The Road That's Not a Road: Taoism and Its
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?
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.
"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.
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
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 VALUE OF DRUNKENNESS (Liu Ling, c. 265 AD)
There is Master Great
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.
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