailments, Taoists believe, will naturally disappear.

Also, once the inner energy is circulating, the breath will naturally become fine, and the true positive energy of heaven and earth will be inhaled by way of the breath and go down to join your own generative energy. The two energies will mix together, both to be circulated by you together, descending and ascending over and over, circulating up and down to replenish the depleted true energy in your body.

This true energy harmonises and reforms, so that the vital fluids produced by the energy of daily life again produce true vitality. When true vitality is fully developed, it naturally produces true energy, and when true energy is fully developed it naturally produces our true spirit.

If you have any physical problems or discomforts in a particular section of your body, focus your energy at the pass closest to the discomfort and let it throb there for a while. This will help heal and rejuvenate the injured tissues. For example, if you have pelvic problems, focus energy on the coccyx pass; for lower-back pain focus on the lowest lumbar vertebra just above the sacrum; for upper-back and shoulder pain focus on the fifth thoracic vertebra, and so forth.

This meditation may also cause the head to rock or the body to tremble, which, Taoists believe, are signs of progress.

Time: Thirty to forty-five minutes, once or twice a day.

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