by Bonny Styles
‘The universe is like Father Ocean, a stream of all things slowly moving. There is nothing to do but to maintain a true relationship to the things we move with and amongst and against.’ Written not by a Chinese Taoist, but by the twentieth-century English novelist D. H. Lawrence, these words nevertheless contain the very essence of Taoist philosophy.
Philosophical Taoism, as distinct from much of the popular religious Taoism of today which is largely concerned with the pursuit of prolonged life and the acquisition of magical powers, was traditionally founded in the sixth or fifth century BC by Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching. The principles of the Tao, the underlying reality which pervades all existence, are beautifully expressed in Tao Te Ching, which reads as a series of observations about the world and our relationship to it.
The first lines of the Tao Te Ching establish at once that the Tao cannot be described: ‘The Tao which can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.’ This is because it encompasses everything in the universe – it is both creative and destructive, both supportive and not supportive, both benevolent and malevolent. According to Taoism, every aspect of the universe has its counterpart, as seen in the relationship between light and dark, male and female, good and evil, hot and cold and so on. These counterparts are called yin and yang, and are viewed as complementary, not opposed. Both yin and yang are intrinsic parts of one organic whole and the relationship between them is like that of the two sides of a coin, or the two poles of a magnet.
Taoism sees attempts to change the world from the outside as essentially futile. This does not mean that Taoism is in principle opposed to technology, nor that it preaches inaction and inertia but that it views action as truly effective only when it is not forced. It is in this sense that the Taoist notion of non-action, or wu-wei, needs to be understood.
Wu-wei really means not going against the natural flow of things. This principle can be seen, for example, in the correct movement of the hands when catching a hard object such as a cricket ball. The movement of the hands follows the motion of the ball when catching it, thus reducing its impact and avoiding damage to the hands. Similarly, skyscrapers and suspension bridges must be designed to accommodate the wind, not resist it.
Sailing, solar energy, working with the grain and gliding are all examples of luu-wei applied to familiar activities. Many artists have reported the feeling of their work emerging from the canvas, rather than being imposed on it from the outside. The composer Gustav Mahler had a similar experience when writing his third symphony: ‘We do not compose,’ he wrote, ‘we are composed.’
Thus there is nothing inert or passive about luu-wei. Such activities are experienced as ‘non-doing’ because they follow the natural flow and are in accord with the Tao. The same is true of the Taoist concept of virtue, or te. Te does not mean virtue simply in the sense of morality; rather, it is the natural manifestation or expression of the Tao. True virtue is therefore not something we have to learn or be conscious of, but will arise from within of its own accord in the natural order of things.
As Taoism developed over the centuries, its principles were applied to the attempt to extend the natural lifespan, and yogic and alchemical practices were used for attaining longevity or even immortality. However Taoist meditation in its purer forms does not consider these as primary goals. In fact, the notion of extending one’s life indefinitely is contrary to Taoist principles of yin and yang, since it is the certainty of death which gives life its value. Most Taoist meditation is designed to realign the mind and body with the Tao, and does not involve forcing of any kind.