Tao Te Ching

Everything is in a process of change, and is constantly evolving. Permanence is that which is a complementary aspect of impermanence and the Tao is beyond both those concepts. Hence the Tao cannot be captured by humanly definitions: language, concepts, and thoughts.  

'The Way that can be followed 
is not the eternal way; 
The name that can be named 
is not the eternal name; 
That which is without name 
is of heaven and earth the beginning; 
That which is nameable 
is of the ten thousand things the mother. 
He who is eternally without desire 
perceives the spiritual side of it: 
He who is permanently with desire 
perceives the limit of it.'  

Tao Te Ching 
(as quoted by Ninian Smart, 
The World's Religions

Around 6th century B.C.E. Chinese philosophers under the name of Lao Tzu orchestrated a brilliant masterpiece in Eastern philosophy.  Written in a cryptic, poetic, and contradictory language the Tao Te Ching, illustrates the nature of the Tao (the way) and delineates on the metaphysics and epistemology of Taoism. The non-analytical understanding of the Tao, requires one to practice Wu Wei, a process through which the individual experiences no mind, and does action from one's true nature.  Upon such an action there is a balance between the Yin and the Yang: complementary forces in nature, whose imbalance leads to disturbance in self and society.  Hence in analyzing Taoism, one must understand the Tao, its nature and its meaning.  Second, Wu Wei must be practiced, and finally complementary aspects of nature must be realized.

Very much like the Hindu concept of Brahman, Taoism conceives of the concept of Tao, which is the underlying metaphysics of all that is being and non-being. Unlike the Brahman however, the Tao cannot be realized.  It is beyond all concepts, understanding and analysis.  Three things can be discerned about the Tao: First, any attempts to capture the Tao: confining it to definitions and attempting to describe it with attitudes, escape the meaning of the Tao, since the Tao is beyond all such categorization of the human mind.  Second, the Tao is that which underlies all things and no-thing.  In its ever present and ever absent state the Tao perpetuates change and process.  Realizing this second concept, allows us to understand that Taoism rejects substance ontology and instead appeals to process ontology.  Everything is in a process of change, and is constantly evolving.  Permanence is that which is a complementary aspect of impermanence and the Tao is beyond both those concepts.  Hence the Tao cannot be captured by humanly definitions: language, concepts, and thoughts. 

How then can the Tao be known?  To 'know' the Tao is impossible. However, the Tao can be practiced and becomes present and powerful when one practices Wu Wei.  During the process of Wu Wei, the individual overcomes the mind and operates from his/her inner nature and innate tenacities.  Concepts and definitions of the world and reality around us restrict us from freeing our mind and letting it dissolve into oneness with the Tao.  But when one performs Wu Wei or Non-action, the struggles to categorize by thinking and conceptualizing reality is abandoned.  In this state one's actions reflect nature's 'way,' and by following this one follows the Tao.  In other words, when the Tao is in control, the individual follows the natural way.  It is precisely in this absent state of mind that the Tao can be 'visualized,' and the non-resistant ways allows one to utilize the power of the Tao.  A frequent analogy used to understand the Tao, and Wu Wei, are the actions of a river.  The river is a strong force that moves through land without resisting things on its path, in a malleable way it works around its obstacles (e.g. rocks), consuming the object at times.  This affirms the complementarities of thing-ness and nothingness, and that precise action is the Tao, where the water's 'nature' and obstacles 'nature' are one with the Tao.  The practice of Tai Chi is an illustration of Wu Wei, where the martial artist moves along with the offensive's strikes and gives the offense 'nothing' to strike by practicing non-resistance.  Here the mind is absent or rather the mind is absolved into the Tao.  In speaking of the Tao, thus far the concept of complementary in being/non-being has been mentioned.  This is a major part of Taoism, and is expressed in the dissertation of the Yin and the Yang.

The Yin and the Yang are complementary aspects of nature that allows the cosmos to evolve and change with the dominance of one force over the other. Balancing these forces creates harmony in nature and this harmony is perpetuated onto the self by the individual's practice of Wu Wei.  The Yin is the passive feminine principle and the Yang is the active dominant male principle. Unlike socialized gendered ideologies, the Yin and the Yang are not related to man and woman.  They are merely complementary aspects of all things in nature, and are seemingly opposed concepts that in actuality work in unison to create thing-ness and nothingness.  Yin cannot be treated separately from the Yang, and likewise the Yang cannot be stripped of its female counter part.  Much like the Hindu notion of Shakti-Purusha, both aspects of cosmos are necessary to maintain a balance in society and harmony in the universe. 

In a historical context, Confucianism and Taoism disputed over the validity of the metaphysics of each other, and their applications to Chinese society and its disheveled state.  Confucianism blamed Taoist philosophy of escapism, while Taoism responded by deeming Confucianism as escapist from one's true nature.  Instead of placing emphasis on self-cultivation propagated by Confucianism, the Taoist would argue for ego-less, self-less state where the Tao or the way of nature is in control.  With this process the Yin and Yang become balanced in producing harmony in nature.  Emphasis on non-duality, interdependency and desire-free society would be applications of Taoism.  By conceptualizing and seeking 'goodness' and virtue, the Taoist would argue, notions of good and bad become conceptualized and are hence relative and false. There is no absolute in the Taoist opinion and ethics in Taoism is absent other than in suggesting practicing Wu Wei, through which one does actions that are the nature's way, good or bad otherwise, and are desire-free. 

The Tao is spoke of via negativa: as not this or that, since all attempts to classify the Tao as this or that would be imprudent.  Only through practice of Wu Wei can one truly know or 'see' the Tao, and by balancing the Yin and Yang and understanding complementary aspects of being and non-being in reality allows one to unlock the nature's way.  This 'realization' of the Tao places one with immense power to attain immortality and historical accounts of Taoist saints speak of sages with esoteric powers.  In my final analysis, although I have attempted to speak of Taoism in a short paper, all that is used to describe the Tao is not really the Tao.  It is a waste of time and effort to conceptualize the Tao, since this paper with all its humanly and substantive limitations has failed to capture the 'wholeness' of the Tao.


More by :  Naveen Jagan

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