Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching

Who is Lao Tzu and What is the Tao Te Ching?

Philosophical Taoism and The Way and its Power

Understanding Taoism is a way to know the nature of reality. Acting naturally, as in the Tao, one becomes ethical and effective.

To discuss Taoism is not a simple thing. Taoism branches into 3 sub-headings, Philosophical Taoism, Religious Taoism, and Taoist Yoga, which includes the martial art Tai Chi Chuan. The Taoism that will be discussed is Philosophical Taoism, which is the subject matter of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching is a collection of poetic works, where the nature of the ultimate, the cosmic, and the individual in the world are explained.

The Legend of Lao Tzu

As legend would have it in the 6th century B.C. Lao Tzu lived in Zhou, and was the Imperial Librarian. He had grown weary of moral decay. Upon retirement he left Zhou heading toward what now is Tibet, and was stopped at Hankao Pass by a gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper asked Lao Tzu that before he passed; would he write down what he thought was important in life, in a contribution to humanity. So in a matter of a few days he wrote the Tao Te Ching and was allowed to pass.

The Way and Its Power

The writing came to be known as the Tao Te Ching or in English The Way and Its Power. Under this philosophical system, there are three conceptual elements which constitute everything. First is Non-Being, second Being, and third what Taoism calls the 10,000 things, meaning all of the differentiated things in the world.

In Taoism, with Non-Being or pure potentiality, necessarily comes pure actuality (e.g., Being), where when things come into existence (e.g., Being) they are bifurcated into the 10,000 things. Finally, out of the 10,000 things comes the singularity of the individual. Taoism is ultimately an attempt to explain how the individual finds their place in the world, and how one is to be ethical and therefore effective.

Taoism and Yin/Yang

Under Taoism, in the world all things interact in a sort of dualism calledYin/Yang, where the two principles are in a process of transformation, sometimes even becoming their opposites. Examples of these two principles include the following:

  • light/dark,
  • heaven/earth
  • male/female
  • mountains/valleys

Ultimately the two aspects are bound together. Because of this dualism qualities are intricately bound. Beauty cannot exist without ugliness, or strength without weakness, or heat without cold.

Taoism and Wu Wei

A central concept in Taoism is what is called Wu Wei which is also called non-action. This is adhering to what is natural. Examples in the world are abundantly used in the Tao Te Ching. For example a tree metaphor is used where it is said that “that which is firmly established is not easily uprooted”.

But also it prominently states “yield and overcome, bend and be straight, empty and be full,” as pointing to the demise of that which cannot yield to natural forces. But yielding does not mean weakness.

Water is compared to soft or receptive principles, which flows in the path of least resistance, but it’s power is not minimized because for instance in a flood nothing can resist it. Throughout the Tao Te Ching, the natural way works as a metaphor for ethical conduct; where one finds the natural way of non-action or natural action.

Out of this idea of Yin/Yang comes the ancient Chinese classic the I Chingor the Book of Changes, where the symbols of Yin/Yang were used in the Imperial courts for divination.

Understanding the Tao and Pantheism

While Taoism is understood through a conceptual basis; Non-Being, Being, and the 10,000 things; these states exist together and work in harmony. The Tao is not strictly pantheistic (e.g., God is nature) because ultimately the Tao transcends nature in Non-Being which acts as pure potentiality. Out of pure potentiality must come pure actuality (e.g., Being). Therefore, Non-Being cannot be separated from Being (e.g., the cosmos) and the 10,000 things must also be manifested out of Being. All act together and are inseparable. Yet the Tao Te Ching is often referred to correctly as being a work that is “naturalistic”, being that it talks specifically about nature as examples in its system.

It is amazing how such a small poetic book, that can be read in a half an hour, could have so much influence in Chinese culture, but if one looks at this book of teaching one will find great wisdom of the ancients.

Resources:

Smith, Huston., The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins Publishers: New York 1991.

Feng Gia-Fu, English, Jane., Trans. Lao Tsu: The Tao Te Ching., Random House Inc. New York. 1972.

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Doug Frame

I am a former professor who taught for almost 10 years. I have a BA and an MA in Philosophy. I enjoy writing about philosophy but ever more so I enjoy writing philosophy.

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