The term “Tao” was in use in Chinese philosophy long before the “Tao Te Ching” was recorded (by Confucius, for example), but it attained its pivotal importance only with the teachings of Lao-Tzu. The word “Tao” originally meant “path, way” in classic Chinese, however, this word also connotes a “method,” “principle,” or “the right way.” In the writing of Lao-Tzu, “Tao” takes on the meaning of a principle underlying the workings of the whole world.
The “Tao“, or the Way is the highest reality and the supreme mystery, the original unity, the cosmic law and the Absolute. The inexpressible unfolding of “Tao” gives birth to all of creation by generating the duality of Yin and Yang, positive and negative, whose transformations, movements and interplay ultimately bring forth the entire world. Without sweetness there can be no sourness, without suffering, no happiness — and vice versa!
“Wu-wei” or active “non-doing” is a characteristic Taoist virtue. Things and their course will take care of themselves, unfolding in their own innate order. For “Wu-wei,” i.e. non-action, does not mean being lazy, folding the hands, or resigning. Instead, “Wu-wei” means to have faith in what will come, and what will develop through the power of “Tao.” Taoism strives to foster inner serenity and equanimity, encouraging the individual to live and act according to the Law of “Tao” – the way of nature.
For nothing in the cosmos is fixed; everything is subject to change, and the wise realize “Tao” by accomodating this constant change, the growing and becoming that govern all of the visible world. Those who act in the spirit of “Tao” will be able to find inner peace and lead a content life, and learn from the wisdom of “Tao” which is “being the simplest”. The first step is to cease allowing oneself to be led by one’s wishes and desires.
The roots of Zen are undoubtedly found in China – where it is called Chan — and are closed related to the teachings of Lao-Tzu and the great philosopher Chuang-Tzu (or Zhuang-Zi). Chuang-Tzu (370 – 286 BC) was the most important proponent of Taoism and a brilliant writer lived in the 4th Century BC in China. The core concept of Chuang-Tzu’s philosophy was “timeless being.”
“My greatest happiness consists in doing nothing whatsoever that is considered to obtain happiness.”
“The sound of water says what I think.”
“We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended upon it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.”
“The relationship between noble men is as clear as water and lasting. The relationship between common people is as sweet as sugar and short-lived.”
The “Tao Te Ching,” which deals with the Way of Tao, was composed at a time when Chinese life was becoming brutally regimented by local rulers struggling to conquer all their opponents. The heart of the “Tao Te Ching” includes the importance of spontaneous action; the relativity of all value judgements; the inevitability of change between polar opposites; and the benefits of obscurity, uselessness, and particularly “doing nothing.”
The “Tao Te Ching” reads like a manual of survival for the weak and powerless. However, it leaves open a multiplicity of interpretations of its messages. In later ages, it has been seen variously as a political tract, a handbook of military strategy, a guide to mystical progress for the initiate, and a philosophical account of the workings of the universe.
Taoism believes that nature itself is divine and that we should live in harmony with natural cycles and systems. Therefore, the created world is to be revered. Mountains not only sustain a wealth of nature with their springs, caves, flora and fauna, they also support the sky and in so doing create the space in which life blossoms. Taoist architecture was designed with an eye to long life and eventually immortality; its makers hoped to work with a godly touch. The Gate of Pilgrimate on the top of a mountain is a welcome sight to lift the spirits and greet the weary traveller. Gates symbolically represent a goal — passing through admits the pilgrim to another realm.
Therefore, Taoist philosophy stresses the harmonious relationship between the individual and the natural world, especially mountains, lakes, trees, and waterfalls. This is reflected in Chinese art, which excels in landscape painting. The following are my Chinese landscape painting that I completed in 2004.
The following are my translation of the implied meanings of some of LAO-TZU’ssayings in his “Tao Te Ching“. These Chinese characters are in the traditional form and are to be read from left to right.
1. Taoists believe that there is an unnameable reality at the heart of all things, known as the Tao, or the Way. It is the principle of harmony. Tao cannot be seen; Tao cannot be heard. For Tao is hidden, and has no name. Everything moves in Tao. So, the creation of the universe starts with the Tao, or the Way, which is the source of all beings in the universe. The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao, and the things that can be spoken are not the eternal things. The Tao that can be told of is not the absolute Tao, and the names that can be given are not absolute names. The eternally real is unnameable, nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth.
2. When people see things as beautiful, its opposite is created. When people see things as good, its opposite is created. When you say that something is “beautiful,” you are saying that something else is “not beautiful.” When you confirm the existence of something, you are also implying the existence of its opposite. “Being” and “non-being” complement each other. Therefore, joy and sorrow are the different views of the same thing.
7. The Heaven is eternal. The Earth is forever enduring. Their presence are to serve all beings, not for themselves. The sage is complete because he does not serve himself. A life that serves others, without attachment, is truly fulfilled. In a life of simplicity, one can give abundantly to others.
8. Supreme kindness is like water. For its gentleness, water has great strength. It conquers by yielding, not by attacking. A man of supreme virtue is like water, which flows downhill like the deep humility of a person who serves rich and poor alike. He is humble and does not contend, so no one contend against him. He does not compete but serves others. To nurture the simple life of emotional freedom and confidence, focus on helping others without attachment.
9. He who knows when to stop does not find himself in trouble. He will stay forever safe. One who has achieved goals and success should step down and give way to the young, talented people, and start a new life direction in simplicity and spirituality. Anything that reaches the top has to come down. This is the Law of Nature.
10. Accept the world around you. Giving and nurturing, but not owning and demanding, peace and harmony will be with you. The sage serves others with wisdom, not with attachment. He ignores his desire and finds himself content. True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.
11. If there is a tool, use it. If there is no tool, start with the emptiness. All things start with the emptiness. No emptiness, no existence. Without the emptiness, nothing can be built on. Appreciate having the emptiness, so there is room for growing.
12. Too much desire tears the heart. Too much food hurts the body. The sage is content with a simple life with the basic needs, and stays away from lust and material gains. He does not spend his energies in pursuit of fame and wealth. Without greeds causes one’s dependence on the approval of others to fade.
14. The Way is timeless, formless and boundless. Following it, but do not see its ending. Approaching it, but do not see its beginning. Following the Way, and applying it to the daily life, thus you grasp the essence of the Way. A contented, untroubled spirit thrives as one seeks to embrace the Way.
15. The sage follows the laws of nature and desires less. He does not seek the fullness and does not overdo things. He would prefer having the partial, but not the wholeness, and give the extras to others in need.
17. A wise leader acts prudently and does not issues orders whenever he wishes. A wise leader trusts his people and values their words. He lets his people know that things are being done according to the Laws of Nature, so things will run smoothly.
18. When the Way is been ignored, duty and justice appear. When there are problems in the family, its members seek respect and devotion. When the nation falls into chaos, its people pursue loyalty and patriotism.
21. How can one understand the universe? It starts with accepting the Way. Even though the Way is intangible, you know it exists. It is the wisdom of timeless, boundless and formless. And, that wisdom which you can obtain comes from following the Way. Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
22. Less is more, and more is confused. The more you have, the more worries you will have. The sage wants less, not more, so no one contends against him. He is happy with a life of simplicity, which gives him the peace and joy to help others.
23. A hurricane will not outlast the morning, a heavy rain will not outlast the day. Who has the power to hurry things? If Heaven and Earth do not hurry them, what shall a person do? If you open yourself to the Way, the Way will enfold you. If you open yourself to the virtue, virtue will embrace you. If you open yourself to the joy, joy will be with you. If you open your heart to life of simplicity, tranquility and inner calm will blossom.
24. Those who boast about their successes, diminish their successes. Those who are arrogant, accomplish less. Those who consider themselves superior, are always worried and unhappy. The sage avoids these wasteful behaviours. In spite of his own wisdom, he is humble to others and he has never failed to win people’s hearts.
25. Mankind follows the Earth. Earth follows the Heaven. Heaven follows the Way. And, the Way follows the Laws of Nature. A life of simplicity is harmonious with the nature and all beings. Greater security and inner peace arise when your choices and goals reflect the Laws of Nature.
26. Acting hastily, one can lose control of oneself. Acting rudely, a leader can lose his power. The sage cultivates inner peace to overcome such weaknesses. A life of simplicity allows one to leave behind uncertainty, and anxiety.
27. Good doors have no bolts, yet cannot be forced. Good knots have no rope, but cannot be untied. The sage nurtures all men and abandons no one. He accepts everything and rejects nothing. A good worker does a thorough job without leaving any bad comments. A true generous person helps those in need without disclosing his identity.
29. Some are meant to lead; some are meant to follow. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Do your best, and avoid excess and the extremes that often lead to failure. The key to failure is trying to do things that are against the Laws of Nature.
32. At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. Some are meant to have an easy life; some are meant to have a difficult life. The sage adapts himself to the constantly changing environment. He understands the meanings of crisis, faces it with calmness, not with angers. Accept things and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the Laws of Nature’s will for us. People usually fail when they are on the verge of success. So give as much as care to the end as to the beginning and do not be greedy. Then there will be no failure.
33. Those who understand others are intelligent. Those who understand themselves are enlightened. Those who are contented have wealth. Those who passed away and being remembered are eternal. A life of simplicity let your natural beauty shine, which gives you the inner wisdom to understand yourself and others.
34. The sage is humble, doesn’t seek to master or control others because he doesn’t seek fame and recognition. Without greeds, he feels strong inside, and he is freely able to accomplish great things. Grasping for control only stirs up more distress, but embracing the Way brings peace.
35. The Way’s speech is silent. It can not be seen; it can not be heard, yet the Way is everywhere. Where there is the Way, there are peace and harmony. At the heart of simplicity is gratitude which can not be seen, but it brings the feelings of satisfaction and delight.
37. The Way is of gentleness and non-action, yet it can do wonders. Opening his heart to the Way, the sage finds himself content with joy and peace, and he is respected by everyone. With gentle stillness, one feels peace and whole, and can give to others abundantly.