Taoism

Show #516 on Sunday, September 2, was a response to two items of viewer mail that the TV list received. Jeremy wrote initially to say he is a “religious atheist,” which he described as adhering to a secularized Taoism (pronounced Daoism). Within one week’s time another piece of mail came through addressing the issue of “where do atheists get meaning” in life?

In addition to these two letters, we have received numerous contacts from people asking “Why do you only always focus on Christianity?” Although Matt has addressed this in the past, I felt that a show exploring secular Taoism might be relevant on multiple fronts, and so chose that as the topic for #516.

The form of Taoism that is most prevalent, and with which most of us are familiar, is attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may or may not have ever actually lived. But the text he is said to have written goes back about 2,500 years. The name “Lao Tzu” actually means “Old Man,” and it is doubtful that anyone named Lao Tzu authored the major Taoist work, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is a small collection of poetic Chinese sayings meant to describe the Tao and its operation. The title means literally, “The Book (Ching) of the application of (te) The Way (Tao).” And Tao, literally, means “The Way.” If you read the book, you will not find any list of “dos” and “don’ts.” There are no laws to memorize, and no condemnation or threats. The passages all sound something like this (#43):

The softest thing in the universeOvercomes the hardest thing in the universe.That without substance can enter where there is no room.Hence I know the value of non-action.

“Tao” does not mean “The Way” in the sense that we think of it in Christian models. It isn’t a way to achieve salvation. In fact, Taoists don’t believe in salvation. They wouldn’t understand what they need to be saved from—because they don’t interpret life, death or the natural world to be particularly problematic or flawed. They consider it to be simply, “the way” it is. In fact, “the way” it is, is what “The Way” (Tao) normally seems to represent. A reed is flexible—that is “The Way” (or Tao) of the reed.

Because the verses are so amorphous and malleable, they are interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, this is not considered a problem for the Taoist—who believes that following his own Tao will quite naturally differ greatly from someone else following hers. It does not represent a single path for all of mankind—but a way of looking at life that will help each individual find the path that is right for him or her. It isn’t a mode of enlightenment or special knowledge. It is an affirmation that if one is willing to examine his/her life and motives, he/she can come to an understanding of what direction is best for himself.

Taoism prefers accommodation, flexibility, and seemless integration. The example I used on the program was one of Green Architecture. To build my house on a landscape means to impose myself upon that landscape. A Taoist would do his/her best to utilize the landscape in the most efficient way to support the house, while at the same time taking the environment into consideration as he/she plans his/her house.

Taoism is not concerned with universal origins and makes no claims about how the cosmos were constructed or when they began. Taoism only notes that the cosmos exist and appear to operate under observable laws, which are best used to one’s advantage rather than resisted. A counterweight would be an excellent example. When one has to lift a heavy object, one must oppose the natural force of gravity; but by applying a counterweight, we can actually use gravity to work for us, rather than struggling against it. With a counterweight, gravity can “lift” a heavy object for us.

Duality is another factor in Taoism. We understand that concepts like good necessarily indicate “not good” (or “evil” if you prefer to call it that). But duality goes beyond opposites. In Taoism, it is not so much a statement of X and -X, as it is X and nonX. In other words, there is no “opposite” to Tracie. But there is much that is “not Tracie.” So, the universe is divided, in the Taoist view, by what is Tracie and what is “not Tracie.” Likewise, the universe divides, dualistically, in any number of similar ways with regard to any “thing” you care to define.

I wrapped the show describing some personal views about Taoism from professed Taoists. And I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get as many personal views as possible, to get an idea of how flexible this philosophy actually is. One can only really speak generally of it, as even the Tao te Ching not only fails to—but outright refuses to—define what Taoism is. According to the book, it is “nameless”—personally discerned—and cannot be accurately defined or described. Some have made the leap to call it “god.” But there is no direct indication that Lao Tzu was describing anything other than natural forces and pragmatic observations.

For further reading, I would actually recommend obtaining a copy of the Tao te Ching—perhaps at a local library (for free). The book is brief and, if you like poetry, actually somewhat relaxing to read. An annotated version with some historic reference would be preferable to a cold read if you are entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy or have never read any similar texts. As timeless as it may seem to me, I have to admit that with any text, context is also important with the Tao te Ching.