Tao or Dao (, Pinyin: Dào, Cantonese: Dou) is a Chinese character often translated as ‘The way of nature’. In ancient China, dao could be modified by other nouns. Tao is simply the way and order of the Universe.

Lao Tsu (Lao Tzu, Lao Zi) taught that the wisest approach was a way of ‘non struggle action’ (“Wuwei“or “wu wei“) – not inaction but rather a harmonization of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Nature. ‘The World is ruled by letting things take their natural course. It cannot be ruled by going against nature or arrogance.’ (Tao Te Ching; Verse 48). It also means that the individual should do things natural to tao and appropriate to do in his circumstances, thus serving as an instrument of the Law rather than doing the things as individuals. That is why no one should take any credit for things done. Nature is stabilized by order, and humans along with all other natural phenomena exist within nature. Attempting to force one’s own path is arrogant, futile and self-destructive.

It should be noted that in Taoism the complementary part of “non-action” (“Wu wei”) is “non-left-undone” (“Wu bu wei“). Taoism should be viewed as advocating the harmonization of “passivity” and “activity/creativity” instead of just being passive. In other words through stillness and receptivity natural intuition guides us in knowing when to act and when not to act.

Lao Tsu, the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching, was the first to provide a comprehensive treatment of the Tao. The religion based on the concept of Tao – Tao Jiao – is known in English as Taoism. Lao Tsu taught that, “He who follows the Tao is one with the Tao,” and “Being at one with the Tao is eternal, though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.’ (Verses 23 & 16)


[edit] Understanding Tao

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A cursory glance at life on Earth or what we know of the Universe as a whole reveals refined relationships of complexity, chaotic order, creativity and sublime organization. The beauty of the unspoiled regions of the world; the harmonious complexity of natural ecosystems, have a ‘just-so’ quality, an integrated wholeness that the ancient Chinese called Tao. Tao is the way of Heaven (although better defined as way of the universe, as the idea of heaven in the western sense; that of kingship, is non-existent in Chinese ideology) the resolution of opposites, a way of natural harmony; of Truth, Beauty and Justice. Lao Tzu contrasts this Great Way with the way of human beings:

The Tao of heaven is to take from those who have too much and give to those who do not have enough. Man’s way is different. He takes from those who do not have enough to give to those who already have too much. (verse 77. Tr. Gia Fu Feng)

Lao Tsu characterizes the Way of Man as one in which force is applied without the attainment of desired results:

Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao, counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe. For this would only cause resistance. Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed. Lean years follow in the wake of war. Just do what needs to be done. Never take advantage of power…Force is followed by loss of strength. This is not the way of Tao. That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end. (verse 30. tr. Gia Fu Feng)

Therefore, the origin of humanity’s troubles upon the Earth are their having forgotten how to be in the Great Way of the Tao. Remembering the Great Way is a præternatural awareness of one’s deep connection with the entirety of the Universe. This involves the adoption of a mode of ‘non-action’ that is not inaction but rather a harmonisation of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Tao.

Tao abides in non-action yet nothing is left undone. If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally. If they still desired to act they would return to the simplicity of formless substance. Without form there is no desire. Without desire there is tranquillity. And in this way all things would be at peace. (verse 37. tr. Gia Fu Feng)
The greatest virtue is to follow Tao and Tao alone. The Tao is elusive and intangible. Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is image. Oh, it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form. Oh, it is dim and dark, and yet within is essence. This essence is very real, and therein lies faith. From the very beginning til now its name has never been forgotten. Thus I perceive the creation. How do I know the ways of creation? Because of this. (verse 21. tr. Gia Fu Feng)

The epoch in which the Tao Te Ching was written, the Axial Age, saw the emergence of numerous philosophies that sought to establish first principles in the understanding of Nature. India produced the Upanishads and Greece the bold hypotheses of the Ionian and Eleatic philosophers. Lao Tsu also sought to account for the origins of the ‘ten thousand things’ and their manner of growth and development.

All things arise from Tao. They are nourished by Virtue. They are formed from matter. They are shaped by environment. Thus the ten thousand things all respect Tao and honour Virtue. Respect of Tao and honour of Virtue are not demanded. But they are in the nature of things. Therefore all things arise from Tao. By Virtue they are nourished, developed, cared for, sheltered, comforted, grown and protected. Creating without claiming; doing without taking credit; guiding without interfering – this is Primal Virtue. (verse 51. tr. ibid )
The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right. The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back. It fulfils its purpose silently and makes no claim. It nourishes the ten thousand things. And yet is not their lord. It has no aim; it is very small. The ten thousand things return to it, yet it is not their lord. It is very great. It does not show its greatness, And is therefore truly great. (verse 34. tr. ibid)
Yield and overcome; bend and be straight; empty and be full; wear out and be new; have little and gain; have much and be confused. Therefore wise men embrace the one and set an example to all. Not putting on a display, they shine forth. Not justifying themselves, they are distinguished. Not boasting, they receive recognition. Not bragging, they never falter. They do not quarrel so no one quarrels with them. Therefore the ancients say, “Yield and overcome.” Is that an empty saying? Be really whole and all things will come to you. (verse 22. tr. Gia Fu Feng)

[edit] Characteristics of Tao

There is a flow and order in the Universe: this is Tao. Tao is never stagnant and is incredibly powerful and keeps things in the Universe balanced and in order. It manifests itself through cycles and transitions: change of seasons, cycle of life, shifts of power, time, and so forth. Tao is the law of Nature.

The Great Way of Tao is best understood in its constituents: Jing 精 corresponding to energy; Qi 氣 or flow of energy; and Shen 神 or the Spirit. Jing Qi Shen 精氣神 constitute the Tao of all that is and are deified in the Three Pure Ones.

Qi is a Chinese term that may be rendered into English as breath, vapour and energy. Because Qi is the flow of energy that moves and motivates the Universe, it may be said that Tao is ultimately a regulator of Qi. Being one with Tao draws best outcomes to fruition: things will “fall into place” as they are meant to be, according to their nature.

The concept of Tao is based upon the understanding that the only constant in the Universe is change (see I Ching, the “Book of Changes”) and that we must understand and be in harmony with this change. The change is a constant flow from non-being into being, potential into actual, yin into yang, female into male. The symbol of the Tao, called the Taijitu, is the yin yang confluently flowing into itself in a circle.

The Tao is the main theme discussed in the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese scripture attributed to Lao Tsu. This book does not specifically define what the Tao is; it affirms that in the first sentence, “The Tao that can be told of is not an Unvarying Tao” (tr. Waley, modified). Instead, it points to some characteristics of what could be understood as being the Tao. Below are some excerpts from the book.

  • Tao as the origin of things: “Tao begets one; One begets two; Two begets three; Three begets the myriad creatures.” (TTC 42, tr. Lau, modified)
  • Tao as an inexhaustible nothingness: “The Way is like an empty vessel / That yet may be drawn from / Without ever needing to be filled.” (TTC 4, tr. Waley)
  • Tao is omnipotent and infallible: “What Tao plants cannot be plucked, what Tao clasps, cannot slip.” (TTC 54, tr. Waley)

In the Yi Jing, a sentence closely relates Tao to Yin-Yang or Taiji, asserting that “one (phase of) Yin, one (phase of) Yang, is what is called the Tao.” Being thus placed at the conjunction of Yin and Yang alternance, Tao can be understood as the continuity principle that underlies the constant evolution of the world.

Most debates between proponents of one of the Hundred Schools of Thought could be summarized in the simple question: who is closer to the Tao, or, in other words, whose “Tao” is the most powerful? As used in modern spoken and written Chinese, Tao has a wide scope of usage and meaning.

[edit] Tao in the Tao Te Ching

Tao is referred to in many ways in the Tao Te Ching. There are different shades of meanings in the various translations of this great work, which, with over 100 translations, is perhaps the most translated Chinese text in the English language. Here is one translation of the first stanza, describing Tao:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
—(Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, 1972).

[edit] Etymology

According to Rose Quong in her book Chinese Written Characters: Their Wit and Wisdom, the Tao character is parsed into “the path of the warrior,” where warriormonks were the original keepers of both martial arts and spiritual knowledge and wisdom.

The composition of 道 (dào) is 首 (shǒu) meaning ‘head’ and 辶 (辵 chuò) ‘go’ (Source: Wenlin). The parsed etymology for the character 首 is distinguished by the tufts at the top, representing the distinctive hairstyle of the warrior class (a “bun”). The character 首 itself is used to refer to concepts related to the head, such as leadership and rulership.

Stroke order

The character 辶 (辵 chuò) ‘go’ in its reduced form, 廴 resembles a foot, and is meant to be evocative of its meaning “to walk,” and “to go,” as well as the generic radix for “the way of.” This reduced radical 廴 is a component in other radicals and characters.

[edit] Translation

The first part of the verse reads thus:

tao k’o tao fei ch’ang tao
ming k’o ming fei ch’ang ming
wu ming t’ian ti chih shih
yu ming wan wu chih mu

Of this, the first two lines are often translated by many as:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Mawang Dui text clearly shows that the original form of line 1 was in fact “fei heng tao” instead of “fei ch’ang tao.” The change in the character occurred when “heng” became the name of an emperor.

“Ch’ang” may be accurately translated as “constant” or “unchanging,” “unvarying,” etc. It was deemed a close equivalent to “heng,” which may be accurately translated as “eternal.”

Some scholars speculate that the ancient Chinese did not have a concept for eternity. In reality, it is quite clear from the I Ching that the ancient Chinese had this concept from at least 5,000 years ago, 25 centuries before the birth of Lao Zi.

[edit] References

  • Chang, Dr. Stephen T. The Great Tao. Tao Publishing, imprint of Tao Longevity LLC. 1985. ISBN 0-942196-01-5.
  • Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English (translators). 1972. Lao Tsu/Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Rose Quong (Author) & Dr. Kinn Wei Shaw (Illustrator). 1944. Chinese Characters: Their Wit and Wisdom. Ram Press.
  • Lao Tzu; Lau, D.C. (translator); Sarah Allan (editor). Tao Te Ching: Translation of the Ma Wang Tui Manuscripts, Everyman’s Library, 1994.
  • Lao Tzu; Chuang Tzu; Legge, James (translator), The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Taoism, Dover Publications, Inc., 1962.
  • Wei, Wei Wu,“Why Lazarus Laughed: The Essential Doctrine Zen-Advaita-Tantra”, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1960. [1]
  • Characteristics of Dao- Qing Qi Shen constituents in [2],[3], [4] and [5]

[edit] See also

Look up in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • Lao Zi – Generally understood to be the author of the Tao Te Ching.
  • The Tao of Physics – A 1975 book exploring Taoism from the perspective of a physicist.
  • The Tao of Pooh – An entertaining 1982 fictional book introducing western readers to Taoism.
  • Dharma
  • Logos