Debbie Bell Fish
Dr. Thomas Dubose
18 November 2008
Lao Tzu and the Philosophy of Taoism
In 1970, The Beatles released Let It Be, one of their final albums before their breakup later that year. It was the year that American forces invaded Cambodia, the year of the Kent State massacre, and the year that news broke concerning the Mi Lai massacre. A bloody year, at home and abroad, and meanwhile, an idea was growing among the youth of the counter-culture, an idea in stark opposition to the ideals of hard-work and climbing ambition that the parents of these children had often advocated. Soon the term “generation gap” was coined, and there was indeed a growing gap between the philosophy of the middle-aged veterans of the World War II generation who had been raised in the Depression, and their children, most of whom had experienced dramatically more privileged childhoods than their parents. As is often the case when these periods of conflict arise, a new philosophy is sought, and many of the hippies of the 60s turned to Eastern thought to save them from the blatant driving materialism espoused by “the Establishment.” Many of us did not know it at the time, but the ideas of Lao-tzu and Taoism were to play prominently in these ideas. An examination of the ideas of Lao-tzu reveals that the principles of wu-wei, yin-yang and te that are integral to this philosophy are extremely enlightening as to basic philosophical differences between Eastern and Western thought, and give real food for thought as the American culture faces financial crisis.
Certainly, with any set of ideas and beliefs, especially those of a religious nature going back well before the time of Christ, it is almost impossible to dissect discernable fact from questionably factual legend. However, we do know that Lao-Tzu, also known as Laozi, Laotze, Lao Zi, Laocius and Lao Tan, is the central figure in Taoism, an Eastern tradition which can be traced back to approximately 600 B.C. A good many conflicting stories exist regarding his existence, with some alleging him to be a mythic figure, and others maintaining that he did indeed live, although the time period remains in question. Many stories are told about him in relation to Confucius, whom many believe was a contemporary of LaoTzu. The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy alleges that:
Of the eighteen passages [in the Zhuagzi] mentioning Laozi, Confucius figures as a dialogical partner or subject in nine….Lao Tan seems to feel sorry for Confucius in his reply to “No-Toes” in Inner Chapter 5, The Sign of Virtue Complete. He recommends seeking to release Confucius from the fetters of his tendency to make rules and human discriminations (e.g., right/wrong; beautiful/ugly). (3)
Other stories allege a connection between the two as well, and it is certainly not inconceivable that the two great men did meet, or at least certainly know of each others’ ideas. Arthur Waley, in his book The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, speaks of Confucius calling on LaoTzu, only to find him “so inert as to hardly resemble a human being” (116). This story points up the problem that many of the practices of LaoTzu (here meditation and yoga) may have been more correctly attributed to other philosophers and/or cultures.
R.B. Blankey, in the introduction to his translation of the Tao Te Ching, alleges:
Where there is no author, however, it is necessary to invent one; and by the time the Tao Te Ching had been put into form, legend had supplied Lao Tzu. … It presents Lao Tzu correctly enough as one who has given up civilized living and is impatient with Confucian ideas and who accordingly departs for point unknown, presumably to live out his life as a recluse. (27)
However, Herlee Creel, in What is Taoism? states that “Few critical scholars still believe that, as tradition holds, the Lao-Tzu was written by a contemporary of Confucius…[and] this means that our earliest datable Taoist work is now moved down from around 500 BC. To around 300 B.C.” (49).
However and whenever the philosophy of Taoism came to be, its influence is unquestioned. Its primary book of “doctrine” is the Daodejing (which, like Lao Tzu, has many spellings, including Tao Te Ching, and others), and as Waley says, “owing to its (Tao Te Ching’s) constant use of sayings which everyone connected with the name of Lao Tan (Lao Tzu, the Master Lao), [it] naturally came to be regarded as embodying the teaching of this legendary Quietist” (104).
To grasp the great gap that exists between Eastern thought and Western thought, one need only review the key concepts contained in the Tao Te Ching. As the philosophy of Taoism takes its name from the word “Tao,” an examination of the meaning of this term is obviously a first requirement in an attempt to gain understanding of the very complicated ideas of Taoism. The term “Tao” is best translated as meaning “the Way” and is sometimes used as a noun, and sometimes as a verb. It has been described most simply as “…reality itself, the way things come together, while still transforming” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy 5). The Tao Te Ching begins by referencing what Alan Watts calls “the enigmatic words which are usually translated, ‘The Tao which can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao’” (38). To clarify the idea for those trained in Western thought, he further says: ‘…it must be clear from the start that Tao cannot be understood as ‘God’ in the sense of the ruler, monarch, commander, architect, and maker of the universe. The image of the military and political overlord, or of a creator external to nature, has no place in the idea of Tao” (40).
Watts further explains the Eastern concept of Tao by calling it “the watercourse Way” and indeed, he entitles his book on Taoism with that title, a very appropriate one since Lao Tzu often compares Tao to the flow of water (42). It is a concept and ideology steeped in the ideas of nature, and the harmony of the universe. Indeed, “Tao” is the way that its practitioner and seeker can most be in harmony with nature’s universe.
Another famous term related to “Tao” is that of “wu-wei,” which is the attitude and method whereby one can best live under the influence of Taoism. The famous line from the Tao Te Ching states “The Tao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone” ( Watts 74 ). This principle of non-action does not mean “inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity (75), but is:
… rather the life-style of one who follows the Tao, and must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence—that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them….Wu-wei is a combination of this wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all one’s actions. (76)
Creel explains that the concept of wu-wei denotes seemingly oppositional ideas which are: “(1) An attitude of genuine non-action, motivated by a lack of desire to participate in the struggle of human affairs. (2) A technique by means of which one who practices it may gain enhanced control over human affairs” (74). Obviously, the latter is to be used by one in power, but it also benefits mankind if the general population acts in accordance with these ideas, so “that the king may govern by wu-wei” (Kaltenmark 44).
The idea of opposites creating a complete idea represents yet another facet of Taoism. The famous yin-yang representation, a divided circle of dark and light, was, much like the Beatles’ song “Let It Be” a favorite symbol and poster image of the 1960s. In spite of the contradictory nature of many things, they are, in accordance with Taoist principles, merely opposite sides of the same coin, and complimentary rather than oppositional. Waley explains that yin-yang is “categories, corresponding to male and female, weak and strong, dark and light. At the same time they are…quite definitely forces; for yin in the vital-energy (ch’i, the life-breath of Earth, just as yang is the life-breath of Heaven)” (110). It is an idea of polarity, not conflict, that tells the practitioner of Taoism that keeping the natural forces in balance is the essence of a contented existence. Watts states: “The yin-yang view of the world is serenely cyclic. Fortune and misfortune, life and death, whether on small scale or vast, come and go everlastingly without beginning or end” (31).
Typically contradictory at first glance, the concept of te is the expression of living within the concepts of the Tao. It is Taoist virtue, although “this is not virtue in the sense of moral rectitude” (Watts 106). Te is what happens in the universe naturally, not by the determined actions of human beings. Waley says that while the concept is often translated to mean “virtue,” this translation is not entirely correct, and explains:
Indeed, on examining the history of the word, we find that it means something much more like the Indian karma, save that the fruits of te are generally manifested here and now; whereas karma is bound up with a theory of transmigrations…. Te is anything that happens to one or that one does of a kind indicating that, as a consequence, one is going to meet with good or bad luck. It means, so to speak, the stock of credit (or the deficit) that at any given moment a man has at the bank of fortune. (31)
And to what end is this stock of credit, this good luck or bad, to be applied?
While individual man looks for peace, man in the aggregate seeks creativity and progress culturally. Chang Chung-Yuan, in his book Creativity and Taoism, quotes from the Tao Te Ching, and says that “actual creativity requires no intellectual explanation in terms of process. It is, rather, a mere intuitive reflection of things” (56-57). The ultimate expression of Tao is a state where man has let go of his inner strivings and is free and open to the flow of creativity in the universe. Enlightenment is this state of “uncovering hitherto unknown powers of the mind” (106).
While the Taoist stresses the processes of mind and spirit, it also addresses physical health of humans, and how one can best attain it. Some of the Taoist ideas about health are reflected in the modern novel Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins, one of the most popular authors of the 60s generation. In this novel, the protagonists live almost forever through the processes of proper eating, proper breathing, hot baths, frequent sex, and meditation. Certain breathing techniques, “generally supplemented by gymnastic, sexual, and dietary observances” (Kaltenmark Internet 125) are seen as having both physical and spiritual importance to devout Taoists. Additionally, some Taoist principles advise that “Each man should have two wives…” and “chastity is rejected” (Kaltenmark 38), ideas that seem to reflect the sexual beliefs of Robbins’ characters. In Max Kaltenmark’s article “The Ideology of T’ai-P’ing Ching” he states that “The TPC would not be a Taoist book if the idea of long life were not present to an important degree.… There is a celestial longevity of 120 years, a terrestrial longevity of 100 years , and a human longevity of 80 years” (41). Indeed, one of the main discrepancies concerning the actual lifespan of Lao Tzu is did he live to be 200 or merely 120 years.
Any brief paper, or paper of any length, can certainly not capture the essence of the beliefs of Taoism. Indeed, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy states: “The Daodejing teaches that humans cannot fathom the Dao, because any name we give to it cannot capture it. It is beyond what we can conceive” (5). The three concepts of wu-wei, yin-yang, and te are the basic principles of Taoism, and the freedom, creativity and peace that result from their practice may be difficult to grasp at an intellectual level. It requires years of experience in life to understand that the lapse of control can lead to great creativity, and that immersion in the flow of life can be best attained by a focus on these ideas, as opposed to a focus on attaining goods and profit, rising above your fellow man, and combating vigorously to attain desired goal. At a time in American history when the striving, materialistic ideas once rejected by the 60s generation seem to be more entrenched in our collective view-point than ever, perhaps an open examination of the philosophy of Taoism would be beneficial.
Blakney, R.B. The Way of Life: Lao Tzu. New York: New American Library, 1955.
Chang, Chung-Yuan. Creativity and Taoism. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963.
Creel, Herrlee G. What is Taoism? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Kaltenmark, Max. “The Ideology of the T’ai-P’ing Ching.” Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion. Ed. Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Kaltenmark, Max and Roger Greaves. Lao Tzu and Taoism. Internet. Accessed 21 November 2008. <http://books.google.com/books?id=J_himynIk68C&pg=PA124&lpg=PA124&dq=life+s pan+of+Lao+Tzu&source=bl&ots=hJIje0uSfw&sig=mGxopgURuNKGMLDCbW6_nEy irt4&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=9&ct=result#PPA125,M1>
Littlejohn, Ronnie. “Laozi (Lao-tzu)” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Professionally Peer Reviewed Resource. Internet. Accessed 18 November 2008. . <http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/laozi.htm>
Robbins, Tom. Jitterbug Perfume. New York: Bantam, 1984.
Waley, Arthur. The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. New York: Grove Press, Inc.1958.
Watts, Alan. TAO: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.