Taoism, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

TAOISM, a perspective

Whether or not Confucius and Lao Tzu were contemporaries or one came before the other, is not the issue here. What matters the most is not even, if Lao Tzu was the author of ” Tao Te Ching”. But what we have at hand, when it comes to his philosophy, is what his objection to Confucius’ project was. While Confucius studied the past by going through the Chronicles and searched for the purity and spontaneity of the golden age of Chou dynasty, Lao Tzu emphasized the presence. When it came to the future, they both concurred. Because future is not known to us. We may plan and predict, and yet we could be there for a surprise. After all, only great prophets were able to prophesy. Some philosophers, like Hume, argued that we can never predict the future based on the present and the past. Even though others, like Santayana, maintained that if we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat again. Thus, future was totally out of question. However, when it comes to past, Lao Tzu took an issue with Confucius. He believed that depressed are those who stay with the past and anxious are those who always look towards the future. Wise are those who anchor in the presence. Even though Confucius adopted strategically a wonderful method to turn back and search for the golden age of the Chou dynasty as a model and a paradigm to revive the lost values for his society, he missed the target to remind the people that it was also possible that we might misinterpret the history in the mean time. According to Lao Tzu, Confucius made ethics and morality his number one priority. That is why he tried to restore the golden values of the pick of his dynasty in order to bring the forgotten hierarchy of respect back to his nation. For Lao Tzu we need to experience Tao in here and now. This is the space we should be. Once you’re in this space, which is not a physical one, you’re no longer subject to the tyranny of the past and the future. This is a spiritual niche that the sages of the early Chou were talking about. China was in need of this kind of revival than the moral values Confucius tried to inculcate among the youngsters of his society. Confucius, according to Lao Tzu, had failed to go deeper into the depth of the presence where Tao was. He saw the appearance of nature than the presence of Tao in nature. In other words, he saw the phenomena of nature while Lao Tzu experienced inner Reality which existed everywhere. There is no doubt that we need ethics and morality prior to our discovery of the Tao within us and the universe. Nevertheless, we must not stop there. Once the hierarchy of values were established and China was once again secure, then we should go beyond the ethical to experience the Ultimate Reality, which is Tao. Moral values are relative.

What is considered right or wrong are subject to relativity, not relativism. A true Taoist never sees what happens to him or her as either as right or wrong. We do not know if things happen for reasons. But what we do know is that he focuses on Tao, the absolute. In this world of becoming everything is relative. In relativism even truth is relative which seems logically absurd. After all, how can absolute be relative? The very statement that absolute is relative is a contradiction in terms. Absolute is absolute and relative is relative. However, let us say you might have a problem with the logic here. Even Aristotelian logic was criticized with the advent of quantum mechanic physics in the 20th century. However, we should not forget that Lao Tzu spoke in a metaphysical language which is different from pure logic. His was not illogical but meta logical or super logical. Logic involves our mental structure. It is an organon of scientific inquiry. Organon, according to the Oxford College Dictionary, is an instrument of thought, a means of reasoning or a system of logic. It is mind bond and cannot go beyond that limit. When Lao Tzu speaks of the reality of Tao, he avoids naming it. He does not define it. Because by so doing, we limit that Reality in our minds. It is the source of being but itself is not Being. Everything else is except this Reality. Then why do we call it Tao? Because we have no other choice, even when we know we’re contradicting ourselves. This Reality is beyond being and non-being. He said, “since before time and space were the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see.” (Tao Te Ching, trans.by S. Mitchell, chap. 21). It is way above rest and motion. It is everywhere and nowhere, which defies our ordinary logic. It is not a personal God to be possessed. It is nameless. What is it? This is a question of essence or whatness. We really do not know its essence. Perhaps it is nothing, that is, no- thing. We know it is not a thing to be subject of change and becoming. What if we call it just nothing? Then in logic nothing can be considered something. Why? Once nothing becomes a concept, then it is an idea. We cannot equate it with an idea. It is beyond any binary reality which consist of two parts. You can worship gods, but you cannot worship the Tao (365 Tao, by Deng Mings-Dao, p.174). Gods have many faces, but true divinity has no face (Deng, p.175). The woodcutter works in all seasons. Splitting wood is both action and inaction (Deng, p.8). Tao is everywhere. It cannot be kept from the sincere (Deng, p.32). Hummingbird to a flower, it neither spoils its beauty nor diminishes its aroma. Lao Tzu is said to have written Tao Te Ching or the book of Tao and Its power. Like hummingbirds that feed on the nectar of flowers with grace and agility, so men should be able to use the earth without harming the natural world in which they live (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching trans by S. Mitchell, no chapter). Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other (Lao, chapter. 2). This world is the realm of opposites. They come together to create the reality we live in like Yin and Yang. Yin stands for female and Yang for male realities. Although they are opposites, yet they complement each other. Practice not-doing [ inaction], and everything will fall into place (Lao, chap. 3). This means to act without expectation which is what we learned in Bhagavad-Gita as karma yoga. It is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God. The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. The Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners (Lao, chapp.4,5). There is no duality in the Tao. The Tao gives birth to One [not many]. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. Three gives birth to all things (Lao, chap. 42). The many comes from the One. The logical dilemma being: How can One and many be one? The Tao is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities (Lao, chap, 4). Many is its possibility without which it cannot be perfect and absolute. By way of analogy, it is One like the sun and the many like the rays of the sun. The sun cannot be the sun unless it sheds light. It is in the essence of the Tao to bring the whole of the universe forward, though the world is not perfect.

The Tao is called the Great Mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds. It is always present within you. You can use it any way you want. The Tao is infinite, eternal. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Why is it infinite? It has no desires for itself; thus it is present for all beings (Lao, chapp.6,7). We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want (Lao, chap.11). Void and emptiness manifest no-thingness. In the final analysis, of course, even things are in reality no-thing. Reacting to Confucius’ project Lao Tzu says: When the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear. When the body’s intelligence declines, cleverness and knowledge step forth. When there is no peace in the family, filial piety begins. When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born. Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves (Lao, chapp.18,19). If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve. Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place. When you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut your hand (Lao, chapp.73,74). Here is another argument by Lao against those who try to predict the future and plan ahead of time. Don’t attach yourself to the changing world or else you’ll suffer as Buddha said. Do you want to improve the world? I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred. It can’t be improved. If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it (Lao, chap.29). The world is not an it. It is like an organism according to Gaia hypothesis. It is like a bull for Plato. Here we’re alarmed by the environmental problems facing us today.
If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts. Knowing others is intelligence; Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power (Lao, chap.32,33). When the Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is morality. When morality is lost, there is ritual. Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos (Lao, chap. 38). The Tao is called the Great Mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds (Lao, chap.6) In the Tao Te Ching, one of the most ancient and profound books ever written, the Tao, which could be translated as Being, is described as “infinite, eternally present, the mother of the universe.” …Women are closer to it than men since they virtually “embody” the Unmanifested….all creatures and all things must eventually return to the source. “All things vanish into the Tao. It alone endures.” Since the source is seen as female, this is represented as the light and dark sides of the archetypal feminine in psychology and mythology. The Goddess or Divine Mother has two aspects: She gives life, and she takes life (Eckhart Tolle, The power of NOW, p.165.) Yin represents non-being and yang represents being. Being and non-being create each other (Lao, chap. 2). The world is formed from the void, like utensils from a block of wood (Lao, chap.28). All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being (Lao, chap.40).

Confucius and Lao Tzu have been complimenting each other since 2500 years ago. While the former tried to establish the law and order through ethics and the revival of early Chou tradition, the latter, though acknowledged the great reform and the moral improvement in the society, did not whole heatedly feel it was enough to turn China over from inside. Lao Tzu maintained that we had to transcend the ethics and dive deeper into the Ocean of the Tao or the Ultimate Reality. Lao Tzu did not just look at the appearances of nature searching for the hierarchy of respect in the animal kingdom and inequalities existing among them. He experienced the Reality and the presence of the Tao in the universe as well as nature. He observed the equality among everything due to the fact that there is nothing in which the Tao is not present. He says: The more you know, the less you understand. In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone (Lao, chapp47, 48). This is where he shows his attitude towards education which was also the focus of Confucius. As far as morality Lao Tzu does not hesitate to remind us that: She [the Tao] is good to people who are good. She is good to people who aren’t good. This is true goodness. She trusts people who are trustworthy. She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy. This is true trust (Lao, chap.49). Because when we do otherwise, those whom we think are not good or trustworthy, based on their actions, feel they are perhaps judged unfairly. The reason being, we simply do not know the whole story as to why they behaved the way they did. Therefore, we’re quick to judge them. If we’re always looking for dirt in people, we can find plenty of it. But instead of this, we ought to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask: Am I perfect in what I do? If I occupy myself in cleaning what is in me, then I will not even have time to keep looking for dirty laundry of others. What if I’m worse than them? Jesus once said: Don’t judge that you’ll be judged. When we point to others, with our index fingers, the other three fingers, except our thumbs, are pointing at ourselves. Those who live in glass houses, should not throw rocks at people. He said: If you close your mind in judgments and traffic with desires, your heart will be troubled. If you keep your mind from judging and aren’t led by the senses, your heart will find peace (Lao, chap. 52). How do I know this is true? By looking inside myself (Lao, chap.54). He finally tells us: Some say that my teaching is nonsense. Others call it lofty but impractical. But to those who have looked inside themselves, this nonsense makes perfect sense. And to those who put it into practice, this loftiness has roots that go deep (Lao, chap.67).