Regardless of attempts to define, label, and categorize Taoism, scholars throughout history have found this a difficult task. It can essentially be viewed as three separate yet conjoined entities: the philosophy, the religion, and the Taoist Immortality Cults. Although each of these three are interesting and noteworthy in their own right, I will deal solely with the philosophy or humanism of Taoism. Throughout the following, I intend to provide summary and explanation on several aspects of Taoist thought that I found most informative and telling of "The Way".
To begin with, I would like to offer my understanding of Tao. It is the course of nature and the universe that is unalterable through human efforts. One comes to understanding of Tao through the use of examples seen in nature. The 'organic pattern' (Watts, 49), known as li, is the principle of order to the course of nature and the universe (Tao) .Li then is a pattern that nature and the universe follow. As Watts states, "Li is the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the scattering of pebbles on beach sand" (page 46). The universe as a whole is then seen as a "harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other" (Watts, 51) .Essentially, this breaks down to three points. First, that the Tao is the course or "way" of nature and the universe. Second, this course has an order called li. Li consists of patterns in nature. An example of one such pattern is the flow of water while another would be simply the scattering of sand on a beach. Lastly, all of these patterns found in nature form an interdependent relationship in order to exist. The sea crashes and, erodes the rock that becomes the sand.
As I stated earlier, my emphasis for this paper will be on Taoist philosophy. Hoff sees it as "simply a particular way of appreciating, learning from, and working with whatever happens in everyday life" (page 5). From this perspective, much can be gained by studying such a thought process. By appreciating life and all of its twists and turns, a serenity and happiness can be achieved that before may have seemed impossible. By swimming with the current instead of against it, progress and happiness are reached through minimal effort. It is only when one goes against the current (namely by trying to alter li) that harmony diminishes. Through forcing change instead of accepting life's circumstances, more trouble is created. Conversely, by working in harmony with the circumstances that life gives us, Taoist understanding turns negatives into positives. Having a mind that is appreciative of the life granted to it is essential to this philosophy and allows for such a margin of happiness despite life's difficult moments (page 6).
The first principle of much importance I would like to cover is P'u, the Uncarved Block. This point rests in the idea that things in their original, simplistic state contain their own natural power. This power is easily ruined through attempts to manipulate or change the existing natural state of things (Hoff, page 10) .Of course, the principle applies to humanity as well as the whole of creation. The idea is to have a calm and reflective mind rooted in simplicity. If life is spent in the pursuit of knowledge in order to appear clever or wise, this is a waste of the opportunities allotted us. Additionally, if life is lived constantly complaining, happiness and progress are averted. Instead, Taoist philosophy states that by appreciating and working with this shared simplicity, very useful wisdom will be discovered. Therefore, the nature of the Uncarved Block is just to be. By not tampering with the self but by instead just being (allowing the simplicity of life to stay intact), one comes to the realization that life is fun (Hoff, page 20). Concern with the material, arrogance, and complexity all end up being the enemies of the Uncarved Block, because they spoil the intrinsic simplicity of the human being.
The next concept of Taoist philosophy is what Hoff
calls "Inner Nature" (page 41) .Just as the Uncarved Block is quite difficult
to put into words, so is the idea of Inner Nature. It essentially consists
of knowing and respecting the fact everything has its place and correct
function. The key to Inner
Nature is to understand your own place and function in everyday life. As Hoff points out, many people are stuck in the wrong job, marriage, or house. Eventually, when they realize this, they will grow to find that their own place and function lies somewhere else than where they are currently. Respecting one's own Inner Nature leads to knowing where you do and do not belong.
Another aspect of this concept is that one must know their personal limitations. If you have never swum before, it is probably foolish to think you could swim the English Channel. That would most likely end in injury or worse. The end result would be the causing of great trouble for the self when such an issue was easily avertable. Your folly may bring difficulty for those important to you. Although one must accept personal shortcomings, this does not mean that one should stop changing or attempting to better the self. If you accept the fact that you have weak muscles, you can begin by working out to increase strength. That would be the logical step. The foolish step would be to begin by trying to bench press two hundred and fifty pounds on your first day. By listening to one's Inner Nature, we begin to understand limitations. This is an act of the wise. By ignoring limitations, one acts the fool.
When one pays attention to Inner Nature, one understands limitations. Once this is done, you can work with the shortcomings instead of allowing them to work against you and get in the way (Hoff, page 49). Ignoring weakness guarantees that it will get in your way. By recognizing limitations, they in turn become strengths. Furthermore, Taoism teaches that Inner Nature cannot be fooled. Unfortunately, most people do not listen to Inner Nature. The consequence is that they do not ever really grow to understand themselves. Without this understanding, it is difficult to have much respect for the self as well. As a result, those around them easily influence those people who ignore their Inner Nature (Hoff, page 57). If one must notice their limitations, they must also recognize what makes them special. Within the ugly duckling is the swan.
The next aspect of Taoist philosophy is Wu Wei. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without doing, causing, or making" (Hoff, 68) .The practical application of the concept is the idea of no monkeying around. One is not to go against the nature of things through tampering. When one learns how to work with Inner Nature and with the natural patterns around us (li), the level of Wu Wei is accomplished. By working with the natural path and pattern of life, one in turn operates on the principle of minimal effort (Hoff, 69) .The natural world does not make mistakes because it functions on this principle. This becomes the premise for Wu wei. Thinking too much and trying too hard then become the enemies of enlightenment in Taoist thought. They are the surest ways to become confused and frustrated by life. The example Hoff gives is that animals do not think too much; they just are (77) .By avoiding over-thinking and tampering, things are allowed to happen the "right way at the right time" (80). Even though you may not get how it happens at that exact moment, later on one may look back and see that success came from allowing it to happen, not by making it happen. Furthermore, one may also discover that it could not even have turned out better if they had really tried to meddle. The whole plan would have been ruined instead of benefited. Taoist philosophers believe that at its highest level Wu Wei is a reflex action then. These, lessons progress until one no longer even puts his thoughts to meddling. The reflex is to allow events to unfold on their own. The end result is no longer as important as the process.
The last aspect of this amazing philosophy I will examine is the 'Great Nothing' (Hoff, 143). This concept lies in seeing that nothing is something. To follow the Way, one must "go nowhere and do nothing" and "start from no point and follow no road" (Hoff, 143). A way of explaining it would be to say that while the empty mind is enjoying the bird's song, the over-thinking mind wonders what kind of bird it is, missing the beautiful sounds. In the forty-eighth chapter of Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse wrote 'To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things everyday' (Hoff, 149). In this "Great Nothing" is the Way and the source of all creation according to Taoist thought. To attain wisdom and the Way, the mind must be cleared of all pre-conceived notions and views.
Through researching and analyzing Taoist philosophy, I have come to a greater understanding of the culture as a whole. The ideas and views espoused by such wise men just seem to make sense. The simplicity and acceptance of circumstances that goes along with the philosophy is refreshing and admirable compared to the Western views I grew up with. As simplistic and straightforward as it is, Taoism evokes deep thought and contemplation from the student.
Creel, Herrlee G. What is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao of Pooh. Dutton, New York, 1982.
Pas, Julian F, Leung, Man Kam. Historical Dictionary of Taoism. The Scarecrow Press, London, 1998.
Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. Pantheon Books, New York, 1975.
Welch, Holmes. Taoism The Partini! of the Way. Beacon Press, 1957.
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