The Way of Tao

Taoism is one of the traditional religions of China. The word Tao (pronounced “dow”) means “way” or “path.” The “way” of Taoism is the way of the universe. Taoism advocates living simply and not interfering with the course of natural events.

In what ways do people often interfere with the course of natural events? List as many ways as you can. What is the effect of this interference?

Lao Tzu

The legendary founder of Taoism was a philosopher named Lao Tzu who lived in China around 600 B.C.E. (His name is also sometimes spelled Laotse.) Once story about Lao Tzu says that Confucius, another Chinese philosopher, once visited him. Asked about the visit, Confucius said:

Of birds I know they have wings to fly with,
of fish they have fins to swim with,
of wild beasts that they have feet to run with.
For feet there are traps, for fins nets, for wings arrows.
But who knows how dragons surmount wind and clouds into heaven?
This day I have seen Lao Tzu and he is a dragon.

What do you think Confucius meant by this?

The Tao Te Ching

When he was 160, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left China so that he could pursue a natural life somewhere else. He mounted a water buffalo and rode toward the boundaries of China.

A warden at the boundary had dreamed that a sage would come. When Lao Tzu arrived, he recognized him as the sage from his dream. The warden begged him to write down the principles of his philosophy.

Lao Tzu sat down and composed the Tao Te Ching (pronounced “dow dir jing”). He then remounted his water buffalo and rode off. No one ever heard of him again. Translated as “The Way and its Power,” the Tao Te Ching is the central scripture of Taoism.

No one knows whether or not this story of the Tao Te Ching is true. If it happened at all, it was about 2,500 years ago. Do you think it matters whether or not the story of writing the Tao Te Ching is true?

Lao Tzu as Founder

The philosopher Lao Tzu is considered the founder of Taoism. Nobody is sure, though, whether or not he actually existed. We don’t even know what his real name was; Lao Tzu means “The Old Man” or “The Grand Old Master.”

Lao Tzu didn’t try to organize a religion. He didn’t preach. He only wrote his ideas down because a border patrolman asked him to. Having written the Tao Te Ching, the central scripture of Taoism, Lao Tzu rode off and was never heard of again.

Does this description fit with your idea of the type of person who would found a religion? Why or why not?

The Authentic Life

According to the philosopher Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, most people do not live an authentic life. They live in a way that society suggests they live. People tend not to do things for themselves or to find out what they truly want. Instead they often do the things others want them to do.

What does it mean to be authentic? What would it mean to live an authentic life?

The Tao of Ultimate Reality

In Taoism, the Tao, or Way, can be understood in many ways.

First, the Tao is the way of ultimate reality. It is the ground of all existence, but it goes beyond the senses and words. The first lines of the Tao Te Ching, the scripture of Taoism, state this:

The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Explain these lines.

The Tao of the Universe

In Taoism, the Tao, or Way, can be understood in many ways. One meaning of the Tao is that it is the way of the universe.

The universe lasts forever.
Why does the universe last forever?
It is unborn,
So ever living.

Many aspects of the universe – such as our water cycle – are cyclical, always beginning, always ending. Choose some aspect of the universe. Explain it in terms of an unending cycle.

The Tao of Daily Life

In Taoism, the Tao, or Way, can be understood in many ways. One meaning of the Tao is that it is the way people should life their daily lives. Instead of struggling with nature, we should adapt ourselves to nature.

List as many ways as you can in which people try to adapt nature to our use, instead of adapting ourselves to nature.

Going with the Flow

Many religions use stories as a way of teaching people how to live. Here is a Taoist story.

An old man was walking with friends by a swift-flowing river when he stumbled and fell into the water. He was swept downstream through a set of fierce rapids, dashing among the rocks. Then he plunged over the edge of a steep waterfall. His friends, fearing for his life, rant to the pool below the waterfall. To their amazement the old man came to the edge of the pool, unharmed.

“Old man,” they cried, “how could you have survived both the rapids and the waterfall?”

“I cannot tell you,” he answered. “I only know that I did not try to fight the water, but allowed myself to be shaped by it. I accommodated myself to the stream, and the stream carried me without harm.”

What do you think is the message of this story?