The Chinese ideogram that stands for the Tao is translated in many ways. Tzu-Jan, for example, stands for the Tao in its non-active form and can be translated as “Self Evident,” or more poetically, as “Self So.”
What does that mean?
When something is in its natural state, it is said to be self so. How it is, in and of itself, in a self-evident manner, in a natural manner, the way that it is naturally, when it is not distorted or interfered with–that is Tzu-Jan.
I think of the word authentic. Self so.
Sometimes we say “Just so,” meaning just like that, just as it should be or naturally is.
Thus, Taoism says that each of us has our own “self so” way. Your mother is uniquely your mother. Your lover is like no other.
Here’s a Chinese story to illustrate this:
A bird looks at a centipede, and the bird says to the centipede, “How can you walk?!? All those legs!!! Don’t they get tangled up? How do you do it?”
The centipede replies, “Well, I just walk. That’s the way I am, that’s the way I walk, I have a lot of legs and they work together the way they naturally should.”
Later that day the centipede saw a snake, and the centipede said to the snake, “How do you get around like that, why, you don’t even have any legs!!!” And the snake replied,
“Well, I just do. I wiggle and move. That’s the way I am, I move without legs and that works just fine for me, that’s the way I’m supposed to move.”
But then later the snake, in turn, addressed the wind, and the snake said to the wind, “You, though, wind, how do you move? You are invisible; I can’t tell if you have legs or no legs? How do you move?
And the wind replied, of course, “Well, I just move, that’s the way I am. I don’t need legs, I’m the wind. I blow. That’s my way of moving.”
And depending on how long you wanted to sit there and not move yourself, the Taoist storyteller would go on and on in this vein!
There is some core way of being that is natural and right for each of us, and we manifest in that way if we are not “unnaturally” disturbed.
How did we get that way? How are we, each of us, each caterpillar or daisy or star or human, each uniquely “self-so?” How did we come to be “ourselves” and not another?
Taoism’s answer is clear.
Taoism points us to the ever available, ever active power that, as Huston Smith has said, is a natural force, the natural, powerful effective essence, moving creatively, without conscious effort on our part. It is the active part of the Tao that is called Te that we will look at more directly in the next lesson.
But for now, to be precise, Taoism proclaims that we as individuals emerge (through the power called Te) within and from the vast Self-So mysteriousness of Wholeness Itself, which is the Great Tao, the Source, the Container, the Action, the All.
We come to be, quite naturally, through the power and actions (Te) of the wholeness that is the Great Tao.
We manifest within and from (this distinction is important, so I repeat it), within and from Wholeness Itself, and thus, most significantly, we can never be separate from Wholeness, since we remain within it always, within that One, the Great Tao.
We are all within the One, but we each manifest uniquely, individually. Just as a hand manifests as a hand while being part of our whole body, we manifest uniquely while being part of the Wholeness of Reality itself, the Great Tao. This gives us, innately, both individuality and also an inner motivation toward balance or equilibrium or equanimity within the wholeness of things, the Great Tao.
We are each unique, but we are inseparable from wholeness; we are uniquely manifesting, but we are not, at core, separate from anything else since we are all in the One Wholeness that is called the Great Tao.
Taoists often refer to the “uncarved block,” that is, the original nature or way of something or someone before it is tampered with or changed by circumstances or culture.
The Taoist wanted us to recognize that each of us has our own “uncarved block,” each is unique, has a unique way that works best for us. It is clear, however, that many of us, perhaps all of us, do not consciously behave or think or feel in a way that demonstrates our authentic selves.
There is a young tree, a sapling, on my property. A limb from a tall pine fell on it and bent the sapling over. The sapling did not die; it modified its growth pattern to grow upward from the place where it was bent over.
This happens to us too. Circumstances, outer or inner, physical or psychological, “bend us” out of our natural innate best way of being. It takes a certain awareness and life force to adjust, as the sapling did, and be ourselves even given the circumstances that reshape us.
Whatever happens, Taoism says, we can bring ourselves back to this place of “self so,” our unique selfhood, our unique best selves, centered in our own core being, in our own way, in our own Tao. And the Taoists believed that if each of us were to continuously do that, then the whole culture, indeed, all of reality, could be its best self, more full of grace. We can consciously and physically work at this (in ways we will shortly describe).
And, in addition, Taoism says that the Great Tao, with its power or Te that creates and moves us, has its own inevitable and irresistible force in shaping us, all the while, whatever we do or do not do.
There is a positive attitude in Taoism, a trust in the unfolding of the rightness of things, based on thousands of years of experience.
But to be in this natural flow, to avoid impeding the natural “unfolding of our own nature,” is not simply passive. Taoism is primarily a teaching of ways to participate in the flow in a natural and creative way. We shall go into this more in the next lesson.
And it is obviously important for us to consider what exactly is our own “natural” self, our own given authentic core “self-so-ness,” our own way of being at home in ourselves.
In the next lesson, we will go deeper into how we may live more fully into and out of this self that we are, to the benefit of ourselves and to the benefit of the whole of creation that we are participating in creating. For now, perhaps, it is important to take some time to contemplate this notion of the possibility of things being “self so,” of things actually having an inner nature, let alone an inner motivation toward balance or equilibrium or equanimity.
And now, just for fun, here is a two minute YouTube video that in a delightful way shows how we each stay the same at some core level even as we change:
The following brief Taoist tale, retold by Glenda Taylor, gives a whimsical, mystical and profound take on the question of what is natural or real, authentic or unnatural. We can anguish over these questions as we debate determinism or realism or superstition or whatever. Or, like good Taoists, we can take ourselves lightly, as is shown in the following brief Taoist tale:
Suggestions and Questions for Contemplation:
Do you agree or disagree, upon reflection, that all things have their own unique way of being and authenticity rather than being mere “types.” Explain.
Give a brief description of your own unique authentic core. (Hint: think of ways that you have consistently been throughout your life.)
What do you think is the meaning of the Taoist term “self-so?”
How do you think the core “self-so” nature of individuals gets “warped” out of its authenticity? How does this Taoist concept relate to what you know about either psychology or religion?
Does this concept of “self-evident” demand of us a lot of discernment? Reflect upon and then describe how you practice discernment when it comes to the things outside yourself, in regard to trying to see and know other people’s unique ways of being?
What does this concept of “self-so” have to say to us about our wanting to change other people’s behaviors?
Do you give to yourself or to others more freedom to “be yourself” or “be themselves?”
How does this chapter’s discussion match or call into question the tenants of your religion or spiritual practice?
Think of one situation in your life on this particular day that can benefit from the Taoist principles discussed in this lesson.
Tao: Way, Path
Lao: Old, ancient, revered
Sifu: Wise or Skilled One
Tzu-Jan: Self-so, spontaneous, natural
The Yellow River Breaches its Course; Beijing Palace Museum; Public Domain
Uncarved Block, Qing Dynasty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain