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Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World

Ted Kardash

Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophical tradition whose origins extend back to 3000 B.C. The first actual written works to promote the Taoist outlook appeared around 500 B.C. and were attributed to the legendary Taoist sages, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Lao Tzu is the author of the Tao Te Ching (The Classic of the Way and Its Power), currently very popular in the United States with an increasing number of new English-language translations. Less well known, but equally important to an understanding of Taoism, are the writings of Chuang Tzu. His Inner Chapters is gaining wider attention as is The Way of Chuang Tzu, an excellent transition of selected writings by Christian mystic Thomas Merton.

Taoism is organized around several key principles and, like any philosophical outlook, presents a way of seeing and understanding reality. The word Tao itself translates as the Way, or Path. This meaning includes both the way in which we perceive the world around us (how do we behave? What are our actions?). The manner in which we perceive reality influences our way of being in the world, our path of action.

Taoism's central principle is that all life, all manifestation, is part of an inseparable whole, an interconnected organic unity which arises from a deep, mysterious, and essentially unexplainable source which is the Tao itself. Everything conceivable is contained within this principle. Various Western translators have compared this concept to the idea of God, Universal Mind, or Absolute Reality, to name but a few examples. Taoism views the Universe and all of its manifestations as operating according to a set of unchanging natural laws. As an inseparable part of the Tao, human beings can gain knowledge of these laws and become attuned to them. It is these natural laws that constitute the core principles of Taoism. Aligning ourselves with these principles provides a universal perspective and understanding and allows life to be lived in harmony with the Tao. Indeed our way of life becomes the Way, a full expression of the Tao.

Taoism has become increasingly popular with Americans for a number of reasons. As our lives become more stressful and complex, dealing with mounting crises on personal, local and global levels, we naturally seek solutions that will restore us to a more balanced, harmonious, and satisfying way of living. It may be here that Taoism exhibits its greatest appeal for not only does it represent a way of harmony and balance, its Way is on of naturalness and simplicity!

Taoism states that all lift forces tend to move toward harmony and balance because it is in their nature to do so. From the Taoist viewpoint we, as humans, have the choice of consciously aligning ourselves with the Way, or remaining in ignorance and resisting the natural order of the Tao. To choose the latter means to remain disconnected from our own personal processes, our own Tao, as well as life's grand flow. Taoist teachings are intended to be utilized as a guide to daily living. Their greatest value lies in their ability to direct us toward our own process of self-exploration, growth, and transformation which connects us deeply to ourselves and to the world around us. The writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu provide us with excellent counsel on how to achieve this state of connectedness, harmony and balance, union with the Tao. In future articles we will study four main concepts of Taoist thought and how we might apply these to our daily lives.

From The Jade Dragon, Vol 2, Issue 2, April/May 1993

Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World

Ted Kardash

This is the second in a series of articles on Taoism. This article deals with the concept of te.

Taoism, an ancient Chinese system of thought, views the Universe as an interconnected, organic whole. Nothing exists separately from anything else. The Universe is governed by a set of natural and unalterable laws, which manifest themselves as a flow of continuous change. This natural order and flow is referred to as the Tao, or the Way. By recognizing and aligning ourselves with these laws, humans can attain a state of being which combines the experience to total freedom with on of complete connectedness to life's process - being one with the Tao.

To help gain this level of existence, Taoist writings offer us various principles to be followed in the course of everyday living. Understanding and adopting these values presents the opportunity to become whole and complete, to consciously become an inseparable part of life's flow.

A central concept in Taoist thought is that of te, or virtue. This word appears in the title of the famous work by the legendary sage, Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching - The Power of the Way. Though virtue is the literal translation of te, the word is used in Taoist literature to indicate power or strength (as the Latin root, virtus, indicates). Te refers to the fact that all things contain an inherent power or strength that comes from their own essential being or true inner nature. This power derives from the fact that our true self is an expression of the Tao, because it is intrinsically connected with the power of the Universe. However, the idea of te is that of power exercised without the use of force and without inappropriate interference in the existing order of things.

In out modern society much attention is devoted to promoting self-awareness: "finding ourselves", "knowing who we truly are." Many traditions, including certain schools of Western psychology, regard this discovery and acceptance of self as central to personal well-being, an important step on the path of individual self-awareness and responsibility, it will remain impossible to resolve the many social and environmental problems currently facing mankind.

What guidelines does Taoism offer in this area? How can we manifest our te, know our true selves in a manner that connects us with the rest of our world?

Out conventional Western outlook is based on the assumption that humans are all separate entities, existing apart from each other and from the surrounding environment. Te, on the other hand, implies a trust and belief in one's own inner nature and in the interconnectedness of all life. Lao Tzu writes that "All things arise from Tao. They are nourished by Virtue (their own inner nature). Virtue is goodness (and) is faithfulness." As a first step, we are asked to believe in ourselves, in our own inherent goodness, in the process that is Tao. "The great Tao flows everywhere. It nourishes the ten thousand things. It holds nothing back, "Lao Tzu states, encouraging us not to give in to our doubts and fears.

As a means of developing this trust and belief in the Tao and expressing our inner nature, Lao Tzu counsels us to move beyond conventional values, those social mores and norms which tend to strengthen our view of ourselves as separate egos or selves and which are rooted in doubt and fear. These values only serve to lock us in our sense of separation and rob us of the power of our true being.

The sage tells us: Accept disgrace willingly. Accept being unimportant. Do not be concerned with loss or gain. Love the world as you love your own self. Then you can truly care for all things.

To help manifest our te, Lao Tzu gives us his "three treasures" which assist us in developing our perception of the unity of life and in cultivation a way of being that is harmonious with the Tao. The first treasure is compassion, the second id frugality or balance, and the third is humility, "daring not to be ahead of others."

We must feel and experience our connection with all of humanity, all of life. In this way we are able to respond to various situations in an appropriate, helpful manner, serving the higher good. This is compassion. Practicing frugality works to preserve the delicate balance that exists in life and harmonizes our actions with those of the Universe. The Tao will nourish us if we make wise use of its resources. And adopting an attitude of humility allows us to be guided by the creative forces of the Tao and orients our actions towards service to all mankind and the Universe as a whole.

In this way our te emerges. More and more we find our actions truly expressing our inner nature. More and more they are in harmony with the Tao. As our te manifests we experience ourselves as an integral part of our environment, moving effortlessly and naturally along life's path.

From The Jade Dragon, Vol. 2, Issue 3, June/July 1993

Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World

Ted Kardash

This is the third of a series of articles on Taoism. This article deals with yin-yang, the principal of harmony and change.

Taoism's central organizing principle is the interconnectedness of all life, with its flow of continuous change. Nowhere is this idea expressed in such a unique and exquisite manner as in the concept of yin-yang, which describes the underlying unity of life through the interplay of opposites.

Taoist writings state that all things and all processes contain two primal energies or forces. These two basic aspects of manifestation often are described as masculine and feminine, light and dark, negative and positive, creative and receptive. The original meaning of the term signified the light and dark side of a mountain. Our common English-language expression, "there are two sides to everything," expresses this concept quite succinctly.

From a Taoist point of view, however, these two polar opposites are not seen as distinctly separate or in conflict, but rather as interdependent and complementary. In actuality, one creates the other. "Is there a difference between yes and no?". Lao Tzu, one of Taoism's immortal sates, asks. "Is there a difference between good and evil?" His reply is that "Under heaven all can see beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil."

Chuang Tzu, another legendary Taoist sage, states with delightful wit and humor: "Everything can be a 'that'; everything can be a 'this'. Therefore, 'that' comes from 'this' and 'this' comes from 'that'- which means 'that' and 'this' give birth to one another. When there is no more separation between 'that' and 'this', it is called being one with the Tao."

These two sages are telling us that the seeming opposites of life - the "yes" and "no", the 'good" and "bad", are merely expressions of a deeper underlying unity, the connectedness that characterizes life in all its forms and processes. They advise us to not get caught in these apparent contradictions, rigidly choosing one side against the other. We are urged rather, to perceive them in their relatedness, to experience how one grows out of the other. In so doing we can partake in the reconciling of opposites, "in blunting the sharpness and untangling the knot," as Lao Tzu states. Nature's tendency is to constantly move to a state of harmony and balance.

The idea of change leading to harmonious balance underlines another aspect of yin-yang. These two polar forces are not static or rigidly locked in battle with one another. Just as one side of the mountain does not remain sunny all day, but gradually becomes shady as the sun moves across the sky and lights the other side, so also do the two forces of yin and yang constantly move and interact. When one energy becomes full and complete, then the other begins to grow and ascend. "That which shrinks must first expand. That which fails must first be strong. That which is cast down must first be raised." Lao Tzu is telling us that life is a process. There is constant change, one thing flowing into another, one thing becoming another. Furthermore, within this constant change is a recognizable cyclical pattern, like the alternating of the day night or the turning of the seasons. For all things there is a natural expansion and contradiction, of both the most minute and grandest levels. It is the breathing pattern of life itself.

What implications does this have for us on a personal level? How can we apply the concept of yin-yang in our daily lives?

For the past two thousand years traditional Western thinking has been dominated by a dualistic, either-or approach: either something is good, or it is bad; desirable or undesirable; someone is an ally or an enemy. We perceive experiences to be either positive or negative and we expend much energy in trying to eradicate that we consider to be negative. From a Taoist point of view, this is like trying to erase the negative current from electricity because it is not "positive."

Because we perceive ourselves as separate from others, we often find ourselves in opposition to them, locked into "this and that," merely because of skin color, language, or beliefs. Taking these "differences" for the way things "really are" leads to breakdowns in relating, arguing, fighting, and even killing. All because of "this' and "that". We do the same with ourselves. We dislike or disown parts of ourselves and struggle to change, not trusting that our own inner nature, as an expression of the Tao, will of its own accord move towards a harmonious balance.

"Everything can be a 'that'; everything can be a 'this'," Chuang Tzu writes. "This the sage does not bother with these distinctions, but beholds the light beyond right and wrong." As strange as such thinking may seem to us, we can recognize that every good negotiator and mediator certainly looks beyond 'right' and 'wrong' in order to reconcile opposites, to "soften the glare and untangle the knot." By Being yielding and receptive, by remaining in relationship with others as well as with ourselves, we learn to flow with life's myriad of changes. Indeed we become an agent of change ourselves, rather that resisting it while desperately clinging to one pole, one experience or perception, or the other.

"What goes up must come down," and "Every cloud has a silver lining." Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin-yang. Bad luck becomes good luck and crisis contains the opportunity for growth. We can choose to cooperate with this complementary of opposites by not denying, suppressing, or struggling against unwanted discomfort or pain, but rather by accepting all facets of our existence, "good" and "bad", as the natural flow of the Tao.

By following the path of acceptance and responsiveness to change we can become, in the words of Chuang Tzu, true women and men of Tao. The true person of Tao "is not always looking for right and wrong, always deciding 'Yes' or 'No'. The true person has no mind to fight Tao and does not try by her own contriving to help Tao along. All that comes out of him comes quiet, like the four seasons."

From The Jade Dragon, Vol. 2, Issue 4, Aug/Sept 1993

Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World

Ted Kardash

This is the fourth in a series of articles on Taoism. This article will explore the concept of we-wei or "non-doing."

The essential message of Taoism is that life constitutes an organic, interconnected whole which undergoes constant transformation. This unceasing flow of change manifests itself as a natural order governed by unalterable, yet perceivable laws. Paradoxically, it is the constancy of these governing principles (life the rising and setting of the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons) that allows people to recognize and utilize them in their own process of transformation. Gaining an awareness of life's essential unity and learning to cooperate with its natural flow and order enables people to attain a state of being that is both fully free and independent and at the same time fully connected to the life flow of Universe - being at one with the Tao. From the Taoist viewpoint this represents the ultimate stage of human existence.

The writings of the legendary Taoist sages, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, furnish us with specific principles as a guide to attaining this state of oneness. Through understanding these principles and applying them to daily living we may unconsciously become a part of life's flow.

A key principle in realizing our oneness with the Tao is that of wu-wei, or "non-doing". Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.

The principle of wu-wei contains certain implications. Foremost among these is the need to consciously experience ourselves as part of the unity of life that is the Tao. Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to theTao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience. All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao functions in this manner to promote harmony and balance, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wy-wei, produce the same result.

We-wei also implies action that is spontaneous, natural and effortless. As with the Tao, this behavior simply flows through us because it is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and serving the purpose of greater harmony and balance. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically (and provocatively), as "purposeless wandering!" How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is unthinkable and even frightening, certainly anti-social and perhaps pathological in the context of modern day living. And yet it would be difficult to maintain that our current values have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level.

To allow oneself to "wander without purpose" can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs - that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations, and that our role is to conquer our environment - that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, "the Tao nourishes everything," Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing "non-action," then nothing remains undone. This trusting our own bodies, our thoughts and emotions, and also believing that the environment will provide support and guidance. Thus the need to develop watchfulness and quietness of mind.

In cultivating wu-wei, timing becomes an important aspect of our behavior. We learn to perceive processes in their earliest stage and thus are able to take timely action. "Deal with the small before it becomes large," is a well-known dictum from Lao Tzu.

And finally, in the words of Chuang Tzu, we learn "detachment, forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit." By allowing the Tao to work through us, we render our actions truly spontaneous, natural, and effortless. We thus flow with all experiences and feelings as they come and go. We know intuitively that actions which are not ego-motivated, but in response to the needs of the environment. Lead toward harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and "purpose" to our lives. Such actions are attuned to the deepest flow of life itself.

To allow wu-wei to manifest in our lives may seem like a daunting task. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment without thought of profit or tangible result. "The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever," writes Lao Tzu.

By listening carefully within, as well as to our surroundings, by remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, by remaining still until action is called forth, we can perform valuable, necessary, and long lasting service in the world while cultivation our ability to be at one with the Tao. Such is the power of we-wei, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Tao.

From The Jade Dragon, Vol. 2, Issue 5, Oct/Nov 1993

Taoism - Ageless Wisdom for a Modern World

Ted Kardash

This is the fifth and final article in the series on Taoism. This article focuses on the concept of the Sage.

In the earliest Taoist written works, which appeared around 500 B.C., there are numerous references to the Sage. From a Taoist viewpoint, this term refers to one whose actions are in complete harmony with his surroundings - both the immediate environment and the universe as a whole. Through the example of the Sage, Taoism offers us a model of a way of being that is in accordance with the natural laws that govern life. To think and act like a Sage is to attune oneself to life's flow and to the Tao.

In the English language the word "sage" describes a wise person, one of sound judgment. It also means "to perceive keenly." Within the Taoist tradition the Sage has gained a wisdom that extends beyond mere intellectual knowledge or information and reflects a deep, intuitive understanding of life.

Earlier articles in this series examined four principles basic to Taoism: the interconnectedness of all life (the Tao); the underlying unity of all apparent opposites (yin-yang); the power derived through alignment with the Tao (te); and non-ego motivated action (wu-wei).

The Sage expresses her wisdom by directly manifesting these principles in daily living. Because she truly experiences the unity of all life, the Sage perceives and understands all opposites as part of the same system. As she does not oppose these opposites, she can bring harmony and balance to all situations. Because she besides in a state if interconnectedness, the Sage's actions do not arise from the needs of a separate age but are called forth by the needs of the environment, which includes the Sage herself. These actions are natural, effortless, and spontaneous and are imbued with the power of the Tao.

Taoist thought maintains that cultivating sage-like attributes is part of the process of human transformation. While we may think that to become sage-like happens only at the final stage of this transformation, we also can presently recognize and foster those attributes already within us. The early Taoist writers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, themselves legendary sages, offer us numerous examples of behavior based on sage-like virtues. Most well known are Lao Tzu's "three treasures": compassion, frugality, and humility.

"Whoever has compassion can be brave. Whoever has frugality can be generous. Whoever dares not to be first in the world can become leader of the world." Lao Tzu maintains that these values are foreign neither to our understanding, nor to our experience and that we are all capable of cultivating such sage-like characteristics because they are a natural part of being human. It is through our caring that we connect with others and with all of life. By practicing frugality we maintain a balances existence with our environment and develop simplicity in action and thought. And by learning to follow, we determine the needs of the environment and provide the necessary service.

The Sage, in "perceiving keenly" sees past the dualities of right and wrong, and harmonizes all opposites. Lao Tzu states, "The Sage is good to people who are good. He is also good to people who are not good." This is true goodness. The Sage does not judge, but accepts everything as part of the intrinsic flow of life and then acts accordingly. In this manner he (or she) provides the opportunity for all beings to become aware of their own self-worth and to express this as goodness.

The Sage lives her life not by conventional standards, but according to the principles that are a reflection of the Tao. Chuang Tzu writes, "Rank and reward make no appeal to her. Disgrace and shame do not deter her. She is not always looking for right and wrong." Thus the Sage is truly at peace with herself and with the way of the Tao. She believes that "the world is ruled by letting things take their course."

Chuang Tzu also writes that, as we become attuned to the Tao by living in harmony with the natural order of the Universe, we become fully realized beings, or "true persons."

"They took life as it came, gladly. Took death as it came, without care. They had no mind to fight Tao. They did not try, by their own contriving, to help Tao along. These are the ones we call true persons."

Thus, to live in harmony with the Tao, cooperating with the natural laws that govern the Universe means to grow and transform as individuals, to become sage-like in our behavior. Initially this process occurs because we consciously adopt and follow those principles which reflect the workings of the Tao - yin-yang, wu-wei, and te, among others. In time we find that our sage-like behaviors manifest reflexively and naturally. They emerge from us without conscious effort. We reach what Taoism considers to be a person's highest calling - a life in service of the Tao. "The Sage has no mind of her own. She is simply aware of the needs of others." Just as the Tao "nourishes all things," as it continually returns things to harmony and balance, so too does the Sage. And this is the ultimate expression of the natural wisdom, the "sageliness," that is the essence of our being.

From The Jade Dragon, Vol. 2, Issue 6, Dec. 1993/Jan. 1994  

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