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by Dr. Douglas K. Chung
Professor at Grand Valley State University School
of Social Work, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Li Erh (6th century BCE) commonly known as Lao Tzu (the Old Master), was a contemporary of Confucius. He was the keeper of the imperial library, but in his old age he disappeared to the west, leaving behind him the Tao Te Ching (Book of Tao and Virtue).

Taoism derived its name from this profoundly wise book, only about 5,000 words in length. It can be used as a guide to the cultivation of the self as well as a political manual for social transformation at both the micro and macro levels. The philosophy of Taoism and its belief in immortals can be traced back to the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Ti. That is why Taoism is often called the "Huang-Lao" philosophy.

Taoism believes "Tao" to be the cosmic, mysterious, and ultimate principle underlying form, substance, being, and change. Tao encompasses everything. It can be used to understand the universe and nature as well as the human body. For example, "Tao gives birth to the One, the One gives birth to Two, and from Two emerges Three, Three gives birth to all the things. All things carry the Yin and the Yang, deriving their vital harmony from the proper blending of the two vital forces." (Tao Te Ching, ch. 42) Tao is the cause of change and the source of all nature, including humanity. Everything from quanta to solar systems consists of two primary elements of existence, Yin and Yang forces, which represent all opposites. These two forces are complementary elements in any system and result in the harmony or balance of the system. All systems coexist in an interdependent network. The dynamic tension between Yin and Yang forces in all systems results in an endless process of change: production and reproduction and the transformation of energy. This is the natural order.

Tao and virtue are said to be the same coin with different sides. The very title Tao Te Ching means the canon of Tao and Virtue. Lao Tzu says, "The Highest Virtue is achieved through non-action. It does not require effort, "because virtue is natural to people. This is what is meant by "Tao creates and Virtue sustains" (ch. 51).

Taoists believe that Tao has appeared in the form of sages and teachers of humankind, as, for example, Fu Hsi, the giver of the "Pa Qua" (eight trigrams) and the arts of divination to reveal the principles of Tao. The "Pa Qua" is the foundation of the I Ching and represents the eight directions of the compass associated with the forces of nature that make up the universe. There are two forms of the "Pa Qua": the "Pa Qua" of the Earlier Heaven (the "Ho To"), which describes the ideal state of existence, and the "Pa Qua" of Later Heaven ("Lo Shu"), which describes a state of disharmonious existence. The path of the Return to the Tao is the process of transforming Later Heaven into Earlier Heaven. In other words, it is the process of a reunification with Tao, of being transformed from a conflicting mode to a harmonious mode.

The conflicting mode is the destructive or waning cycle of the Five Elements (metal, wood, earth, water and fire). The destructive cycle consists of metal destroying wood (axes cutting trees); wood dominating earth as the roots of the trees dig into the ground (power domination); earth mastering water and preventing the flood (anti-nature forces); water destroying fire (anti-nature causes pollution that destroys the beauty of the world); and fire melting metals (pollution).

Taoists believe that through both personal and social transformation we can convert the destructive cycle of the Five Elements into a creative cycle of the Five Elements -- to change from a conflicting mode of life into a supportive way of living. The creative cycle of the Five Elements is this: metal in the veins of the earth nourishes the underground waters (purification); water gives life to vegetation and creates wood (nourishment); wood feeds fire to create ashes forming earth (nature recycling). The cycle is completed when metal is formed in the veins of the earth. The path of the Return to the Tao is clearly needed in light of today's concerns about energy and environment.

Taoism believes in the value of life. Taoists do not focus on life after death, but rather emphasize practical methods of cultivating health to achieve longevity. Therefore, Taoism teaches people to enhance their health and longevity by minimizing their desires and centering themselves on stillness. Taoists firmly believe that human lives are in our control. For example, Lao Tzu promotes "Chi Kung" (breathing exercise) to enhance life (ch. 5, 20, 52). He offers three methods of life enhancement:

  1. Keeping original "oneness," that is, to integrate energy, chi, and spirit;
  2. Maintaining one's vital energy in order to retain the flexibility and adaptability a newborn baby has;
  3. Persisting in practice for longevity (ch. 10, 52, 59). To practice Chi Kung is to practice the path of the Return to the Tao on an individual level to integrate physical, emotional, and spiritual development for health and longevity.

Taoism advocates nonaggressive, nonviolent, peaceful coexistence of states. For example, Lao Tzu describes an ideal state as one in which people love their own country and lifestyle so much that, even though the next country is so close the citizens can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it (ch. 80). Lao Tzu regards weapons as the tools of violence; all decent people detest them. He recommends that the proper demeanor after a military victory should be the same as that at a funeral (ch. 31).

Taoism advocates a minimum of government intervention, relying instead on individual development to reach a natural harmony under Tao's leading. To concentrate on individual development is to practice the path of the Return to the Tao on a macro level. Lao Tzu writes:

The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. (ch. 37)

If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. (ch. 57).

Act without doing, work without effort. Think of the small as large and the few as many. Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts. The Master never reaches for the great; thus achieves greatness. (ch. 63)

Prevent trouble before it arises. Put things in order before they exist. The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout. The journey of a thousand miles starts from your first step. (ch. 64)

Lao Tzu's view of social distribution is this:

Tao adjusts excess and deficiency so that there is perfect balance. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn't enough. Those who try to control, who use force to protect their power, go against the direction of the Tao. They take from those who don't have enough and give to those who have far too much. (ch. 77)

Basically, Taoists promote a way of life that exhibits six characteristics (Ho, 1988):

  1. determining and working with the Tao when making changes;
  2. basing one's life on the laissez faire principle -- let nature follow its own course as its guideline for change;
  3. modeling one's life on the sage, on nature, and thus on the Tao;
  4. emphasizing the Tao's strategy of reversal transformation;
  5. focusing on simplicity and originality;
  6. looking for intuitive awareness and insight and deemphasizing rational and intellectual efforts.

These characteristics are the essential Taoist guidelines for personal and social development.

Taoism in the World Today

The people of the world today are confronted with the problems of environmental pollution, fragmentation, competition, dehumanization, and no common agreement on what constitutes an ideal society. In this world of conflict and unrest, a world that is nevertheless interdependent, Taoists still search to provide natural ways of solving problems. They gain the strength to transform their own lives and thereby to fulfill their mission. They try to help individuals as well as societies to transform from a way of life based on conflict to a harmonious way of life.

The practitioners of Taoism and those who are influenced by its philosophy include environmentalists, naturalists, libertarians, wildlife protectors, natural food advocates or vegetarians, and many physicists. More and more Westerners are able to appreciate Taoism through international contacts and Taoist literature.

Dr. Eva Wong, the director of studies at Fung Loy Kok Taoist Temple, is a member of the state of Colorado's Interfaith Advisory Council to the governor. She translated Cultivating Stillness: A Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind (1992). She also offers graduate-level courses on Taoist and Buddhist philosophy at the University of Denver. Fung Loy Kok Taoist Temple has two branch temples in the United States and four temples in Canada. These temples offer various activities, including scripture study, lectures, meditation, classes in chi-kung, cooking, retreats, kung-fu, and training in traditional Lion Dance.

Chungliang A. Huang formed the Living Tao Foundation to promote Tao sports and to publish various books related to Tao. Many people practice chi-kung, Tai-chi chuan and acupuncture daily even without knowing that they are practicing Taoism.


"Trees and animals, humans and insects, flowers and birds: these are active images of the subtle energies that flow from the stars throughout the universe. Meeting and combining with each other and the elements of the Earth, they give rise to all living things. The superior person understands this, and understands that her own energies play a part in it. Understanding these things, she respects the Earth as her mother, the heavens as her father, and all living things as her brothers and sisters."

"Those who want to know the truth of the universe should practice...reverence for all life; this manifests as unconditional love and respect for oneself and all other beings."

-- LAO TZU (translated by Brian Walker)

"If you want to nourish a bird, you should let it live any way it chooses. Creatures differ because they have different likes and dislikes. Therefore the sages never require the same ability from all creatures. . . concepts of right should be founded on what is suitable. The true saint leaves wisdom to the ants, takes a cue from the fishes, and leaves willfulness to the sheep."


Taken from A SourceBook for Earth's Community of Religions

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