Taoism Review

1. What is the Confucian Triad and how does it form [a] cosmological basis for Taoist thought?

The Confucian Triad is a derivative concept that adds human behaviour into the principle of the “unity of Heaven and Humanity” (tianrenheyi). The inclusion of humanity indicates that humanity is neither encompassed nor separate from the natural order of earth or the cosmic forces. Initially developed by Xun Zi during the Warring States period and common to both Neo-Confucianism (Song and Ming Dynasties) and New Confucianism (20th century), it is simultaneously both influenced and critical of Taoism and Buddhism.

A major component of the triad is the use of the metaphysics suppositions to establish rational grounds for ethical and successful behaviour. The influential Neo-Confucian philosopher, Lu Jiuyuan, expresses this as follows:

"The Confucianists consider man, living in the world, as more intelligent that the myriad things and more noble than the myriad things, and that man and Heaven and Earth coexist as three ultimates. For heaven there is the way of heaven, for Earth there is the way of Earth, and for man there is the way of man. Unless man fully practises the way of man, he will not be qualified to co-exist with Heaven and Earth.. From this we have the right and wrong and success and failure and we have education and learning. " [1]

A very similar position is taken by the Taoists; "Heaven" referring to those influences beyond our reach, "Earth" referring to the world that one finds oneself in, and "Human" referring to conscious will. Arguably, heaven and earth are analogous to the well-known Taoist dichotomy of Yin and Yang, with the "space between" representing the energy force of Qi, existing the transmission of change between the complementary opposites [2]. More conventionally, it is the way or behaviour that seeks to align a harmonious flow to the universe, i.e., the Tao [3] through the virtuous practise known as Te.

It should be noted that there is a significant dispute between Confucianists and Taoists on this matter. From the Confucian point of view the moral order is one that assigns a particular emphasis on familial duty, kindness and social order, whereas from the Taoist point of view, the familial order derives from the natural interaction between people.

[1] "Lu Hsiang-Shan" [Lu Jiuyuan] in Wing Tsit Chan, Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, p575
[2] Graham Ward, The postmodern God: a theological reader, Wiley-Blackwell, 1997, p228
[3] Eulalio Paul Cane, Harmony: Radical Taoism Gently Applied, Trafford Publishing, 2002, p13

2. Consider the story of Confucius meeting Lao Tzu. What is meant by his remark, “Today, I have seen a dragon”?

With the apocryphal meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, the following comments from former is recorded (from Ssu-ma Chi'en onwards [4]) :

"I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run. Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can hit by arrows. But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the cloud and the wind. Today I have seen Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon!"[4]

The meaning behind Confucius' words are clear enough. Lao Tzu, who ascends high into the heavens by means beyond the knowledge of Confucius cannot be trapped by his system. Obviously enough, one should use the context of oriental rather than the occidental dragon, the former usually malevolent, the latter wise.

But this selection does not illustrated the full discussion between the two thinkers. Immediately preceding this quotation in Ch'ien's account, is how Confucius approaches Lao Tzu for lessons on rites. Lao Tzu replies that just as a good merchant gives an appearance of want, so too does the superior man have the appearance of a fool. "Get rid of that arrogance of yours, all those desires, that self-sufficient air, that overweening zeal; all of that is no use your true person" [5].

In a later chapter a different version of the meeting is recorded where Lao Tzu opines: "The man who is intelligent and clear-sighted will soon die, for his criticisms of others are just; the man who is learned and discerning risks his life, for he exposes other's faults. The man who is a son no longer belongs to himself; the man who is a subject no longer belongs to himself." [6]

So according to Lao Tzu, neither intelligence, filial piety or loyalty should be accorded the greatness or centrality that they are to Confucius. Confucius, in advocating such practical and ordered moral and ethical concepts, certainly very appropriate to his previous work as a counsel to governments, had in fact entrapped himself by rigid adherence to his own system. To break out of this, he would half to become dragon-like and embody the Tao.

"If you open yourself to the Tao, you are at one with the Tao and you can embody it completely.... Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place." [7]

[4] Quoted in Husten Smith, The World's Religions, Harper Collins, 1991, FP 1958, p196-197
[5] Max Kaltenmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism, Stanford University Press, 1969, p8
[6] ibid.
[7] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 2.23
3. Read “The Three Meanings of the Tao.” What is the literal meaning of tao? What are the “three meanings”?

The literal definition of tao is "way", "path" or "route" or in some contexts "principle" or "reason". There is some distinction between Taoist and Confucian approaches to the word. In the former, the Tao can represent the eternal principles of the universe, whereas in the latter, there is greater emphasis on the right conduct. The dual definitions elucidate the possibility of both naturalistic fallacies (what is true is good) and moralistic fallacies (what is good is natural). At the same time, the duality does also suggest an possible orientation that seeks to combine moral reasoning with ethical rightness in a manner that does not result in disharmony (e.g., natural rights).

Husten Smith describes three meanings of Tao as (a) Tao as the transcendent ultimate reality, (b) Tao as the immanent way of the universe, and (c) Tao as the practise of human life when it meshes with the prior descriptions [8]. In the first case this refers to the Tao that is eternal, infinite, cannot be named etc as the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching elucidate "The tao that can be told is not the not the eternal Tao". In the second instance it is referred to being within the universe, "The great Tao flows everywhere". In the third instance, it offers harmony and solace: "When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, distinterested, amused... Immersed in the wonder of the Tao, you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready" [9].

The offer of a harmonious and naturalistic relationship between human activity, the rhythm of the universe and a transcendent reality is certainly appealing. However, mere appeal is no substitute for rigorous analysis. Apart from the aforementioned problem with combining the good with the natural an additional epistemological problem comes from attempting to combine the transcendent meaning with the practical. For how is one supposed to behave in accord with ultimate reality, when that reality is not just unknowable, but actually unknown. Attempts to correlate by symptoms (e.g., feeling of harmony) are insufficient in this regard; various expressions of socio or psychopathology may indeed be in perfect harmony within themselves, but behave in a way that causes grave disharmony to others.

[8] Huston Smith, op cit., p198-199
[9] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, op cit., v1, v34, v16

4. Describe Lao Tzu’s concept of wu wei. How does it differ from what you have been taught?

Directly translated, "wu wei" is a difficult concept. "Wu" means "not" or "without", whereas "Wei" means to "do", "act" etc. Thus the literal meaning is usually "without action", "without effort" etc., and in Taoist thought is often included in the phrase "wei wu wei" [10], "action without action". It is embodied in Taoist thought as adapting to the natural world and achieving such a level of adaption that one can act with a great efficiency of effort. ".. the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything... practise not-doing, and everything will fall into place." [11]

It is important to understand that this is not a request for passive inaction, although I have has certainly seen it misused this way. Rather it is a caution against both egotisitical attempts to refashion the entire world through the rather brutish application of strictures and rules. In a very practical manner, the Taoist approach rather emphasises putting systems in place where the natural course of behaviour is fashioned; "If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts and the world will govern itself..." [12]

Water in particular is often used as a metaphor to explain the notion of wu wei ("The surpreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to... Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it" [13]). Perhaps with the advantage of modern physics and knowledge of matter phases, it would be interesting to see what Lao Tzu would say with the realisation that liquids are simply a more fluid version of a solid, or what he would make of the behaviour of ionised gas (plasma), or even other hypothetical states.

The greatest value of wu wei is to give pause to headlong, unreflective rush to confront a reality which is contrary to one's desires. So much of the ethic of western civilisation is founded on the propositions that the world is unsatisfactory and much be changed through hard work (and minimal consumption) [14]. The doctrine of wu wei encourages reflection and consideration. If one is motivated to change something, is this because the situation is disharmonious, or does the disharmony exist within? When the disharmony is located, what is the most efficient way to change it, and what is the most effective way? For both it will require actions which realign the situation in a manner so that the change occurs naturally and continues naturally; it is ultimately a plea to recognise what does and doesn't require realignment, and if the latter is necessary, to work smarter, not harder.

[10] Indeed this phrase was taken up as the pen name by the 19th century Taoist philosopher, Terence Gray.
[11] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, op cit., v2, v3
[12] ibid, v57
[13] ibid, v8, v78
[14] Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Norton Critical Edition, 2009, FP 1905

5. Consider the three ways te can be understood and the three forms of Taoism that have resulted from these understandings. Describe the three forms of Taoism, paying special attention to their essential features, such as their nature, purpose, and methods.

The title, Tao Te Ching, has been typically translated as "The Way and Its Power". In considering the Tao as representing three possible ways (ultimate reality, natural forces, ideal behaviour), it is also possible to consider three possible manifestations of the Tao in terms of human behaviour (philosophical, embodied, religious) [15]. Notably there is no such elaboration on the manifestations of Tao as the ultimate reality (which, paradoxically, might not be possible according to Tao) or natural forces (although Fritjof Capra's, The Tao of Physics (FP 1975), could been seen as an attempt that direction).

1.Effective Efficient Power: Philosophical Taoism

Philosophical Taoism is an unorganised and individual movement that seeks to attain efficient use of te. Describing it as an "conservationist" approach, such as is done by Smith, may requires further elaboration as it suggests that te is a quantifiable resource. Given that the principle of philosophical taoism is to achieve maximum effect with minimum effort, this represents efficiency and is very much associated with the concept of wu wei. Certainly this can be translated into quantifiable terms under basic principles used in physics; e.g., work as the energy required to for the application of force multiplied by distance. Such an evaluation requires creative quietude, action through relaxation.

2.Augmented Power: Embodied Taoist practice

Embodied taoist practise takes the form of actions which are believed to increase the amount of ch'i energy. This involves a combination of material and mental actions, such as nutrition, meditations, yogic practises, acupuncture, hygiene, exercise (qigong) and martial arts. The experimentation in nutrition aspects has led to the discovery of useful herbs, and there has been some reports of minor correlations with pain relief with acupuncture. On the other hand, some of the magical thinking that has become part and parcel of such practises (e.g., use of endangered species, traditional concept of disease) which make up traditional Chinese medicine, are problematic on an ethical and objective basis.

3.Vicarious Power: Religious Taoism

Religious taoism is most popular among those, due to circumstances or inclination, are lacking in the time for rigorous embodied practise or reflection. In these circumstances a more minimal period of time is expended in supporting the existence of specialist Taoist priests, who perform the necessary roles of therapist, as well as giving meaning and significance through ritual, who are able to channel te as required, in a manner not dissimilar to mutual aid insurance. Further, it provides a social and institutional association on a community-wide level, something which the philosophical or adept approaches are less able to do.

How would you describe the relationship between the three forms of Taoism?

All expressions have the same objective; the maximisation of te. Whilst the threefold example is neat, Smith acknowledges that this should be considered like points in a continuum, rather than highly discrete sets [16]. Smith describes philosophical taoism as "the most exportable" as it has the most to say to the world at large. There seems to be no particular justification for this claim. The realisation of import, the successful perception of disharmony, the meditative calculation for efficiency are all behaviours which are neither simple nor necessarily appealing to many. Others will surely prefer the augmented or vicarious approaches. There is clearly some association between the meditative practise of embodied taoism and philosophical taoism. In maximising the efficiency of te, one must find the inner resources of the meditative practise and remove impediments. Thus is not quite true to describe all embodied practises as augmented as such, but sometimes it appears more like discovery. Likewise for many, recognising consciously or otherwise, a specialisation of labour may make religious taoism the most efficient avenue.

[15] Smith, ibid, p199-206
[16] Smith, ibid, p207

6. What do the following terms mean as they relate to Taoist cosmology:

1.Wu Chi

The literal meaning is "Without Ultimate", representing the infinite. In the Tao Te Ching it has the special meaning of returning to original nature, but one which presupposes knowledge of the complement. "Know whiteness, Maintain blackness, and be a model for all under heaven. By being a model for all under heaven, Eternal integrity will not err. If eternal integrity does not err, You will return to infinity" [17]. The notion of Wu Chi also appears in other traditional Chinese philosophical texts; "In Song-dynasty philosophy, however, the same expression 'limitless' should be translated as 'ultimate of beinglessness' [18]

2.T’ai Chi

The most common use of the term T'ai chi [ch'uan] is to refer to the a neijing, or internal, martial art, dedicated to ch'i, rather than external or physiological approaches. It is primarily practised as an excersise for health benefits along with defensive training. The training movements are particularly well recognised for being carried out in slow motion. It is directly related to the Taoist and Confucian philosophical concept of T'ai chi which represents infinite potential and stands as a complement to Wu Chi; it is from T'ai Chi that existence acquires movement and from Wu Chi it reaches tranquility.

"Any philosophy that asserts two elements such as the yin-yang of Chinese philosophy will also look for a term to reconcile the two, to ensure that both belong to the same sphere of discourse. The term 'supreme ultimate' performs this role in the philosophy of the Book of Changes. In the Song dynasty it became a metaphysical term on a par with the Way." [19]

3.Yin & Yang

Often expressed in occidental texts as "Yin and Yang", the Chinese term y?nyáng is used to show how dichotomous and opposite concepts are actually part of a greater whole which is also the case for natural dualities. Neither yin nor yang are an absolute, each containing part of the other and neither is static with the "in between" space providing movement and change. It is important to recognise that yinyang does not represent polar opposites, but rather complements that are part of an even larger system. Imbalances between yinyang however can cause disease and disorder in the traditional Chinese perspective (not unlike the Hellenic concept of a balance of humours). A popular conception of yinyang including the moral dichotomy of good and evil is not a feature of Taoism (although it is in the Confucian version) but was more a result of Buddhist influence [20].


Ch'i (or qi) is the active energy in any living thing [21], and is directly translated to 'breath', rather like the Latin spiritus. Within traditional Chinese medicine the circulation of Ch'i within a body necessary for cohesiveness and integration. Yuan Ch'i, that which is innate from birth, is distinguished form the Ch'i that is developed and acquired during a life [22]. Confucius too makes use of the notion of Ch'i but associates it with blood as well, xue-qi or "blood and breath", relating it to behaviour and especially sexual behaviour [23]. The Confucian philosopher Mencius argued that ch'i could extend beyond one's body, and could be nourished by righteous behaviour, whereas Chuang Tzu would take an almost animist approach and claim that the wind had ch'i energy [24].

[17] Tao Te Ching, v28
[18] Zhang Dainian and Edmund Ryden, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy. Yale University Press, 2002, p71
[19] Zhang and Ryden, ibid, p179
[20] Rodney Leon Taylor, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Confucianism, Vol. 2, Rosen Publishing Group, 2005 p.869
[21] Peng Yoke Ho, Li, Qi, and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China. Dover Publications, 2001
[22] Manfred Porkert, The Theoretical Foundations of Chinese Medicine: Systems of Correspondence, MIT Press, 1974, p172
[23] Confucius, Analects, 16:7
[24] Mencius, 2A:2, Chuang Tzu, 2:4/96 in Wing-tsit Chan (trans). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963.

7. What does freedom mean to Chuang Tzu? How does it differ from the notion of freedom in the Modern West?

Chuang Tz?, a philosopher who lived in ancient China during the Warring States period, has a particular concept of freedom which is not entirely at odds with a very radical classic liberal tradition or with individual anarchism in western philosophy. Politically, Chuang Tzu simply wanted to be left alone, a fairly reasonable request under the circumstances. Philosophically, his orientation was towards the natural universe and as such developed a naturalistic political-philosophy which eschewed the complex and hierarchial social conventions that are inevitable in a period of warring kingdoms.

Taking up the political advice offered in the Tao, Chuang Tzu rejected even the possibility of governing people itself. "There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind." [25] Instead he felt that a spontaneous order would emerge from natural interactions between people. He famously rejected an offer of one thousand ounce of gold from King Wei of the Ch'u kingdom to become an adviser. "I would rather roam and idle about in a muddy ditch, at my own amusement, than to be put under the restraints that the ruler would impose." [26]

This particular concept of freedom should be understood as a truncated freedom that deal with the negative only - enabling, or positive liberty [27], is limited to what is available in nature only and indeed not even that as Chuang Tzu showed no knowledge of land endowments, although ironically Confucius was perhaps aware of it; "When the Great Tao prevailed... natural resources were fully used for the benefit of all and not appropriated for selfish ends... This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity." [28]. Could Chunag Tsu wander aimlessly, when all land was the property of others? From whence would he acquire sustanence, except from the kindness of strangers?

[25] Chuang Tz?, Chapter 11.
[26] Quoted in Murray Rothbard, Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume IX, No 2, Fall 1990
[27] Isiah Berlin, Liberty (revised and expanded edition of Four Essays On Liberty), Oxford University Press, 2002.
[28] Confucius, The Great Commonwealth of Peace and Prosperity, in The Book of Rites

8. Which aspect of the Taoist teachings or tradition is most meaningful to you and why?

On a personal note the first aspect of Taoist teachings that has particular appeal is its earthy, peasant-like simplicity. Taoism's naturalism reminds me of the works of the nineteenth century French author, Emile Zola, and the philosophy is not too far behind either. It sees government, power and money as corrupting influences, whereas the natural life, whilst sensual, can also be tranquil. On that particular note, it is pleasing to see that Taoism does not include a negative approach to sexual activity, which is regrettably common in various religious perspectives; in fact the fángzh?ngshù ("bedroom arts") of Taoism incorporated a gender equality mixed with alchemical and meditative approaches. However with a word of caution by the Ming Dynasty this magical thinking reached the point where it recommended sexual acts by men with pre-adolescent girls for the purpose of attaining immortality; perhaps they meant by infamy.

Indeed, if there is anything within Taoism that does bring cognitive discomfort is the tradition-heavy association with magical practises and the overt use of ritual proof over scientific examination. Whilst there is no doubt there is great aesthetic enjoyment to be gained from mythic tales and often (in fact, almost always) a moral theme worth considering, the activity or "real" magical practises (such as the aforementioned use of endangered animals in medicines with no benefit) is unappealing. Indeed, it is during the writing of this study that the last Javanese Rhinoceros was killed by poachers in Vietnam. Critically endangered, with no creatures in captivity and only one population of perhaps forty in the wild (in Indonesia), a myth persists that the powder of its horn has healing properties, a myth which can be squarely associated with the tradition of augmented te.

This is, of course, the negative side of a naturalistic approach. Previously concerns were raised with naturalistic and moralistic fallacies. Pragmatically moral statements are incommensurable factual statements; "facts" and "rights" are discrete orientations to action. Rather like many traditional and contemporary Chinese themselves, I have a greater sense of comfort where the social system is Confucian, where the community is Taoist, and where ethical behaviour is Buddhist – or perhaps even when the entire system follows Mohism, a now almost forgotten Chinese philosophical school that was a contemporary of Taoism and Confucianism,

Nevertheless, the next aspect that is appealing is regarding to logical method, where the Tao itself has obvious parallels with the Hegelian dialectic of the Abstract - Negative, including partial influence of the negative in the abstract and vice-versa. The presentation of the supposed paradoxes Tao Te Ching illustrates far better the relationship of complementary opposites than the somewhat turgid works from a German idealist philosopher, as much as the latter is appreciated in his own right. Furthermore, both the Hegelian dialectic and the Tao include the notion of movement and change and disruption when imbalance occurs, in a rhythm of movement to tranquility in the Tao or aufhebung in dialectics. It is of little surprise to discover that Hegel had some familiarity with Taoism and took it sufficiently seriously to incorporate much of its key ideas into his own philosophical method.

Finally, the philosophical approach of wu-wei, of efficiency, humility and harmony has strong personal appeal. A sense of reflection in the importance of particular issues generates a feeling of serene disinterestedness for much of the drama of life ("first world problems" being my favourite to ignore), and also the opportunity to redirect energies to those matters that are really worthwhile. The efficiency orientation also feeds strongly into the suggestion of humility in leadership, and the preference to distribute power and responsibility to the many. One can look, like Chuang Tzu, rather sadly at those who have sacrificed their freedom for power and as a result have neither.

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