The Way of the Tao

by Deni Gross

As the soft yield of water cleaves obstinate stone,
So to yield with life solves the insoluble.
This easy example is lost upon men. – Lao Tzu

As a group, our focus has always been more occidental than oriental. Because of this, even those of us who may have studied eastern philosophies at great length are, by nature, “western” in our cultural makeup and must allow for this as we attempt to fathom the depths of Taoism. It is described as “a philosophical, ethical and religious tradition of Chinese origin that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao – the way or path that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists.”

Reading just this brief description, we westerners already run into trouble. By our very nature, we want to quantify this thing called the Tao and place it into some sort of neat, mental cubicle. But further reading tells us this is not possible, because the Tao is ineffable, unexplainable in mere words. Should we try to categorize it as, say, another word for God or a type of religion or anything else for that matter, it ceases to be the true and eternal Tao. We know we are supposed to live in harmony with it, but we aren’t exactly sure what IT is. And thus we begin to see the conundrum that surrounds the analytical westerner who tries to understand this enigmatic philosophy.

Lao Tzu, who lived around 600 years before the time of Jesus, is said to have compiled the main tenets of the philosophy of Taoism into a book known as the Tao Te Ching. A good deal of controversy, however, surrounds Lao Tzu; and many scholars believe that Lao Tzu may have actually been a sort of pen-name for not one, but many authors of the same time period. Of course, what really matters is the teachings themselves, which emphasize living an ethical, simple and spontaneous life of compassion, moderation and humility, in harmony with nature and the entire universe. To care, to be fair and to be humble are greatly cherished virtues in Taoism, and Lao Tzu boldly noted when or where he found these virtues lacking.

When a man cares, he is unafraid.
When he is fair, he leaves enough for others.
When he is humble, he can grow.
But if, like men of today, he be bold without caring,
Self-indulgent without sharing
And self-important without shame, he is dead.

One of the major principles of Taoism is learning to slow down, to live in the moment and accept and appreciate life as it happens. This is likened to being like a stream of water which continues to flow along, unimpeded in its progress by any obstacles along its path – thus, the phrase much associated with Taoism, “going with the flow.” We wouldn’t be far off the mark, though, in saying that this concept is not easily assimilated in Western culture, which prides itself on constant movement and action, often accompanied by domination and conquest in even the tiniest of matters. Rather than gently cooperating with obstacles in our path like the water in a stream, we westerners tend to forcefully tackle issues head-on.

It isn’t necessarily our fault. We’re taught from the very earliest age that everything in our physical world exists so that we may utilize it in some way, manipulate it and, if necessary, forcefully bend it to our will, in order to reach a desired outcome. As we mature, we’re repeatedly told that things and nature and even other people are somehow separate from ourselves and, thus, are fair game in the chess match of everyday living. We’re encouraged to exert our control – over people and circumstances – and to calculate every move to influence the outcome of some future event. Our western brains seem in perpetual overdrive. We’re equally comfortable examining the past and planning for the future, but it’s extremely difficult for us to live in the present moment. Understanding Taoism could certainly help us rewire our mental “hard-drives” to take fuller advantage of living in the moment.

In a culture that promotes and even admires constant stimulation, those who choose to eschew such “busy-ness,” are often looked upon as lazy and lacking motivation. Lao Tzu, on the other hand, saw the potential futility in such behavior. He advised his students to slow down and look within themselves for validation. “There is no need to run outside for better seeing, nor to peer from a window. Abide at the center of your being,” he said. “The way to do is to be.”

Much of Taoist philosophy fits perfectly with the idea of synthesis and the ideals we promote in TRIUNE. Lao Tzu’s “hands-off” approach to the environment certainly complements our view that all of nature should be respected and honored. Lao Tzu seemed ahead of his time in recognizing preservation of the environment as one’s personal duty. He advised his students to mirror nature, to be as parents, “not possessor . . . attendant, not master.” He once said:

The earth is like a vessel so sacred
That at the mere approach of the profane it is marred,
And when they reach out their fingers, it is gone.

We also can identify with Lao Tzu’s intense desire for peace and equality. He called armaments “instruments of evil” and advised conquerors to view their military victories as a cause for mourning. Today we are globally facing great challenges as countries attempt to prioritize their needs and decide how to allocate precious resources, either towards militaristic or humanitarian purposes. Centuries ago, Lao Tzu already understood that societies which deplete their precious resources, human or otherwise, only end up losers in the long run.

In a land where the way of life is understood,
Race horses are led back to serve the field.
In a land where the way of life is NOT understood,
War horses are bred on the autumn yield.

How succinctly this beautiful little koan understood the repercussions of humanity’s endless desire for conquest and predicted the rise and fall of nations, cultures and ideologies.

Lao Tzu spoke on many different topics, but he was always deeply concerned with the role of government and the leader. He strongly believed that a truly good leader did his best work in the background in a most unassuming way. “Handle a large kingdom,” he once said, “with as gentle a touch as if you were cooking small fish.” Because we often find ourselves in leadership roles, Lao Tzu’s teachings on leadership are quite relevant to our work.

Why are rivers and seas lords of the waters?
Because they afford the common level.
The common people love a sound man
Because he does not talk above their level,
Because, though he lead them,
He follows them, imposes no weight on them.
People never tire of anyone who is not bent upon comparison.

Lao Tzu equated sound leadership with a strong moral foundation and an unselfish desire to always do right by those entrusted to one’s care.

To lead men and serve heaven, weigh the worth of the one source.
Be so charged with the nature of life that you give your people birth,
That you mother your land, are the fit and ever-living root of it.

Preferring to lead by example, Lao Tzu was a great believer in meddling as little as possible in the lives of others; for he liked to think that, given the choice, most individuals tend to make the right decisions. His ideal society was pure and uncomplicated, a type of Divine anarchy, in which a happy and morally upright populace needed no enforcing

A realm is governed by ordinary acts,
A battle is governed by extraordinary acts;
The world is governed by no acts at all.
Act after act prohibits everything but poverty.
Weapon after weapon conquers everything but chaos.
Business after business provides a craze of waste.
Law after law breeds a multitude of thieves.
If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves.
If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves.
If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves.

For all the wonderful advice Taoism offers that often seems ignored, it’s a bit ironic that there actually has been a recent surge in the study of Lao Tzu’s writings on leadership. Westerners and others who are keen to capitalize on anything which can help them better perform in the business environment have formulated from the teachings a business leadership model, based on the principles of Taoism.

Of course, there have always been, and will continue to be, notable figures from whom we can learn and after whom we can pattern ourselves. Lao Tzu is just one in a long succession of such great teachers. However, what makes his philosophy so agreeable is the universality of its meaning, the beauty of its wisdom, and the clarity, freedom and sheer joy that comes with such simplicity and “letting go.”