Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat, Hanging scroll, located in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Until recently, many Chinese were still living and practicing the way of life Lao Tsu taught.

There are many aspects to this way of life, and in each lesson in this course we will take up different ones.

Here we look at an important concept:  the notion that there is something called a “natural state” out of which eveything functions best.

This has deep philosophical meanings.  But let’s start with the simplest approach.

Westerners who visited Taoist hermitages in China before the Communists took over said the Taoists were not recluses or monks as we think about monks. They were not sober or withdrawn or totally absorbed in otherworldly spiritual matters.

On the contrary, as John Blofeld said, “They were hearty, earthy, funny, taking real delight in food and wine and even sex. They were often a little tipsy, drunk on life, so to say.”

And they loved story telling. They loved to laugh, to see the humor in situations, to poke fun at one another and especially at anyone with rigid rules. It was said that the sounds of laughter would echo through the courtyard in a way that would never be heard in western religious monasteries, where a sanctimonious hush would likely be over all.

But few of the Taoists in more ancient times would have been living in a monastery of any kind, or in any kind of communal establishment, certainly not crowded up in a city.

They preferred to be out of the cities, where they could contemplate the nature of reality itself, the Tao, unpertrubed by so many man-made interruptions.

Of course, to contemplate or consciously experience the Tao does not require being “out in nature.”

But the “harmonious oneness of all things” (another description of  the Tao) could best be observed and contemplated in a setting, they said, other than in those places that were so human-oriented and human-centered–the cities and courts and academies.

Living at ease in the natural world, Taoists observed closely nature’s processes and balances that operate in all their complexity to make up an overall oneness, the web of life, we might now call it.

John Blofeld said: “They understood that nature’s working depends upon a system of fine balances among processes that may assist, hinder or block one another according to the relative strength of each in a given situation.”

They therefore came to speak of the most effective way things are, in a “natural” state, in their unperturbed essential way of being.  Here is a reading from Lao Tsu:

“The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.

The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.

Because it is unfathomable,

All we can do is describe their appearance.

Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.

Alert, like men aware of danger.

Courteous, like visiting guests.

Yielding, like ice about to melt.

Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.

Hollow, like caves.

Opaque, like muddy pools.

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?

Who can remain still until the moment of action…

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?

I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.

You cannot improve it.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to hold it, you will lose it…

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.”

From the Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Living in a natural setting, pursuing their lives in ways that were most naturally effective, these ancient sages developed a deeply philosophical spiritual perspective in which there is not a split between nature and spirit.

As Alan Watts wrote:

There were no categories of Chinese thought corresponding to spirit and nature as we understand them.  Here was a culture in which the conflict between spirit and nature hardly existed, a culture where the most ‘naturalistic” painting and poetry were precisely the most “spiritual” of its art forms…Furthermore, the Taoist philosophy of nature…is primarily a way of life in which the original sense of the seamless unity of nature is restored without the loss of individual consciousness.  It involves a new style of human action in relation to the environment, a new attitude to technical skills whereby man seems to interfere artificially with the natural world…The Taoist idea of naturalness goes far beyond the merely normal, or the simply unostentatious way of behaving.

As we shall explore it in the next lesson, the Chinese phrase that is usually translated as “nature” is tzu-jan,  or, literally, “of itself so.”  To observe everything, anywhere, in such a way as to see it as it is “itself so” is the Taoist way.

But the ancient Taoists did notice that the order and harmony of what we normally think of as the “natural world” was more stable and enduring than the structures of cities or the structures of institutions.

So, before we move on to the philosophical details, let’s just pause and notice that the Taoists were wary of what we call society.  They felt that this sort of life corrupts the natural man.  The Taoist said that the best place to observe the working of Tao is in nature rather than in cities or emperor’s courts.

Alertness, agility, clarity of mind, being free from distractions, this was the natural way.  (Part of my own Taoist training, for example, involved exercises to practice peripheral vision, various movement exercises, alertness exercises, and all this activity done before we sat down to meditate.)  The idealized natural man, Chuang Tsu said, was accustomed to being active, being in the sun, using his muscles, his eyes, etc.

There is a story like this:

A peasant was working in the fields.  He had very few possessions (well, Taoists didn’t believe in having a lot of possessions as they wanted to be as unencumbered as possible).  So this old peasant had only one shirt which was worn and tattered.  On this particular day the peasant was working in the fields in the spring time, when the weather was cool but the sun was delightfully warm.  The old man bent over to plant something and his shirt split down the back from top to bottom.  He kept working, and as he bent over the split in the shirt would spread apart so he could feel the warm sun on his bare back, which felt so good, while the sleeves of the shirt kept his arms protected and warm.  The old peasant thought this was an ideal way for a shirt to be, an ideal way for him to be.  So at the end of the day, when he finished working, he pulled off the shirt, bundled it up neatly, and started off down the road.  One of his friends said to him, “Where are you going?” and he replied, “I am going to deliver this shirt to the emperor, because I feel it is my duty to take this to him so that he can have as wonderful an experience as I have had today.”

This is a typical Taoist story, showing that the man in a natural state who could feel the sun on his back and the wind in his face was more apt to experience what was essential, to be in unity with what was the Great Tao.

Taoists taught that when many people were crowded up together in cities there had to be a lot of regulations, so the Taoists went away into the high mountains or remote places where they could live freely, whereas those in cities, they said, often were after fame or fortune instead.

The Taoists didn’t care for fame or fortune.  

Here is a story to illustrate:

Chuang Tsu was fishing on the river when the price of Chu sent two high officials to see him and say, “Our prince desires you to come and be an administrator at court, since you are a wise man.”

Chuang Tsu went on fishing without turning his head and said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise which died when it was three thousand years old.  The prince kept this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest in his ancestral temple.  Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or would it rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?”

“It would rather be alive,” replied the officials, “and wagging its tail in the mud.”

“Then be gone, and tell the Prince that Chuang Tsu will just stay here and keep wagging my tail in the mud.”

Ma Lin Fuxi and turtle, detail in scroll painting from Song dynasty, National Palace Museum, China Source’ Public Domain

Over and over we hear these stories told of wise Taoists resisting all attempts to bring them into court to be statesmen or to become wealthy.  They did, however, philosophize about the best ways that the Emperor should rule.

For example, Lao Tsu said that the best way to rule a country is the same way you cook a small fish, which is to say, you don’t fiddle around with it any more than you absolutely have to or it will fall apart.  So the ruler should not “fiddle around” with the people’s lives any more than necessary.  The Taoist weren’t much on authority with its pious and interfering rules.

The Taoists didn’t care for rigid rules.

Confucius, who was said to be contemporary with Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu, more or less, was big on rules.  Although Confucius, Lao Tsu, and Chang Tsu all came from the same ancient philosophical roots, they took different directions.  While Confucius understood that the Tao meant that there was a natural “way” of things that worked best, he wanted to spell out for society and individuals what the way specifically was.  Confucius was concerned with the structure of society, with providing rules for the way people interacted so that everyone knew their place and knew how things were supposed to work.  There was a strata of society, there were ways that became rules that had to be followed, laws that had to be obeyed.  Those who followed Confucius were called Confucians.

The Taoists rejected Confucius’ strict rules that were to be applied to everyone alike.  Taoists were not concerned so much about society as they were about the individual.  They said that if the individuals were free to follow their own authentic ways (and the word authentic is key here), then society would automatically work just fine, without previously defined rules and regulations.

In the Hua Hu Ching, translated by Brian Walker, we read that Lao Tsu said, in what might have been a retort to Confucius:

The Tao gives rise to all forms, yet it has no form of its own.  If you attempt to fix a picture of it in your mind, you will lose it.  This is like pinning a butterfly: the husk is captured but the flying is lost…Who ever became a good rider by talking about horses?  If you wish to embody the Tao, stop chattering and start practicing.  Relax your body and quiet your senses.  Return your mind to its original clarity.”

That “original clarity” is commented upon by Huston Smith in his chapter on Taoism in The World’s Religions:

To arrive at this inwardness it was necessary to reverse all self-seeking and cultivate perfect cleanliness of thought and body.  Pure spirit can be known only in a life that is ‘garnished and swept.’ Only where all is clean will it reveal itself: therefore ‘put self aside.’  Perturbing emotions must likewise be quelled.  Ruffling the surface of the mind, they prevent introspection from seeing past them to the springs of consciousness beneath…Desire and revulsion, grief and joy, delight and annoyance–each must subside if the mind is to return to its original purity, for in the end only peace and stillness are good for it.  Let anxiety be dispelled and harmony between the mind and its cosmic source will come unsought.

So the Taoists said that the right way of living, which they called Taoism, can’t be legislated by the ruler or someone with religious authority.

Taoism is indeed not what we would call a religion, but a way of life.

A religion is most often taken to mean a way of worshiping God or gods. In that sense, Taoism is not a religion.

Oh, as in every tradition, there were (and are) two groups of Taoists: on the one hand the philosophers–educated and abstract thinking–about whom we could say that they did not worship gods;  and then, as everywhere, there were also those less abstract thinking, literal-minded Taoist people who worshiped…well, the fact of the matter is, they worshiped most everything!  They burnt incense and prayed to the spirits of streams, for example, and they made offerings to the ancestors and to unseen entities of various kinds that they assumed were ever present.

There were, of course, more of the latter than the former.  Several hundred years after Lao Tse and Chuang Tse, Taoism, which had been a very abstract philosophical system of thought, was absorbed by other local religions, and so we begin to hear  very religious sounding things.   Taoist “priests,” for example, are soken of, clear down into the present day.  But for the Taoist adept, there is no hierarchy of priests and doctrines.

In fact, the Taoist teacher with whom I studied was called by all of us simply Sifu;  Sifu means wise or skilled person and is merely a title of respect.

However, the open-minded Taoist adept might say that if  ordinary people need to have priests to satisfy their need for literalism, then wise Taoists need not be opposed to providing it.  But they do this, as John Blofeld remarked, in the same way that a man in ordinary circumstances paid his taxes to the Emperor or honored his wife on her birthday.  It was a wise thing to do and caused no harm, but it wasn’t actually the ultimate meaning of the Tao.

Let me make this clear.  The Tao is to be thought of not as a first person or first cause, like Yahweh is to the Hebrews.  One scholar has said the following.

“The Tao is not a supreme being, but a supreme State of Being.”

1024px-Shang_Xi-Four_Immortals_Salute_Longevity; Public Domain Via Wikimedia

That state of being described by the ancients must have worked well, because Taoist sages were said to have lived past 100 years. Contemporary writers  who were in China before the Communist Revolution say that they saw many of these very old Taoist sages who were alert and had a wonderful state of well being.  My own teacher was in his later years, but was more able and active that I as a young adult was, and he was also the father of a newborn when I met him!

What is there about Taoism that provided a way of life that worked so well?

It is a way of being that succeeds by knowing and practicing certain principles.  It is those principles that we will take up in the next lessons in this course.

“As for those who would take the whole world to tinker it as they see fit, I observe that they never succeed: for the world is a sacred vessel not made to be altered by man…So the wise man discards extreme inclinations to make sweeping judgments or to live a life of excess.”   Lao Tsu

Suggested Activities and Questions for Contemplation:

Many traditions as well as Taoism take nature as a source of spirituality;  what is your attitude and experience in this regard?  Note that one’s attitude may not match one’s experience.  Is this true for you?

Examine your own deeply held spiritual tenants in the light of the Taoist philosophy.

Think of one situation in your life on this particular day that could benefit from taking a Taoist attitude toward it.

Go outside in a natural place and practice being light-hearted  in a way new to you; let yourself be safe and free at the same time.  Later, come back and reflect here on that experience.


Tao:  Way, Path

Lao:  Old, ancient, revered

Tsu:  Wisdom

Sifu:  Wise or Skilled One

For additional information on Confucius, see:

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Encyclopedia Brtttanica online

For additional information on Alan Watts, 1915-1973: 

See and

Picture Credits:

Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat, Hanging scroll, located in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Ma Lin Fuxi and turtle, detail in scroll painting from Song dynasty, National Palace Museum, China Source’ Public Domain

Shang_Xi, Four Immortals Salute Longevity; Public Domain Via Wikimedia

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