A gentleman known as Lao Tzu fathered Taoism, a philosophy from the East. Little is known of Lao Tzu beyond his book of writings entitled Tao Te Ching [Book of the Way and its Power] that he is famous for. According to legend, he was born about 604 B.C.E. (making him a contemporary of Confucius). He was a palace archivist and secretary for the court of Zhou at Louyang. As the story goes, when he chose to leave society behind, the keeper of the mountain pass that Lao Tzu was entering asked him to write his wisdom down. The result of this exercise was the aforementioned Tao-te Ching. His wisdom was later elaborated upon and modified by Chuang Tzu, a government official who lived 369 to 286 B.C.E. Many people have come to understand Taoism through Lao Tzu’s writings and Chuang Tzu’s broad interpretation. Taoism is a radical departure from the philosophical and religious traditions we in the West are more familiar with. Western society has a far different perspective of the concepts of language and the duty and place of human beings in the world. In contrast to the perspective of Westerners, Taoism embraces a holistic view of the universe and all that inhabits it.
Taoism refers to a set of ancient Chinese metaphysical understandings. It advocates the concept that all things stem from the same place, from one essence, one ultimate — the Tao. Since all of nature emerges from one place, all natural things are part of one whole. The bad and good, ocean and sky, and light and dark all unify in Taoism. Chuang Tzu describes this concept as a person who is able to “embrace the ten thousand things and roll them into one” (Chuang Tzu). He is referring to a person who’s able to understand the unifying force and interconnectedness of all things. According to Taoism, all things and all that happens are matters of change and circumstance stemming from one source. Although some persons consider Taoism a religion, I counter that it really isn’t. In my understanding, Taoism is a philosophy that can be compatible with most religions if so desired, however it can stand on its own.
To understand a new concept, we often use the mental process of contrasting the new concept with its opposite. In some fashion, opposites are necessary in order for other things to exist. Opposites also serve to assist us in developing an understanding. It’s partly because of this that we can’t divorce one thing from another thing. The idea that all things are a part of the same whole can be extended to connote that nothing is unacceptable. The concepts of good and evil, as we in the West understand them, don’t really exist according to Taoism.
We humans generally like to name and label things, thereby differentiating one thing from another. We depend on these labels and labels to distinguish things and to hopefully assist us in effectively communicating these differentiations to others. We use these basic concepts as building blocks to achieve comprehension. Yet, as useful as these concepts and the associated terminology may be, Taoists teach that such concepts and language are actually a trap and can distract us from understanding.
This inability to fully understand is a problem that occurs on multiple levels. One example of this problem is evident when two different groups of people, groups that may be disparate from one another, use the same word to denote two different things or approaches to the same thing. The word Tao, for example, means way, but does not mean the same thing in all philosophies and religions that use the concept. For Confucians, Tao is the achievement of a life properly conducted. This is a life of morality, ritual adherence, and respect for one’s elders. They understand Tao as the culmination and fulfillment of something. In contrast, Taoists understand Tao as more than this; it is, quite simply, everything. Tao, for the Taoist, is the foundation of everything: nature, people, and the entire universe. To Taoists, humans are also the result of the Tao. In contrast, Confucians perceive that Tao is the result of us. The aim of the Taoist’s view of Tao is to have everyone realize that we are all a part of the same universe. In essence, we are all in it together — humans, animals, trees, air, and even that bottle of Advil that may be on your bedside table.
The opening line of Lao Tzu’s famous collection of writings points out yet another difficulty that exists in regards to language use. “The Tao that can be told (named, spoken) is not the eternal Tao” (Tzu Lao, 1988). Words are not enough. Words are inadequate and misleading in attempting to describe something such as the concept of the ultimate. Consider how you describe one person to another. We can dish up a seemingly bottomless well of information about that person, but in the end, no matter how much detail is put forth, there will always be something missing. The description will be inadequate and misleading. Perhaps understanding is unique, something that can only be experienced by one person and not another. The understanding may be a unique impression that only one soul can have. Its essentialness, it can be argued, cannot be put into adequate description for the benefit of others. Perhaps that elusive something is a detail that’s slipped our minds or something we never even knew. In any event, whatever description is given, it is inadequate for the provision of sufficient understanding. The description will be misleading, since missing information results in misleading assumptions.
The same principle underlies the previous quotation with there being no words out there that adequately describe the ultimate. Whatever words I’m using here, for example, don’t really amount to a hill of beans. I could spew forth until I’m blue in the face about the Tao, but in the end it’s still not the Tao. If that explanation seems inadequate, well sorry but it’s supposed to be. It can’t be anything else. That is the nature of the Tao. I can’t tell you what it is — no one can. Actually, no one even should tell you. In the end, you will have to understand the concept in your own unique way.
Labels and descriptions are a trap and a distraction; even the process of labelling itself is a snare. Not only do the descriptions and labels themselves fall short of sufficiency, but a person can also get caught up in the process of labelling. The labeller could become lost in trying to find just the right words or enough words to provide a description that they find satisfying. This process of naming and the inadequacy of names distracts us from comprehending what we are trying to describe. The weakness of the understanding is particular evident when a listener might have a different understanding of the labels used by the person offering the description.
Chuang Tzu advocated the abandoning of words. This is one of the most significant Taoist concepts, one whose significance is very apparent when put into context with the inadequacy of language. For Chuang Tzu, what is most important is that a person must experience the Tao directly, not depending on anything that might have been used to describe it. In fact, one could not directly experience the Tao at all if one merely depends on descriptors. The Tao must be felt to be known. “Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.” (Chuang Tzu)
“More words count less.” (Tao Te Ching)
Language is just one of the things that can impede our connection with, and understanding of, the Tao, as the interconnectedness of all things. Language is understood by many as the one thing that sets us apart from all other creatures, the one thing that truly defines what being human is. But perhaps, as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu both seem to be telling us, it is also the one thing that keeps us from realizing our connection with the Tao, and our sameness with all of the rest of creation. The one thing we tend to most depend on is perhaps the one thing we most need to abandon in order to really comprehend what’s around us.
The tenets of Taoism that I personally take most to heart are that we should be prudent, patient, detached, and allow nature to take its course (particularly without undue interference from us). By detached, I don’t mean you should be unfeeling or aloof, instead I mean not allowing undue passions to unduly control or distort your thinking. The idea that this too shall pass has become dear to me and it is a concept that is very harmonious with Taoism. I no longer sweat the small stuff. Being detached, for me, has meant realizing that flying off my nut about things is largely a waste of energy that could be better put to other uses. I realize now that most things really aren’t worth getting into a fit about.
Taoism extends beyond this inadequate description of my understanding. If you’re interested in further journeys along this way, you might want to pick up a copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. You may also wish to learn about Zen, as there are many concepts Zen shares with Taoism. You may wish to explore the DailyZen website (http://www.dailyzen.com). The following Wikipedia articles are also great starting points on your quest for understanding:
Zen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen), and
Tzu, Lao (1988). Tao-te ching. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. 1st edition. New York: HarperCollins.
Chaung Tzu (1996). Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson, 1996. New York: Columbia University Press.