Taoist Philosophy

Taoist Mastery

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.

To learn more about Taoism and tai chi, see: