The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquillity.
In this way all things would be at peace.
—Tao Te Ching
Taoism is an ancient pillar of Chinese philosophy pre-dating Zen by nearly a thousand years. It was hugely influential in the development of Chinese Zen (Chan) before the philosophy ever made its way to Japan or the West. I find myself reading the Tao Te Ching at least 2-3 times per year. I believe this ancient text contains all the spiritual wisdom we can hope to document as humans. I’m not kidding. If you told me I could bring only one book to a desert island, I would choose the Tao Te Ching.
The text is poetic, written simply and declaratively. The words are a perfect mirror of the philosophy they espouse and, weirdly, they remind me of great Western poetic stylists like TS Eliot or Ezra Pound. The mythology of its ‘author’ (Lao Tzu) is epochal and mysterious, akin to Homer or Shakespeare. It was composed independently as a rogue spiritual text before ever becoming the basis for any organized religion. Its message transcends all cultural boundaries and stands the test of time better than any other text of its age. While it reminds me of the aforementioned Western texts at times, its message is more pointedly spiritual and prods at the very roots of how we think and feel.
Enough of that; this isn’t a history lesson. The Tao Te Ching can be read in less than a few hours and contains all the wisdom you need to fuel a lifelong spiritual journey. These lessons have been here for thousands of years and yet barely anyone puts them into practice. In studying them, you allow yourself an opportunity to acquire wisdom over knowledge, to understand rather than to merely know. Investigating the Tao will help you better ‘get’ yourself and revel humbly in the beautiful power of nature.
The fundamental premise of this “watercourse way” as Alan Watts called it, is harmony with nature. We look to nature for metaphorical lessons in how to live, since we are in and of the Earth and its bounty. In a famous example, Bruce Lee, heavily influenced by the Tao, implored us to ‘be like water’:
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash.”
Now the Tao Te Ching:
“Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.”
Through honest and diligent observation of nature, we derive conclusions that provide all the lessons for life we could ever need. This, combined with the reflective practice of uncovering the true self in meditation, is a spiritual duo unsurpassed by any other: the basis for Zen practice. These words from the Tao are as true today as they were in 600BC. Accepting them requires a bit of practice and a bit of humility. We only resist them to the extent that we can’t accept the wisdom of their simplicity.
How often do we try to become the squeaky wheel, only to be silenced by the natural sequence of events? How often do we try so hard and exert so much effort only to find that our pursuits were entirely misguided? How many times has the desire to impress others made us seem pathetic or needy? Does our pursuit of happiness not make us miserable? How many of our ambitions and desires end in heartache? And all our moralizing and victim-playing— is it not a symptom of our lack of true direction? Human beings never find true satisfaction, only in death. Everyone from Buddha to Schopenhauer recognized this: to exist is to suffer. Schopenhauer went as far as to say that suffering is actually the positive, happiness the negative, since we only experience happiness in its lack. The Tao implores us to make similar inversions of our assumptions. To look exclusively to our faulty human wiring for answers isn’t sufficient. We need to rekindle a profound respect for nature, for the deepest functioning of things down to the dualistic vibratory war between particles.
This is why we must wander the forests, sit by the lakes, observe the birds and give ourselves space and time to breathe. Nature moves slowly, methodically, its underlying principles only observable to a certain degree. Its true mystery will never be known to us, no matter how far science progresses. In this respect, understanding the Tao means prostrating oneself to nature the way countless humans have hamfistedly submitted to God over the years.
When we submit to nature, we admit: “I don’t know the answers. I don’t have the compass. The more I want, the less I get.” And nature replies, “That’s ok. There’s nothing to have and nothing to get. Just be here.” Just kidding— it replies in silence, because that’s a better way of making the point.
We must abandon knowledge in favor of wisdom. This requires us to stop seeking and start reflecting and observing, to stop talking and start listening. It requires us to adapt the way nature teaches organisms to adapt— to accept spontaneous changes rather than fight against them, but not to force changes ourselves (that’s nature’s job).
Think about the values of modern humans: growth and speed at all costs, more experiences, more distractions, more sensation, more entertainment, more wealth, more noise, more buildings, more cities. All controlled by the fragilest and most outspoken of our egos. Power is sought by those who need it, and those who need it are often blood-thirsty degenerates. And look where it’s gotten us— mass incarceration, medication, perpetual war, technological narcosis, self-obsession. We spit on nature in much of what we participate in, from environmental pollution to economic scale. We need this philosophy now more than ever. Lao Tzu? What do you think?
“If the sage wants to stand above people,
He must speak to them from below.
If he wants to lead people,
He must follow them from behind.
When the sage stands above people,
They are not oppressed.
When he leads people,
They are not obstructed.
The world will exalt him
And not grow tired of him.
Because he does not resist,
None in the world resists him.”
Beyond massive political proclamations, the Tao teaches us not to take the ego too seriously on an individual level. It reminds us that our ambitions and goals are meaningless, and that we often achieve more by strategically doing nothing than by filling our days with inane distractions and half-assed work. It says that the harder we try, the harder we fail, and that the more we work against nature, the harsher our delusional reality becomes. Its essence can be summed up in one of its most potent lines, “The world is won by those who let it go.”
So, let go. Truly let go. Don’t ‘practice’ letting go or let go as a fashion statement so you can tell everyone how ‘chill’ you are. Actually let go. Dive into the abyss and see what happens. You just might find yourself as one with nature, the entirety of the world’s truth at your fingertips. Or maybe you’ll find nothing. Who cares anyway?
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