Definition of Tao

  • 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.)
  • Proper action does not come about from explicit propositional knowledge or rules of action; proper action comes from intuition.

Story of the Cook and the Tao

A prince admired the skill of his cook. The cook replied: ‘What your servant loves is the Tao, which I have applied to the skill of carving. when I first began to cut up bullocks, what i saw was simply whole bullocks. After three years’ practice, I saw no more bullocks as wholes. Now, I work with my mind, not with my eyes. the functions of my senses stop; my spirit dominates. Following the natural markings, my chopper slips through the great cavities, slides through the great cleavages, taking advantage of the structure that is already there. My skill is now such that my chopper never touches even the smallest tendon or ligament, let alone the great bones. . . . At the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of the chopper is without thickness.

Lao Tzu (604-531 B.C.E.)

“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.”

  • Perhaps a mythological figure
  • ƒ Was reputed to be the keeper of the archives at the Imperial Court
  • ƒ Saddened at the lack of natural goodness in humans, he left for Tibet
    Lao Tzu
    Lao Tzu
  • ƒ At the border, he was asked by a guard how to lead a good life. The result was the writing of the central text of Taoism, Tao Te Ching. (The Way and its Power)

His Philosophy

  • Human influence creates unnatural action (wei) by shaping desires (yu)
  • ƒ In a sense, saw humans as a blight on a perfect order
  • ƒ Skeptical of our abilities to perceive and see the natural order of things
  • Existential skepticism
    • “What is man’s life for? What pleasure is there in it? Is it for beauty and riches? Is it for sound and colour? But there comes a time when beauty and riches no longer answer the needs of the heart, and when a surfeit of sound and colour becomes a weariness to the eyes and a ringing in the ears.” –Yang Chu
  • Tranquility=Tao (The Way)
  • All Striving/Action are in Vain, Counterproductive
    • One should endeavor to do nothing (wu-wei)
    • When we act with spontaneity, we are acting in accordance with The Way. Doing nothing means following the shape and flow of things and to not pit oneself against the natural flow of things.
    • By “doing nothing”, one could accomplish everything The Tao abides in non-action, Yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, The ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act, They would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form there is no desire. Without desire there is tranquillity. In this way all things would be at peace. –Lao Tzu
  • Rejection of Confucian belief that we can regulate and control life.

Chuang Tzu (399 B.C.E.-295 B.C.E.)

  • Self Transformation as central to Taoism
  • Seeking Wealth and Glory are vain follies
    • “Do the heaven’s revolve? Does the earth stand still? Do the sun and the moon contend for their positions? Who has the time to keep them all moving? Is there some mechanical device that keeps them going automatically? Or do they merely continue to revolve, inevitably, of their own inertia? “Do the clouds make rain? Or is it the rain that makes the clouds? What makes it descend so copiously? Who is it that has the leisure to devote himself, with such abandoned glee, to making these things happen?”
  • Reality and Appearance are Often Interchangeable/Indistinguishable
    • “Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with
      A Butterfly? A Man?
      A Butterfly? A Man?

      myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.

  • Yin/Yang
    • Balance of Opposites in the Universe “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.”
    • Humans tend to unbalance Yin/Yang

Additional Resources


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