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Li Erh (6th century BCE) commonly known as Lao Tzu (the Old Master), was a contemporary of Confucius. He was the keeper of the imperial library, but in his old age he disappeared to the west, leaving behind him the Tao Te Ching (Book of Tao and Virtue).
Tao Te Ching
Taoism derived its name from this profoundly wise book, only about five thousand words in length. It can be used as a guide to cultivation of the self as well as a political manual for social transformation at both the micro and macro levels. The philosophy of Taoism and its belief in immortals can be traced back to the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Ti. That is why Taoism is often called the “Huang-Lao” philosophy.
Taoism believes Tao to be the cosmic, mysterious, and ultimate principle underlying form, substance, being, and change. Tao encompasses everything. It can be used to understand the universe and nature as well as the human body. For example, “Tao gives birth to the One, the One gives birth to Two, and from Two emerges Three, Three gives birth to all the things. All things carry the Yin and Yang deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital forces” (Tao Te Ching, chapter 42).
Tao is the cause of change and the source of all nature, including humanity. Everything from quanta to solar systems consists of two primary elements of existence, Yin and Yang forces, which represent all opposites. These two forces are complementary elements in any system and result in the harmony or balance of the system. All systems coexist in an interdependent network. The dynamic tension between Yin and Yang forces in all systems results in an endless process of change: production and reproduction and the transformation of energy. This is the natural order.
Tao and virtue are said to be the same coin with different sides. The very title Tao Te Ching means the canon of Tao and virtue. Lao Tzu says, “the Highest Virtue is achieved through non-action. It does not require effort,” because virtue is natural to people. This is what is meant by “Tao creates and Virtue sustains” (chapter 51)
Taoists believe that Tao has appeared in the form of sages and teachers of humankind, as, for example, Fu His, the giver of the Pa Qua (eight trigrams) and the arts of divination to reveal the principles of Tao. The Pa Qua is the foundation of the I Ching and represents the eight directions of the compass associated with the forces of nature that make up the universe. There are two forms of Pa Qua: the Pa Qua of the Earlier Heaven (the Ho To), which descries the ideal state of existence, and the Pa Qua of Later Heaven (Lo Shu), which describes a state of disharmonious existence. The path of the Return to the Tao is the process of transforming Later Heaven into Earlier Heaven. In other words, it is the process of a reunification with Tao, of being transformed from a conflicting mode to a harmonious mode.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way
The conflicting mode is the destructive or waning cycle of the Five Elements (metal, wood, earth, water, and fire). The destructive cycle consists of metal destroying wood (axes cutting trees); wood dominating earth as the roots of the trees dig into the ground (power domination); earth mastering water and preventing the flood (anti-nature forces); water destroying fire (anti-nature causes pollution that destroys the beauty of the world); and fire melting metals (pollution).
Taoists believe that through both personal and social transformation we can convert the destructive cycle of the Five Elements into a creative cycle of the Five Elements – to change from a conflicting mode of life into a supportive way of living. The creative cycle of the Five Elements is this: metal in the veins of the earth nourishes the underground waters (purification); water gives life to vegetation and creates wood (nourishment); wood feeds fire to create ashes forming earth (nature recycling). The cycle is completed when metal is formed in the veins of the earth. The path of the Return to the Tao is clearly needed in light of today’s concerns about energy and environment.
Taoists believe in the value of life. Taoists do not focus on life after death, but rather emphasize practical methods of cultivating health to achieve longevity. Therefore, Taoism teaches people to enhance their health and longevity to minimizing their desires and centering themselves on stillness. Taoists firmly believe that human lives are in our control. For example, Lao Tzu promotes chi-kung (breathing exercise) to enhance life (chapter 5, 20, 52). He offers three methods of life enhancement: 1) keeping original “oneness,” that is, to integrate energy, chi, and spirit; 2) maintaining one’s vital ability a newborn baby has; 3) persisting in practice for longevity (chapter 10, 52, 59). To practice chi-kung is to practice the path of the Return to the Tao on an individual level to integrate physical, emotional, and spiritual development for health and longevity.
The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching
Taoism advocates nonaggressive, nonviolent, peaceful coexistence of states. For example, Lao Tzu describes an ideal state as one in which people love their own country and lifestyle so much that, even though the next country is so close the citizens can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it (chapter 80). Lao Tzu regards weapons as the tools of violence; all decent people detest them. He recommends that the proper demeanor after a military victory should be the same as that at a funeral. (chapter 31)
Taoism advocates a minimum of government intervention, relying instead on individual development to reach a natural harmony under Tao’s leading. To concentrate on individual development is to practice the path of the Return to the Tao on a macro level. Lao Tzu writes: “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done.” (chapter 37)
If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of 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. (chapter 57)
Act without doing, work without effort. Think of the small as large and the few as many. Confront the difficult while it is still easy, accomplish the great task by a series of small acts. The Master never reaches for the great, thus achieves greatness. (chapter 63)
Prevent trouble before it arises. Put things in order before they exist. The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout. The journey of a thousand miles starts from your first step. (chapter 64)
Lao Tzu’s view of social distribution is this:
Tao adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. They take from those who done have enough and give to those who have far too much. (chapter 77)
Basically, Taoists promote a way of life that exhibits six characteristics (Ho, 1988):
- Determining and working with the Tao when making changes.
- Basing one’s life on the laissez faire principle – let nature follow its own course as its guideline for change.
- Modeling one’s life on the sage, on nature, and thus on the Tao.
- Emphasizing the Tao’s strategy of reversal transformation.
- Focusing on simplicity and originality.
- Looking for intuitive awareness and insight and de-emphasizing rational and intellectual efforts.
These characteristics are the essential Taoist guidelines for personal and social development.
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He was a gentleman recluse who espoused a doctrine of non-action and founded Daoism (or Taoism). Ancient sources indicated that Lao zi (meaning ‘the Old Master”) was born about 600 BC in Henan province. He is said to have lived for 200 years, in keeping with the ancient Chinese belief that great men enjoy long lives. But possibly he never lived at all.
According to legend, as a young man Confucious met Lao zi and found his presence and learning so awe-inspiring that he likened the great philosopher to a dragon riding on the winds and clouds. Lao zi is thought to have spent his life in public office, both as a specialist in astrology and divination and as a keeper of sacred books in the court of the Zhou dynasty. Late in life he retired and set out on a journey west. When he reached the state of Qin, a border guard pleaded for a record of his teachings, so Lao zi composed, on a bamboo parchment, a 5,000-character text known as Dao de Jing (Tao-te Ching, meaning The Classic of the Way and Its Power). He then continued on his journey and was neither seen nor heard of again.
Daoists claim that the little book of philosophy and mysticism he left behind enshrines all the wisdom of the universe, and in the second century AD it was adopted as a sacred text. Scholars are reluctant to accept that it was written by only one person – certain of its sayings have been traced t some centuries after the death of Lao zi. As a result, some understandably doubt that the man himself ever existed and suggest the name Lao zi represents a certain type of sage rather than an individual.