Men who possess my Tao are princes in this life and rulers in the hereafter.
– Chuang Tzu
Taoism is both a religion and philosophy with roots extending to ancient shamanism. It is codified in the Tao Te Ching, history’s second most translated book after Christianity’s Holy Bible. Its eighty-one poems were written in 500 BC by the Sage, Lao Tzu. Interest in the Tao Te Ching has remained largely unfulfilled due to its mysterious interpretations, often contradictory and sometimes bizarre. These conflicting views are regrettable because Lao Tzu insisted on Ultimate Clarity, with confusion regarded as a cardinal sin. It’s ironic that mystification shrouds a philosophy that allowed neither internal contradictions nor imprecise logic. With so many different explanations available, Taoism has become difficult for Americans to grasp, making it fascinating but also vague. The Temple of Original Simplicity is committed to teaching classical Taoism without the distortions of time and culture, holding to the core philosophy intended by the Great Sage.
The Tao Te Ching unifies all aspects of existence. It combines both earthly and spiritual dimensions with principles that simultaneously function in physical, mental and metaphysical realms. For this reason, classical Taoist instruction included physical exercise, meditation, philosophy and religious ceremonies to reinforce how core principles transcend dimensions. Whereas the world’s major religions have had to settle for two separate Truths — one of Faith and the other of Reason — Taoism needs no such accommodation and this may attest to its celestial origins. The Temple of Original Simplicity teaches this holistic view of reality in a way that hopefully beguiles while instructs. To help the novice Taoist understand Taoism, below is a summary of Taoism’s Nine Cardinal Principles that succinctly explain its cornerstone tenets. These form the core of the Center’s philosophical curriculum:
Principle #1. The Goal is Contentment
Who can find repose in a muddy world?
– Lao Tzu
The purpose of Taoism is to explain how the world operates and the best way to navigate through life. As such, Taoism’s Tao Te Ching, written by its founder Lao Tzu, is a practical philosophical manual with principles for achieving daily contentment. This is no easy task in a world full of “chaos, absurdity, and suffering,” but Lao Tzu is able to help us with his ancient wisdom. He defined contentment as the only measure by which we should gauge personal success and how to use it as a filter through which society’s values should be passed. By adhering to this strict test, dysfunctional impulses, like fame and fortune, can be warded off. Finally, the religious aspects of Taoism teach us that a content physical existence will best prepare the soul for that time when the body is cast off. Whether physical, mental, or metaphysical, contentment is the ultimate goal.
Principle #2. Oneness — A Holistic View
In that he saw the unity, he was of God;
in that he saw distinctions, he was of man.
– Chuang Tzu
Taoism is a philosophical and religious system built on a holistic view of reality. It unifies all existence with principles that cut across both the seen and unseen dimensions. Its famous yin/yang symbol represents universal oneness with black and white colors rotating in a circle. This iconic image represents the duality of all phenomena — whether summer and winter, male and female, or life and death — as opposing manifestations of the same principle and not to be viewed as independent. Such an appreciation of Oneness is central to understanding Lao Tzu’s poetry and is fundamental to his philosophy.
Principle #3. Manifestations of the Tao
Do not develop the nature which is of man,
but develop the nature which is of God.
– Chuang Tzu
Taoism acknowledges man’s inherent intellectual limitations and consequently avoids concepts that cannot be tested and verified by practical application — reason alone is not to be trusted. This prerequisite requires the Taoist to learn by observing concrete manifestations (“teh”) of larger universal forces and not rely upon speculation alone. In this regard, Nature serves as the uncorrupted manifestation of the Heavens and the model from which a Taoist should take his instruction. By contrast, the nature of Man, as manifested in Society, represents an unending source of confusion and is to be regarded with caution and suspicion. This duality — Nature versus Society — is a distinctly Taoist principle.
Principle #4. Nature is Unkind
Nature is unkind: It treats the creation like sacrificial straw-dogs.
The Sage is unkind: He treats the people like sacrificial straw-dogs.
– Lao Tzu
Given that the Taoist regards Nature as his model of uncorrupted reality, what is the fundamental lesson to be derived? Lao Tzu permits no confusion on this point with his declaration that “Nature is unkind.” Despite pastoral representations that the natural world is an environment of polite coexistence, observed reality exhibits a harsher truth typified by the strong preying on the weak in the ever-present food chain. Apparently there is little mercy in the natural world as all effort is devoted towards survival. Therefore, Lao Tzu insists “the Sage is unkind,” urging the Taoist to avoid the Siren call of Universal Love and instead embrace a mindset of harsh indifference towards all but a few loved ones. Enlightened self-interest would be the best way to describe this principle to modern sensibilities.
Principle #5. Society versus the Individual
The people of the world all have a purpose;
I alone appear stubborn and uncouth.
I alone differ from the other people,
And value drawing sustenance from the Mother.
– Lao Tzu
Taoism is a philosophy for the Individual. It regards Society as including confused people who voluntarily submit to beguiling social conventions. Lao Tzu cautions that social conventions may include virtues and behaviors which benefit society at the expense of the individual; i.e. — sacrificing personal contentment for the good of anonymous others. Thus the Taoist separates ineffective virtues from effective ones by understanding that there are helpful individual values and potentially unhelpful social values. This duality of Society versus the Individual is another unique Taoist concept that, in many ways, harkens to early America’s rugged individualism.
Principle #6. Humanity and Justice are Artificial Values
On the decline of the great Tao,
The doctrines of “humanity” and “justice” arose.
– Lao Tzu
With the duality of Society versus the Individual clearly described, Lao Tzu goes further by unambiguously identifying the source of detrimental social values. He writes that “humanity and justice” are virtues that may be beguiling, but are in fact harmful to individual contentment. This is a hard concept for many to accept: How could humanity and justice be bad? The answer lies in recognizing that society largely promulgates artificial and not natural notions of virtues. “Humanity” is really artificial love and “Justice” is actually artificial punishment. Lao Tzu advocates more personal and romantic versions of humanity and justice that honestly invoke man’s natural character.
Principle #7. Non-interference
He responds only when moved, acts only when he is urged, and rises to action only when he is compelled to do so.
– Chuang Tzu
The Taoist acknowledges his inherent limitations and how much effort it takes to develop one’s mind, body and spirit. As such, Lao Tzu’s philosophy recommends dedicating all of one’s energy towards achieving personal contentment and not waste precious time interfering with others. This means not trying to change things that do not bring tangible personal benefits. For example, Taoists remain uninvolved in politics because attempting to improve society wastes focus, time and energy with little personal gain. But there is a deeper implication too: Taoists let things achieve harmony on their own, according to their natural traits. By interfering, even in the name of “improvement,” well-intentioned efforts may actually remove a phenomenon from its natural course — and ultimately cause harm. Finally, Lao Tzu’s mantra of non-interference is not a prescription for passiveness. For when something or someone threatens the Taoist (interfering with him), he “rises to action” using the reserve power accumulated by not interfering with others.
Principle #8. Camouflage
Only the perfect man can go about the world without attracting attention to himself.
– Chuang Tzu
Recognizing that the Individual may hold different values from members of Society has important consequences for appropriate behavior. Since the values of a Taoist feature natural self-interest, they can appear superficially selfish — and possibly earn resentment from one’s surrounding community. To deal with this undesired animosity, Lao Tzu maintains that one needs to disguise such beliefs using a strategy of camouflage. Thus, Lao Tzu has been called the “First Philosopher of Camouflage.”
Principle #9. Desires and Limitations
He who knows where to stop may be exempt from danger.
– Lao Tzu
One of its most prescient warnings in the Tao Te Ching is to avoid the popular notion that “the sky’s the limit.” This myth causes people to jeopardize themselves with plans motivated by unchecked desires and unrealistic expectations. Lao Tzu’s anecdote to this common disease is to observe that the natural world is an environment of clearly defined limits; the necessities of survival do not permit confusions about the boundaries of strength, speed or ferocity. In translating this observation to Man, he advises using practical tests to constantly check whether desires are attainable and within our grasp. The weight lifter adds 5 pounds — not 50 — to test and improve his maximum lift, the runner gradually increases his training distance before attempting a marathon, and a student pilot flies to the next town before attempting to transit the country. Thus our inherent desires, including pride, make contentment unachievable without practical tests to remind us of our limitations. This ensures that our mental model of the world is firmly grounded in reality, arresting tendencies to chase chimeras and remain in a content state of what is attainable.