This is the first in a series of six articles on fundamental Taoist principles. Each commentary will focus on explaining and understanding a separate principle and its application to daily living.
The Circle of Tao
We have all had the experience, at one time or another, of being deeply connected with something larger than ourselves. This often happens in nature. Watching a sunset or hiking in the mountains or woods, you feel a oneness with your surroundings. Similarly, a feeling of expansion and wellbeing can result from enjoying works of art or undergoing a profound realization or insight. And certainly relationships with others, whether involving love and friendship, or feelings of compassion, can evoke this same response.
In each of these situations, at least momentarily, we transcend the narrow confines of our separate sense of self and encounter an expanded reality. We find ourselves wholly present, experiencing fully what is taking place. The boundaries between us and the outer world seem to vanish. These occurrences are often special and memorable, deeply meaningful and profoundly satisfying. In these moments it can be said that we have entered the Circle of Tao, the experience of oneness with all life.
The Chinese wisdom tradition of Taoism traces its beginnings back five thousand years to our earliest human history and to those people we would describe as shamans, seers, or healers. These women and men used their superb powers of observation and remarkable gifts of intuitive understanding to develop a profound awareness of the workings of the universe, of how life functions. They named this process “tao”. The first actual written works on Taoist thought appeared around 500 BCE and are attributed to the legendary Taoist sages, Lao Tzu, whose Tao Te Ching is considered the seminal work of this tradition, and Chuang Tzu, whose Inner Chapters is also regarded as a classic Taoist text.
The word Tao has several meanings and many applications. Primarily, Tao refers to the eternal, life-giving force of the universe. Tao is the universe. It is also the process by which the universe governs itself. It is all-inclusive. There is nothing outside Tao. It is, in Lao Tzu’s words, “the mother of all things”. Everything that takes form is an expression of the Tao. All of us are the Tao - you, me, people on the other side of the world, Christians, Muslims, atheists, plants, animals, rocks, air, good guys, bad guys – all one, all part of one whole.
Beneath the apparent separateness of “the ten thousand things” of everyday life is a deeper underlying unity.
A more contemporary way of stating this is that all life is a never-ending net or sea of energy energy. Tao is that energy, life-giving and benevolent.
Taoism is organized around several key principles and, like any philosophical outlook, presents a way of seeing and understanding reality. The word Tao itself translates as “the way”, or “path”. This meaning includes both “the way” in which we perceive the world around us (how do we make assessments? what are our values?) and also “the way” in which we interact with life (how do we behave? what are our actions?). The manner in which we understand reality influences our way of being in the world, and this becomes our path of action.
The early seekers discovered that Tao is most directly perceived in our immediate surroundings, in nature. By becoming aware of the patterns and cycles of nature, by understanding its characteristic ways of functioning, they arrived at three primary determinations: life constitutes an organic whole, a web of interconnectedness; the one constant in life is change; and there is within nature a dynamic movement towards a state of balance.
The ancient sages concluded that humans, being part of the Tao, could lead lives that would be characterized by the balanced, harmonious flow found in nature simply by following the same principles that governed the functioning of the universe. They also realized that this process of alignment would be natural to us, would allow our true nature to emerge. In this way we would achieve our true birthright, experiencing ourselves as an integral, rather than separate, element of creation. We would enter and become the Circle of Tao.
In this way Taoism offers a practical wisdom dedicated to personal well-being, social accord, and the accelerated evolution of individual consciousness. Its purpose has always been to assist humans in experiencing their essential nature as inseparable from that of the cosmos. As such the concepts of Taoism function as a guide to spiritual growth and transformation and are directly applicable to daily life.
An Expanded Awareness
One major challenge to this experience of unity and wholeness is our own human consciousness which can be regarded as a double-edged sword. On the one hand we are able to separate, distinguish, and evaluate. While this allows us to understand our world, make decisions, and take action, it can also restrict us to only seeing everything as separate from ourselves, blocking the experience that we are part of a larger whole.
The consequences of this type of perception, which often results in focusing only on our own individual needs, are evident. Environmentally we end up soiling our oceans, destroying natural habitat, and polluting the air. On a social level we allow history, geography, language, skin color, ethnicity, gender, and politics to create a sense of otherness with our fellow humans, which often leads to alienation, conflict, and war. Even on an intrapersonal level, we reject our own wholeness by judging, repressing, and denying painful or misunderstood parts ourselves, bringing about depression, shame, and low self-worth.
However, our consciousness, as part of the energy that is the Tao, can also experience itself as an integral part of the whole. This sense of wholeness allows us to function in a manner that promotes balance and harmony internally as well as on a larger scale. We then see that the needs of others and of our environment are in accord with our own needs. When our awareness attains this level, we naturally become a part of the Circle of Tao.
This principle - “All is Tao” - applies to all levels of existence, the universal and the personal.
Do you feel a part of your environment? Do you notice your environment - the air you breathe, the street you walk or drive on, the park you enjoy, the home in which you live?
How do you relate to these different aspects of your life?
Do you feel a connection with others in your life? Do you experience kinship and compassion not only for your fellow humans but with all living beings?
Do you honor your own self, accepting both strengths and limitations?
Note the ways in which you may split off from the environment, from others, from yourself. What are the underlying beliefs that cause you to do this? What are the feelings involved? What needs to happen so that “all is Tao”?
Mystery – The Art of Not-Knowing
The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching state, “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao. The name that can be named is not the true name.” Names, while useful, can be limiting. We must go beyond names and see the Tao in all things. In the same opening chapter Lao Tzu writes that to fully experience Tao one must enter its mystery, a mystery shrouded in darkness, “darkness within darkness.” To do so we are required to go beyond our traditional ways of thinking and perceiving, and beyond a traditional understanding of knowing itself.
Conventional knowledge is based on making distinctions and determinations, on gathering information. It is the realm of our rationality. However, this level of mind simply cannot encompass the vastness of life. Rationality is limited in the way it perceives. Our intuitive understanding, on the other hand, is connected to universal wisdom, to the Tao, and speaks our deepest truths. This understanding is experiential rather than intellectual. We become that understanding.
Chuang Tzu encourages us let go into “not-knowing”. When we stand in awe of the sunset we are not analyzing how it “sets”. We simply take in the experience. Our mind is calm, quiet, and empty, and we are fully present. We can also learn to bring the same letting go, the same “simply being”, to all areas of life, including those involving change or conflict. We learn to trust that whatever information is necessary to bring balance to a given situation is present in the Tao. And as part of the Tao, that information is available to us if we are open and receptive. Our rational mind can then apply that information in a skillful manner.
Whether we are appreciating nature’s work or facing some challenge in the world of human affairs, we can allow ourselves to experience and appreciate the mystery. Not fearing the unknown, we can enter the mystery, and from that “darkness within darkness” will emerge the order and balance that is characteristic of the movement of the Tao.
Are you aware of the mysterious in your life?
Enjoy the mystery! Recognize that there is a mystery.
Can you allow your internal Tao, your intuition, to guide you?
Learn to value your intuition. Insight, discovery, and creativity all come from a place beyond the logical mind.
How steadfastly do you hold to your beliefs and opinions as if they are the absolute truth?
Where do we find mystery? In nature (sunsets, walking in the wild, animals); in our creativity (art); in our relationships (children); in “miracles”
Allow yourself to “not know”. Allow the “answers” and solutions to arise from within, from the darkness, from the eternal Tao. The Tao “knows”.
Approach all things with a sense of wonder and awe and openness.
The Tao of Daily Living
Taoist teachings are intended to be utilized as a guide to daily living. Their greatest value lies in their ability to direct us toward our own process of self-exploration, growth, and transformation which connects us deeply to ourselves and to the world around us. The writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu provide us with excellent counsel on how to achieve this state of union with the Tao. It may be here that Taoism exhibits its greatest appeal for not only does it represent a way of connectedness, harmony, and balance, its “way” is one of naturalness and simplicity!
Many of us experience stress and difficulties in our lives. As we deal with challenges on personal, local, or global levels, we naturally seek solutions that will restore us to a more balanced, harmonious, and satisfying way of living. By recognizing and learning to follow the characteristics of the Tao we are able to gradually align ourselves with this great universal flow of energy. We learn to “go with the flow”. While this is a life-long process, every step along the Way connects us more intimately with our true nature, with the Tao. And, as Lao Tzu reminds us, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
In future articles we will examine five other main principles of Taoist thought which will support and strengthen our process of expanding our consciousness. By applying these principles we can cultivate our awareness of the interconnectedness of all life, and recognize our own path or “way” as inextricably linked with that of the surrounding world. This leads to an experience of natural self-balance and receptiveness to the natural and nourishing flow of the Tao. We release into the mystery of life and become part of its unity.
All is Tao
Plan a one-hour walk (or longer) alone in a natural setting. As you walk repeat the phrase, “All is Tao”, silently to yourself. Simply note your surroundings as well as your own responses to the environment. Try to do this on a regular basis. Make it a part of any regular activity – walking the dog, riding your bike, driving your car (traffic is also Tao).
Whenever you are confronted by a challenging situation, try to remember that “All is Tao”. You are Tao, your feelings are Tao, the challenge (person, place, or thing) is Tao. Being in the Circle of Tao can “blunt the sharpness” and “soften the glare” of daily life.
Imagine you are something else - a plant, an animal, an ocean wave, or a ray of sunlight. Try to picture your existence as that part of the Tao. What would that experience be like? Write about your experience.
This is the second in a series of six articles on fundamental Taoist principles. Each commentary will focus on explaining and understanding a separate principle along with its application to daily living.
Taoist teachings function as a guide to daily living. Their purpose is to assist us in experiencing our essential nature as inseparable from that of the cosmos, to be part of the flow of life. Gaining knowledge of the main principles of Taoist thought allows us to cultivate and strengthen our own process of self-exploration, growth, and transformation, and to connect us deeply to our inner nature and to the world around us. In this way we enter the Circle of Tao.
Yin and Yang
An important first step toward attaining this experience of interconnectedness is by learning to recognize and align ourselves with the movement of life itself. This is achieved through an understanding of yin and yang. This principle lies at the very root of the Taoist tradition and describes the underlying unity of life through the interplay of two primal forces.
Yin and yang are the two essential and interdependent energies of life. Though opposite in nature, they are not experienced as diametrically opposed, but rather as complementary and relative to one another. They arise from a common source, the Tao. Yang is characterized as creative, assertive, positive, and light, while yin is receptive, yielding, negative, and dark. It is important to note that these attributes are only descriptive and do not carry any moral value.
It is yin and yang make the world go round! Our entire physical reality is based on the interplay of these two energies. Whether it is the structure of DNA, with its positive and negative strands, the transmission of neurons in our brains, from a positively charged sender to a negatively charged receptor, the existence of the earth’s magnetic fields which regulate the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, or the makeup of electricity with its positive and negative currents - all of these processes take place because of these two opposing energies. Their interaction creates all manifestation. It is through them that the Tao reveals itself.
The original meaning of the term “yin-yang” signified the dark (yin) and light (yang) sides of a mountain. Early in the day, the sun would illuminate one part of the mountain while the other side would remain dark. As the sun moved across the sky it gradually began to light the opposite side while the earlier sunlit face became dark. Light and dark were not static but interacted with one another, defined one another, and actually assumed each other’s roles in the process of change. This describes the interplay of yin and yang.
Primal Unity - O
This image is named the Tai Chi Tu, or Supreme Ultimate Map. It is also sometimes referred to as the “yin-yang symbol”. You can see in this figure that the two energies are depicted as equally proportional, symbolizing a harmonious balance between the two. The small dot signifies that as each energy reaches its fullest expression it already carries the seed of its opposite. And the curved line suggests a flowing dynamic between the two - they are constantly changing, literally flowing into each other and becoming each other. (Remember the sunny and dark sides of the mountain.)
All is Tao. All opposites are in actuality part of one whole, giving rise to one another. Neither is excluded, neither one is superior to the other. There is a constant, natural flow between them. Lao Tzu, the immortal Taoist sage, reminds us that one polarity cannot exist without the other. If there is no “light”, there is no “dark”, no “up” without a “down”. He writes, "Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil." Then, more provocatively, he asks: "Is there a difference between yes and no?" “Is there a difference between good and evil?"
Chuang Tzu, another legendary Taoist sage, states that depending on your point of view, "Everything can be a 'that'; everything can be a 'this.' Therefore, 'that' comes from 'this' and 'this' comes from 'that' - which means 'that' and 'this' give birth to one another. When there is no more separation between 'that' and 'this', it is called being one with the Tao.”
All opposites - thoughts, views, opinions, interpretations, phenomena - all spring from a common source. Life is both yin and yang, it contains “good” and “evil”. It is how we respond to these energies that determines the quality of our lives.
Are you willing to explore and try to understand another’s viewpoint that is opposed to yours? Can you find the dot of yang in the sea of yin?
Lao Tzu writes that “evil” will change through the influence of its opposite.
What is your relationship to evil? Do you help create it by standing in direct opposition to it? Can you see it as part of the whole?
Have you ever had an “evil” thought? What might you learn from that?
Another aspect of yin and yang is the concept of change. The “Supreme Ultimate Map” charts out how life manifests through the interaction of yin and yang. First, there is continuous change. Secondly, as these two forces constantly interact, the process of change moves through recognizable, cyclical patterns, like the alternating of day and night or the turning of the seasons. When one energy becomes full and complete, the other begins to grow and ascend. "That which shrinks must first expand. That which fails must first be strong." Lao Tzu tells us that life is a process. For all things there is a natural expansion and contraction, on both the most minute and grandest levels. It is the breathing pattern of life itself.
Taoist texts speak of “living life in the round”. The “round” refers to the circle which encompasses the yin and yang energies. “Living life in the round” means being comfortable with the flow of energy as it passes through one phase and then the other. Knowledge of the cyclical process of events liberates us from an unbalanced view of the world.
Going with the flow implies that there is a larger life current with which we can align ourselves. Can you sense that energy, when it changes direction, the turning of the tide?
All things change and change is constant. Are you comfortable with change?
By recognizing patterns and stages of change we can practice appropriate timing. There is a time to act and a time to be still, a time to intercede and a time to yield.
Balance and Equality
Balance is central to yin and yang. The Tai Chi Tu presents these energies in a balanced state. Yet we also see that any point on the circle is balanced by a point on the other side. One can find and maintain balance anywhere within the process of change. By learning to keenly perceive these two energies we learn the skill of being in balance in any given situation.
The ancient Chinese martial art, Tai Chi Chuan, or Supreme Ultimate Boxing, takes its name from the Tai Chi Tu precisely because it embodies many of the principles depicted by this symbol, primarily that of balance. Practitioners of Tai Chi learn to relax, to be one with their experience (the Tao), to flow smoothly with the changing postures, and to maintain balance in a variety of positions, including standing on one leg!
We are all aware of the importance of balance in our lives. Our language expresses this awareness through such terms as balanced diet, a balanced or even-handed approach, and, of course, a balanced checkbook.
Are there areas of imbalance in your life? Do you work too much? Do you have enough quiet time or enough exercise? Do you feel emotionally balanced?
What implications does all of this have for us on a personal level? How can we apply the concept of yin and yang in our daily lives? If we want to enter the circle of Tao, to live life in the round, we have to be willing to flow with what comes along. If our awareness is sufficiently attuned to the patterns of change we have the potential to be a harmonizing force. If we are unaware, then at best we are swept along by the current, often fighting it in a futile manner.
Cultivate an awareness of things as they truly are, interconnected, part of a larger whole.
Our conventional view of the world as irreconcilable opposites is based on a perception of the universe as separate objects.
Our two sages advise us to move beyond these apparent contradictions. All is Tao! Both yin and yang are Tao. Good luck is Tao, bad luck is Tao. Rather than rigidly choosing one side against the other, we are urged to perceive the two sides in their relatedness, to experience how one creates the other. In so doing we reconcile or harmonize these opposites, we “blunt the sharpness and untangle the knot," as Lao Tzu states. We become part of nature's constant movement toward a state of balance.
There are “two sides to every story”. Listening to both sides and making an effort to appreciate them allows us to be empathic, to understand another’s experience, to stand in their shoes. Then we see that while there are two “sides”, yin and yang, there is one “story” - Tao. Nothing has an absolute or totally separate identity.
Recognize change in its various stages. Learn how to flow with change.
When we become attuned to cycles and patterns of change our actions become more skillful, more in step with these phases. We can recognize and deal with problems in their early stages. Our natural wisdom lets us know when to intervene and when to let things play out.
Much of our struggle in life arises either out of our failure to acknowledge change or out of our resistance to it. By flowing with the ongoing patterns of change we harmonize with them. We learn to not cling to our own values and interpretations.
By not holding tightly to one polarity or the other we experience how “bad” luck can become “good” luck while crisis can contain the opportunity for growth. Choosing to cooperate with the unity of opposites means accepting all facets of our existence, "good" and "bad," as the natural flow of the Tao.
Be an agent of balance, partake in the reconciling of opposites
Nature contains all opposites. They exist as part of the natural order, the ever-changing, ongoing process of life. In nature, however, unlike our human realm, there are no value distinctions, no moral judgments that make this or that phenomenon good or bad, desirable or undesirable. While value distinctions often cause the very ills they are supposed to cure, natural opposites enhance and complement one another.
Rather than trying to win or be “right” at the expense of another, we may regard another’s experience or opinion as different without making it categorically “wrong”. This allows balance to be achieved.
We do live in a world of “yes” and “no”, “light” and “dark”, and “good” and “evil”. There are times when we feel deeply that we are “right”, and that we must assert our position or vision. And there will be occasions when we will be aligned with the ascendant, or harmonizing energy. Yet, even then, if we can remember our connection to the whole, remember that we are, in some way, part of “the other side”, resolution will be more harmonious and will lead to a true balance, an outcome that benefits all.
A skilled mediator enacts this principle by looking beyond “right and wrong” and seeking what is common and beneficial to all sides in a dispute. This is reconciling opposites, finding the common ground of the Tao.
“What goes up must come down." "Every cloud has a silver lining." Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin and yang and encourages us to embrace these opposites, to see them as relative and changing, and to remember that ultimately all is Tao.
By following the path of acceptance and responsiveness to change we can become, in the words of Chuang Tzu, true women and men of Tao. “The true person of Tao,” he writes, "is not always looking for right and wrong, not always deciding 'yes' or 'no'. The true person has no mind to fight Tao and does not try by her own contriving to help Tao along. All that comes out of her comes quiet, like the four seasons."
P’U – The Uncarved Block
This is the third in a series of six presentations on fundamental Taoist principles. Taoist teachings function as a guide to daily living. Their purpose is to assist us in experiencing our essential nature as inseparable from that of the cosmos, to be part of the movement of life. This is known as entering the circle of Tao.
P’U - The Uncarved Block
P’u (pronounced “poo” in Chinese) translates as plain, simple, or natural. Its Chinese character means "wood that is not cut", or the "substance of things." Uncarved Block (“p’u”) refers to something in its natural state. It infers that things in their own simplicity, by way of their essential nature, contain their own natural power.
The Uncarved Block represents our original nature. This means that our original state of being, before being “carved” and sliced by various life processes, is whole and complete and represents our most powerful way of being. This expresses the Taoist belief in natural or original human goodness before it is carved into socially determined “good” and “bad” qualities.
Embracing this fundamental aspect of ourselves is an important step toward union with Tao. To embody “p’u” is to experience ourselves at the deepest and most essential level of our being. In the Taoist classics we find reference to keeping our Uncarved Blocks whole. By recognizing who we truly are, we are able to respect and nurture what is natural to us rather than what might be socially imposed.
In describing “p’u” Lao Tzu refers to what is childlike and innocent while also noting the strength of an infant’s grasp. As we grow from childhood, however, an awareness of a separate self arises and we begin to lose the experience of our Uncarved Block.
“P’u” is a place of safety, comfort, and strength. It is where our creativity arises. It is at peace with itself. It is us at our most essential level of being. Uncarved Block is our own personal expression of the Tao. Our potency comes from what is natural to us.
Do you have a sense of your “uncarved block”?
How would you describe your experience of this state of being?
Is it currently present in your life?
Can you remember a time when you lived by it?
How can we regain our experience of “p’u”? How can we cultivate it and come to live by it? The Taoist classics tell us that the path to the Uncarved Block lies through simplicity. In order to reclaim our original nature we must simplify our lives - our perceptions, thoughts, actions, and speech. By simplifying we begin to shed all of the unnecessary whittlings and carvings that separate us from the Tao and allow this essence to become clearly manifest.
No one would deny that life has its complex side. Complexity is part of nature’s expression – the Tao, after all, does manifest as the “10,000 things”. Yet at its source it remains simple and undifferentiated. We, too, can embrace the complexity of life yet remain rooted in the simplicity that is the Tao itself.
In nature all things find their natural harmony and balance as this is the original state of all things. As emanations of the Tao, we can find our own harmony and balance through the experience of “p’u”.
Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu describe how one may simplify the state of one's mind, one’s behavior, including speech, and even one’s desires. While life can be complicated and challenging our being in the world can be simple and direct.
In what way is your life cluttered, rushed, or overfull?
How could you simplify your life?
What would you need to change or release?
Quieting the Mind
The most direct way of accessing p’u is by quieting the mind. An ideal state of mind reflects or mirrors the Tao itself – it is still, calm, reflecting, and empty, rather than full of endless chatter, cluttered with extraneous thoughts, stories, or other preoccupations.
Chuang Tzu calls the process of stilling the mind “sitting forgetting”, or “forgetting ourselves”. This does not mean losing our identities, or being absent-minded, but rather “forgetting” that we are a separate self, loosening our attachment to the idea of a completely independent individuality or, to use a more current expression, not taking our “selves” so seriously.
“Sitting forgetting” also refers to a meditative state where the mind is clear and quiet, and any intrusive thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations are passively disregarded. In this way we access our intuition, the “sixth sense” that is a feature of the deeper qualities of mind and is characteristic of the Uncarved Block. A quiet mind is an alert and responsive mind.
Meditation is a formal practice that teaches the skill of stilling the mind.
Emptying the mind allows appropriate behavior or a needed insight to appear because a quiet mind is attuned to the Tao. An empty mind is able to spontaneously focus so that a natural wisdom emerges.
From the simplicity of an empty or quiet mind we can observe clearly and understand deeply. We are no longer caught in polarizing distinctions but perceive everything as arising from the same source. We instinctively attain and promote a state of balance and harmony.
Are you aware of what goes on in your thinking mind - your personal themes and stories?
Are you able to quiet your mind?
How attached are you to your personal sense of self?
When our minds are quiet neither our senses nor external events can overwhelm us. Because we perceive more clearly we can make informed and appropriate decisions. We then act wisely. We act from “p’u”. Tao supports us, moves through us.
Lao Tzu provides us with guidance regarding our behavior through his “three treasures” - compassion, economy or frugality, and humility, as in “daring to not put ourselves first”.
When we are directed by a heart that is compassionate, that feels its connection to all things and is one with the Tao, our actions arise naturally and without effort. We become an agent of harmonious change.
Just as nature practices economy and does not waste, so, too, must we emulate these actions. We use only what we need and do only what is necessary to maintain balance and harmony for ourselves and for our environment.
And finally, we act with respect towards others. Providing conscious service is a central teaching of the Taoist classics. We do not need to strive or put ourselves forward because we are already one with the Tao. We learn how to yield and follow. We are willing and able to put others before ourselves when it is appropriate because we are all part of the same whole.
Actions that are simple and direct, that arise from the Uncarved Block, are for the benefit of the greatest good, bringing ourselves and all things around us into natural harmony and balance.
Do your behaviors bring about harmony?
Are you able to act spontaneously?
Are you connected in thought and action?
Lao Tzu states: “Truthful words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not truthful.” Truthful words are unembellished and represent the unembellished Tao. We learn to communicate from our very center, from our essential being. Chuang Tzu says we must be aware of the intention behind our words. Do we wish to connect, to be heard, to promote understanding? Or do we wish to punish, to control, to be “right”?
When we speak from the Uncarved Block we are able to express our observations, thoughts, feelings, and needs clearly, directly, honestly, in a timely manner, and in a respectful, supportive fashion. We are courteous in our speech. In turn, listening from our Uncarved Block, we are able to hear the expression of others with deep understanding.
Simple expressions can be the most eloquent. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be aware of your intentions. Our speech serves the unity and harmony of the Tao.
Do you express yourself clearly?
Are you able to openly share your thoughts, feelings, and needs?
What prevents you from speaking your truth?
Desire is a powerful force which can lead us either toward or away from union with the Tao. Desire arises from a sense of a separate self. P’u is prior to desire, secure in the knowledge that the Tao will provide ample guidance and support in helping us meet our legitimate needs.
Can we be without desire? Chuang Tzu intimates that initially desire is part of being human. However, he refers to freedom from desire as in not being attached to our desires, having few desires, and maintaining simplicity of desire.
Without the body’s desire for food, water, and air, we would perish. There is also desire for the common good, and for our own union with the Tao. These desires lead us to grow and learn and to help others. They are in harmony with the Tao and arise from the Tao rather than from a separate sense of self.
Simplicity of desire, and having few desires, from a Taoist viewpoint, means contentedness with simple, everyday living.
What do you desire most in life?
Which desires bring you closer to your Uncarved Block? Further away?
Are you caught in your desires?
“P’u” is our gateway to the circle of Tao. By following the path of simplicity and returning to the Uncarved Block we find our own natural state of being. We find harmony and balance.
Your Uncarved Block mind is open, responsive, and creative.
Your Uncarved Block acts wisely, with an awareness of Tao.
Your Uncarved Block speaks the truth.
The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive,
All we can do is describe their appearance
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Tao Te Ching; Ch 15
TE – The Power of The Way
This is the fourth of six presentations on fundamental Taoist teachings as presented in the writings of Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. These principles function as a guide to daily living, assisting us in experiencing our essential nature as inseparable from that of the cosmos. Attaining this is described as “entering the circle of Tao.”
A first step in this direction is gaining the awareness that life is indeed an interconnected whole. Nothing exists separately from anything else. All is Tao. Secondly, we begin to see how this unity expresses itself through the constant interplay of life’s two primal energies, the opposing yet complementary forces of yin and yang, and we then learn to move in harmony with these changes, flowing with the Tao through its various manifestations. This then sets the stage to experience ourselves as part of the Tao by accessing what is called our Uncarved Blockor “pu”, our essential being, or original goodness.
As we deepen our experience of union with the Tao, flowing effortlessly with life’s transformations while acting spontaneously from our own inner nature, we discover the power or force that comes from this attunement. This is the principle of te which is intimately connected with the Uncarved Block. Te arises from the Uncarved Block and enables us to manifest the power of the Tao in our daily lives.
Te as Virtue (Strength, Power)
Te translates as “virtue”. This is the same word found in the title of Lao Tzu’s classic, Tao Te Ching, most often interpreted as “The Power of the Way”. Though te is translated as virtue, this Chinese term takes its core meaning from the Latin root word virtus, which itself translates as strength, or power. Within the context of Taoist teachings te also carries the connotation of wholeness, essence, and integrity.
Te refers to the fact that all things contain an inherent power or strength that arises from their own essence or true nature. This power stems from the fact that our authentic or essential self is a direct expression of the Tao and thus is intrinsically connected with the power of the Universe.
Te as Life Force
The principle of te focuses on the energy, or life force, that manifests through us as we learn to live in accord with the Tao. It also refers to power that is exercised without inappropriate or harmful interference in the natural order of things. The expression of te is spontaneous and transcends a separate sense of self. It is the experience of connectedness with the Tao that allows one to access this universal power so as to bring about resolution and balance, and to reconcile conflict in a manner that promotes harmonious and natural change.
Lao Tzu writes in Chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching that "All things arise from Tao. They are nourished by Virtue [the power of the Tao]. Virtue is goodness [and] is faithfulness." We are encouraged to believe and put faith both in the process that is Tao, and in ourselves, in our own inherent goodness. "The great Tao flows everywhere. It nourishes the ten thousand things. It holds nothing back". (Ch 34) This power is always accessible.
While a conventional outlook is based on the assumption that humans are separate entities, existing apart from each other and from the surrounding environment, te, on the other hand, derives from trust and belief in the interconnectedness of all life (Tao) and in one's own inner nature (p’u, the Uncarved Block).
The Cultivation of Te
Lao Tzu writes, “Cultivate Virtue in your self and it will be real.” He also counsels us to cultivate this virtue in the family, the village, the nation, and the universe, where it will abound, grow, and be abundant. (Ch 54)
As a means of cultivating te, and of developing trust and belief both in the Tao and our own goodness, Lao Tzu directs us to move beyond conformist values, especially those social mores and norms which tend to strengthen our view of ourselves as unconnected beings. These values, often rooted in doubt and fear, only serve to lock us into our sense of separation and to rob us of the power of our true being. We are encouraged to see ourselves as part of the larger whole and not get caught in an exaggerated, individual sense of self. The sage tells us: “Accept disgrace willingly. Accept being unimportant. Do not be concerned with loss or gain. Love the world as you love your own self. Then you can truly care for all things.” (Ch 13)
We are also counseled to recognize te in others. By reaching out to the fundamental goodness and trustworthiness in others, whether these attributes are readily evident or not, we can help foster them and bring them to the fore. We accomplish this through our interactions, by being patient with another’s process, bringing understanding and compassion to our relating, and behaving in simple, direct, and truthful ways.
Lao Tzu states that “The sage has no mind of her own. She is good to people who are good. She is also good to people who are not good because essence [Virtue] is goodness.” (Ch 49)
In this way we cultivate and strengthen these desirable traits, both in ourselves and in others, and become an example to the world.
When do you experience yourself as part of a larger whole?
What would be an example of your own personal te?
Are you able or willing to see the good (te) in others?
Expressions of Te
Te expresses itself through behaviors that are both conserving and self-sustaining. It is through moderation and self-discipline that one cultivates this power and becomes fit both to serve and to lead others. “In caring for others and serving Heaven [the Tao] there is nothing like restraint. This depends on Virtue gathered in the past.” (Ch 59)
To help manifest our te Lao Tzu presents us with his "three treasures" which assist us in developing our perception of the unity of life and in cultivating a way of being that is harmonious with the Tao. The first treasure is compassion, the second is frugality or balance, and the third is humility, "daring not to be ahead of others." (Ch 67)
We must feel and experience our connection with all of humanity, all of life. In this way we are able to respond to various situations in an appropriate, helpful manner, serving the higher or greater good. This is compassion. Practicing frugality works to preserve the delicate balance that exists in life and harmonizes our actions with those of the Universe. The Tao will nourish us if we make wise use of its resources. And adopting an attitude of humility allows us to be guided by the creative forces of the Tao and orients our actions towards service to all humankind and the Universe as a whole.
There is also an attractive power to te. The te of the Taoist Sage is welcoming, accommodating, and nurturing. By placing oneself “below” others and repaying resentment with kindness, as Lao Tzu writes, we can create a place of acceptance where others feel safe and are more able to express their true natures.
Te is all-giving and for-giving. It is always present for one who has moved beyond judgment and learned to reconcile and harmonize opposing forces.
Do you forgive easily?
How are you of service to others?
Are you able to put others before yourself?
Te in the World
Primal Virtue is deep and far.
It leads all things back
Toward the great oneness.
Tao Te Ching (Ch 65)
Primal Virtue is the Tao, the force which enlivens all things. “All things arise from Tao. They are nourished by Virtue. Respect of Tao and honor of Virtue are not demanded, but they are in the nature of things.” (Ch 51) To experience and manifest the Tao is to be “virtuous”, to promote the life-affirming energy of the Tao.
This life force is our birthright. We can learn to open to what we truly are and consciously live as a part of creation, following the natural laws of the Tao. Such a way of life provides deep meaning and great satisfaction. It is also a choice – it is “not demanded”, but it is “in our nature” to follow this path, The Way.
In today’s society much attention is devoted to promoting self-awareness: "finding ourselves", "knowing who we truly are." Along with all of the world’s wisdom traditions, many schools of Western psychology regard this discovery and acceptance of self as an important step on the path toward individual growth and responsibility. In addition a deep awareness of self is seen as central to not only personal well-being but also to living wisely and skillfully on our planet. Many contemporary commentators regard this process of exploring and attaining our full potential as vital to resolving the many social and environmental challenges currently facing humankind.
By following the path of the Tao our te emerges. More and more we find our actions truly expressing our inner nature. More and more they are in harmony with the Tao, with all of life. As our te manifests we experience ourselves as an integral part of our environment, moving effortlessly and naturally along life's path.
When you are at one with the Tao,
The Tao welcomes you.
When you are at one with Virtue,
Virtue is always there. (Ch 23)
Wu-wei – Effortless Action
This is the fifth of six presentations on the teachings of Taoism as presented in the writings of Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Previous articles have focused on the following principles:
the interconnectedness of all life as expressed through the principle of The Tao;
the expression of this unity through the constant interplay of life’s two primal energies, the opposing yet complementary forces of yin and yang;
an experience of ourselves as part of the Tao by accessing what is called our Uncarved Blockor pu - our essential being or original goodness;
our discovery of the power or force, te, that comes from this attunement with Tao and which enables us to manifest the power of the Tao in our daily lives.
The essential message of Taoism is that life constitutes an organic, interconnected whole which undergoes constant transformation. This unceasing flow of change manifests itself as a natural order governed by unalterable, yet perceivable laws. It is the constancy of these governing principles (like the rising and setting of the sun or moon and the changing of the seasons) that allows us to recognize and utilize them in our own process of transformation.
Gaining an awareness of life's essential unity and learning to cooperate with its natural flow and order enables us to attain a state of being that is both fully free and independent and at the same time fully connected to the life flow of Universe - being at one with the Tao. From the Taoist viewpoint this represents the ultimate stage of human existence and is often described as “entering the circle of Tao.”
Wu-Wei – Non-doing
Realizing our oneness with the Tao allows us to spontaneously manifest wu-wei. This Chinese term translates as "non-doing", or more informally, as effortless action. Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment rather than from a sense of separateness. Wu-wei is spontaneous and effortless, action that is part of the natural order of things, contributing to balance and harmony. It can be described as going with the grain or swimming with the current and is not considered mere passivity. Our contemporary expression, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior that occurs in response to and in accord with the flow of the Tao.
Quieting the Mind
In order to attain this flow and to have it become an instinctive and effortless part of our behavior we need to attune ourselves to the needs of the moment. We learn to be quiet and watchful, listening to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we discover how to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience.
Lao Tzu writes that we must be “Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream. Alert, like men aware of danger. Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.”
All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao promotes harmony and balance in the surrounding order, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wu-wei, produce the same result.
Are you able to quiet your mind when you encounter a challenging situation?
Are you in tune with your intuition?
Can you remain alert in the face of distractions such as fear and doubt?
Timing and Non-striving
In cultivating wu-wei, timing becomes an important aspect of our behavior. Through watchfulness and quietness of mind we discover the natural order of phenomena, how things change and grow. “That which shrinks must first expand. That which fails will first be strong. This is called perception of the nature of things,” writes Lao Tzu. We understand processes and are able to take timely action.
Lao Tzu also asks, “Who can wait until the mud settles? Who can remain still until the moment of action?” As we learn to be patient we become able to act, or intercede, at precisely the right moment.
Finally, when one is in harmony with the movement of the universe there is no need for excess striving because our actions are supported by the flow of the Tao. “He who stands on tiptoe is not ready. He who strides cannot maintain the pace.” Lao Tzu counsels us to remember that “The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe”, referring to water, a favorite Taoist symbol.
And “Because the sage always confronts difficulties, He never experiences them,” meaning that timely action, rather than procrastination or denial, smoothes the way for ease and effortlessness in our behavior and negates the need for undue force.
Are you aware of your Impulses? What can help you control them?
Are you good at dealing with things in a timely manner?
Are you willing to confront difficult situations?
The ability to maintain detachment in our actions is yet another important aspect of wu-wei. Actions which are not ego-motivated, but arise in response to the needs of the environment, lead toward harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives because they are attuned to the deepest flow of life itself. Chuang Tzu counsels us to "practice forgetfulness of results and to abandonment of all hope of profit."
This is not to be confused with not caring. In fact, by putting aside our ego-motivated concerns we are able to be of service in a much broader and effective manner. And not being attached to results (abandoning hope of “profit”) shows that we recognize we are but collaborators in the dance of life. We can make our intention clear and act to the best of our ability and then release any ego attachment to the end result.
Non-attachment guides us to what Chuang Tzu refers to as “free and easy wandering”, unafraid of where life may take us. He refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically (and provocatively), as "purposeless wandering!" How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is considered anti-social, frightening, perhaps even pathological in the context of modern day living.
To allow oneself to "wander without purpose" can be daunting because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, who we are as humans, and what our role is in the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our beliefs - that we exist as beings separate from our surroundings and from one another, that our role is to dominate our environment, and that we can exercise willful control over all situations - that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, "the Tao nourishes everything," Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action, then nothing remains undone. This is trusting our own bodies, understanding our thoughts and emotions, and also believing that the environment, the Tao, will provide support and guidance.
Are you able to allow your day “unfold?”
Can you let go of plans and make changes willingly?
Are you able to perform a task without thought of reward?
Going with Life’s Flow
To allow wu-wei to manifest in our lives may initially seem challenging. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment, without thought of profit or of a tangible result, and when the outcome was a restoration of balance and harmony. "The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever," writes Lao Tzu.
By listening carefully within, as well as to our surroundings, by
remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, by remaining still until
action is called forth, we can perform valuable, necessary, and long lasting
service in the world while cultivating our ability to be at one with the Tao. Through
practice and patience we learn to recognize and flow with change. We develop
flexibility. “Yield and overcome; Bend and be straight; Empty and be full.” Our
own narrow concerns cease to rule us as we spontaneously identify with the
larger whole, the broad stream of life. Such is the power of wu-wei, allowing
ourselves to be guided by the Tao.
Lao Tzu asks: “Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it? I do not think it can be done?” He further provides the following guidance:
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
This is the concluding presentation in a series of discussions on Taoist principles as presented in the writings of Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Earlier articles examined five basic principles as a guide to daily living: the interconnectedness of all life – which is represented by the Tao; the underlying unity of all apparent opposites - yin-yang; the concept of an authentic or essential self which all humans possess – p’u, or the Uncarved Block; the power derived through alignment with the Tao - te; and non-ego-motivated behavior, or effortless action - wu-wei. Together, these principles find full expression in the idea of the Sage which is the focus of our final discussion.
In the early Taoist written works there are numerous references to the Sage and to the meaning of this concept as it relates to human development. From a Taoist viewpoint, this term refers to one who has attained a full experience of the unity of all life and whose actions are in complete harmony with his surroundings - both the immediate environment and the universe as a whole. Through the example of the Sage, Taoism offers us a model of a way of being that is in accordance with the natural laws that govern life. It also presents a means by which we can realize our full potential as human beings. To think and act like a Sage is to attune oneself to life's flow and to the Tao.
In the English language the word "sage" describes a wise person, one of sound judgment and mindful, or conscious actions. The word also implies the ability "to perceive keenly." Within the Taoist tradition the Sage has gained a wisdom that extends beyond mere intellectual knowledge or information and that reflects a deep, intuitive, and experiential understanding of life.
The Sage expresses wisdom in daily living by directly manifesting the five above-mentioned principles: Tao, yin-yang, p’u, te, and wu-wei. Because she truly experiences the unity of all life and deeply identifies with it, the Sage is able to perceive and understand all opposites as part of one unified whole and can manifest the power to bring harmony and balance to all situations. Since she resides in a state of interconnectedness, her actions do not arise from the desires of a separate self but are called forth by the needs of the environment, including the Sage herself. These actions are natural, effortless, and spontaneous and are imbued with the power of the Tao.
Attributes of the Sage
Taoist thought maintains that developing sage-like attributes is part of the natural course of human transformation. While we may think that attaining sage-hood happens only at some distant, final stage of this process, we can also recognize that the qualities of the sage are often readily accessible to us in any given moment. Moreover, they can be fostered and strengthened through regular and mindful practice, becoming a natural and reflexive expression of our true self.
Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, as legendary sages, offer us numerous examples of sage-like behaviors. Most well-known are Lao Tzu's "three treasures:" compassion, frugality, and humility. "Whoever has compassion can be brave. Whoever has frugality can be generous. Whoever dares not to be first in the world can become leader of the world." Lao Tzu maintains that these values are not foreign either to our understanding, or to our experience, and that we are all capable of cultivating such sage-like characteristics because they are an innate part of our humanity. Through caring we connect with others and with all of life. By practicing frugality we maintain a balanced existence with our surroundings and develop simplicity and effectiveness in action and thought. And by learning to follow, we determine the needs of the environment and can then provide the necessary service.
The Sage, in "perceiving keenly", sees past the dualities of right and wrong, and harmonizes all opposites. Lao Tzu states, "The Sage is good to people who are good. He is also good to people who are not good. This is true goodness.” The Sage does not judge, but accepts everything as part of the intrinsic flow of life and then acts accordingly. In this manner he or she provides the opportunity for all beings to become aware of their own self-worth, their authentic being, and to express this as goodness. The Sage embraces both good and bad, maintains a vision of unity in the realm of the many, and accepts and harmonizes all.
Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu state that we are best able to cultivate these characteristics by learning to quiet the mind. In doing so, our judgments, which are so divisive in nature and which tend to keep us locked into our illusion of separateness begin to fall away. “Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind be at peace,“ writes Lao Tzu.
In what areas of your life might you be able to apply the three treasures?
Can you see the essential goodness in others?
Can you allow yourself to be led or taught by a situation?
The Sage in Society
Chuang Tzu writes that the Sage lives her life not by conventional standards, but according to the principles that are a reflection of the Tao. "Rank and reward make no appeal to her. Disgrace and shame do not deter her. She is not always looking for right and wrong." Thus the Sage is truly at peace with herself and with the way of the Tao. She believes that "the world is ruled by letting things take their course."
At the same time a Sage’s life is one of service. By moving beyond any sense of self-importance, which Chuang Tzu refers to as “forgetting the self”, the sage is able to clearly perceive what action, if any, is necessary to promote or restore harmony and balance, hallmarks of the Tao.
This is all done without force or coercion. The Sage teaches others by example, without words. Simply being is the most powerful form of instruction, allowing natural inner goodness, p’u, the Uncarved Block, to shine forth. Because there is no sense of a separate self the Sage can work without the need for recognition.
In the final chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:
The Sage never tries to store things up.
The more he does for others, the more he has.
The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.
Chuang Tzu adds:
The person in whom Tao acts without impediment
Does not bother with her own interests
And does not judge others who do.
While she does not follow the crowd
She does not complain of those who do.
How do you understand “teaching by example”?
Can you allow others their own path without judgment?
Are you willing to provide service without recognition?
At One with the Tao
To live in harmony with the Tao, cooperating with the natural laws that govern the Universe, means to grow and transform as individuals, to become sage-like in our behavior. Initially this process occurs because we consciously adopt and follow those principles which reflect the workings of the Tao - yin-yang, te, and wu-wei, among others. In time we find that our sage-like behaviors manifest reflexively and naturally. They emerge from us without conscious effort, arising spontaneously from our Uncarved Block. We reach what Taoism considers to be a person's highest calling - a life in service of the Tao. "The Sage has no mind of her own. She is simply aware of the needs of others."
Chuang Tzu writes that, as we become attuned to the Tao by living in harmony with the natural order of the Universe, we become fully realized beings, or "true persons."
They took life as it came, gladly.
Took death as it came, without care.
They had no mind to fight Tao.
They did not try, by their own contriving, to help Tao along. These are the ones we call true persons.
A seed fulfills its potential by growing into a fully mature plant. In the same way our Uncarved Block, our essential self, contains the promise of a complete or whole human being. Just as the Tao "nourishes all things," as it continually returns all things to harmony and balance, so too does the Sage. This natural wisdom, the wisdom of the Tao, is the ultimate expression of our "sageliness" that is both our birthright and the essence of our being.
Chuang Tzu’s Inner Chapters conclude with:
Do not seek fame. Do not make plans.
Do not think that you know.
Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite.
Be empty, that is all.