This is the opening line in the 37th verse of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom. The Tao (pronounced dow in English) is an indescribable force that permeates all things. The Tao does nothing in the sense that it can’t be identified in precise terms, but leaves nothing undone in the sense that all things contribute in an interconnected way. And speaking of way, the word Tao is generally translated as the way. The way, meaning a path that one follows, which is in harmony with nature. Te is translated as power or virtue, and Ching is a book.
The Tao is a mysterious concept and its true meaning is almost impossible to express in language. The 1st Verse of the Tao Te Ching begins as follows: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
Some contemporary spiritual teachers have written and lectured about the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. Although I am sure there are many, 3 influential figures come to my mind: Alan Watts, whose lectures from the sixties and seventies are still posted on You Tube. In recent years, Eckhart Tolle and Dr. Wayne W. Dyer have incorporated Tao philosophies into their teachings. In his book, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life, Dyer describes his interpretation of the concept that is called “the Tao.”
“The Tao is the supreme reality, an all-pervasive Source of everything. The Tao never begins or ends, does nothing, and yet animates everything in the world of form and boundaries, which is called “the world of the 10,000 things.”
The Legend of Lao-tzu
Legend has it that a wise old man, named Lao-tzu, wrote the Tao Te Ching (sometime between the 6th and 4th century B.C.). Lao-tzu was the keeper of the archives of imperial China. He became frustrated with the unrest in the empire. He decided to leave and headed west, where he was recognized by a border guard. Lao-tzu was asked to write down his wisdom before he left, which became the Tao Te Ching. Afterwards, he left the kingdom and was never seen again.
There is, however, no way to verify if this is historically accurate. Lao-tzu actually translates to old master. It could be that the original text is a collection of proverbs from various sources, or perhaps what has survived is an incomplete version. Nevertheless, the book has been translated thousands of times in many languages. A few centuries later a movement began, which became Taoism. There is also some speculation that the Tao Te Ching may have influenced the birth of Buddhism.
Religion or Philosophy
The core concept of the Tao has led to the development of the Taoist faith. I use the word faith as opposed to the word religion, because Taoism is fundamentally different from other world religions. The Tao is not a God in the traditional western sense. The concept of God as a controlling figure is absent in Taoism. In the Tao, there is no controlling center; everything is allowed to be, and each component is viewed as part of a harmonious system.
Based on the Tao, there are no prescribed directions to follow; it is left to individuals to find their own way. The Tao Te Ching is a guide for living in harmony with nature, but it is not a manual. Taoism is as much a philosophy as it is a religion.
The Way of Nature
The flow of water is a powerful symbol for the Tao. Flowing water finds the lowest or easiest path. There is also the inevitability of the direction of the water. Take for example, the flow of a river; much better to go with the current than to try to go against it. There is a way to nature and the universe, but it is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint. The main goal is to experience the Tao by allowing and accepting nature as it is, not by trying to control it.
The Tao Te Ching also points out the paradoxes of nature. Even polar opposites are viewed as working together. Hence the terms and symbols of yin and yang, which represent opposite forces in nature; they are seen as complementary and interconnected. For example, there is a balance between high and low, soft and hard, hot and cold and light and dark. Or one could say there is no light without darkness. Following the way is living in balance.
The Way Forward
We could do worse than adopt an open philosophy of life that aligns with nature. When we consider the immense problems caused by extreme and competing religious dogmas, and financial greed and inequality that disregard the well-being of the environment, it should make us pause: “Where are we going?” If humans are going to find their way in such confusing times, we will have to incorporate principles that are compatible with nature.
I find it refreshing that ancient concepts contained in the Tao Te Ching are lining up with a modern scientific view. Science has discovered a multitude of interconnected parts that make up our world. Life is so interconnected that it is sometimes difficult to determine when one living system begins or ends. The whole planet (or even the universe) can be viewed as one system or organism. Everything that exists is compatible with the whole. If it were not, it wouldn’t be here. Alan Watts summarizes the Tao in the following manner:
“The whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing, indeed democratic organism. But it has a totality, it all goes together, and this totality is the Tao.”
References: Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life (United States: Hay House Inc., 2007).
Alan Watts – The Taoist Way, Published on Jan. 13, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv9zocKASsM
In Our Time Philosophy: Daoism (Dec. 15, 2011).