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)