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Taoist Principles


Bill Mason

Spacer Taoism is for a special kind of person. Although anyone can benefit from it, it's not for everyone, at least not this day in age and place. The true benefit in Taoism is found by those who are ready to question what they've been taught. Furthermore, the more one learns of Taoism, the more they learn they must question. As Lao Tzu put it, "In pursuing knowledge, one accumulates a little more each day. In pursuing the Tao, one takes away a little more each day." Everything we've been taught, all the technicalities, categories, and descriptions of nature, keep us from experiencing nature itself. For nature is not something that needs to be categorized. It is the only category.

Spacer So Taoism is a nature-based philosophy. This feels weird for me to write because aren't all philosophies supposed to be as such? However, some philosophies are God-based, some human-based, some gender-based, some animal-based, etc. A philosophy which focuses on one of these specific concepts is, to me, incomplete. They're all part of nature, are they not? In my opinion, the more general the philosophy, the better. A true philosophy has to be able to encompass everything. It has to consider all facets of nature.

Spacer Taoism is such a philosophy. It starts and ends with observation of nature. In this way, it is just like science, but it is different in that science observes nature objectively, separate from the observer, whereas Taoism observes nature subjectively, seeing the observer and the observed as one entire system. This is the first principle of Taoism:
Oneness. There is not "just us," or "just nature," but both.

Spacer Every being in the universe
Spacer is an expression of the Tao.
Spacer It springs into existence,
Spacer unconscious, perfect, free,
Spacer takes on a physical body,
Spacer lets circumstances complete it.
Spacer That is why every being
Spacer spontaneously honors the Tao.

Spacer The Tao gives birth to all beings,
Spacer nourishes them, maintains them,
Spacer cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
Spacer takes them back to itself,
Spacer creating without possessing,
Spacer acting without expecting,
Spacer guiding without interfering.
Spacer That is why love of the Tao
Spacer is in the very nature of things.

Spacer [Tao Te Ching -Mitchell translation, Chapter 51]

Spacer This is not to say that there is not a distinction. We're always separating things into "us and them," in one form or another. Quite often we do this with nature, seeing "us" as the human race, and "them" as nature. However, just because there's a distinction doesn't mean there has to be an opposition. The second principle of Taoism is that of Dynamic Balance. There are always two basic distinctions in nature, symbolized by the yin and yang (sun and moon, heaven and earth, dark and light, chaos and order, etc.), but Taoism sees balance as the basic characteristic underlying these distinctions.

Spacer The Tao is the One.
Spacer From the One come yin and yang;
Spacer From these two, creative energy (chi);
Spacer From energy, ten thousand things,
Spacer The forms of all creation.
Spacer All life embodies yin
Spacer And embraces yang,
Spacer Through their union
Spacer Achieving harmony.

Spacer [Tao Te Ching -Dreher translation, Chapter 42]

Spacer These two basic polarities (yin and yang) not only balance each other, but also complement each other in cycles. This is the third principle of Taoism: Cyclical Growth. The sun is replaced by the moon, then the moon is replaced by the sun. Summer is replaced by winter, then winter is replaced by summer. Light is replaced by dark, then dark is replaced by light. Everywhere in nature, you will see these basic cycles.

Spacer The Tao moves by returning
Spacer In endless cycles.
Spacer By yielding, it overcomes,
Spacer Creating the ten thousand things,
Spacer Being from nonbeing.

Spacer [Tao Te Ching -Dreher translation, Chapter 40]

Spacer Among these various polarities which are balanced through cycles of nature are yielding/overcoming, fighting/withdrawing, giving/taking, etc. Taoists believe that because these seemingly opposite polarities are actually balanced and work together through cycles, you can actually produce one from the other. This sort of behavior is the fourth principle of Taoism: Harmonious Action. This can be observed in a bamboo stick. Watch it bend with the wind: it overcomes the wind by yielding to it. If it were stiff, it would break because it's so brittle, but because it yields, it overcomes. Thus, weakness produces strength, and strength produces weakness.

Spacer If you want to become whole,
Spacer let yourself be partial.
Spacer If you want to become straight,
Spacer let yourself be crooked.
Spacer If you want to become full,
Spacer let yourself be empty.
Spacer If you want to be reborn,
Spacer let yourself die.
Spacer If you want to be given everything,
Spacer give everything up.

Spacer The Master, by residing in the Tao,
Spacer sets an example for all beings.
Spacer Because he doesn't display himself,
Spacer people can see his light.
Spacer Because he has nothing to prove,
Spacer people can trust his words.
Spacer Because he doesn't know who he is,
Spacer people recognize themselves in him.
Spacer Because he has no goad in mind,
Spacer everything he does succeeds.

Spacer When the ancient Masters said,
Spacer "If you want to be given everything,
Spacer give everything up,"
Spacer they weren't using empty phrases.
Spacer Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.

Spacer [Tao Te Ching -Mitchell translation, Chapter 22]

Spacer Through these four basic principles of nature, there are several derived ethical suggestions which make up the bulk of the Tao Te Ching. These ethics are described on a separate page.

Spacer Bill Mason

Author's Note: Portions of this essay are derived from 'The Tao of Inner Peace' by Diane Dreher. I highly recommend this book for the way it beautifully divides the Tao Te Ching into principles and ways to live.

Taoism Net

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