Tao is referred to as ‘the way.’ The way of which people should be, the way nature should be, and the way reality should be. Te is referred to as the virtue, character, influence, and moral force. The “outward effect of a man and the inward effect of the self” (http://www.commonplacebook.com/about/tao.shtm). Written by Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching consists of 81 short versus. Each verse shares knowledge and the philosophical views of Lao Tzu. Often referred to as ‘The Tao’, the Tao Te Ching is widely read today due to its’ simple yet complex themes. Two widely known themes in the Tao include: the simplicity of the Tao through the comparison of nature, and the concept of nothingness through wu wei. Through its’ themes, the Tao is able to teach the ‘student’ the definition of happiness, how to apply Taoism to modern day life, and how Taoist thinking is slightly different from Confucian thinking.
In able to understand the Taoist’s way of thinking, one must first understand the underlying concepts of Taoism and from there learn to apply it. Anyone that has read the Tao will say that the book is extremely simple. The writing is simple, the language is simple, and the themes are simple. The Tao Te Ching uses nature to express this simplicity, an extremely important theme of Taoism. The Tao describes how, like nature, one should be in balance, harmony, and simple. Verse 37 of the Tao Te Ching quotes how “People would be content with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire. When there is no desire, all things are at peace” (Mitchell, 39). Like Buddhist’s beliefs, Taoism also emphasizes how desire complicates people’s daily lives. Desire complicates actions that are taken and contaminate our minds. This complexity should be replaced by simplicity so that we may be more content.
When values such as, balance, harmony, and simplicity are met, they guide us to live a life of integrity. By living in such a way, we learn to be an exceptional ruler, teacher, or being. For example, verse 17 explains what a great ruler should be like. According to the Tao, the greatest leaders are those that are unknown to their subjects. The leader should organize matter in harmony with the Tao, and the subjects will go about their daily work. In the end the people will say “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” By being in harmony, the leader is also able to trust his subjects more. The Tao says “if you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.” Having both party’s content is what makes a leader exceptional.
Along with simplicity, Taoism also teaches nothingness and emptiness through the concept of wu wei. Wu is defined as ‘not’ or ‘without.’ Wei is then defined as “to do, to make, or to cause” (http://www.thetao.info/tao/weiwuwei.htm) Literally translating the meaning of the two words is ‘acting upon something.’ In Taoism, the phrase wu wei can be interpratated as meaning ‘to act but not to possess the act.’ The meaning of not possessing the act is simply that one should not be attached to the outcome of the action. One should simply just act, not thinking of what that action will bring to them. “It means to follow the flow of nature, without trying. Rather than constantly trying to fight situations and control them, which is unnatural and self-defeating, it is better to understand the true nature of the Tao, behaving completely naturally and in tune with the natural order of things” (http://www.thetao.info/tao/). If wu wei is applied fully, the student should be able to feel the having done nothing really is having done everything.
Simplicity and wu wei are not only used as central themes for Taoism but also used to apply to the definition of happiness, or at least what Taoist believe to be happiness. The Tao explains the easiest way, the first baby steps, to achieve this state of simplicity. In order to be completely content we should “throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves” (Mitchell, 21). Our materials, thoughts, actions, rules, and regulations are what bring us discontentment. If we are without these, it is almost as if we are without anything. We are caught up in trying to obtain the ‘very best’ of everything in life. We constantly compare and contrast. If something doesn’t match up to our standards we than become unsatisfied with the outcome. The Taoist way of thinking says that we should get rid of these wants or desires from life. When we limit ourselves from our greatest desires, we are able to achieve moments of the purest simplicity. By seeing our desires in a simple manner, we will not only be much happier with the results but we will also learn to make the right choices.
When we realize that we are making the right decisions, without outside sources telling us from the right and wrong, we are in harmony with our actions. Generally people that are able to recognize the Tao are said to be in harmony with their actions because they are enlightened. Enlightenment occurs when the Tao is recognized. By being true to the Tao one can remain simple. “If powerful men and women could remain centered in the Tao, all things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be at peace, and the law would be written in their hearts” (Mitchell, 35) further verse 32 continues to say that “all things end in the Tao as rivers flow into the sea” (Mitchell, 35). Ultimately, to be in the simplest form is to be true to the Tao.
The ways of the Master in the Tao Te Ching also give guidelines to bringing about happiness. The Master uses the wu wei concept to teach happiness. When actions are not tied to their consequences, the action becomes less significant. The desires to achieve the action disappear and we are left with nothingness. When we “practice not doing, everything will fall into place” (Mitchell, 5). And having everything in place keeps us happy, without us even knowing that we have achieved happiness through no-action. Made even simpler, having nothing done is equivalent to having nothing left undone. The Master is able to achieve her happiness acting “without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t posses, acts but doesn’t expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever” (Mitchell, 4). She remains content through wu wei.
Although Taoism falls under the category as one of China’s top three religions, it can be used as a tool in today’s society. The philosophical aspect of Taoism can be used as a guide to how one should deal with situations that arise. In example, the simplicity theme teaches one to slow down the fast paste of today’s world. The people in today’s society remain on a constant ‘I’ve got to go’ pattern. People are busy all the time out either working or doing recreational activities to fulfill their desires. The Taoist way of life teaches to let all of those desires go. The Taoist way teaches to remain in harmony and to see things in simplicity by comparing or even being in one with nature —the truest simplicity in life. By today’s standard of living this goal seems to be near impossible. Yet, the Tao simply says to “be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you” (Mitchell, 46).
When viewed philosophically, Taoism clashes a great deal with Confucianism. Both are classified as a religion but are viewed more as a philosophy. However, Confucian way of thinking does make distinct differences from Taoist way of thinking. Confucianism speaks more of the superior man, a morally solidified character. Referred to as a “gentleman,” this character is often striving to reach perfection. Whereas, in Taoism there is no superior man or perfection. Letting all things go, being free of desire, applying the concepts of simplicity and wu wei is what one should be striving for. Another major difference between the two ways of thinking is that Confucianism puts emphasis on virtue and jen (the goodness of all) or humanity. In order to help the self achieve goals, others must be helped as well. Taoism differs in that humanity is not a goal one should seek. Taoism’s emphasis is more on becoming one with the Tao through applying the concepts such as simplicity and wu wei.
Taoism had gained much popularity in the West as well as spreading further in the East. More than a religion, Taoism should be thought of as a philosophy about the nature of life and personal behavior.