Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Taoism

Following are the contents of another of our interfaith seminary take-home exams, which use Huston Smith's The World's Religions as a guidebook in addition to other sources as cited herein. 

     Consider the story about Confucius meeting Lao Tzu.  What do you think is meant by his legendary remark, “Today I have seen a dragon?”

The quote attributed to Confucius following his meeting with Lao Tzu: “I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run.  Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can be hit by arrows.  But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the clouds and the wind.  Today I have seen Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon!” 

A dragon is powerful, mysterious and mythical.  Confucius said that the dragon was beyond his knowledge, because the dragon lives in the realm of ideas and cannot be observed, categorized and defined.  Nonetheless, the image of the dragon has a powerful pull on the human mind.  I interpret Confucius’ comment as both a compliment and an insult.  Confucianism is a structured and precise moral teaching that aims to hold up society and bring out the best in its members through formality and systematic observance.  Taoism is a “way” of life that is fundamentally at odds with that kind of a definable belief system.  It is like the dragon of the animal kingdom because it is majestic and enduring, like the idea of the dragon, but one cannot wholly grasp it in a precise moment or describe it with words.  The Tao cannot be made a prisoner of human observation, and this is consistent with the concept of God held by the world’s great religions.  So in that way, Confucius paid Lao Tzu a compliment.  However, dragons are not empirically real.  Confucius valued concrete reality and substance.  So characterizing Lao Tzu as a dragon was also saying that Taoism lacks a foundation in observable reality; according to the values of Confucianism, this is an insult. 

2.     Read “The Three Meanings of Tao.”  What does Tao mean literally? Consider carefully what is said about the three basic meanings of the Tao.  List the meanings and add any notes to help clarify them. 

Tao literally means, “way.”  The three ways of Tao, as defined by Huston Smith, are as follows:

A.    “Tao is the way of ultimate reality.”  The Tao is the primal force behind all existence, the transcendent source of All.  The Tao is inherent in all things; it is inescapable, yet undefinable.  The Tao simply cannot be captured, formulated or described by the human mind.  However, humans can connect with the Tao and be carried along by its current.  

B.     “Tao is the way of the universe, the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life.” The Tao is “immanent.”  As explained in A above, even though it is transcendent, humans can touch the Tao, because in this mode, the Tao “assumes flesh.”  

C.     “The Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe.”  When a human being is able to let go of the banks of existence, where the water snakes dwell (the limited self), and flow with the current of the Tao, the third meaning of Tao is illustrated. 

3.     Describe the three forms of Taoism, paying special attention to their essential features, such as their nature, purpose and methods.

A.    Describe ‘te’: Te, as in The Tao Te Ching, simply means “power,” as it flows through the universe and humankind. 

B.     Efficient Power: Philosophical Taoism: This method of Tao practice is reflective and centers on aligning the self with the Tao, so that te, or power, is optimally channeled and conserved.  A Philosophical Taoist adopts a particular attitude toward life that applies to all thought and activity.  According to this practice, our life force is a precious resource that is never to be wasted or improperly expended.  A Philosophical Taoist learns to embody grace and precision in his or her movements and interactions with the world.  There is no room for abruptness, anger, nervousness or worry.  Think of someone you know who always seems able to go with the flow, unruffled.  Arriving at this place of peaceful efficiency may be inherently easier for some, but takes years of practice, dedication and training the mind. 

C.     Augmented Power: Taoist Hygiene and Yoga: The word “hygiene” can be defined as practices which are conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease.  This is the sense of hygiene we are looking for when we talk about Taoist “hygiene and yoga.”  This approach to Taoism is a holistic sort of training program which goes beyond the mere conservation of ch’i (breath, or vital energy) and te to their maximization.  Practitioners of this type of Taoism learn how to power themselves up, increasing the flow of energy that runs through them, resulting in better health and optimal functioning.  They work with the three M’s: matter, movement and the mind.  They augment ch’i by following a certain diet and using a wide variety of medicinal herbs.  They practice nuanced forms of bodily movement, such as qigong and t’ai chi chuan, and they use acupuncture.  Often they practice specific breathing exercises and even certain sexual maneuvers (less common and more historical) to balance yin and yang energy.  To work with the mind, these practitioners follow Taoist meditation, which is similar in many ways to raja yoga meditation; this psychophysical form of meditation is aimed at sense withdrawal, tuning out distractions and emptying the mind to allow a direct connection with the self.   “Taoist yogis sought to harness the Tao directly, drawing it first into their own heart-minds and then beaming it to others” (Smith, 202). 

D.    Vicarious Power: Religious Taoism: Taoism was born in China.  This third approach to Taoism is the one that was historically most suitable for the majority of Chinese.  Philosophical Taoism requires a considerable time commitment for reflection and work on the self, and Taoist health regimes are time consuming and also somewhat expensive.  The ordinary villagers and workers needed solutions to meet their needs, and the Taoist priesthood came in with their set of practices to supply them.  “Church Taoism” developed in the second century A.D., revolving around a pantheon of deities, the major originating one being Lao Tzu.  An important thing to keep in mind is that this sort of polytheistic approach is not equal to the Western concepts of theism and monotheism, in that merging with the Tao is more like living in accordance with nature.  In addition, there is no union with an eternal spirit, as in the Hindu belief system. 

Religious Taoism included practices which look a lot like magic, superstition, faith healing and shamanism.  This ritualistic, cosmic sort of approach was appealing to the masses because it allowed them to believe that they could “harness higher powers for humane ends” (Smith, 206).  In his chapter on Taoism, Huston Smith warns the reader against being overly dismissive of magic, by including this quote from the Lutheran mystic, Jacob Boehme: “Magic is the best theology, for in it true faith is grounded.  He is a fool that reviles it, for he knows it not and is more a juggler than a theologian of understanding.” 

Describe the relationship between the three kinds of Taoism: All three types of Taoist practice focus on building up and disseminating te: Philosophical Taoism conserves and utilizes it optimally, Taoist Hygiene and Yoga work to increase the base amount of it, and Religious Taoism aims to gather te and spread it out to the masses. 

4.     Define:

A.    Wu Wei: This is a beautiful Taoist concept of the optimal approach to life.  This Chinese phrase is often inappropriately translated into English as “inaction,” but wu wei is not idleness or stillness.  Smith describes it as “pure effectiveness and creative quietude,” or the merging of two conditions, “supreme activity and supreme relaxation” (207).  It is effective action without strain and struggle.  I think of Yoda who said, “don’t try; do.”  A Taoist teacher also said that to me, once.  I also think of it is the moments we find in our work where we are truly experiencing flow.  All of life can be like this, according to the Taoists and the Jedi. 

B.     Ch’i: This enigmatic word is sometimes translated as “breath,” and it means “life force” or “vital energy.”  In Yoga, a very similar concept is that of prana, which is also translated as “breath.”  Acupuncturists, trained according to Chinese medicine, attempt to facilitate the correct balance of ch’i in the body.  Ch’i can be excessive or deficient, or both, within the same person.  When our ch’i is balanced, we are healthy and radiant. 

C.     Yin and Yang: These are the two sides of the coin of existence.  They come together to form a balanced whole.  I have always learned that Yin is the softer, more feminine, receptive and passive side of experience.  Some say it is darker.  Yang is the active, strong, masculine and productive side.  As an example, in my experience meditation feels more Yin and prayer feels more Yang.  When I pray, I talk to God, often out loud.  When I meditate, I am quiet, still and receptive.  The Yin/Yang polarity is meant to encompass “all of life’s basic oppositions” (Smith, 214).  When thinking about Yin and Yang, it is important to remember that according to Taoism, and the majority of Eastern philosophies taken together, the notion of relativity is key: “All values and concepts…are ultimately relative to the mind that entertains them” (Smith 215).  So even though Yin and Yang represent oppositional forces, there is no absolute value attached to any side of a polarity, such as our concept of Good vs. Evil in the West. 

5.     Describe one feature of the Taoist tradition or teachings that is most meaningful to you personally and how it relates to your own experience and self-understanding. 

The single most powerful lesson I have learned from this tradition, through personal experience with acupuncture, Chinese medicine and study of the Tao to treat an illness, is this: resistance prolongs suffering and prohibits the healthy flow of energy.  There is a famous saying by Carl Jung, “what you resist persists.”  That is one of the principles of Taoism.  Resistance takes us out of the flow and mires us into the quicksand.  If we want to remove energy blocks, we have to let go and let everything flow.  This is not easy, and it’s what keeps acupuncturists, doctors and therapists of all kinds in business.  In Star Trek, the Borg say, “Resistance is futile.  You will be assimilated.” We can assimilate into the Tao, once we let go of resistance. 

6.     Identify the following names:

A.    Chuang Tzu: China’s first historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, provides the major source of historical information about Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu.  Chuang Tzu was a Chinese scholar and philosopher who lived around the time of the 4th century BCE.  Along with Lao Tzu, he is one of the two defining figures of Taoism.  He was a fierce critic of Confucius and his disciples, and he was a pioneer of relativist philosophy.  Subjectivism and holism are two other words that aptly describe his skeptical philosophy.  He believed that we learn best through observing the natural world, and that we cannot establish any universally objective standards when it comes to our experience.

B.     Confucius: Confucius was born in 551 BCE.  He came from a warrior family, and though he was raised mostly in poverty by his mother, a widow, he rose to the position of Justice Minister.  He is known as China’s greatest thinker and social philosopher.  His teachings have been grouped into the school of philosophy knows as Confucianism, which has also been observed as a religion in China.  No texts have been proven to be directly authored by him, but his teachings can be found in the Analects of Confucius.  Confucianism is an ethical, socially based system of teachings that provide a stable and enduring cultural model for family, society and government.  Confucius observed ancestor worship and taught extensively on family loyalty and respect for elders.  He believed the family to be the basis for ideal government.  Like other great religious teachers of the world, he taught the ethic of reciprocity, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  His teachings are practical rather than metaphysical, and he championed the importance of study for arriving at truth.  His works were translated into European languages by Jesuit scholars living in China, and his teachings influenced Western Enlightenment philosophers. 

C.     Lao Tzu: Lao Tzu is reported to have been born in approximately 604 BCE.  His name is translated as, “The Grand Old Master.”  Most of what we know about him is based upon legend.  It is said that when he became disillusioned with his people’s refusal to “cultivate […] natural goodness,” he climbed on top of a water buffalo and started on a journey towards Tibet (Smith, 197).  At the Hankao Pass, a gatekeeper tried to persuade him to turn around, and when Lao Tzu would not, the gatekeeper asked him to write down a record of his beliefs to leave behind as a legacy for his people; the result of this was the Tao Te Ching, the 5,000 character volume which is the basis of Taoism.  Many scholars reject the idea that a single person wrote the Tao Te Ching, and some postulate that it reached its current form in the second half of the 3rd century BCE. 

7.     Write a response to a selection of your choice from the sacred text The Tao Te Ching.

True to the comparative and equalizing spirit of this interfaith study program, the following analysis is a side by side comparison of similar verses from the Tao Te Ching and the New Testament of the Bible.  

To be one with the subtle essence of the universe is to enjoy everlasting life.  Such a one will be preserved, even after the dissolution of his physical body. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 16 
Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life. –JOHN 4: 13-14
One who embraces the subtle essence dies yet does not perish and enjoys true immortality. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 33
This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever. […] It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. -JOHN 6: 58, 63

Christianity emphasizes the concept of eternal life; the true believer is promised a life everlasting.  Along with Islam, Christianity is criticized for its insistence upon an afterlife and the belief that our existence on Earth is a mere preparation for eternity in the Kingdom of God.  What is meant by “eternal life?”
I was surprised to find references to eternal life in the Tao Te Ching.  Here was an opportunity to approach this concept from a different cultural perspective.
In placing these Taoist and Christian verses side by side, we see that the “bread of life” and “living water” are metaphors for the subtle essence of the universe.  They are a resource available to us, an ever present truth that is simple, yet impossible to grasp.  You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. -JOHN 8:32.  Grasp it, but it is beyond your reach. […] There is nothing that can make this subtle essence of the universe distinct. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 14. The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit. –JOHN 3:8.

Our culture wants to make all things literal.  We strive to rationalize and simplify.  We have heard people say, “Every word of the Bible is true,” and other such meaningless statements.  Because the reported words of Jesus have been filtered through the lens of interpretation for over two thousand years, the truth in Jesus’ words is veiled in deeper layers of mystery.  This is why comparative study with other spiritual texts is so illuminating.

Those of us with strong faith believe that spiritual truth is universal.  We know it is omnipresent.  It has existed in all places from time immemorial.  Seeing it expressed by other writers, from other traditions, in fresh permutations can unlock new doors in our hearts and minds.

So what does it mean to have eternal life?  Which is the part of us that lives on? How may we drink living water and embrace the subtle essence of the universe?  According to Jesus, we must be born again, of the spirit.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. […] unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. -JOHN 3: 3-5. According to Lao Tzu, we must renew ourselves.  Renewal and rebirth are parallel concepts. Yet, they all must return to the root again, each to its simple source.  Knowing to return to the root is to be refreshed.  This is called subtle revitalization. To know constant renewal is to have achieved clarity. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 16.

Spirit is not evident to us.  The subtle essence of the universe is not apparent.  Jesus taught the “way”, indeed, he said that he is the way, the truth and the life.  The Tao Te Ching teaches the subtle way of the universe.  Jesus was tortured and crucified at the hands of men, wearing a crown of thorns, yet his emergence on the Earth changed the face of history.  Lao Tzu wrote, The subtle Way of the universe appears to lack strength, yet its power is inexhaustible. TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 4.

8.     Write a description of your site visit/experiential:

While I do not have a report of a singular physical site visit, I am able to report at length on a long-term and physically concrete experience with Taoism, specifically the type of Taoism that Smith refers to as the “Taoist revitalizing programs,” or “Taoist Hygiene and Yoga.”  Because of my prolonged experience with Lyme disease and some resultant nerve damage, I regularly received acupuncture treatments for several years.  I saw four different acupuncture and Chinese medicine practitioners.  The first was a Chinese doctor in New York City’s Chinatown.  The second was an American practitioner in Brooklyn.  The third, and the most important for my experiential, was my long-term acupuncturist in Westchester, NY, who is also a qigong instructor and who follows Taoist teachings in his own spiritual life.  The fourth was an acupuncturist with a lifetime of experience as a practitioner, who also teaches qigong and Buddhist meditation and who is an adherent to Philosophical Taoism.  I am grateful for my experience with each of the gifted practitioners I saw, but as I mentioned, the third was the one who truly exemplified for me the way to heal according to the Tao.  

I first saw my long-term acupuncturist the very day I found out I was pregnant with my second child.  As this was an unplanned pregnancy, my feelings vacillated between joy and fear.  I cried on the way to the visit.  My acupuncturist was the first person to find out about the pregnancy from me because it was mandatory to disclose this information; acupuncture points for pregnant women differ widely from the norm.  From that moment, we had sealed a bond between patient and healer, and I was immediately centered by his energy.  I can say without reservation that my treatment experience with him changed my life.  I saw him weekly for a great deal of that pregnancy, and thereafter I saw him off and on for another year and a half.  I came into the experience knowing something about the acupuncture points that worked for me and with a general openness to Chinese medicine, including herbal medicine and Taoist teachings.  

Here is how a session would go: I would be invited to come in and get settled on the treatment table.  He would then take my wrist in his hands and touch certain points on it, close his eyes, and read my ch’i ; he was very quiet and focused.  He had other diagnostic methods, but the initial wrist reading always seemed to be the most important.  I started to notice that although I was always quiet, when I felt flighty or distracted, reading my energy seemed to be a bit more difficult for him, almost like listening to a voice when there is static on a telephone line.  That was the sense I got.  

I always felt a grounding and warming presence when I entered his office.  He maintained his own energy in such a way that it brought balance to me, every time.  As we got to know one another, sometimes he was talkative, but nothing ever seemed like idle chit chat.  It seemed to me that everything he did and said had a specific purpose.  The way he worked seemed effortless to me, in the wu wei sense. 
Physically, by manipulating my individual ch’i , my acupuncturist was able to treat a host of physical and psychological imbalances, ranging from pregnancy related nausea, back pain from nursing, chronic pain from Lyme, headaches, cranial nerve damage, sleeplessness and anxiety.  His methods worked better for me than any remedy I have ever tried for anything.  I remember a lot of my acupuncture points and I use acupressure on myself from time to time.  

I am describing this relationship as my experiential because it gave me a real feel for the Tao.  I learned so much from him about the dietary practices and the herbal remedies used by Taoists.  I learned about balancing the tastes and temperatures of the various foods I eat, to reach a palpable equilibrium within my body; this is a very intuitive way to approach diet, and I use it to this day.  Sometimes I need heat, and other times I want to be cooled by what I eat.  Sometimes I need to mix bitter with sweet, or I know that my body needs to ingest a certain tangy flavor.  I also learned about using movement to reorganize the energy in the body.  I took his advice in this area and adapted it to my yoga practice, even though he would have probably preferred to teach me qigong movements.  He talked to me about meditation and spiritual practice, and this was very helpful for me.  We were able to exchange views in this area, and I gained a lot from noticing the discipline and confidence that came out of his Taoist practice.


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