Taoism is not a philosophy, because it does not consist of definitions, concepts, logical proofs or any other procedures of pure speculation. At the same time, it is not a religion of a transcendent God, requiring the followers to have faith and obedience. The meaning and content of Taoism cannot be reduced to the art, skill, or practice in its true form, because the wisdom of Tao does not require doing something. To be more precise, Taoism is a whole way of existence in which speculation and action, spirit and matter, consciousness and life are gathered together in a free, limitless, "chaotic" unity. Such unity is quite paradoxical because Taoist teachers fall silent when they are asked to explain their wisdom. The main canon of Taoism, "Tao Te Ching," declares: 'The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnameable is the eternally real' (Mitchell, 1988). Therefore, Taoism should be accepted as a very special religious and philosophical teaching, because it is extremely hard to describe it in the common way and not to destroy its original ideas at the same time.
Tao is an essential notion of Taoism, which can be understood in three ways. First of all, Tao is interpreted as a way of ultimate reality. Surely, it is not a god or any supernatural power but a frame of all things that exist in the universe and are parts of the whole being. Taoists claim that the described Tao is not a real Tao because it is considered to be too vast for human mind to grasp. Though it cannot be perceived by human beings, it is still a reason and basis of all processes that take place in the universe. Life in all forms takes roots in Tao and returns to Tao after the living process though Tao is always self-sufficient and full: 'The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you talk of it, the less you understand' (Mitchell, 1988). Being astonished by this thought, the author of the Taoist main literary source Lao Tzu describes it as the first mystery of life: 'How clear it is! How quiet it is! It must be something eternally existing!' (Mitchell, 1988).
Except the first transcendent meaning of Tao, there is the second one that explains that Tao is immanent as well. Tao is the way of the universe, i.e. the primary ordering principle of all things and creatures, the rhythm that makes them exist the way they are. It is the energy that never runs out because it is hidden in everything, whereas everything is hidden in it. Somehow, Tao looks like 'the Mother of the World' or 'Logos,' which was a category of the Ancient Greek philosophy and meant an eternal law of the world that structures all things.
In the third meaning, Tao is the way of human life. Since the eternal Tao is everywhere and in everything, it is inside of every human being as well. People are living creatures that should follow Tao as an eternal law for own welfare, happiness, calmness, outward and inner harmony. However, calling Tao 'the Mother of the World' or 'the Highest Teacher,' followers of Taoism do not wait that this Mother or Teacher will be interested in their destiny or the destiny of the whole universe. The reason is that everything in the world happens of itself. Every part of being and every moment of time are absolutely self-sufficient, and people should just follow Tao.
There are three different approaches to Taoism that have been developed in the historical process, depending on the priorities of particular Taoists. The first one is philosophical Taoism, which is based on the ideas that were set out in the 'Tao Te Ching,' written by the above mentioned Lao Tzu, and books of Lieh Tzu and Chuang Tzu. This stream of Taoism concentrates on the reflection and meditation that help to perceive the power of Tao, flowing through an individual. Besides, philosophical Taoism is the stream that developed the philosophical basis of the two other streams.
The second Taoism is vitalizing Taoism, which makes an emphasis on Tao's power that is found through such three sources as matter, movement, and mind. Acupuncture, pharmacopoeia, breathing techniques, Kung Fu exercises, and other related practices were developed by Taoists of the second stream because they believed that matter should not be denied as something unimportant but should be recognized as a source of vital energy. The aim of different above mentioned techniques was to increase and save this energy through movement and other approaches to the human body. Finally, mind was also significant for those who tried to control and increase the flow of the power of Tao. Special meditations were organized for that purpose. Smith (1991) describes it well:
This practice involved shutting out distractions and emptying the mind to the point where the power of the Tao might bypass bodily filters and enter the self directly. Some call the practice Taoist yoga because of its similarity to the raja yoga of India. The Taoist yogis had a peculiar point of departure from their Indian counterparts: they believed that the yogi could accumulate enough ch'i through meditation that it could be transmitted psychically to a community to enhance its vitality and harmonize its affairs.
The third stream of Taoism is religious one, which was needed even though the two first streams already existed. Not all social groups of people could go deeply into philosophical and vitalizing Taoism because it required time and other factors. Common people needed religion to help them in everyday life with daily issues such as diseases, plagues, rains, and so on. As an answer to the needs of these people, Taoist priesthood emerged. Of course, a large number of rituals and kinds of worship started to appear as well. Nowadays, religious Taoism is not so well-spread because of Buddhism's predominance on the territory of China. Nevertheless, other streams are popular among people of different countries who are interested in Chinese teachings.
One of the most essential parts of Taoism is the doctrine of 'creative quietude' or the principle of 'wu wei,' which is translated as 'inaction' or 'do-nothingness.' Taoism claims that human beings ride a sea of Tao, and it is better not to go against the waves because they represent the natural order of the universe. 'Wu wei' means that people should relax their mind and do not make too many efforts to change the order of the world, because it influences the world harmony. Simplicity, precious suppleness, freedom, and natural way of behavior are ideal characteristics for the followers of Taoism.
In this context, Taoists tried to find a prototype of 'wu wei' in the natural world and decided that water is the best metaphor, because it adapts to the surroundings easily. Lao Tzu wrote: 'The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao' (Mitchell, 1988). Orientation on water with minimum efforts and natural movements makes people much closer to the original meaning of 'wu wei.' It is interesting that this idea is totally opposite to the Confucius' idea. The reason is that Confucius built the whole picture of the personality with ideal virtues and required efforts for people who wanted to reach this ideal. The Taoist teaching about spontaneousness looked obviously different, and it makes people wonder why the same country became a mother of the two opposite ideas, which makes it difficult to know the right way of living.
There are many things Taoist teachers wrote about. The issues connected with human beings and their daily life are among the primary topics. Recommendations for the life were always based on the principle of simplicity. The ideal Taoist way of life is realizing who you really are and what you can do the best according to your natural talents. Taoists were sure that all people have different inborn characteristics, and this fact guaranteed the harmony in the universe because every human being should have been on his/her particular place in the society. For this reason, they recognized competitive societies as evil ones. Competition could be interpreted as a violation of 'wu wei' principle, which is not admissible for Taoist followers.
As in every other teaching that is created to influence the minds of the whole nation, Taoism should have formulated the views about what is right and wrong. The second by significance Taoist teacher Chuang-Tzu taught: 'What is right and wrong in the world is impossible to decide. However, in non-action there is clear right and wrong. Perfect happiness and living to the fullest can only be realized in this state of non-action' (Van de Weyer, 1998). As to the good and evil, he claimed that the whole process of human thinking depends on these categories. Chuang-Tzu believed that all things have many sides to perceive, and if one looks only from one side, he/she will not be able to see their essence. Until people are dependent on the strict norms of perception of things, it is impossible to achieve the genuine happiness and harmony.
The last thing that many people know about Taoism is the parable of Chuang-Tzu about the butterfly. He saw in a dream that he was a butterfly, but then he woke up and realized that he was Chuang-Tzu. After this, he was not sure if it was a butterfly dreaming about being a man, or a man dreaming about being a butterfly (Van de Weyer, 1998). That is how Taoist teacher tried to demonstrate that the boundary between dreams and reality is too fragile.
On this mysterious note, it can be concluded that Taoism is an extremely wide topic. To be accurate, it is better not to call Taoism a religion or philosophy. It is rather a teaching about the way of natural living and methods to reach the happiness through inaction and attention to the own Self and nature, which reflects the universal Tao itself. Taoism may be referred to the list of the most mysterious teachings which require a high level of motivation and concentration to learn its deepest ideas. Nowadays, this teaching is quite popular in the world. Chinese people should especially appreciate the treasure of Taoist teaching, because it became a large part of the philosophical basis of the modern Chinese society. The wisdom of Ancient Taoists can be interesting for everyone who is not satisfied with the formalities of civilization, morality, and ideologues but searches for the eternal wise advice and truth.
Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao Te Ching: A new English version. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Smith, H. (1991). The world's religions: Our great wisdom traditions. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Van de Weyer, R. (1998). Chuang Tzu in a nutshell. London: Hodder & Stoughton.