09 December 2015

Lao-Tse, the founder of Taoism, said  “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know”  So, by that criterion, I can say a something about Taoism, since I know very little.  Taoism is one of the greatest and oldest philosophies of China. The big figures were Lao-Tse and Zhuangzi.  And their books, the Tao-Te-Ching and the Zhuangzi, are very readable and thought-provoking classics, still widely read in Chinese and, as translated, in all the other major languages.

Looking at things on a somewhat grand scale, Taoism belongs to the same period as Socrates and Plato in Greece.  Lao-Tse was a sixth century B.C. philosopher, maybe a bit later, but before Socrates.  Zhuangzi was born about thirty years after Socrates died.

In a way, we all know a bit about Daoism, because there are lots of quotes from Lao-Tse’s Tao Te Ching that are among the wise things our parents and teachers tell us, mostly without knowing where they come from.          

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

 “Great acts are made up of small deeds.”

“Silence is a source of great strength.”

This last pearl of wisdom was something my father often said to me.  Come to think of it, Ken often tells me this too.  And Frenchie, my wife.  Who would have known they were all Taoists?

But Taoism isn’t just a bunch of homilies.  As mentioned, the two key texts are the Tao-Te-Ching and the Zhuangzi, the latter named for its author.   The first contains a lot of quotable sayings, and the second a lot of stories, parables and paradoxes.  But the philosophy of Taoism really emerges from what later Chinese thinkers made of those texts.

Neither Lao-Tse nor Zhuangzi ever heard of Taoism.  And, most likely, Zhuangzi never knew about Lao-Tse.  But together they inspired Taoism.  The term comes from later scholars, to capture what they saw Lao-tse and Zhangzi as getting at. 

“Tao” is translated as “the way”.  The Way, as I get it, is basically the way things happen.  The way things happen in nature is more basic, and should provide a guide for, the way humans do things and human institutions work.  So, the philosophy of Daoism at least, is naturalistic.   It also sounds conservative:  when in doubt don’t do anything new or innovative, follow the way.

But historically it was pluralistic, egalitarian, and non-authoritative --- more or less contrasting with Confucianism.  Taoists are less likely to enunciate moral principles, and more likely to think about what sort of validity such things could have, given the way the world works.  Such habits of mind, when things go right, lead to tolerance, pluralism and, often enough, keeping one's mouth shut.

But you should keep in mind that I am only speaking because I am ignorant.  For real information and insight about Taoism, listen to Sunday’s program!

Comments (8)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, December 10, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Try as we may, thinking

Try as we may, thinking expansively doesn't get us to induction. If you want to understand meditative life, it is better to read Ae than Lao Tzu. But the effect of such grandiloquence as these Eastern oracles is deflationary, not edifying.

MJA's picture


Saturday, December 12, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

If you are looking for the

If you are looking for the Way,
May I suggest:
Go down to the river,
Throw a stick into the water,
Watch the Way the stick goes,
The stick knows the Way.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, December 13, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Some rivers are hardly more

Some rivers are hardly more than open sewers. The Los Angeles is just a concrete channel full of litter that finds its way nowhere. The Humber is, well, like going to Hull. The Fleet, the Colorado, the Neponset, even the big muddy in its own way, hardly know where they are going before they're gone.
Eastern mystical assertion closes off all avenues of interrogation except discipleship, where the West, at its best, invites all modes of interrogation except that. Trailblazing isn't welcome where a following is sought. As Salmon Rushdie says, a religion that doesn't tolerate ridicule doesn't merit belief.

Hope Shepherd's picture

Hope Shepherd

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Are you right now sort of

Are you right now sort of addressing the Taoist idea "we do without doing and everything gets done?" The meaning of this has always been pretty elusive to me.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Conveying meaning between and

Conveying meaning between and amongst us is not a unilateral responsibility. What the statement above might mean is that agency is middle voiced, but who is to say? A style of exposition that cuts off the flow of responsibility, that sets the "master" above the "disciple" voids the meaning.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I am unfamiliar with Taoism.

I am unfamiliar with Taoism. Have not yet mustered the initiative to investigate it.  Whenever I read (or read about) such things, I try to resolve apparent paradoxes associated with those teachings, for example the question: what is the sound of one hand clapping? Eastern philosophies are notoriously playful with paradox. Perhaps this is one reason why they appeal to western intellectuals and philosophy-oriented individuals and groups. The notions of metaphysics are often intricate and impossible to unravel because they may have more than one meaning, or, if they ARE merely playful paradox, they may have no meaning at all, other than to compel us to think a bit more deliberatively and contemplatively than we are used to thinking. If, then, there is no sound to one hand clapping, then might we conclude that if there is no one around when a tree falls in the forest, that said tree makes no noise? Well, we might. Or maybe not. It is all pretty fascinating, at any rate.
It may even be possible in some universe to do nothing and yet get everything done. I'd like to visit that universe. But for now, I tend to follow the way of my long-dead grandfather, albeit a much simpler way. His philosophy, born of humble means and depression poverty, was just this: Do with what you've got. Granddad had no use for nor interest in paradox. It did not put food on the table or keep a roof over one's head. And if someone asked him about trees falling in the forest making a sound with no one there to hear it, he would probably have slapped that person "up side the head". He was not a man to be trifled with.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, December 31, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Making do is certainly

Making do is certainly analogous to the sound of one hand clapping. Its sound is frustration. If it isn't you're not really trying. Stoicism is a more coherent and concrete form of presenting the same idea, and, as usual, vapid Eastern notions are presented as somehow more meaningful than the Western consensus that responsibility of meaning conveyed is on the shoulders of the speaker, not the disciple, one's intellectual rivals also have a right to know what you mean. Maybe there is meaning that in ordinary terms seems ineffable, but "you'll see...," is not a "path", it's spite. When I hear a tree fall in the woods I don't have to see it to know what it is, and if I know the wood well enough I might even know which one. And if I come upon the fallen tree without having heard it fall, not only do I know it made a sound, I can pretty much know what sound it made. It is not vapid to say this, but it is vapid to imply there is no sound to one hand frustrated by its lack of a responding partner in the dialogue. It is therefore as unworthy of a dope-slap to expect the forces in the world that frustrate one's effort to put a roof over one's head or feed one's family to account for the injustice of it as it is to expect a reasonable response to a reasonable critique of a vapid assertion.
Think of it this way: There is a wilderness. You say you've been out in it and know you're way around and can show me the way to the unicorn you say you saw there. But when pressed for clear direction you respond with something analogous to "go and see!". Well, this is all well and good if indeed there is a real place there with a real wonder to behold and a beaten path to follow there. But if a true wilderness, with no landmarks or trails, with you as the only explorer leaving no trace there but your hopelessly vague assertions, well, there may be something to it, but it is highly irresponsible to call it a path, and highly unresponsive to responsible criticism of what, devoid of that responsiveness, can only be spiteful misdirection.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 17, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

So, it is a few days later,

So, it is a few days later, and I have now begun reading a bit about Tao, or taoism, or whatever it is proper to call it. My introduction comes through Volume II of The Great Philosophers, by Karl Jaspers.He gives a short account of Lao-Tzu, wherein a few gems from the Master are listed. I find them noteworthy, mostly because Jaspers tells us that there are no playful or, as he says it, irresponsible paradoxes, associated with the Tao. Well, everyone has his own take on paradox, so we are all welcome to that. Additionally, though, the sayings are poignant, and, sometimes, witty. And we all could use a grin, now and then:
1. In penetrating the four quarters with your intelligence, can you be without knowledge?
2. A wise man has no extensive knowledge; he who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.
3. One may know the world without going out of doors. One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows. The further one goes, the less one knows.
4. To know eternity is to attain enlightenment. And,
5. He who does not know eternity runs blindly into disaster.
Well, there you are. The Tao shies away from those who might doggedly seek it. Just when your eyes try to focus upon it, it disappears. A lot like a series of paranormal experiences I had years ago. There are so very many bright, illusive butterflies.
A fellow seeker,