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Taoist Philosophy

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.

To learn more about Taoism and tai chi, see: