“Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao. Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name. As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless: as “the Mother” of all things, it is nameable. So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence: as always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects. These two flow from the same source, though differently named; and both are called mysteries. The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.” Tao Te Ching – Verse #1 (Wu translation)
Legend is that in China some 2500 years ago, at approximately the same time the Buddha was teaching in India and Socrates in Greece, there lived a scholar, poet, and philosopher, the Archivist of the Kingdom of Zhou, named Li Er. His wisdom was so renowned that there were many, supposedly Confucious included, who sought him out to hear his insight into the nature of all things. He was held to be the wisest of the ancient Chinese Taoist masters and came to be known as Lao Tzu, which translates as “Old Master.”
Legend continues that as the Kingdom of Zhou fell into decline, Lao Tzu decided to leave his post to journey west, some say to Tibet. But before he left the kingdom, he was implored to write down his wisdom and so there came to be a small book of eighty-one poems known as the Tao Te Ching, translated as “The Book of The Way and of Virtue,” generally considered the most important source work for the ancient philosophy of Tao, or The Way, meaning the Way of Life, the Way of the Universe. Couched in mystical and obscure language, it is credited by many to be the perfect philosophy for living within the natural principles of existence – just as does all of Creation – except humanity.
Most of humanity, in ignorance, place themselves outside the Realm of Nature, of Tao, and in so doing are cut off from the natural energy of life, what the ancient Chinese called chi. Thus, people lose their balance, living in extremes which may be transitorily satisfying to their ego, but will always lead eventually to unnecessary and sometimes, catastrophic difficulty. Tao tells us that humanity’s problems all arise from placing themselves outside this infinite harmony, and so, it is then said that to live within the principles of Tao, within the energy of life in its wholeness, and in deep mystical connection with all elements of Nature, is required to bring a person back into this harmony with all things. Such a person, it is then said, will demonstrate great wisdom and skill, their life becoming a kind of unselfconscious art form.
The symbol of Taoism is the image known as Yin-Yang, the well-known circle made of a black section and a white section, the white containing a dot of black, and the black containing a dot of white, equally divided by a swirling line, representing life as a balance of energies – the feminine and the masculine, the passive and the active, the spiritual and the worldly, creation and destruction, the intellect and the intuitive, and so on – containing all of life’s energies, each polarity containing an element of its opposite, representing the unity of all things in an infinite dance, always balanced, whirling in its many configurations. Very importantly, The Tao is in knowing that in all things, as well as within us, there is the center-point, the still-point, around which this endless action and balancing of the energies of life, chi, unfolds.
To live in Tao is then to live with subtlety, gracefulness, nimbleness, reverently and playfully, maintaining one’s center, a dynamic still-point within the motion of the moment, able to trust yourself and life, knowing they are one and the same. To live in Tao is to know that the Universe, the Tao, flows through our human faculties as it does through everything, and that there is no greater comfort or confidence one can have than being in harmony with this flow. The Tao is in realizing that the blueprint for human life is already written in Nature, in the interconnecting energy and inconceivable intelligence that rules the Universe, that beats our heart, breathes our lungs, and brings us alive along with the plants and animals, the lands and oceans, the mountains and rivers, the planets and stars – all existing within harmonious unity.
Tao is famously beyond intellectual understanding, the “Mystery of mysteries,” requiring intuitive awareness for it to be felt and lived, for it is the primal force that holds and moves all the Universe. Tao precedes the intellect. It is not an idea. It is the flow of life realized, its seeming polarities and opposites harmonized in infinite unity. Taoism thereby teaches that for humans to find our way back to harmony, we must look to center ourselves in The Way, allowing all things to be what they are, that we must connect ourselves energetically, finding peace and effectiveness in mind and body in this dance of balance and harmony. This dynamic center-point to all things is called wu ji; it is the place of silence and stillness, of total perspective and potential, out of which truly skillful doing and living can arise. It means not interjecting the unbalanced and personalized perspective of the human ego, rather instead expressing oneself in and as the flow of the moment, the ego now the servant, not striving to be master, thus able to fulfill its natural function as the faculty of mind that engages the world, trained in skillful means, yet humble and reverent.
Second to Lao Tzu in the hierarchy of Taoism is his somewhat younger contemporary named Chuang Tzu who is said to have written a text known simply by his name, in which he expressed the essence of Taoism as: “Flow with whatever is happening and allow your mind to be free. Stay centered through acceptance of all things. This is the Ultimate Way.” And: “The heart of a wise person is tranquil. It is the mirror of Heaven and Earth… Emptiness, stillness, tranquility, silence, non-action: this is the level of heaven and earth. This is the perfect Tao. Wise ones find here their resting place. Resting, they are empty… So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises: From stillness, action, from action, attainment… For stillness is joy. Joy is free from care. Fruitful in long years. Joy does all things without concern: for emptiness, stillness, tranquility, silence, and non-action are the root of all things. (The Way of Chuang Tzu – Merton translation)
To the Taoist, the Western religions with their emphasis on rules, morality, sectarian dogmatic argument, and humanity fallen from the divine seeking salvation, amounts to “much ado about nothing,” exactly what is wrong with the human condition. Taoism offered instead a philosophy that might be described as no ado about everything, allowing that ultimate wisdom is in realizing that the Universe happens through us humans as it does through all Creation, every manifestation a portal through which the infinite intelligence of the Universe flows. For a human to realize this flow, Taoism teaches, requires getting out of one’s own way, to stop being so clever, so self-absorbed, so egocentric, so unnatural. It is to be so present in life, completely unencumbered with our ideas about life, so as to be the Tao personified, living directly, no fuss. Tao realizes we are each an aperture in the Cosmos, where, from the mystical realm before form, the world and our sense of self comes into form, a swirling mandala of Yin and Yang energies. Here, as a hub to the wheel of the Universe, we can trust that what needs doing will make itself clear, moment to moment, confident that our action will then be unencumbered, graceful, skillful and at times, filled with mystery.
Tao teaches that no creature harms or takes for reasons other than their own survival and basic needs, and the fact that humans do points not to our nature, but to our failure to honor Nature, driven not by wisdom, but rather by insatiable and insecure ego. Taoism tells us that as we experience that we too are Nature and relax into our deepest Self, we realize that also within Tao and our nature, is human creativity, but that it must be balanced with humble reverence for all life, and the sense to know sufficiency. The beautiful yet powerful harmony-of-movement Taoist dance called Tai Chi and the exercise routines of Chi Gung illustrate this remarkable grace and balance, the coming together of emptiness and form, an individual inseparable from the life-force of chi, a living embodiment of Yin and Yang, and it is the Taoist ideal to subtly move through life with such grace, balance, and power.
It is said that Buddhism, after percolating in Indian culture for five hundred years, found its way to China somewhere around 2000 years ago. There, the Buddhist principle of dharma found its exact equivalent in Tao, both representing the Way of the Universe in perfect balance, interconnectedness, and interdependence, but with a fresh new expression based in Taoist mysticism and naturalness. This meeting gave rise to what became known as Chan Buddhism, “Chan” being the Chinese word for “sitting,” as in sitting naturally in the Universe, experiencing life unfiltered and undistorted by human ego. The great Chan Master Linji exemplified this total peace and centeredness when he queried in Taoist fashion: “This moment, what is lacking?” placing no conditions on the moment, knowing the moment always to be complete. His question challenges us to such completeness – available to meet the moment exactly as it is, humbly, skillfully, and compassionately, without resistance or protest, even when the moment contains real discomfort, threats, or dangers. And so, likewise, living in Tao makes us also completely available to life’s beauty and wonder. Yin and Yang. As Chan Buddhism found its way to Japan, this Taoist-comingled Buddhism became known by its Japanese translation as Zen – still the Art of Sitting as The Way, the Universe happening as a human being – teaching us how to relax into our own nature, brightly alert to the miracle and energy of life streaming through us. Taoism and Zen both teach us how to dance at the still-point of emptiness, body and mind swirling gracefully into the world as wisdom, creativity, virtue, joy, and graceful skill, life, chi, flowing into the world through a human being! What a mystery and wonder!