Taoism
By Leland Ackerson


Taoism is one of the three major philosophies, which has influenced the development of East Asian culture. The effects of Taoism are not as obvious in Korea as Buddhist temples or the ancestor-worship ceremonies associated with Confucianism. However, even today, Taoist philosophy lives on in the minds of people all over Asia even without their knowing. Korean people owe much of their legendary patience and forbearance to Taoism.

Taoist philosophy is based on the ancient book the Tao Teh Ching which means "the way of life". The Tao Teh Ching is credited to Lao Tan, a Chinese man whose better known title, Lao Tzu, means "Old Master". As the legend goes, Lao Tzu was conceived from a shooting star, spent 62 years in his motherís womb, and was born white-haired in the year 604 BC. He spent his life sharing his philosophy by words and example; he refused to set down any ideas in writing for fear that they would be twisted by unscrupulous power-mongers. Toward the end of his life, saddened by the moral depravity surrounding him Lao- traveled to the western frontier of China and abandoned the world of civilization. As Lao Tzu was passing by, the gatekeeper recognized him from a dream and implored him to leave behind some record of his philosophy. Lao Tzu acquiesced, and in three days he gave the world the Tao Teh Ching.

Itís a great story, but many scholars today believe that Lao Tzu is nothing more than a myth. Those who do accept that Lao Tzu was a real man usually admit that he did not give us the Tao Teh Ching in its present form; analysis of the writing style generally places it at least two centuries after Lao Tzu reputedly journeyed off into the unknown. Most people agree that the Tao Teh Ching is either a well-edited selection of contemporary sayings or the writings of three Taoist sages working together over a period of years. Regardless, what we have is an inspiring classic of 5000 words, which retains its relevance even after 23 centuries. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the name Lao Tzu when speaking of the founder of Taoism.

The basic premise of Taoism is that nature has its own structures and patterns. The goal of life should be to live close to nature and reproduce those patterns in your own behavior. By observing our environment we can discover the easiest life path to travel. The Tao Teh Ching suggests that we make decisions by following our instincts, not by following human-made rules and rituals. Faith and conduct depend upon our inner accord with the conscience of the Universe, not on stylized ceremonies:

Those who flow as life flows know They need no other force: They feel no wear; they feel no tear, They need no mending, no repair.

Perhaps the best known Taoist phrase is, "To be is to do." Such a general phrase has many possible interpretations. Unfortunately, in the West, the most common interpretation is something like, "Donít bother doing anything." Rather than a philosophy of non-action, Taoism should be considered a belief of creative quietism. Lao Tzu advocated a life of action determined by modesty and individual conscience when he wrote:

The sanest man Sets up no deed, Lays down no law, Takes everything that happens as it comes, As something to animate, not to appropriate, To earn, not to own, To accept naturally without self-importance: If you never assume importance You never lose it.

Taoism also shows us the value in following our heart instead of our mind. The concept of "being" means nurturing our autonomy and individual essence:

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub By vacancies joining them for a wheelís use; The use of clay in molding pitchers Comes from the hollow of its absence; Doors, windows, in a house, Are used for their emptiness: Thus we are helped by what is not To use what is.

Beyond this, the idea of "being" can mean quietly observing to get a feeling for the ways of nature.

In any discussion of Taoism, it is necessary to distinguish Taoist philosophy from Taoist religion. Some groups, impressed by the mystical nature of Taoism, have given the name Taoist to their own religious sects. This has caused confusion, as these sects often deal in matters unrelated or opposed to the ideas of the Tao Teh Ching: alchemy, occultism and church tricks. One such sect is even credited with the invention of the Ouija Board. Taoist philosophy is mystical in that it marvels at and celebrates the wonders of the Universe:

Existence is beyond the power of words To define: Terms may be used But they are none of them absolute.

Taoism was not intended to be a ritualized show to explain the cosmos through magic.

As they are both branches of eastern philosophy, Taoism has often been compared to Confucianism. The main difference between the two schools is that, while Confucianism focuses on the ways of people in society, Taoism focuses on the ways of people in nature. To maintain order in a world predisposed to anarchy, Confucius recorded specific rites, ceremonies and relationships that should be respected at all times. Lao Tzu spurned glitzy and showy authority believing them to be nothing more that contrived expressions of false piety. Instead, the Tao Teh Ching expresses faith in the ways of nature and invites us to celebrate the heart and soul rather than suppress them.

On the other hand, Taoism and Buddhism complement each other very well. The practicality and faith in intuition of Taoism blend well with the Buddhist tenets of the unimportance of the concept of "self" and the pursuit of nirvana. This marriage of faiths is called Zen Buddhism. Those who practice Zen Buddhism lead a simple, unceremonious life close to nature; a principle form of prayer or meditation is to focus on a simple repetitive activity such as archery or gardening until you are no longer aware of anything else.

Taoism is timeless. With his faith in nature, autonomy and individual conscience, Lao Tzu preceded Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalists by thousands of years: "A sensible man prefers the inner to the outer eye." The Tao Teh Ching can also be considered an early case for democracy:

One who knows his lot to be the lot of all other men Is a safe man to guide them. One who recognizes all men as members of his own body Is a sound man to guard them.

In my opinion, Taoism is the ancient eastern philosophy most relevant to Westerners at the turn of the 21st Century.

Taoism is a mystical yet practical philosophy. It provides a liberal alternative for those who wish for a spiritual life, but can not suspend belief in their own perceptions and emotions. The basic message of the Tao is easy to accept: if we simply open ourselves to the world, we can all find our lives to be rich, happy and meaningful.

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