Taoist philosophy is closely related to the meaning of a single word: the Chinese word "Tao."
Every language, culture, and religion has words that convey more than one simple idea. Even though such words often have several layers of meaning, there is never any confusion as to what is being said.
Ask a dozen people, for example, to explain the word "heaven" -- as likely as not, you'll hear a dozen different definitions or descriptions. The same is true of the word "Tao," which is often translated as "way" or "path."
Although there are many definitions of Tao, this one word communicates an entire philosophy, an outlook on the fundamental nature of life and the universe.
The word Tao is nothing less than an expression of the profound unity of the universe and of the path human beings must take to join, rather than disturb, that unity.
What is this path, and how do we find it? The path begins with an understanding of the origin of the universe. "Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of the way," stated the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching.
Known in English as The Book of the Way, this poetic masterpiece was written approximately 2,500 years ago. As well as being a matchless work of literature, it takes its place in history as the first written record of Taoist philosophy.
The Interdependence of All Things
Early Taoist philosophy was profoundly influenced by observations of nature. Taoist philosophers determined that everything has its complementary opposite. More than this, they saw that everything can only be understood by comparing it to its opposite.
Day is only day in relation to night, cold only cold in relation to heat, and soft only soft in relation to hard. Looking deeper still, they realized that these relationships are in a constant state of flux: Day flows gradually into night and back again.
All things, then, are interdependent. By observing the processes of nature, the Taoists say, we can come to some understanding about the meaning of our lives and about our place in the world. These concepts are the cornerstone of Taoist philosophy.
Taoist philosophers also noticed that what happens in nature is effortless. This does not mean that there is no struggle, but that events occur without premeditation.
Consider the life of a plant. The seed falls onto the ground. If the soil is fertile, and if it receives warmth, light, and water, it may emerge as a seedling. It does not require instruction to know how to take nourishment in through its roots or how to photosynthesize light and unfold into a mature plant.
Given the knowledge it contains, the plant is complete within its own nature. The Taoist asks: why should life be different for people? Why not allow situations to unfold as they may rather than trying to manipulate others and orchestrate events?
This belief in Taoist philosophy is known as the doctrine of doing-by-not-doing, and it lies at the heart of Taoist practice. It is the message of the following portion of Verse 29 of the Tao Te Ching:
Do you think you can take
over the universe
and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it,
you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it,
you will lose it.
Nature is complete without us, this verse tells us. We must recognize this fact and begin to participate with nature as a partner in the universal scheme.
Our mission, according to Taoist philosophy, is to return to a natural way of life, unencumbered by complicated social institutions and intellectual ideas. Doing so, Taoism suggests, will return us to a state of natural grace -- Tao.
This contact with what is innately pure will, in turn, strengthen our spirit, the source of which is nature.
Continue reading to discover more about Tao, the path, and finding the way -- all central components of Taoist philosophy.
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Finding The Way
In Taoist philosophy, finding "the way" (Tao) seems impossible at first. In order to understand Tao, we are told, we must rely on our spirit, not our intellect.
Yet we are conditioned to understand things in three ways: through our instincts and emotions, through our senses, and through the logic of our intellects.
Instincts and emotions tell us how we feel about different situations. Our five senses show us what is happening in the world around us. Finally, we draw conclusions with our minds. Each of these ways of knowing represents a different type of understanding. Together they form the boundaries of ordinary experience.
The paradox is that knowing through Tao lies beyond these conventional methods. Only by cultivating the spirit, Taoist philosophy states, can we rise above everyday experience.
The Chinese term shen means something like the English word "spirit." The meanings, however, are not exactly the same. Shen is thought of as a physical substance, as real as blood or bones.
Like everything else to the Chinese, shen is either in or out of balance. When it is balanced and exists in the body in a proper measure, it is said to be developed.
Developing or cultivating the spirit is possible by relying on two aspects of our mind, referred to as the emotional mind, or hsin, and the wisdom mind, or yi. Hsin can be used to awaken shen, but yi must be used to control it.
If this control is not exerted, problems such as sleeplessness and mental disorder develop. When the control is found, however, great feats can be accomplished. For this reason, Taoists and Buddhists both practice methods especially designed to sublimate emotional energy.
Cultivating the spirit, then, requires mastery of both the emotional and intellectual realms of understanding. To control spirit in Taoist philosophy, we must use our minds to control the raw powers of emotion that activate it.
Finally, we must express shen through the deeds of our physical bodies. By doing so, we will effortlessly display a balance that reflects inner poise and grace. This grace is the natural harmony of the Tao expressing itself.
Footprints on the Path
Finding the way and following the path in Taoism is difficult, and it is also difficult to be sure that we are on the path. About this problem, Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu's literary and spiritual successor, wrote: "If Tao could be explained, we would freely do so for our loved ones and our leaders. But it is not possible. Tao will not be found unless both inner and outer worlds are in harmony."
This message, penned two hundred years after Lao Tzu, reiterates Lao Tzu's fundamental message.
Try as we might to define Tao, its true meaning will always escape intellectual explanation. All attempts to interpret Tao serve largely to confuse people. It cannot be found through words or through an intellectual quest.
The effortless state of existence that is the epitome of finding Tao requires a return to nature and a corresponding abandonment of the social organizations that enslave us. Chuang Tzu explains this idea in the following passage:
"Tao is without beginning, without end. Other things are born and die. They are impermanent; and now for better, now for worse, they are ceaselessly changing form. Past years cannot be recalled; time cannot be arrested. The succession of states is endless, and every end is followed by a new beginning. Thus it may be said that a man's duty to his neighbor is embodied in the eternal principles of the universe. The life of man passes like a galloping horse, changing at every turn, at every hour. What should he do, or what should he not do, other than let his decomposition continue."
In one sense, such a formulation of the Tao seems, at first glance, to be deeply pessimistic in its suggestion that we have virtually no control over our lives. The sage implies that aspects of our lives that we desperately attempt to manage will always elude us.
On the other hand, though, the truth of these words is completely self-evident. Ultimately they are able to inspire hope and even joy. The meaning of Chuang Tzu's message is this: There is no other recourse for us. What we must do in our lives is simply to be, nothing more.
Chuang Tzu also tells us how to identify those who exemplify the life of one who seeks the Tao. "The wise," he said, "are charitable, not from a sense of duty but because it is The Way. They do not acquire debt nor place others under obligation to them. They take their food where they may find it and they ramble carefree through the world."
The wise in Taoist philosophy are those who realize that nature and destiny cannot be changed. And they know that by virtue of being human, we, too, are part of nature.
Another means of finding the way -- renouncing society to return to a natural way of life -- gets discussed on the next page.
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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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Taoism and Psychology
Taoist philosophy has much in common with the philosophy espoused by the great Greek philosopher Socrates.
The famous Socratic maxim, "Know thyself," is based on his belief that by searching inward, into the mind and its mysterious operations, the seeker will find a pure form of knowledge, untainted by outside influences. He theorized that an understanding and development of the psychological self would lead to a corresponding development of the soul.
As we have seen, a similar idea plays an important role in Taoist philosophy. Like modern day psychologists, the ancient Taoists came to realize that a set of deeply seated motivations underlie our daily actions. These motivating forces remain hidden, yet actively work to determine our behavior.
In the modern world, we use many different techniques to explore those human motivations. Through discussion and sometimes using supplementary techniques like hypnosis, dream analysis, or drugs, professional counselors attempt to uncover these forces.
As part of Taoist philosophy, Taoist teachers agree that as we age, we learn to accept certain ideas and beliefs about ourselves and others and about how the world works in general. Once we have accepted them, they become part of us, and we refuse to modify them even if they are absolutely wrong.
Over time, these ideas sink to the back of our minds, and while they still influence our thinking processes, we are no longer aware they even exist. In this way, our hidden human motivations can indeed determine our everyday patterns of thought and behavior.
The basic problem with these hidden values is that they are unnecessarily restricting and can even be dangerous. Eventually, they can manifest as a pathological condition.
Unlike the clients of psychologists, however, practicing Taoists do not wait for an actual problem to develop before attempting to discover and modify the roots of their behavior. As part of the Taoist discipline, they naturally become aware of their hidden motivations.
Taoists are also well-aware that their discipline ultimately leads to self-transformation; it is a type of spiritual alchemy that enables practitioners to progress from an ordinary life to one more refined with many more possibilities.
Taoist practices seek to reduce these potentially damaging limitations of human motivation in three realms of human concern: the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual. Interestingly, our limitations manifest in ways that correspond to these three realms.
In terms of the physical, we learn to be inflexible and awkward in our movements. Over time, this state negates the natural athletic abilities most of us possess as children.
Secondly, in terms of the psychological, we learn unhealthy and unproductive mental behaviors. For this reason, sloth is regarded in many cultures as a deadly sin.
Finally, in terms of our spirit, we adopt negative, even cynical attitudes that not only stifle our own creativity and joy, but can lead to self-destruction and even the ruination of others.
Taoism is a practice devoted to casting off these limitations, many of that are learned through our social interactions. It is a self-imposed discipline that involves many procedures including, among others, chanting, meditation, and the physical movements of tai chi chuan. Some styles use ritual and prayer as well.
While psychologists use language to talk out problems, Taoists are very aware of the limitations of language, as discussed on the next page.
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Taoism and Language
Despite some similarities between Taoist philosophy and psychology, one feature becomes very apparent when comparing Taoist and psychological approaches to the idea of self-transformation. Many psychological techniques, such as psychoanalysis, rely extensively on discussion as a methodology.
Proponents of these psychological approaches hope that by recognizing the underlying motivating forces that lead to behavior, the client will actually be able to change the resulting behavior. This may or may not be true.
Taoist practice, on the other hand, typically avoids conversation altogether, unless it is related to direct instruction. In Taoist philosophy, personal transformation is thought to result strictly from performing the prescribed exercises. The type of insight that results from therapeutic discussion is not highly valued.
The whole idea of the limitations of language and conversation when trying to express ideas relating to inner transformation has a very long history. Chuang Tzu, for example, noted the limitations of language in the attempt to express deep meaning.
"The universe is very beautiful," he wrote, "yet it says nothing. The four seasons abide by a fixed law, yet they are not heard. All creation is based upon absolute principles, yet nothing speaks." Chuang Tzu is simply trying to point out that we can appreciate beauty and recognize wisdom and knowledge without discussing any of it.
As a result of this aversion to language as a tool for self-expression, Taoists learned to use other methods of self-expression. The art of calligraphy, for instance, seeks to express certain qualities using written symbols and exactly what is said is not the only important factor. The true beauty in calligraphy is found in the lettering itself.
Advancing on the path is not so much an expression of meaning or even what is done, but of how things are expressed. The object of the discipline is found in its doing. This characteristic still holds true today.
In spite of these very different approaches to achieving inner transformation, the goals of psychologists and Taoist teaching masters are similar. They seek to help others reach a state of inner balance.
Taoist philosophy has traditionally believed that it is far easier to show the path to Tao than it is to explain it. Taoist prefer to inspire seekers through literature, artwork, or demonstration, letting imagery and metaphor convey their message. Certain media lend themselves more favorably to the expression of Taoist ideas than others.
Typically, the ideas of Taoism have been expressed in painting, poetry, fables, legends, and even in medicine and the martial arts. Since it is an inherent truth of Taoism that nothing very definite can ever be said about it, Taoist ideas have assumed a secretive and enigmatic character over the centuries.
Rich in description and metaphor, set in natural scenes of forests and lakes, often including birds and other animals, Taoist writings and other art forms conjure up many meanings, often deeply personal to the reader.
Although Taoist writing can sometimes be abstract and philosophical, these works are always characterized by a certain ambiguity that leaves room for the reader to reflect on its meaning.
Continue to the next page to see how Taoist self-expression has a special relation to the Chinese arts.
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Taoism and the Chinese Arts
Taoism can be seen as the invisible force behind the Chinese arts. Even though Taoist philosophy took hold in mainstream Chinese thought and is now deeply rooted, the historical effects of its presence are in some ways difficult to trace.
In the second century b.c., the historian Ss-ma Ch'ien noted that the Taoist teachings of Chuang Tzu were like flood waters that knew no boundaries and could not be contained. The irony is that in spite of its popularity, no one, not even the rulers or professional administrators themselves, could find any specific application for Taoism. Surely this was the intention of Chuang Tzu.
For whatever reason, since the fifth century, serious Chinese scholars have rejected the Taoist ideas of Chuang Tzu. The reverse is true, however, of poets, of landscape painters, and curiously enough, of Zen Buddhists. In these disciplines, his influence has been extremely dramatic. At the core of these disciplines his Taoist ideals still thrive.
We have seen how Taoist philosophy does not lend itself well to certain kinds of investigations. Lao Tzu has made it clear enough that the Tao cannot be known through intellectual analysis. Chuang Tzu has made it clear that the Tao can only be known in a visionary way.
Tu Meng of the Tang Dynasty (618-905), in one of his 120 aphorisms relating to calligraphy, explains: "A divine work is not achieved through human understanding but through intuition."
However, visual and poetic images readily lend themselves to the expression of Tao. Although these arts are often profound in their expressive ability, they are not encumbered by the restrictions of intellectual content. Looking at the ideas behind Taoist painting and in the fine art of calligraphy, then, is a good place to begin.
Painting in the Chinese arts was not traditionally considered to be a profession. Instead, its practice was believed to indicate a certain degree of maturity on the part of the painter. Paintings were regarded as something of a synthesis of the individual's life accomplishments. Many past masters of Chinese painting first achieved prominence in other professions before taking up the brush.
Chinese painting is associated with an immense literature that includes, among other fields, history, religion, poetry, and philosophy. In this literature there are many signs of Taoist influence.
In the past, aspiring artists trained in all of these fields simply to become acquainted with the ideas and their associated symbols. As a result, in the Chinese arts the painter is very often a philosopher and poet as well as a professional of some other type.
But a great Chinese artist is not developed simply through the mastery of formal style alone. It requires spiritual development as well. Li Jihhua (1565-1635) eloquently describes the habits of a great painter in the following passage:
When Huang Tzuchiu meditates
he sits alone in the wilds,
with only the bamboos, the trees
and scrub and the rocks for company.
Others do not understand him,
for he is not a part of their world.
Every now and then
he travels to the confluence
of the great river and the sea.
There, he rests, in the wind and rain
amidst furious water spirits.
Such is the heart and soul
of the Great Absent Minded (his nickname).
In his solidarity with the elements
lies a secret -- his magnificent works reflect
the ever-changing moods and feelings of Nature
and so, become truly great.
On the next page, see how the art of calligraphy is an extension of the Taoist concepts of art and artistry.
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Taoism and Calligraphy
The art of calligraphy is related to Taoist philosophy as an expression of Tao. In some ways, calligraphy is an art related to Chinese painting since it, too, uses brush and ink. It is the practice of forming lines on paper in a particular way.
At its highest level, calligraphy is the art of expressing inner understanding. The lines created by a calligrapher are known as characters and each one symbolically represents an idea or even a part of an idea. These lines are the Asian counterpart to the Western alphabet.
While there are many differences between the Western and Asian systems of writing, one of central importance is that to the calligrapher an idea is expressed not only by the character itself but in the quality of its execution. Exactly how the character is created is of paramount importance. For calligraphers, then, this quest for the formation of ideal characters is deeply personal.
The key to success in this discipline lies in being close to Tao. Proper composition of a line is simply not possible unless the inner being of the calligrapher is also perfectly composed. Here again, we see the idea of an inner, psychological world corresponding with the outer world.
Over time, critics of calligraphy have pinpointed a number of major shortcomings found in beginning students. The weaknesses are reflections of the students' inner being. And so, the exercise is for students to develop internally to the point where the weaknesses are replaced by strengths. Together the defects are known as Pa-Ping, or "The Eight Defects." Since these are common to all, identifying them can help students with Tao.
Critics of calligraphy rely on four categories for their analysis. For example, a character is said to possess varying degrees of bone, flesh, muscle, and blood. When these qualities are in the right proportions, the work is living. It expresses Tao. How better to evaluate the composition of a character than to compare it with something alive and healthy?
Each character, for example, must demonstrate inner strength, known as bone. It must also have the correct proportion of flesh so that it is neither too fat nor lean. Its blood (a quality related to the amount of water mixed with the ink) must be healthy in color. The quality of muscle in the work is left for the viewer to decide.
In this way, the calligrapher's work becomes an expression of life itself. How is it that there are so many rules and such rigorous discipline in an art that seeks to express the inexpressible naturally? Such is the mystery of the Tao.
Meditation and the Mortar and Pestle
It is a compelling sight to watch calligraphy students mix their ink in preparation for painting. Sitting cross-legged in front of little wooden tables, dressed in their robes, they make the ink.
The ink is in the shape of a stick, and together with some water, it is mixed in a small circular container made from slate. The substance is very gradually ground up and made first into a paste and then finally into a smooth, flowing liquid.
Immersed in their task, the artists pay no attention whatsoever to onlookers. Deep in meditation, they are totally oblivious to outside distraction. Beginners in calligraphy are often instructed to contemplate the work they are about to imitate. Those more advanced simply empty their minds.
Such is the intensity and depth of concentration required in Chinese calligraphy. More than simply a preparation of the materials, grinding the ink is a time-honored tradition. It is a form of meditation and so, by preparing the ink, the artist is also preparing personally. By watching someone prepare in this fashion, it is possible to steal a glimpse of Tao.
Learn more about the concept of chi and what it has to do with Taoist philosophy on the next page.
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Taoism and Chi
The concept of chi is of fundamental importance to Taoist practice. According to Taoist philosophy, chi is found throughout the cosmos, and it is the animating force and sustaining principle behind all living things.
Sometime around 500 a.d., a portrait painter named Hsieh Ho wrote a treatise describing the six essential points of a fine painting. His work is a cornerstone in the art of Chinese brush painting. The six ideas can be summarized in the following way:
The movement of the Chi produces the movement of life.
The brush brings structure into being.
Study an object before drawing its form.
Study its inner qualities before applying color.
Assign the elements of painting to their most suitable places.
When practicing and copying the work of a past master,
be certain to transmit
the inner qualities as
well as the outer form.
In these few lines, we see several ideas: the concept of chi, the ability to observe inner essence, the idea of perfect balance, the idea of the essence of an object, and the notion of observing before acting -- all very prominent in Taoist philosophy.
Firstly, there is the underlying theme of meaning as it is expressed in the essence of a work. A Taoist painter, like other types of Taoist artists, must learn to see the inner nature of the subject. A Taoist martial artist does exactly the same thing with the opponent. Accomplishing this requires an understanding of chi, a special force existing in all things.
Secondly, Hsieh Ho associates the idea of chi, meaning vital force or breath of life, with a worthy painting. A work with chi is "living" in the sense that this primal vitality can actually be seen in the work.
The idea of chi is relied on extensively in all Taoist arts, and it assumes particular importance in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine and in the martial arts.
Cultivating the Chi
While Taoists are not always able to describe the Tao, they did, and still do, have very specific sets of instructions as to how it might be attained. "Cultivating the chi" is one of those practices.
The phrase refers to the practice of strengthening our personal life force. Once it is developed, it then can be applied to any task at hand, such as a brush stroke, a healing touch, or a forceful blow.
Regardless of the application, chi exercises are well known in all disciplines with Taoist and Buddhist origins. True to the tradition, chi exercises do not have an intellectual character, but instead focus on a special type of physical discipline that sometimes involves meditation and mental imagery.
Here Taoism leaves the domain of philosophy and enters the realm of mysticism, because to the untrained person, chi is an invisible and intangible force. Without special training, it cannot in any way be detected. Still, the idea of chi lies close to the heart of Taoist studies.
While we cannot with any great success capture the essence of Tao in a systematic, intellectual manner, we can describe our particular relationship with the Tao. As we have seen, certain forms of communication, particularly speechless forms like brush painting and tai chi chuan, but also literary works such as poetry and parable, are more eloquent than others.
Mastery of Tao is elusive and the secrets of many Taoist disciplines are closely guarded, as shown on the next page.
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The idea of mastery of Tao is elusive in Taoist philosophy. "Taoist Master" is a term of respect reserved for those who are close to the Tao. Usually this accomplishment takes the better part of a lifetime. The few who do reach the Tao are individuals who understand The Way as far as any of us are able.
Until recently, at least, there has been a reluctance on the part of these masters to commit their teachings to writing. Some simply have not believed that it was possible to do with any degree of exactitude. Others have felt uncomfortable passing this knowledge on to the general public. A few have worried that the information would fall into the wrong hands.
As Taoism spread, different sects adopted different practices, and many branches sprang up. Even now, each group has specific policies about passing on information. Some sects guarded their inner practices as they might a treasure chest. In fact, so closely did they watch over their ideas that even today many of their methods are concealed.
Two of the most secretive groups of all were the Taoist alchemists and those who practiced tai chi chuan. While secrecy may protect and preserve knowledge, it also has the effect of generating misunderstanding.
Because of their reluctance to discuss their ideas with outsiders, a great deal of confusion has surrounded these Taoist groups. One important misconception concerns the actual purpose of the practice of alchemy. Typically when speaking of alchemy, the idea of transmuting base metals into gold springs to mind. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Like their western counterparts, the Chinese alchemists were far more interested in discovering the secrets of long life, perfect health, superior knowledge, the cultivation of spirit, and even immortality than in the conversion of base metal to gold.
In fact, it has been suggested that the language of the alchemists and the whole idea of transmuting metals was developed to mislead anyone who inadvertently overheard a Taoist conversation or read one of their treatises.
Preservation of Knowledge
Secrecy is also very much a part of the history of tai chi chuan, although the methods for preserving Taoist secrets were somewhat different. In many schools, certain instructions were never revealed until, perhaps after a lifetime of dedication, the master would condescend to entrust one or two of the most worthy students.
A similar phenomenon occurs in yogic practice, where a yogi will teach two curricula, one for the general public and one for the inner circle of dedicated students.
In the first half of this century, for example, tai chi chuan was a little known art even in China itself. Very few practiced it, and literature on the subject could not be found. This scarcity was not accidental; it reflected the teaching methods of the masters.
Still, in a civilization abundant with literary works of all descriptions, it was highly unusual that almost nothing could be found on one of the civilization's greatest achievements. As an unfortunate consequence of this predisposition for secrecy, the Taoist arts came to be known derogatorily as "Taoist magic tricks," and "reputable" philosophers turned their attention elsewhere.
As we have suggested, there were some notable exceptions to this silence, and writings pertinent to Taoist discoveries could be found in the fields of medicine, literature, and art. Throughout these texts, the terms Tao (The Way), yin (feminine) and yang (masculine), chi (life force), jing (essence), and shen (spirit), to name only a few, appear with conspicuous regularity.
Over the centuries, these ideas have been the subject of investigation by a variety of artists working in many different disciplines. As a result, Taoist art can today be thought of as a distinct school, complete with unique methods, favorite tools, typical themes, and underlying philosophy.
It is the work of all Taoists whether they are painters, poets, or martial artists, to develop their understanding of Tao, to develop a sense of The Way. In some cases, Taoists feel it necessary to express this relationship in a form that can be shared with others. This can be a difficult task since Taoist ideas are at best elusive and in many ways defy description, whether verbal or artistic.
Nevertheless, it can be done. With its clean, suggestive images, made with the simple tools of brush and ink, for example, traditional Chinese painting has long sought to preserve The Way.
But for the student of the Tao, the study of the effects of the yang of action and the yin of inaction is all-consuming. How we act, what we say and do, our everyday thoughts and most secret motivations, combine to form our being. Equally important is what we do not say and do not do.
Studying ourselves and others in this way leads us to an inevitable conclusion: How we conduct ourselves in the world is a reflection of what we have become internally. Knowing this is knowing Tao.