The Road That's Not a Road: Taoism and Its Teachings

Confucian teachings are, for the most part, easy for us to understand and appreciate.  There's much there that can transcend cultures--and I think most students can see ways in which we would be better of in our own political situation if our leaders emphasized some of the Confucian principles.  Sometimes, Confucian teachings are a bit strange to our ears: but most of what the Confucians taught is no more difficult for us than the Bible.  Far different are the teachings of another important Chinese religious philosophy, Taoism.

The first great Taoist teacher was Lao Tzu, a slightly older contemporary of Confucius.  There are stories of the two men meeting, and even a hint that Lao Tzu may have helped Confucius find the right path: the Tao, the way.   Confucian tradition does include some important Taoist concepts, including the idea that there is a "Tao."  Likewise, the Confucians sometimes talk about the Yin-Yang idea.  But Taoist teachings are much stranger to our ears than those of Confucius, and, in many ways, the Taoist approach to life is far different from that of the Confucians.

Here's a typical Taoist passage:

The Tao that can be told is not the Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; the Named is the mother of all things. Therefore, let there always be nonbeing, so we may see there subtlety, And let there always be being, so we may see there outcome. The two are the same, but after they are produced they have different names. They both may be called deep and profound. Deeper and more profound, the door of all subtleties.

Now note that the Taoists specifically say that Taoism cannot be taught in the way we typically approach things in the West.  This lecture stuff is not for them!  So do know that what I say below, a true Taoist would argue is *not* really what there believe is all about.  Still, in my typical Western analytic way, this is what I come up with.

"Tao" means the "way."  But the way to what?  Apparently, what Taoists are trying to find is the way to inner peace and contentment. How do you get this inner peace?

    1.  Simplicity. Cease from strife and, especially, from warfare.  The world is composed of pairs of opposites symbolized by the Yin Yang: male/female, hot/cold, light/dark, dry/moist.  The trick is to see these principles *not* as conflicting, but as working together to form a natural harmony.

    2.  Anarchy.  Rules get in the way of finding this natural harmony. The less government, the better.  Obviously, this is very different not just from West, but from Confucianism.

    3.  Wisdom.  What is Taoist wisdom?  Well, it’s easiest to say what it is not.  Unlike Confucius who says we have to study to become wise, the Taoists say learning (especially book learning) is bad!

True words are not fine-sounding; fine sounding words are not true.  Good people do not argue; Argumentative people are not good.  Wise people are not learned; the learned are not wise.

So how do we get this wisdom?  Well I guess we just sort of absorb it be listening to Taoist masters.  Here are some passages from the Tao Te Ching, an anthology of Lao-Tzu's teachings from around 250 BC.

The sage has no fixed opinions; the opinions of ordinary people become his own.  I am good to people who are good; I am also good to those who are not good: that is the goodness of virtue.  I believe honest people; I also believe the dishonest.  This is the trust of virtues.

When beauty is recognized, ugliness is born.  When good is recognize, evil is born.  Is and is not gives rise to each other; difficult requires easy; long is measured by short; high is determined by low; sound is harmonized by voice; Back follows front.  Therefore the sage applies himself to non-action, moves without speaking, creates the ten thousand things without hindrance, lives, but does not possess, acts, but does not presume, accomplishes but takes no credit.  Since no credit is taken, his accomplishments endure.

Do not exalt heroes, and people will not quarrel.  Do not value rare objects, and people will not steal.  Don’t display things of desire, and their hearts will not be troubled. Therefore, the sage governs by emptying their hearts and filling their stomachs, discouraging their ambitions and strengthening their bones; keeps the learned from imposing on others; practices non-action, and the natural order is not disturbed.

When superior people hear of Tao, they endeavor to live in accordance with it.  When the mediocre here of Tao, sometimes they are aware of it, and sometimes they are not.  When the lowest type hear of the Tao, they break into loud laughter.  If it were not laughed at, it would not be Tao.

And then there's this from the Taoists:

"Abandon learning, and there will be no sorrow!"

Well, perhaps.  I suspect the Confucians among my students (those who love to learn and from time to time repeat what they have learned) have a much happier time than those who adopt the Taoist philosophy. Further, the lack of a fixed set of teaching/doctrines means that Taoism can drift all over the place. In many places, Taoism today has degenerated into a set of magic rituals and formulas. Some scholars separate the teachings of Lao Tzu from Taoist practice by pointing to the former as "philosophic" Taoism. 

Philosophic Taoism, the original teaching of Lao-Tzu, is perhaps more faithfully followed by Zen Buddhists (those who blend Buddhism and Taoism) rather than by contemporary Taoists.  If you read the Zen Buddhist selections in your Novak anthology, I think you will see the similarities.

But a word of caution about Novak.  As I've told you, Novak embraces the Huston Smith view of the essential compatibility of all religions, and he's chosen texts that support that view.  He avoids subjects on which the Taoists are radically different in their attitudes.  For instance, notice that Taoist scriptures include advice that pretty much amounts to a manual for sex:

ADVICE FOR MEN (cultivating the Yang)

The Master of Pure Harmony [Chonghezi] says: Those who would cultivate their yang energy must not allow women to steal glimpses of this art. Not only is this of no benefit to one's yang energy, but it may even lead to injury or illness. This is what is called: "Lend a man your sword and when the time comes to roll up sleeves for a fight you cannot win."

According to Pengzu the Long-Lived, if a man wishes to derive the greatest benefit [from sexual techniques], it is best to find a woman who has no knowledge of them. He also had better choose young maidens for mounting, because then his complexion will become like a maiden's. When it comes to women, one should be vexed only by their not being young. It is best to obtain those between fourteen or fifteen and eighteen or nineteen. In any event, they should never be older than thirty. Even those under thirty are of no benefit if they have given birth. My late master handed down these methods and himself used them to live for three thousand years. If combined with drugs, they will even lead to immortality.

In practicing the union of yin and yang to increase your energy and cultivate long life, do not limit yourself to just one woman. Much better to get three, nine, or eleven: the more the better! Absorb her secreted essence by mounting the "vast spring" and reverting the essence upward. Your skin will become glossy, your body light, your eyes bright, and your energy so strong that you will be able to overcome all your enemies. Old men will feel like twenty and young men will feel their strength increased a hundredfold.

When having intercourse with women, as soon as you feel yourself aroused, change partners. By changing partners you can lengthen your life. If you return habitually to the same woman, her yin energy will become progressively weaker and this will be of little benefit to you.

The Daoist master Gray Ox [Qingniu] agrees that it is very beneficial to change female partners frequently. More than ten in one night is especially good. If one constantly has intercourse with the same woman, he insists, her yin energy will become weak. This is not only of no great benefit to the man, but will cause her to become thin and emaciated.

ADVICE FOR WOMEN (cultivating the Yin)

The Queen Mother [essentially a goddess] had no husband but was fond of intercourse with young boys.  If this is not fit to be taught to the world, how is it that such an elevated personage as the Queen Mother herself practiced it?

When having intercourse with a man, first calm your heart and still your mind. If the man is not yet fully aroused, wait for his energy to arrive and slightly restrain your emotion to attune yourself to him. Do not move or become agitated, lest your yin essence become exhausted first. If this happens, you will be left in a deficient state and susceptible to cold wind illness.

There are women who became jealous and vexed when they hear that their husbands have intercourse with another woman. Then their yin essence is aroused, they sit up indignantly, and the essential secretions come forth spontaneously. Wanness and premature aging result from this.

If a woman knows the way of cultivating her yin and causing the two energies to unite in harmony, they can be transformed into a male child. If she does not have intercourse for the sake of offspring, she can divert the fluids to flow back into the hundred vessels [of her body]. By using yang to nourish yin, the various ailments disappear, her complexion becomes radiant and her flesh strong. Then she can enjoy long life without aging and be young forever.

If a woman is able to master this Tao and has frequent intercourse with men, she can avoid all grain for nine days without getting hungry.  Even those who are sick and have sexual relations with ghosts attain this ability to fast.  But they become emaciated after a while.  So how much more beneficial must it be to have intercourse with men?


There is Master Great Man....

Stopping, he grasps his wine-cup an maintains his goblet;
Moving, he carries a casket and holds a jar in his hand.
His only obligation is toward wine,
And of this he knows abundance....

Utterly free he is from yearnings and worries,
Always happy and full in his contentment.
Without ever moving he gets drunk,
Then, with a start he sobers up.

Listens quietly, but does not hear the rolling of thunder...
Unaware of the cold biting the flesh he is,
Unmoved by the afflictions of covetousness.
Looking down he watches the myriad beings bustling about
Like tiny pieces of duckweed that float on the Han and Jiang

Well--here's a world religion for you--a religion that obviously enough has an appeal to a certain kind of individual, and I suppose it's no great surprise to you that Taoism found plenty of followers in the 1960's and 1970's counter-culture.  But while individuals might be happy with Taoist balance, it's hard to see how Taoism could possibly work for a society as a whole--at least for very long.