TAOISM IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Taoism is one of the three great religions of China, along with Buddhism and Confucianism. It is a religion and philosophy that grew up in the warring States period that preceded the first unification of Chine under the Qin Dynasty in 221BC. Its origins may go back several centuries before that. It gathers both folk wisdom and high philosophy into a culture of naturalness.
There were two major intellectual reactions to the turbulence of those early times. One was Confucianism, which tried to teach rulers how to govern in a more civilised way. the other was Taoism which tried to show people how to survive in the midst of such difficulties.
It is thus originally a philosophy for survival in difficult times. As times improved, its principles were extended into a quest for longevity and it became associated with healing and with alchemy, the latter being, in large measure, an early form of pharmaceutical investigation. As a general theme, therefore, it is interesting to see how philosophies that begin as recipes for the noble life gradually transform into quasi-medical systems for the remedy of common ailments and anxieties. We see similar things happening today as Buddhism changes into mindfulness and as the main presence of Taoism in Western cities is found in an interest in Chinese medicine.
However, Taoism, being based upon local associations of peasants, also had a social engagement aspect. The Qin was succeeded by the Han Dynasty which did adopt Confucianism as its guiding principle and during the Later Han period there were a series of rebellions against the social order and these were inspired by Taoist ideas. One such was briefly successful in establishing a theocratic state in Western China for a time, led by leaders called “Celestial Masters”. Contemporary Taoist orders trace their origins from this time, often claiming direct decent from these early groups. Modern anarchist movements and writers have often drawn inspiration from Taoism.
TAO TE CHING AND LAO TZU
Here I am, however, mostly concerned with the earliest philosophy, especially as found in the Tao Te Ching. The TTC is a book of short chapters, supposedly written by Lao Tzu. The term Lao Tzu literally means “the ancient child” and it is quite possible that the term originally referred to a genre of literature from diverse sources, yet with common themes. However, the name Lao Tzu has become associated with two stories of a sage in ancient China. One of these stories is of an encounter between Lao Tzu and Confucius.
<<Confucius once went to Zhou wanting to ask Laozi about the rites. Laozi replied: "As for the things you are talking about - those people along with their bones have already rotted away! All that remains is their words. Moreover, if the gentleman lives at the right time he rides in the carriage of an official; if he does not, then he moves about like a tumbleweed blown by the wind.
I have heard it said that the good merchant has a well-stocked warehouse that appears to be empty; and the gentleman, though overflowing in virtue, gives the appearance of being a fool.
Rid yourself of your arrogant manner, your many desires, your pretentious demeanor and unbridled ambition. None of these is good for your health. What I have to tell you is this, nothing more."
Confucius left and said to his disciples, "As for birds, I understand how they can fly; with fish, I understand how they can swim; and with animals, I understand how they can run. To catch things that run, we can make nets; to catch things that swim, we can make lines; and to get things that fly, we can make arrows. But when it comes to dragons, I cannot understand how they ascend into the sky riding the wind and the clouds. Today I met Laozi, and he's just like a dragon!”.
The other story tells us that Lao Tzu was a state official in Zhou, one of the Warring States, an archivist, and that he decided to leave the world. One sees statues of him riding an oxen. When he got to the border, the guard asked him to stay a while and write his wisdom down which he did. The Tao Te Ching is, supposedly, the result.
TE AND TAO
Taoism has a distinctive metaphysic and an equally distinctive ethic. The metaphysic centres upon the Tao and the ethic upon Te, hence Tao Te Ching - the book of Tao and Te. Recent excavations of tombs suggest that it might originally have been the book of Te and Tao, as copies have been found bound the other way round.
So what is Te and what is Tao and how do they relate to one another? Te is virtue, in the broad sense of the term. Thus, one might say that the virtue of oak is that it can be made into very fine furniture. I hope that this illustration gives us some hint of the Taoist sense of the term. Te is not virtue in the sense of following social rules - almost the opposite. Te is the virtue given to things by their natural qualities and characteristics. The principle injunction of Te is, therefore, that one should be true to one’s nature, which is also taken to mean harmonising with Nature in general. Nature is characterised by the alternating and complementary tendencies of yin and yang, which are the result of the interaction of Heaven and Earth. Heaven is yang and earth is yin. Heaven and Earth, in turn, follow Tao, which is both the primordial source of everything and also the active principle animating the unfolding of the cosmos. Thus Tao and Nature are very closely aligned.
In an important sense, Taoist philosophy is not humanistic. In Nature, man has no special status or privilege. The volcano and the tsunami are ruthless. Heaven and earth are ruthless. Therefore, in a sense, the sage is ruthless. However, he is not ruthless in the pursuit of personal gain or benefit. In fact, the sage follows the example of water.
Water always chooses and seeks the lowest place. It is flexible and yielding. Yet it ends up being the most powerful thing, gradually washing away mountains. It is also the substance that benefits all life. The ruthlessness of the sage is an absence of partiality. There is here a principle of equalisation.
The sage liberates all beings because he has no reason not to do so. His thoughts, words and deeds are so much in harmony with Nature that he does not set up waves of resistance. He is not actively trying to save or liberate, but this is the natural consequence of his way of being. Even when bad things happen, he is not dismayed because he has no personal investment in them being otherwise, or, insofar as he might, he nonetheless values the Tao more.
WEI WU WEI
In TTC, the ethic of Tao is closely associated with the Chinese idea of the feminine. The Tao is sometimes thought of as Mother Earth, Demeter. Like water, the feminine is the retiring yet life giving aspect. These ideas are quite different from modern feminism. The Taoist ideal is humility and modesty. When there is something to be done that requires vigour and assertion - yang characteristics - the sage rises to it, but as soon as possible returns to the yin role. If the emperor needs advice, the sage may go to court, but as soon as possible he goes back to his cabbage patch.
There is a strong strain of iconoclasm and irony in Taoism. Its mythical heroes are called Immortals, but these immortals are not Olympian. They play tricks on the gods. They enjoy wine and good conversation. They act in unconventional ways and have no qualms about wandering round naked or dancing in the street.
The first principle of Te is wei wu wei. This means “to act without acting”. This is a play upon the two meanings of acting (in Chinese as well as in English). It means to do the deed without putting on airs, to behave naturally, not as if one were on stage.
“The perfect man ignores self; the divine man ignores achievement; the true Sage ignores reputation.” (Chuang Tzu).
Do nothing against nature. Thus, plain honesty and simple life. In the Taoist view, a swallow’s nest is better made and more admirable than that of a universal emperor.
Nonetheless, Taoism is an inspiration for the arts and crafts. It honours skilfulness, usefulness and beauty. Be skilful, useful and beautiful in your natural way and make useful and beautiful things skilfully using natural resources. Similarly in human relations, be skilful, useful, beautiful and natural. This is the way of Tao. Yet, Tao also values the virtues of uselessness. The gnarled old tree might be left to grow old when the fine straight growing ones are all cut down. There is a virtue in everything, but only the wise can see it.
So, Taoism favours naturalness, accepts the vicissitudes of the seasons and fortune, avoids all kinds of pretentiousness, and keeps to simplicity. It thus dignifies ordinary things, yet cultivates fine arts. It has inspired anarchist thought and action, yet finds value in everything. It has a sense of humour and appreciates the many ironies of life.