The Contemporary Taoist
Firstly it is important to realise that Taoism (also spelt Daoism) is a word that means different things to different people. There are those to whom Taoism is a religion, with Temples, Gods, traditions, and dogma of its own. Then there are those to whom Taoism is a philosophy. This philosophy sees its roots in the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching (Classic of The Way and its Virtue) by Lao Tzu (Old Master). Lao Tzu is now widely supposed to be a legendary figure – more myth than reality – and the writings attributed to him to belong to others from a later date. But whatever the truth about this, the ideas expressed in this book have spawned generation after generation of Philosophical Taoists – and it is of this philosophy that I write.
The Elusive Tao
Taoist logic is elusive. It does not have a set of strict rules – in fact it is anti-regulatory. It does not have any single method that one can master and thus proclaim to be an ‘expert’. To the contrary the first lines of the Tao Te Ching state that ‘The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao,’ and later that ‘He who knows does not speak, He who speaks does not know.’
So where does that leave us? If we are to follow the ways of Taoism, whose words can we trust? And what are we to do? The answer here is open to wide interpretation, but I would suggest that the way to follow Tao is to forget Tao.
By this we mean simply forget the words you read, the concepts you hear, and just be. Leave it at that. Tao just is. You are part of it.
Meditation is a key factor in understanding this approach (although of course, Taoism rejects ‘understanding’ per say!). By learning to sit and ‘just be’ we align ourselves with the forces of nature (Tao) and begin to see how it is that all things spontaneously occur. The Tao is infinite and cannot be completely understood by humans (because our comprehensions are finite), but we can get a very good idea of what life is all about just by sitting and observing. Observing the machinations of our minds; the room in which we sit; or perhaps the patterns and movements of a garden. The Tao is both simple and complicated – complicated to try to understand – simple to observe; simple to just accept; simple to be in accordance with.
By just doing what comes naturally without forcing yourself to be something you are not, one can come to a place of accordance with the Tao. This is attained through the use of what the Chinese Taoists called ‘Wu Wei’ – effortless action. The Tao Te Ching states that ‘The Tao never does – but through it all things are done.’
Spontaneous Accordance with Tao
All things that are in accordance with Tao (Nature - The Universe and beyond) do what they are put here to do without fuss and without thought for doing anything that is for them unnatural. Trees grow and sway in the breeze; the breeze blows this way and that; this way a hill side warms itself in the sun; that way a rabbit hops from its hole to look for food. There is no contrivance in nature – things just do what they are supposed to do. So, in order to accord with the Tao – just do what it is you are supposed to do. If you don’t know what this is then obviously the first thing you are supposed to do is to discover your purpose – which is entirely achievable for everyone through contemplative meditation.
Fame is despised by the Taoist as being of no use to the sage (wise person). If you have many material possessions you would be wise to keep this to yourself without boasting. Wiser still to reject the trappings of wealth and thus avoid being robbed at all! Jealousy is of no use; it wastes the individual’s energy and leads us astray from our true path of spontaneous accordance. A Taoist recognizes that we live in a world of abundance – especially when viewed from a standpoint of being interested only in sufficiency. Those who covet and store away more than they can use in effect steal from those who do not have enough. This goes against Tao.
Flow Like Water
The most revered thing on earth to a Taoist is water. Not just because it is so vital to survival but because it is seen as the ultimate symbol of the essence of the Taoist philosophy. Water flows around the rocks and sticks to the lowest places where other things will not go. It is by following this seemingly weak and undesirable path that water inevitably flows without disturbance to its source, the Great Ocean, which is a symbol for The Tao itself.
Learning to flow like water is the greatest of the Taoist skills. If you can learn to slip around the rocks of life you will naturally enjoy a much more stress free and rewarding life. When someone loses their temper at you on the road – best to flow on without giving it another thought. When you find that striving to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is causing unhappiness within your relationship – best to opt for a simpler way of life and actually enjoy your limited days on this earth with your loved ones. However if you were to push against the rocks of your life – how could you ever move them? You can’t - just like water can’t shift a huge boulder out of the stream. Best to flow on and save yourself a lot of bother. Relax – don’t take it on – it’s just not worth it!
If you do lose your temper however – don’t dwell on this as a failing of character. Once you have let off steam – try to relax again quickly by shrugging the incident off and moving on. Forgive whoever caused you to lose your rag in the first place and then forgive yourself for losing it. If it comes to a point where you lose your temper then this also is Tao so don’t worry about it.
A Universe of Opposites
In fact everything is Tao – even that which ‘goes against Tao’. This is one of the great contradictions in a philosophy which implores us to embrace and accept contradiction as a reality of life. This acceptance of opposites is the reason that the Yin/Yang symbol is so widely associated with all forms of Taoist culture from philosophy to medicine. For all things there is an opposite – and all of these things are simply part of the great unfathomable Tao. So therefore EVERYTHING IS APPROPRIATE. Even what is seen by us as being reprehensible in our time, is appropriate in the eye of the great Tao.
All things evolve towards their end – for better or for worse. The Tao is not a God – it is just Everything. That is why ‘God lets bad things happen to good people’ – because it is of no opinion. Tao just is. It does not intervene. It has no plan that is fathomable to the human – the scope is too big. The Tao Te Ching says of this that ‘Heaven and Earth are ruthless – to them everything is disposable’.
So in order to live well we must accept the good with the bad – by doing so we get over things easier and move on in harmony with the Universe.
Accept Death Without Fear
All things that arise from the Tao must also descend back into it. This holds further with the Yin/Yang law of opposites. All things that start must eventually finish. All things that live must die. This is the ultimate freedom to be gained from the Taoist way of thought – we all die and death is nothing to be afraid of – it just is. As you were born so you must die. As you now know that there is no real right or wrong in an impartial universe – you have nothing to fear from your passing. What happens after death is a mystery – but it is not something to ponder too intensely. For no matter how much you ponder it, you will never find an answer in all your days here on earth – all you will do is waste your time here worrying about something that you cannot even imagine accurately!
Look at the animals – they spontaneously accord with the Tao by never even thinking of what is to come after death – they just enjoy peace when they find it, and run away from danger when it presents itself.
So flow like water, bringing benefit to all things, following the course of least resistance, until you are united again with the sea.
This is the Tao – it is always contemporary.