Taoism

Between roughly twenty-two and twenty-four centuries ago, a work of philosophical literature now known as the Tao Te Ching came into being.  There is, as to be expected from something so old, some dispute as to how exactly it came into being and when.  Traditionally, it is attributed to a man known as Lao Tzu, the sage also reputedly the mentor of the scholar Confucius.  From interpretations of that work, and variously influenced by folk religions, state religions, and political impetuses (among other things), a number of different phenomena have arisen that claim or are assigned the name "Taoism".

The origin of the term Taoism is, however, clearly traced back to derivation from the Tao Te Ching.  The least encumbered use of the term Taoism is that which refers only to philosophical derivation from the text of the Tao Te Ching and, perhaps, some number of related works.  Those sociophilosophical phenomena that bear the name Taoism and feature organized collective ritualistic trappings can be specified by the descriptive "religious Taoism", while that marked by individual ritualistic trappings by "alchemical Taoism".  Finally, of course, Taoism that is solely dependent upon derivation of abstract principles from the Tao Te Ching and perhaps a few related works without any necessary ritualistic trappings could be specified by the term "philosophical Taoism".

Philosophical Taoism, the form of Taoism with which these pages are primarily concerned, has had a pervasive, often very subtle, influence on Eastern philosophies and religions.  In some regards a direct ideological rival to Taoism, Confucianism was ultimately infused by both Buddhist and Taoist concepts to produce Neo-Confucianism about a thousand years ago.  Roughly five centuries before that, Buddhism encountered Taoism and spawned the Chan Buddhist school, which ultimately went on to evolve into what is probably the form of Buddhism (rivaled only by Tibetan Buddhism) known best in the Western Hemisphere: Japanese Zen Buddhism.  Zen philosophy has then gone on to influence some Western philosophical traditions explicitly, as has Taoism itself over the years more subtly and implicitly.

Among the world's philosophies, Taoism may well be the most difficult to consciously understand — may, in fact, be effectively impossible to understand intellectually.  Perhaps the closest term to enter the English language to what one does with the principles of Taoism is "grok".  One groks Taoism, or perhaps becomes Taoism, rather than believing, learning, or comprehending it.  The first stanza of the first chapter of Taoism's foundational work, the Tao Te Ching, can be translated in any number of ways, but two possible translations of a statement in that first stanza are "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," and "The way that can be defined is not the eternal Way."  From the very beginning, the student of the Tao is told that the Tao, or "Way", itself defies explanation.

Taoism admits, encompasses, and realizes all things.  Save for statements to the effect that interpretation cannot admit all things, one might regard any possible philosophy as merely a facet of Taoism, a separate perspective on the Tao itself.  Taoism is described as a philosophy of Nature, not in the sense of trees versus skyscrapers, but in the sense of intrinsic essence and allowing all things to be what their nature encourages — perhaps recognizing their natures, rather than allowing them.  Taoist enlightenment is, perhaps, the art of grokking.  It is the Greek term "agape" applied to all things as one, or oneness with the world, or any of a number of other things.  It is anything you desire, because it is all things at once, including nothing at all.

I regard myself, philosophically, as a Taoist.  I do not flatter myself to think that I grok all things at all times.  Rather, I am merely inclined toward Taoist principles, and I wish to internalize such principles.