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The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu

S. L.

Lao Tzu

The tradditional view is that the Tao Te Ching, the central classic of the taoist school of thought, was written by a man named Lao Tzu who was an older contemporary of Confucius (551-479BC). Many modern scholars however believe that there was no such historical personage and that the work is perhaps better viewed as an anthology compiled of short passages, some reflecting the doctrines of the time and others representing sayings of considerable antiquity. Either way it seems likely that the work is a record of an oral traddition and thereby without unique definitive interpretation; many of its ideas were probably common property to the followers of various different schools sharing a common tendency in thought.



Defining the Tao

The tao [way] is said to be that principle responsible for the creation and support of the universe. Since it exists before the universe, it can be thought of (if only perhaps in a figurative sense) as the generating force.  Early traditions in Chinese thought usually had the role of creator belonging to t'ien [heaven] with the tao then defined as the way that heaven followed (or as the way that man ought to follow). But with the work of Lao Tzu the tao becomes a completely independant entity. There is a blurring of the line between the tao as a thing and the tao as an abstract principle, and the two are said to be necessarily confused because they share the common characteristic of trancending the senses. While the tao is often described in terms of tangible qualities as if it were a concrete thing, Lao Tzu affirms that no terms can properly be applied to it since all such descriptors, in being specific, necessarily limit its description. If it is to be said to be like certain particular things then it cannot, by implication, be like certain other things. In trying to better capture a description of its nature, the whole idea of opposite terms becomes important. There is, throughout the work, an inference of there being something fundamental in that canon of opposites which structure our language and our view of the world; there is the inference that it says something about the essential nature of the universe and that that something is illuminated by our attempts to describe the tao. Consistently in these attempts then, it is always the lower terms - the "weak", the "submissive" and the "bent" - that are thought of as being the more useful (or at least, as less misleading) in such descriptions. This is important for the development of the later ethical part of the doctrine.  Lao Tzu concludes to characterise the tao as plural in manifestation but singular in essence, as totaly real but totally unknowable, as nonpersonal and amoral. He urges that men should model themselves upon the tao, as the path of least resistance through life. In order for them to do that, they must appreciate how it functions.


The Movement of the Tao

The operation of the tao is often misinterpreted as a process of cyclical change, as an endless round of development and decline, but the lesson that Lao Tzu teaches is for us to "hold fast to the submissive". Such a precept would be useless if it were to be given in the face of inevitable decline; it would be impracticable if it meant trying to remain stationary in a world of inexorable and incessant change. Accordingly, decline is not always inevitable and stasis is not Lao Tzu's prescription.


Meditation upon the nature of things

Meditation as intuition drawn from observation shows that while development is typicaly slow and gradual, decline is contrastingly quick and abrupt; that while development seems to require some external motive, decline comes about as an intrinsic inevitability. In man, it is said that desire and covetousness spur him on to be ever wanting greater gratification. It is necessary to counter these natural tendencies by trying to know contentment, to "know when to stop".  (Or, indeed, as is occasionaly implied, to know when not to even start: if one never contends then this at least ensures that one never suffers defeat ). Again there is a common misinterpretation that "doing nothing" is meant to be singularly negative and pessimistic. But it is connected with that (counter-intuitive) privileging of lower terms. Lao Tzu speaks of the "nothing" between the spokes of a wheel and the "nothing" within the walls of a vessel, claiming it is that which adapts such things to their purposes. He says of the empty vessel that it has the purpose of containment by virtue of its emptiness but that, when full, it has lost the "nothing" and achieved its purpose.


The Lessons of the Tao

Lao Tzu would have man emulate the tao by according due respect to the no-thing in things. He says that man should aim to be "without action" and "without name". By being "without action" it is meant for him to be innocent of knowledge inasmuch as to free him from desire; happiness comes from striking the balance in favour of subsisting, not consuming. By being "without name" it is meant for him to be able to give without claiming possession and to benefit without exacting gratitude; happiness comes from striking the balance in favour of being self-effacing and not egotistical. Politics and ethics are regarded as two aspects of the same thing.  Consequently the lessons that are taught by meditation upon the consequences of the movement of the tao are intended to be applied as much to social government as to personal conduct. With Lao Tzu, the taoist always sees the relation between macrocosm and microcosm, a relation that pervades the taoist metaphysic. The nature of all things is in their te [virtue], and it is by virtue of their te that such things are what they are. Te is spoken of as what they "get" from the tao. The flux between things and their opposites is balanced by the operation of the tao through interdependant principles in yin and yang, (the one seen as active and appetative, the other as passive and vegetative). Ultimately, the apparent fact of opposition is merely relative and the logical conclusion of taoism is to destroy those very distinctions, leaving behind only ch'i [energy]. It is in the appreciation of this, that the taoist derives his ethic from an aesthetic, and in application his living achieves a harmony with his being alive. "When carrying on your head your perplexed bodily soul can you embrace in your arms the One And not let go?"

emailS. L.
The Dream of Life - Chuang Tzu



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Nei Tan (Taoist Alchemy)



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essay © S.L. 1999
page first revised 6 November 1999, last modified 21 November 2003