Philosophical Taoism

An Essay By Hannah D. // 1/11/2014

While Philosophical Taoism is the major strain of the religion and most influential, “No solid walls separate [the three powers, or Taoisms]; the three are better regarded as currents in a common river” (Smith, 207).

“The object of philosophical Taoism is to align one’s daily life with the Tao, to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow.” (207)

School Taoism, as it is referred to in China, focuses not on the mind, movement and matter, or on magic, but on knowledge. They respect Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching, and other proselytizers of the Philosophical Taoist methods.

While Vitalizing Taoists sought to open infinite fountains of ch’i, Philosophical Taoists seek to conserve it through wu wei. Although it translates as “inaction,” it is used by the Taoist to mean “pure effectiveness.” They encouraged others “to live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not expending it in useless, draining ways, the chief of which are friction and conflict” (200).

“Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction – in interpersonal relationships, in intra-psychic conflict, and in relation to nature – is reduced to the minimum.” (200)

Avoiding friction, then, is at the core of Philosophical Taoism, and its descriptions of the Tao and wu wei. The latter is at the heart of Taoist living, for “wu wei is the life lived above tension” (208). In this sect, the Tao is infinite in its subtlety, intricacy, grace and vitality, and wu wei is the life lived to conserve such a vibrant force within the self.

“Creative quietude [i.e., wu wei] combines within a single individual two seemingly incompatible conditions – supreme activity and supreme relaxation. These seeming incompatibles can coexist because human beings are no self-enclosed entities. They ride an unbounded sea of Tao that sustains them, as we would say, through their subliminal minds.” (207-208)

Such minimalism of action allows for peaceful creativity flowing “when our private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not their own” (208). This action/inaction is welded together for a “newer being, wiser being, stronger being” (208). According to the Tao Te Ching, this action born of purely effective inaction is summed up, “The Way to do is to be.”

Furthermore, living out wu wei means living in “pure effectiveness in which no motion is wasted on bickering or outward show” (208), and action is carried out effortlessly, so that no one notices, and skillfully, to increase the fullest ‘being’ potential.

The Tao Te Ching is perhaps the clearest in clarifying these concepts:

“One may move so well that a foot-print never shows,
Speak so well that a tongue never slips,
Reckon so well that no counter is needed.” - Tao Te Ching

Philosophical Taoists saw water as the ultimate metaphor to the Tao.

“They were struck by the way it would support objects and carry them effortlessly on its tide . . . One who understands the basic life force knows that it will sustain one if one stops thrashing and flailing and trusts oneself to its support.” (Smith, 209)

So then, Lao Tzu wrote to his followers:

“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?” - Tao Te Ching

So how does this patient immobility correlate to the encouragement, “The Way to do is to be”? Apparently, the action Lao Tzu wants Taoists to have is purely an active mind waiting for the Tao and all its answers to come flooding through.

The water metaphor also encouraged morality in the Taoist system:

“The supreme good is like water,
Which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the places people disdain,
Thus it is like the Tao too.” - Tao Te Ching

Obviously Lao Tzu had a great admiration for the humble of heart. In describing wu wei, the water metaphor is continued:

“Nothing in the world
Is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
Nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard,
The gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
But few can put it into practice.” - Tao Te Ching

So Lao Tzu encouraged a power that stemmed from humility. He wanted leaders who avoided force, who could persuade without others even realizing it. This virtuous love of humility and the power of gentleness is obvious even in modern Chinese culture.

“He who stands on tiptoe
doesn't stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn't go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.” - Tao Te Ching

The Philosophical Taoist eschews all competition and self assertiveness in himself and never encourages it in others. They have an “almost reverential attitude toward humility” (Smith, 211). They seek peace with others and in themselves, as well:

“There must be . . . periods of waiting if the focal length of the mind is to readjust, withdrawing from the world’s flare to the internal recesses of the soul.” (210-211)

Ironically, their embracing humility and scorning pride was part of a religion in which looking within the self, the “internal recesses of the soul,” leads to a greater connection to the Tao, the cosmic life force, and keeping it within oneself.


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