What Is the Tao and Taoism?
When I teach or give public presentations I often speak of the Tao. Though Taoism is a religion in China, Taoist thought has no concern with “God” or religion. The literal English translation of the Chinese information Tao is “way, or path”. consequently a Taoist would be a person looking for a way, or who is on a journey along or on a particular path. For many Taoists the definition of Tao may be extended to average “method” or “rule” – consequently the popularity of various philosophies and popular culture tracts that use the term Tao in their titles or descriptions. In the Chinese language the same written character can average more than one thing. In Taoism “being” can be the embodiment of what one desires in addition as what a person truly needs.
There is a certain respect and curiosity that has arisen in recent years in the West concerning the profound understanding of human character and the inner wisdom presented in Taoist writings. To Lao Tsu, “The Way” is not merely a, path, lifestyle, style of thinking, method or rule. As with Zen teachings which developed after Taoism, the Tao is something of much greater subtlety. As with Zen Mind, the Tao can best be described as elusive, intangible, and mysterious. It is transcendental, infinite, and eternal, preceding already the birth of the universe.
Though the centuries thousands of commentaries and philosophical tracts have been written about Taoism, and many religious groups in addition as rites, rituals and ceremonies have formed around the teachings. Over time the pure Taoist teachings were reshaped and interpreted by many religious and spiritually based schools. Unfortunately many of the Taoist teachings were misunderstood and there often was a inclination to view Taoism as a form of religious magic, metaphysical system in Chinese popular culture.
However, fundamentally the teachings are best represented by Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu. There are many similar ideas in the writings of Lao-Tsu and Chuang-Tsu and it is without exception accepted among students of Taoism that many of Chuang Tsu’s commentaries are specifically designed to clarify confusion one may experience concerning Lao Tsu’s teachings as presented in the Tao Te Ching.
As in Zen some chapters of the Chuang Tsu are overtly paradoxical while others are subtle, though consistent in thought. What do they all average? At the foundation of both Lao Tsu’s and Chuang Tsu’s writings is the idea that all that exists, flows on a path of eternal cycles. That all that “is” moves in one direction and when it reaches the peak of movement in that direction, like a pendulum reverts to its opposite, moving back to where it originated.
Among the most commonly studied and discussed of these Taoist paradoxes are the utility of futility, preservation by surrender, and the virtues of non-resistance. This preservation by surrender addresses the distinction between surrender and resignation, a concept that is are alluded too often in Taoist writings and is one of the meaningful elements in the writings of Chuang Tsu and Lao Tsu.
The truth of what exactly defines the Tao, is that it is the only true form of reality. in addition it can only be known by non-traditional forms of inquiry. It is action-less and formless. It can be transmitted, but cannot be received. It may be known, but cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted. It is self produced, and rooted in itself.