The Way of the Tao

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”- Lao Tzu

            Taoism arose in China during the time of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC, as a form of direct opposition to the dominant ideologies of Confucianism; the graceful teachings of Taoism are the very embodiment of a counterculture.  The term Tao is literally translated as “the way”, and the Tao te Ching, the fundamental canon of Taoism, was written during this epoch, and is attributed to the sage Lao Tzu.  The name of Lao Tzu literally translates to mean “old master”.  Very shortly after the time of Lao Tzu, emerged Chuang Tzu, and he is the second leading figure of contemporary Taoism.

In order to properly assert that Taoism was a counterculture, we must first have a working definition of what is meant by a counterculture; one is given here: “The term ‘counterculture’ was coined in the 1960s, largely in response to the emergence of middle-class youth movements that questioned the values of the dominant culture.”  Often, we tend to think only of countercultures in contemporary terms, however, the emergence of Taoism in ancient China can easily be seen as that of a counterculture, since it directly questioned the values of the Confucian culture that was prevalent at the time.  This stark contrast between the two philosophical doctrines is well illustrated here, “in place of the Confucian concern for things worldly and human, it (Taoism) holds out a vision of other, transcendental worlds of the spirit.”

            There are three defining principles of a counterculture, and they are as follows:

(1) Countercultures assign primacy to individuality at the expense of social conventions and governmental constraints.

(2) Countercultures challenge authoritarianism in both obvious and subtle forms.

(3) Countercultures embrace individual and social change.

Given this contextual framework, Taoism is the very epitome of what it means to be a counterculture. The first of these defining principles is evident throughout Taoist literature and is best captured by the following quote from J. J. Clarke, author of Tao of the West, who finds in Taoism, “a valuing and cultivation of the personal life above service to the state.”  It must be noted that Taoist individuality is, paradoxically, not primarily concerned with gratification of the ego or self but, rather, simply with following the way within the parameters of one’s very own life, and living in harmony and accord with nature.

The second defining principle, again, is resolute throughout Taoist literature and is best depicted through the following passage: “When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend upon authority.”  The third and final of these defining characteristics is extremely pertinent to the Taoist doctrine; for, embracing change is the central tenet of Taoism.  This is well demonstrated by the terminology “go with the flow”; for this popular sixties aphorism was a gift from Taoism.

The Tao is marked by a tendency towards acceptance and yielding, an absence of strife or coercion, and of living in a manner that is completely spontaneous and effortless.  This approach to action is often expressed in terms of doing nothing or of doing nothing that is unnatural or not within “the way”; this mode of action is called Wu WeiWu Wei literally translates as doing nothing, however, a more precise context is provided by Benjamin Hoff: “Literally, Wu Wei means ‘without doing, causing, or making.’  But practically speaking, it means without meddlesome, combative or egotistical effort.”  This concept of Wu Wei as a natural state of being is further extrapolated upon by Hoff: “The efficiency of Wu Wei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path – not the mechanical, straight-line approach that usually ends up short-circuiting natural laws, but one that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.”

The notion of Wu Wei, this mode of effortless action, is in direct contradiction to the Confucian ideals of intellectual analysis and concerted effort, and here lies one of the strong points of divergence between Confucianism and Taoism.  Whereas in Confucianism, strong and determined action is seen as noble and worthy, in Taoism it is viewed as unnatural, as going against the harmony of nature, or as constricting “the way”.

            Another important element of Taoism is that of P’u or the Uncarved Block, which implies that all things are truly at their best when they are viewed in their original essence.  This, too, is well explained by Hoff: “The essence of the principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.”

This notion of P’u is of the utmost importance in the doctrine of Taoism, as it is the foundation for the notion of emptiness as being the most desirable state of existence and of intellectual thought as being a great limitation to the gateway of truth.  This notion of emptiness and clarity is captured well by Hoff: “It’s rather significant that the Taoist ideal is that of the still, calm, reflecting ‘mirror-mind’ of the Uncarved Block.”

The idea that the Tao cannot be known through scholarship or intellect is well illustrated in the following passage from Hoff: “A well frog cannot imagine the ocean, nor can a summer insect conceive of ice. How then can a scholar understand the Tao? He is restricted by his own learning.”

Perhaps, this notion of the uncarved block as original simplicity is, however, best captured by the following passage from Lao Tzu:

“Do away with sageliness, discard knowledge,

And the people will benefit a hundredfold.

Do away with humaneness, discard rightness,

And the people will once more be filial and loving.

Dispense cleverness, discard profit,

And there will be no more bandits and thieves.

These three, to be regarded as ornaments, are insufficient.

Therefore let the people have something to cling to:

Manifest plainness,

Embrace uncarved wood,

Diminish selfishness,

Reduce desires.”

         The free-spirited doctrine of the Tao is, at once, light-hearted and humorous, and this can especially be seen in comparison with the stern elements of Confucianism.  This light-hearted and humorous element is often a characteristic of countercultural movements: “Counterculturalists tend to be jokers, bohemians, and libertines… Humour was an instrument for transmitting profound wisdom in the teaching tales of Taoism, Sufism and Zen. The stories from all these traditions similarly rely on existential, mind-twisting punch lines to alter the listener’s perceptions.”

         This humorous element of the Taoist counterculture was frequently used to demonstrate the follies of the Confucian hierarchies and socio-political ideologies, as observed here: “He who steals a belt buckle pays with his life; he who steals a state gets to be a feudal lord.”

         The existential, mind-altering component of Taoist humor is well exemplified by the story of Zhuang Zhou,

         Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly.  A butterfly fluttering happily around – was he revealing what he himself meant to be?  He knew nothing of Zhou.  All at once awakening, there suddenly he was – Zhou.  But he didn’t know if he was Zhou having dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhou.  Between Zhou and the butterfly there must surely be some distinction.  This is known as the transformation of things.

Taoism is one of the few contemporary religions or philosophies where female characteristics are seen as superior to those of the male. The Taoist notions of spontaneity, yielding, and submission to the natural order are tendencies that are generally associated with the female. This notion of these female-associated characteristics as being superior to those of the male is exemplified throughout the Tao te Ching, however, perhaps, best here: “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.  Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid.”

Indeed, there is no room in the Taoist doctrine for the traditionally male-associated characteristics of force, exaggerated effort, and rational analysis; these tendencies were left for Confucianism.  This notion of the yielding qualities of the female as being superior to the exerting ones of the male are also illustrated in the Taoist advice to the ruling and institutions of the time and is shown here:

“A large state is the effluence of a river,

Confluence of the world,

Female of the world.

Through stillness the female always overcomes the male.

Through stillness she submits.

Thus, by submitting, a large state wins a small one,

And a small state, by submitting to a large state,

Wins the large state.

Thus one submits in order to win,

The other submits in order to be won.

The large state only wants to nourish the people as a whole.

The small state only wants to enter the service of others.

Each getting what it wants, it is right to submit.”

Much of the teachings of the Tao were written in order to advise the ruling institutions of the time. For centuries, most Chinese rulers employed a contingent of Taoist advisors. The yielding nature of the Tao and the lack of attachment to fixed structures, order, and hierarchy were central to the political beliefs of these ruling institutions. This concept is well illustrated here: “Let go the fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself … The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. Therefore the Master says: I let go of the law, and people become honest.”

Taoist politics can, then, be classified as anarchistic in nature. The most common misconception concerning anarchist politics is demonstrated here: “The common belief is that an anarchist is a person who advocates ‘no government.’  This is generally true, but the phrase ‘no governor’ is more exact, since there may be agreed-upon rules (preferably by consensus) and ways of enforcing those rules when absolutely necessary.”

It can then be seen that the Taoist doctrine and teachings epitomize the very nature of what it means to be a counterculture. Their embrace of change, focus on individuality, and challenge of the dominant Confucian ideals of the time fit perfectly into the contextual framework of a counterculture.  The libertine spirit of the Tao, along with its light-hearted, often humorous and, above all else, yielding and spontaneous nature are in stark contrast with the regimented, hierarchical, structured, and rigid Confucian ideals that permeated Chinese thought prior to the arrival of the Tao.  The emphasis of the Tao on Wu Wei, on doing nothing, performing effortless action, and maintaining harmony with nature provides it with an element of feeling and warmth that is lacking in Confucian thought. The notion of P’uh, of the Uncarved Block, provides an insight into the true nature of wisdom; a wisdom that is distant, if not entirely removed, from the analytic methodologies of Confucianism. The political dimensions of the Tao demonstrate that ruling institutions should behave in a similar manner to the Taoist sage; to be free and yielding, spontaneous and graceful, this is the essential nature of the Tao, and to embrace change on a personal level provides life with its ultimate meaning. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, “Conquering others requires force while conquering the self requires strength.”

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