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Taoist Philosophy

Taoism and Society

A central concept in Taoist philosophy is this theme of seeking the Tao by renouncing society, and this theme is revisited often in Taoist poetry and art.

Chi K'ang, a Taoist poet of the second century a.d., was likely young and romantic at the time of writing the following verses:

I will cast out Wisdom and reject Learning.

My thoughts shall wanderin the Great Void

Always repenting of wrongs done

Will never bring my heart to rest.

I cast my hook in a single stream;

But my joy is as though I possessed a Kingdom.

I loose my hair and go singing;

To the four frontiers men join in my refrain.

This is the purport of my song:

"My thoughts shall wander in the Great Void."

Chi K'ang tells us that what we commonly think of as knowledge and wisdom are obstacles in his path. What he has learned, he realizes, will not help him in his contemplation of Tao. Furthermore, spending his time in regret and reflecting on the sins of his past will bring him neither peace nor enlightenment.

Fishing in the little stream is a metaphor he uses to refer to a life lived with the Tao. Communion with the Tao will provide him with all he needs -- food and happiness fit for a king.

By untying his hair, he symbolically frees himself from societal conventions. His song, reminding people of their spiritual obligation to the Tao, is like a signal that will awaken all who hear it.

Like other Taoists, the poet never really does tell us what the Tao is. He can only show us the direction in which he is looking for Tao and the virtue he finds in its seeking. This method of indirectly discussing Tao is very much in keeping with the traditional Taoist path.

In Taoist philosophy, an enlightened mind is a mind unencumbered with the intellectual constructions of society. Enlightenment is a state of mind in which the universal principles that govern nature are reflected without effort.

Ideas born from such a state cannot help but surpass the more mundane ideas of an unenlightened mind. Unfortunately, simply being born into society has, as a consequence, the inheritance of its confusion.

Religions, legal systems, and rituals are all examples of the contrived systems that serve the private interests of certain groups. When we adopt the ideas they propound, we also adopt their interests and ways of thinking. By doing so, we lose sight of the true nature of things.

How best to rid ourselves of these misconceptions and flawed logic, how to go about renouncing society, is the Taoist problem.

Our five senses are partly to blame because they encourage us to explore the outer world. At times we are led by our eyes, and at others we follow our ears on a fool's quest. The psychological effects of colors, sound, smell, taste, and physical sensations in general, therefore, must be carefully controlled.

"The five colors blind our eyes, the five sounds deafen our ears, and the five flavors spoil our taste," says Lao Tzu in Verse 12 of the Tao Te Ching.

He implies that behind the world of the ­senses lies another world, an inner reality complete with its own sensibilities, all superior to our physical perceptions. Unfortunately, too much contact with the exterior world causes us to lose touch with that inner dimension and consequently with Tao.

This idea of an inner world that requires our energy and attention is central to Taoist philosophy. Because our attention is distracted by the outer world, our energies are diverted from the more important, inner tasks. As a result, we unnecessarily delay our return journey to the source, to the Tao.

As Lao Tzu says in Verse 47 of the Tao Te Ching:

One may know the world without going out of doors.

One may know the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows.

The further one goes, the less one knows.

Therefore the sage knows without going about,

Understands without seeing,

And accomplishes without any action.

The passage suggests that it is not the world as such that must be renounced, but rather its outer appearance.

We can know the world, the passage tells us, without actually exploring it. By exploring it we never reach the heart of the world, but only meet its shell, the part that envelops it and conceals its true inner nature.

The Way tells us to direct attention away from the overwhelming flood of ideas produced in our interaction with the everyday world. By doing so, it is possible to gain a measure of control over our emotions, since we no longer need to respond to the world.

If we can accomplish this, then the messages we receive from the world, although endless in their scope, can no longer influence us in the same manner, nor can they determine our outlook.

In this way, Taoists believe our inner world will gradually be purified and liberated from both the tyranny of the senses and the radical swings of emotion they invoke. Freedom from the boundaries imposed by daily life now becomes possible.

After progressing a certain distance on The Way, we escape the mundane laws affecting human existence. As our spirit develops, old patterns of thinking and behavior are left behind.

This inner work of Taoism is not only about acquiring something new; it is about freeing ourselves from something damaging that we already have -- the training we receive from society.

On the next page, Taoist philosophy gives modern psychology a run for its money with a Taoist perspective on human motivation, discipline, and modifying behavior.

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