Taoism speaks of the Great Tao. Tao is not, we are told, a “being” but “a way of being.” It is not a noun but rather a verb. Reality is a process, not a fixed substance or entity.
Modern physics agrees. What we call “things “are merely mental “freeze frames” in the ongoing “movie” of reality: wave to particle to void to wave to particle to mystery… As John Pfeiffer, science writer and teacher, said in his book The Changing Universe, “All galaxies, stars, planets, and human beings are manifestations of disturbances in a tenuous sea. They are waves, streams, ripples, flurries in a ceaseless change.”
Taoism agrees. Its teachings fit well with theories of modern physics because they emphasize the changing yet cyclical or compensatory nature of reality—wave, particle, void, wave, reality can be seen as any one of these, depending on one’s point of observation.
One of the greatest yet most complex teachings of Taoism is the understanding that the nature of all reality is change. Any confusion or suffering we experience is in part because we fail to be aware of that.
Reality is essentially a dynamic, rhythmic, self-balancing, self-regulating system of change. Tao is the cosmic process itself, and everything is part of it and inseparable from it—humans, plants, stars, wind, time, space, everything, all part of this ultimate reality, this way of things, this Tao.
There is a cosmic process that all gods and men and everything are part of. All individual ways are said to work together perfectly in a kind of great cosmic way. And this great process unifies all individual ways. But it doesn’t unify them into something static, or rigid, as Confucius might have us believe. No. The Taoist believed in a dynamic way. Things move.
The Taoist believed, perhaps above all else, in a dynamic way. All is constantly forming and reforming and disappearing and reappearing. This is the Tao. Reality is movement, in process, dynamic. So are we. Things are movements.
One clever writer says that we should not speak, for example, of “trees,” but of “treeing.”
A seed is planted. Soon a plant emerges. It grows. Limbs branch out. Blooms appear, beautifully, briefly. Fruit emerges, ripens, is picked or falls away, rotting. Occasionally ants walk up and down the branches, bugs consume bits of leaves, woodpeckers go after the bugs. Eventually the whole thing ages, limbs break off, it is all brought down by wind or by a diligent gardener.
At what point can I say “This, right here, is this tree.” To do so, at any stage, would ignore and omit all the other stages, and be misleading as to the actual essence and nature of the tree.
One cannot stop the process and ”freeze the frame of the moving picture,” to say “this is it.” Taoism acknowledges that the process itself is reality.
Indeed, one of the best known ancient writings about Taoism is called The Book of Changes. In that work, we find detailed descriptions of the way that change occurs both in the outer and inner world, and we find descriptions of the best way for us to “go with the flow” effectively within this fundamental reality.
Taoism is therefore, most particularly, a guidebook on the way; it is an ancient and modern way of perceiving, interpreting, and effecting the flow of change.
This is all heady stuff for most of us in the western world, accustomed as we are to our notions of things being things, after all. A table is a table, for all that. And I am I.
Yes, but what am I?
Chuang Tse dreamed that he was a butterfly. In the dream he was only aware of being a butterfly, floating on the wind, sipping nectar. When he awakened he became aware of being Chuang Tse. But he said, “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man? Perhaps,” he said, “I am both.”
The agency of change of the Tao, Taoists called Te. Te is action, power, process, and it has a distinctive quality or way about it.
Julian Pass wrote that Te “is the inner and outer power bestowed on each being by Tao, or all the qualities for action inherent in the nature of each being, which gives each being a way to maintain itself, to grow and flourish.”
Te is the natural force, “the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. It cannot be exhausted: the more it is drawn upon, the more it flows,” as Huston Smith says.
The Chinese ideogram that stands for the Tao is translated in many ways. In its active form, it is typically called simply “the way,” and specifically it is a way that opens spontaneously and naturally.
Te is nature unfolding in accordance with an over-all balance; it is individual action taking into account the wholeness of all things.
As we will see shortly in another lesson, it is a balancing, self-adjusting energy flow that, in and of itself, regulates all reality in an untimately harmonious way. It is, therefore, the “natural” unfolding of reality, as referred to in a previous lesson.
And we, each and all of us, are unfolding naturally too, through a power or Te, as we participate in that great wholeness.
This pointing to the nature of each of us, to the authenticity of each being, the integrity of each being, tells us about an innate Te active in each individual. When one follows or fulfills one’s own unique authenticity, an innateness given by nature itself, by the Tao, then one has virtue, one has, as we might say “God-given” power for right action.
Indeed the word Te is often translated as virtue.
The Chinese characters for Te involve the image of a foot walking combined with an upright line. “Go-in an upright way.“ Te is virtue in action. Te is power used for upright purposes.
What are those upright purposes? What is Te, or power, used rightly?
Huston Smith said that “Te was the spontaneous unfolding of our own nature…It is also the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe ….”
We shall look more specifically in future lessons at several of these aspects of Te, each taken separately for purposes of discussion, but they cannot be separated in fact. Each aspect leans upon the others for its fullness. Te is comprehensive, inclusive, and hence most powerful. This is the power called Te.
Here is an instructive quote by Jacob Needleman in the introduction to his translation of the Tao Te Ching:
“In this work we are offered a vision that relates the flowing structure of the universe to the structure of our individual nature, both in itself and as it manifests in the details of our everyday actions in the world.
“…What is at issue is nothing less than the activation of an entirely new power within us, an entirely new movement of consciousness. The point is that man is built to receive, contain, and transform this power and then to make his life a complete expression of it. Nothing else can bring ultimate fulfillment into human life. And yet our lives are lived with little awareness or contact with this force of consciousness.
“…The word Te…refers to nothing less than the quality of human action that allows the central, creative power of the universe to manifest through it.
“…Great action, for Lao Tsu, is action that conducts the highest and subtlest conscious energy. Ordinary moral action is, on the contrary, a manifestation whose source is ‘lower-down’ in the vast chain of being… In other words, because of our identification of ourselves with the ego, what we ordinarily call action, or ‘doing,’ in fact cuts us off from the complete reception of conscious energy in our bodies and action.”
“…Every created entity ultimately is what it is and does what it does owing to its specific reception of the energy radiating from the ultimate, formless reality. This movement from the nameless Source to the ten thousand things is Te. And the unique being, man, called here (in the Tao Te Ching) the king, is created to receive this force consciously and is called to allow his actions to manifest that force.”
Suggested Activities and Questions for Contemplation:
How do you react to change in your life?
Do you take into account in your daily life that nothing is really fixed and permanent, or do you think that some things are? If so, what are they?
How difficult is it to wrap your mind around the notion that everything is in a constant state of change?
How does the view of the Taoist compare to the view of modern quantum physics?
If nothing is fixed or final, how hopeful does that make you feel about possibilities for the future?
Today make a conscious effort to practice a hopeful equanimity in your life today. Then reflect on that experience.
Whereas many religions say that there is only one way to “salvation,” the Taoist say there are an infinite number of ways. How do you respond to that idea?