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Taoist Philosophy

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.

To learn more about Taoism and tai chi, see: