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Taoism is not a philosophy or a religion, although people have sought to make it both. It is ancient Chinese science.
Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu represent a catalogue of observations, insights and empirical results concerning our relationship with the world and each other.
Lao Tzu writes in a matter-of-fact way whereas Chuang Tzu is far more humorous and not to be taken quite so seriously.
There are no rituals, costumes, ceremonies, ancestor worship, lighting of incense or praying in Taoism. The onus is upon purely practical, functional matters.
If someone offers you a Taoist name or wants to teach you a ritual, be wary...
Philosophy is speculation and opinion. Religion concerns belief, rituals and dogma. Taoism fits neither of these classifications.
Practicing tai chi is itself the act of putting Taoism into practical application; this requires adhesion to The Tai Chi Classics, not belief.
Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu is at a loss for words as he tries to
describe that which cannot be described. This is also the problem for the
taijiquan teacher. The teacher could talk for hours about taijiquan and
never really be able to tell the student what it is. All that Lao Tzu and
the taijiquan teacher can do is to try to give you glimpses of what the Tao
and taijiquan are.
Reality just is; belief is simply not required. As a discipline, Taoism is evidentiary, practical, pragmatic. It concerns the immediate moment.
Concepts, opinions, theories, speculation, metaphysics, superstition and folklore are not Taoist at all.
Its offshoot 'Zen' is the art of spontaneous being. Zen questions the value of words and thoughts, and the folly of attempting to render reality using measurement and names.
Direct action and raw experience are valued. Life cannot be conceived. It can only be lived.
Tao Te Ching
This is not a book of quotations. Each verse introduces and explores a practical topic. It is important to buy a copy that reads well.
Being useful is a central
value of Taoist philosophy - how something is useful, why it is useful, and
for what. The context could be anything you could possible conceive of,
regardless of perceived value, including health, wealth, social interaction,
morality and ethics, spirituality, or a taijiquan movement.
Practicality is the mantra.
Instead of asking if you ought to be conventionally moral or if it doesn't matter, taoists would ask "is it useful to be moral?" The answer would be yes. Rather than focussing on your narrow self-interest or the wrath of God, Taoists genuinely consider what the natural consequences are to yourself, human relations, the entire society, and spirituality if you are not moral.
Tao of Being by Ray Grigg, Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching by Timothy Freke and The New Lao Tzu: A Contemporary "Tao Te Ching" by Ray Grigg are all easy to read.
The Tai Chi Journey by John Lash examines Tao Te Ching and how the book relates to tai chi practice. Aim to read only one verse per day. Read it slowly and carefully. Do not skim.
Consider the meaning of the text.
Tao Te Ching is not easy to understand. It invites the reader to move past words and thought, and explore reality.
If you are having difficulty understanding the text, then consider reading Krishnamurti or some Zen koan.
Taoism is not the modern way of looking at the world. Do not expect to find it easy. You have a lifetime of accumulated opinion, education, conditioning and advertising to cast aside first.
Find a verse and consider what the lines mean in different contexts, e.g. Fill a bowl to the brim and it will spill. Make a blade too sharp and it will soon blunt. (Lao Tzu)
This could be about a number of things; but the general theme is excess. You must know when to stop.
It might apply to how much you train, to the extent of your reach/stance in tai chi or to the number of commitments you have in your day. Overtraining, over-reaching, over-commitment.
It may refer to how you approach the experience of combat and whether you are being greedy by using complex techniques rather than a simple strike.
Take it literally
The sentences from the Tao Te Ching are clear statements of fact. Not theoretical. You can experiment with them and find out for yourself whether or not they are true.
It is up to you to find meaning through application.
If you are ever to learn from the way of nature and harness its power, you need to apply its principles. Tao Te Ching was created as a means of helping you see these principles for yourself.
The best way to understand is to do. Hands-on. You need to employ Tao in your tai chi practice.
Nothing wears away hard
as well as weak water.
From this anyone can see
that softness is harder than hardness,
and weakness is stronger than strength.
But no one lives accordingly.
That is why the ancients said:
"Embrace being a nobody,
and you are fit to be somebody."
18 April 2005
Last updated 01 October 2020